Sarah Hurwitz, HERE ALL ALONG

Sarah Hurwitz, HERE ALL ALONG

Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Sarah Hurwitz who’s the author of Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life–in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There). Sarah is the former head speechwriter for First Lady Michelle Obama and senior speechwriter for President Barack Obama. She was chief speechwriter for Hillary Clinton on her 2008 president campaign. She has been featured on The Today Show and NPR and in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and She was named one of Forward’s fifty Jews who impacted American life in 2016 and 2019. Originally from the suburbs of Boston, Sarah is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. She currently lives in Washington, DC.

Welcome, Sarah. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Sarah Hurwitz: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: We’ve already just had the best conversation. We basically don’t even need to do this podcast. We’re done.

Sarah: We’re done. It was great.

Zibby: Sarah’s book, Here All Along — I’ll read the subtitle. Settle in.

Sarah: It’s a long subtitle.

Zibby: The subtitle is Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life–in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There).

Sarah: Yes, it’s long. It’s a mouthful. I agree.

Zibby: That’s okay. It’s awesome. I love it. Tell listeners what this book is about.

Sarah: This book is basically my account of what I found when I, as a disengaged, disconnected, very skeptical and secular-minded Jew, started exploring Judaism as an adult. What I discovered is that it has so much wisdom about how to be human, beautiful theology and spirituality, ethical wisdom, wisdom about what it means to live a worthy life. This book is account of the ancient wisdom that Judaism offers for our modern lives. It’s for Jews. It’s for people who are not Jewish. It’s really for anyone who’s curious about the wisdom of an ancient tradition. It has chapters on various conceptions of God and the divine. It has a chapter on Jewish ethics, Jewish holidays, lifecycle rituals, Shabbat, which is the weekly practice of taking a day off and just resting. It’s for everyone. That’s the thrust of the book.

Zibby: I love how in the book you say that you stumbled — everybody is out there being like, mindfulness is this big thing, gratitude. You’re like, Judaism has all that already.

Sarah: Totally. So many of the trends in modern spirituality, we’ve been on that in Judaism for thousands of years. The first prayer that traditionally observant Jews say when they wake up in the morning, it starts “Modeh Ani,” which is “Grateful am I.” Literally, the first word you utter from your mouth is grateful. You basically sing a prayer that says, I am so grateful for my life. Gratitude journals are great. I’m so glad that people have joined the party, but we’ve been here for centuries, if not millennia. Meditation and mindfulness is great. There is a Jewish meditation tradition as well that goes back thousands of years. Just realizing so many Jews like me, citing myself, we kind of think, oh, Judaism, it’s old and stale. It’s not meaningful. We go to all these other traditions to find meaning, but we have it right here in Judaism.

Zibby: You need to do like a, not a pamphlet, but like a primer where you don’t tell anyone it’s about Judaism. Just say, these are some of the things in this new way to be. At the very end in tiny little print you read, guess what?

Sarah: Guess what, guys? Surprise. It’s Judaism. I know. It’s really something.

Zibby: Tell me about when you started out. You started this big campaign with your family. You were in Hebrew school. You didn’t like that Hebrew school. You ended up in this loosey-goosey, more liberal Hebrew school, if you will. Tell me about from there to here.

Sarah: I grew up with, I think, what is kind of a typical 1980s Jewish American background of boring services. We went to Hebrew school twice a week. I just decided one day when I was eleven years old that I was done with Hebrew school. The kids were mean to me. I was bored. I told my parents I wasn’t going back. They found me this other Hebrew school that was very loose. There wasn’t a lot of Jewish content there. Then I had my bat mitzvah, and I was like, okay, I’m done. There’s nothing to see here. This is not where I’m going to find meaning or spiritual connection. Then twenty-five years later, I broke up with a guy I was dating. I had a lot of time on my hands. I happened to hear about an Intro to Judaism class at the local Jewish community center. I signed up just to fill time. Literally, it could have been a ceramics class. It could’ve been a karate class. I was just looking to fill time. I was not thinking, I will heal through this class or I will find profound meaning. I was thinking, my name is Sarah Hurwitz and I know nothing about Judaism. Maybe I should learn something, and fill my time.

What I learned in that class just blew me away. There was all of this edgy, radical, progressive, deep wisdom about what it means to be human, all these ethical texts we were studying about how to be a good person, theology and spirituality about different Jewish conceptions of the divine that are not man in the sky who controls everything, which I do not believe in. There are conceptions beyond that. I was just really intrigued. I took another class. I read hundreds of books. I have to tell you, I found it very hard to learn about Judaism as an adult. It is hard to put this all together. I think a lot of the books out there were these intro, nuts and bolts, how-to books, or these super esoteric academic books which like eight people read. I was not going to be one of those eight people.

I thought, maybe I could write the book that I wish I’d had when I first started learning. That’s really what this book is. It’s a book for people of all backgrounds. I will say, a lot of people who are not Jewish or who are Jew-hyphen-ish, they’re Jewish but disengaged, they’re like, “This book, this is what I’ve been looking for. This really teaches me what’s available to me even if I’m not Jewish.” I’ve also had more observant Jews say to me, “This is so interesting. I’ve never thought about Judaism this way. This is a fresh perspective or different insights.” I think that is a result of my having been a speechwriter for a decade where you’re really writing to an audience of America, this very diverse, broad audience. You’re trying to reach a really diverse group of people. That’s what I sought to do with this book.

Zibby: Back up to the speechwriting for one second. You were talking to America because you were speechwriting for former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama. It’s not like you were just speechwriting for the accountants down the road. What was that like? I just have to find out. We can go back to Judaism.

Sarah: Please, I’m happy to talk about it. I worked for President Obama for the first year and a half. Then I would help Mrs. Obama with things occasionally because I had met her on the ’08 campaign and worked with her a little bit there. After a couple years, I just realized I liked working with her better. I was more at home in her voice. I was more interested in the topics she was talking about, so I switched over to being her head speechwriter. Working with her was awesome.

Zibby: You said in the book that was a career-questionable move.

Sarah: It was.

Zibby: You went from being a high-up speechwriter, a senior speechwriter for the president, and decided to go and be the head speechwriter for the first lady, which I guess is not something that — not the track.

Sarah: Usually, you don’t go from the president to the first lady. It’s usually the other way around. I think back then, eight or nine years ago, people viewed it almost as me demoting myself, which is crazy when you think about people involved, but I disagreed. For me, it was going to the place that just felt right for me, where I felt like I could really do my best work and I was most engaged and passionate. Working with Mrs. Obama, she is a woman who knows who she is. She always knows what she wants to say. She’s a brilliant speaker and writer in her own right. Working for her, you just sit down and you’re like, “Okay, here’s where you’re speaking. What do you want to say here?” She would just download paragraphs and paragraphs of beautiful language, themes, stories, quotes. I would type really fast on my laptop. That would be the heart of the speech. Then I would shape it into a draft, send it around to colleagues for edits and corrections. Then I would send it her. We’d go back and forth. She would edit. I would edit her edits. She’d edit my edits. I would send her these elaborate memos being like, “You know, on page three, I changed if to this,” these tiny word changes.

I remember saying to her at one point, “Years from now when people look at our memos in the archives, they’re going to think we were two very neurotic women.” She cares deeply about every word because she knows that words matter. Every word had to be right. Every transition had to be right. She has such high technical standards for speechwriting. It’s funny. Having left the White House, when I first started giving prepared speeches for myself, I realized, oh, I have much lower standards for me than I did for her. I’m just so much easier to write for. I’ll have sloppy transitions. I’ll have kind of a loose structure, where she had a real sense of perfect transitions or really tight structure. I learned a tremendous amount from her. And she’s fun. She’s fun. She’s warm. She’s funny. When my book came out, she sent the most beautiful tweet saying such kind things about me and the book. I am a huge fan. I feel so lucky to have been part of the Obama world.

Zibby: Did any of the speeches have a role in her Becoming book? Maybe the same themes are obviously there.

Sarah: Yeah, I think she talked about some of the speeches in her book. It’s funny. Her book, it’s so clear that so much — it just sounds like her. It’s her voice. I love Becoming. I’m sure you’ve probably read it.

Zibby: I haven’t read it yet.

Sarah: That’s okay.

Zibby: I shouldn’t say that publicly. I’m mortified. I have a copy. I want to read it.

Sarah: You have read so many books. I am sitting here in your library surrounded by all the — you’ve read more books than anyone I know.

Zibby: I just feel like I try to read books of people who I have a shot of having being on my podcast now. That one, I was like, there’s no way. Am I really going to spend all this time? No, I’m kidding. I will read it. I will read it.

Sarah: I appreciate how honest she is in the book. There were a lot of things I learned about her reading the book that I hadn’t known. In the White House, everything is happening so quickly. There’s not a lot of time when you’re just sitting and chit-chatting. That’s just not part of the daily White House experience. To actually get to hear her in this more intimate context of her own book, it was really cool.

Zibby: Did you ever sit in on things that became really public big things, but you got to hear it first and see it on the news? I don’t know. In my head, I have you in a movie of this whole situation. You’re in the back of Air Force One and the big peace deal is negotiated or something.

Sarah: That would probably be more the president’s speechwriters, would have had more of that experience. I certainly sat in on things that were at that point not public and then became public. I think about the speech that she gave in October of 2016 in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape that broke out with Trump bragging gleefully about sexually assaulting women. She gave a speech right after that revelation about the misogyny in this election, about rape culture. It was basically an early Me Too speech, well before the Me Too movement had really taken off. Knowing that that speech was coming, I had a sense of, something really important is going to happen when this speech is given, and it did. She gave this speech. It was a visceral, raw, very emotional speech. The response that we got was really moving. She received so many emails and letters from people who said, “I’m no longer going to be ashamed. Hearing you speak so openly about this crisis, I am not going to be ashamed.” We actually got a lot of letters from men as well who said, “Thank you for finally making the point that this isn’t locker room talk. This is not how men talk. I don’t talk this way. My sons and brothers and friends don’t talk this way. It’s unacceptable, so thank you for saying that.” Being part of that was an incredible privilege.

Zibby: Did you ever feel as a speechwriter, that you minded not getting credit for your work? You’re obviously a beautiful writer. This book is incredibly well-written. Obviously, you’re a brilliant writer writing for the country. But you don’t have your name on it. You can’t be like, “Mom, look what I did.”

Sarah: It’s funny. No, I didn’t. With Mrs. Obama, I never felt like, “This is mine. I wrote this.” It was always starting with her, with her thoughts, her ideas, her feelings, a lot of her language. I was working with that. I was wordsmithing. Sometimes I’d add some ideas to enhance what she was saying, but I never would say, “These were my words.” They really came from her. It was more I was assisting her. I think it would be different if I wrote for someone who didn’t have any thoughts or ideas of her their own and I was scripting them. Maybe I’d feel that, but I don’t feel that way at all with the Obamas, not at all. I find it difficult when people, they’re like, “You put words in her mouth,” or “Your words.” No, no, no. Have you met Michelle Obama? No one puts words in her mouth. That’s not how it worked. It doesn’t bother me at all.

Zibby: Can you tell me a little more about speechwriting in general? I know I sound like a moron here, but I don’t know much about being a speechwriter. It’s really interesting. How many speechwriters does the president have? How many speechwriters does the first lady have? How do you get recruited to be a speechwriter to begin with?

Sarah: First of all, you’re not a moron at all because no one knows about this. It’s very mysterious. There’s not like, you get this speechwriting degree and then there’s the speechwriting track. Very few people do it. President Obama probably had about six full-time writers. Mrs. Obama, it was me, and I had a deputy. So there were two of us. The way you get to be a speechwriter totally varies person to person. Many of us interned in speechwriting offices in the White House, on the Hill, with speechwriting companies. Some people work at, there are a couple companies that actually do speechwriting. That’s their bread and butter. You can get some training there. Sometimes people are journalists and become speechwriters. Sometimes people are press or communications people and become speechwriters. Sometimes people have no background. Jon Lovett, who was one of our speechwriters in the White House, I worked with him on the Hillary campaign. He has a math degree. He majored in math at college. It’s pretty quirky as to who finds their way into the speechwriting world.

The way speechwriting works, it’s so different for every person that you’re writing for. The Obamas were very engaged, very involved start to finish. There are some speakers who are like, “I don’t know what I want to say. Just give me something to respond to.” They have this really chaotic process where they’re rewriting at the last minute. Twenty people are weighing in. I am grateful to the Obamas because they were so engaged from start to finish. They had such a reasonable, thoughtful process. It made it a joy to speechwrite for them. I was there in the White House for all eight years. Many of us were. I think there were four speechwriters who were there all eight years. That’s very, very rare. Very rare.

Zibby: Wow. Then how did you decide to go from that, aside from the boyfriend breakup — that’s still a pretty big transition.

Sarah: Huge transition.

Zibby: I would say everything happens for a reason. There’s a reason you didn’t end up in a karate class that night and that you did end up in Intro to Judaism. I’m not buying that. I think God would not buy that, but I’ll just let that go. How did that happen? Did you decide you were done with politics?

Sarah: I didn’t. It was just a sense. I can’t totally articulate it. Why did I decide to write a book? Why not just learn about this, benefit for myself, and then move on? I think there was just some sense of this story isn’t being told in the way that someone like me needs it. There’s so many Jews like me who are disengaged, who just don’t know a lot about Judaism, and so many people who aren’t Jewish who are curious about Judaism, either because they’re married to someone Jewish, they have Jewish friends or families, or they’re seekers who are just curious about the wisdom of world religions. It was such a struggle for me to learn. I kept in the margins of my books, I would say, why didn’t they say it this way? No, this is the main point. Why not emphasize this? After a while, I was thinking, maybe I could write this book. I remember saying, but I’m not a rabbi. I’m not a scholar. I can’t write this book. I’m not qualified, not qualified, not qualified, very woman approach to these things, interesting gender dynamics there.

I actually had a good friend who introduced me to his friend, Adam Grant, who is a wonderful best-selling author and just an incredibly generous, kind guy. Adam Grant gets on the phone with me for an hour. I’m telling him, “I’m not qualified. I can’t write this. I don’t have the degrees, the skills.” He talked to me over the course of an hour. He talked me into feeling like I could do it. He actually said to me something I’ll never forget. He said, “Sarah, I just want to say, what you’re saying is essentially that every journalist who becomes really interested in some topic that they know nothing about and then learns deeply about it and writes a best-selling book, you’re invalidating that. That’s not legitimate. They’re not qualified. Is that what you’re saying?” I was like, “Well, of course not.” He said, “How are you different? You’re doing exactly what so many other people have done. You are qualified. You can do this.” That was what helped me take the leap.

Zibby: How long did it take to write this book?

Sarah: This was about two years. I had been reading and learning for three or four years beforehand. The actual process of writing the book, it was two years. It should have been three or four. I was a first-time author and didn’t quite understand what was involved in a book. I realized pretty quickly that I had not asked for enough time, but I decided I just wanted to get it done. It was two years, but like seventy hours a week. I worked, probably, harder on this book than I did in the White House, which was really saying something.

Zibby: Where did you like to do your work? Are you out and about? Do you do it at home?

Sarah: I need silence when I work. I’m just really easily distracted. I did some of it in a shared workspace. Even the quiet room was not quite quiet enough, so I wound up doing a lot of it at home in my apartment, which can be isolating. It can be isolating and lonely. It was important for me to try to see other human beings every day, try to get a coffee, a dinner, just something where I was not alone in my apartment for days.

Zibby: Having finished it, would you want to work on another book?

Sarah: Yes.

Zibby: Are you already working on another book?

Sarah: Yeah, I’m thinking about another book I want to write kind of in the God, spirituality realm. I barely even started conceptualizing it yet. I wish I had more time to be thinking about it. It’s kind of funny, Jews don’t talk a lot about God, which is strange. We say the name of God a lot in our liturgy, but we never really talk about what we mean by that. We’re a thoughtful, doubting, skeptical, questioning people. We don’t just take things on faith. Judaism also has this wonderful theological humility where there’s no Jewish creed of God. You’ll never find anywhere in Judaism where they say, “God is this. God does that.” We don’t have that kind of dogmatic approach to spirituality. I so appreciate that.

There’s such humility in that because what we’re saying, essentially, is this is so much bigger than our little human minds and hearts can grasp. Let’s have the humility to say, here’s some conceptions. There are Jewish thinkers who say God is everything. You’re God. I’m God. There’s no barrier between us. The homeless man on the street, he is God. How different would your interactions with people be if you actually looked at them and you said, “That is a manifestation of the divine right there, that person”? There’s Martin Buber who said God is what arises between two people in deep human relation who are fully respecting and contemplating each other’s humanity. What arises between them is God. There’s Mordecai Kaplan who says that God is the process by which we become our highest, truest selves. The humility in having all these different conceptions, I love it. I just find that so moving and so thoughtful.

Zibby: Sarah, don’t you think you should be teaching a class about this or being a rabbi? Maybe not a rabbi. A rabbi’s a little too extreme, but you should definitely be at the JCC or something.

Sarah: It’s funny. My book was actually an attempt to do that.

Zibby: I know, but I feel like you in person, it’s very different. You’re so engaging. I would take a class or send my husband to your class more than he might read the book. Do you know what I mean?

Sarah: Right. Well, there’s an audiobook, so you can listen to it.

Zibby: No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t say that. He would’ve bought the book. Every Jewish person should have this book. It’s a smaller audience, but I think you should have a class. That’s all I’m saying.

Sarah: Learning about Judaism just took me so much time. I thought, no one has this time. People do not have time. I would never say to other Jews or people who are just curious about Judaism, I wouldn’t be like, “Here’s what you do. You read three hundred books and take eight classes and spend thousands.” It’s like, what? People do not have ten minutes to breathe. Writing this book was my attempt to distill everything I’d learned into something that’s engaging and accessible and meaningful, but also really substantive.

Zibby: Moms don’t have time for religion. There you go.

Sarah: Right? They don’t have time. I insisted on taping the audiobook myself because I knew — a lot of moms and parents have said to me, “The only time I have to read is in the car when I’m carpooling.” I’m like, great. What a blessing for me to be able to reach people that way. If you don’t have time to read a book, I get that. Audiobook, maybe you’re walking somewhere or just at the grocery store. Even if it’s just five minutes, this should be accessible to people. I don’t want it to feel overwhelming.

Zibby: I didn’t mean to imply it was.

Sarah: No, I know.

Zibby: I was just giving you even more ideas. I’m really sorry.

Sarah: No, you’re totally good. A lot of people have actually suggested becoming a rabbi. I get that a lot.

Zibby: You don’t want to be a rabbi?

Sarah: No, I don’t. My space is not the expert authority space. My space is like, I’m a Jew. You and me, I’m a seeker like all you people. This is just me sharing what I found. I think that’s more relatable. I look at things as a person without a lot of training and expertise. I question them. I wonder. I’m like, really? I’m not sure about this.

Zibby: You know what you should really do? You didn’t know you were looking for things to do.

Sarah: Please.

Zibby: You should be a speechwriter for all the rabbis around the country because the sermons can be so — I mean, I love my rabbis, if you’re listening. You could do that. Then you could franchise the —

Sarah: — It’s so funny. Being a rabbi is so hard because they’re expected to be a great sermon giver and speechwriter and a great teacher and a great CEO and a great psychologist/pastoral person and a great — this is like seven jobs that they’re supposed to be experts in. We need to rethink the rabbi role because I think it’s really unfair what we expect of people. Look, the reality is, for a lot of Jews, including me, we stop learning at thirteen. Twenty years later, we have kids. We’re like, uh-oh, someone’s got to make these kids Jewish. Ain’t going to be me. Hey Hebrew schoolteacher, you teach my kid four thousand years of Judaism. I’ll give you three hours a week. But, oh, Noah has soccer for two of those hours, so it’ll be one hour a week. And make sure he’s ready for his bar mitzvah. That’s impossible. We have to grow up. We just have to grow up. We have to become adult Jews if we want to know how to raise Jewish kids. So often people ask me, “How can we improve Hebrew school? Why is Hebrew school bad?” I’m like, no, Hebrew school’s not the problem. The problem is we’re trying to outsource all of Judaism to Hebrew schoolteachers, and it’s just not fair. This is something that we have to figure out. We have to develop our own adult Judaism. Then you’ll know what you want to pass onto your kids. You’ll be able to pick and choose and say, this is something they need to know. This, eh, not so much.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring writers?

Sarah: Great question. First of all, read a lot of good writing, key. I also think, find someone who is a good editor who can help you. So much of good writing is good editing. Having worked with my dad growing up, he’s a really good editor, and he did a lot of great teaching for me. He would say to me, “How can this sentence be tighter?” It made me really think carefully and critically about my writing. That’s really important. A couple really nuts and bolts tips, cut ten percent. Whatever you’ve written, email, memo, just do it. You can do it in red lines. You can put it back, but do that because it will force you to hone in on the weakest parts, the parts that are repetitive, the parts that are unnecessary. It will often make it better. I also think that when editing, it’s helpful to edit in a format in which you weren’t writing. If you were writing on your computer, print it out. Look at it on paper or look at it on your phone or look at it in a different font, different size or style of font, just to mix it up in your brain. When you’ve been looking at a piece of writing over and over again, you become numb to it. You can really no longer see it. You’ve got to make it different for your brain.

Zibby: I love that. That’s so easy. Select all. Change font.

Sarah: Exactly. Those are quick tips that I used a lot when I was a writer. The final thing is oftentimes when something you’re writing doesn’t feel good, it’s because the structure is off. Meaning, it’s not in the right order. What I would often do with speeches, I would print them out. I would lay them out on the floor of my office. I would get down on my hands and knees and look at them as a whole. When you do that, you start to see, wow, I’m saying the same thing on page three and page six. I don’t need to say that twice. Let me condense. Or you’ll see, this thing that is my introduction, uh-uh, this is my conclusion. I would often move things around a lot. I did that with my book as well, like twenty-five pages spread out on my living room. You’ll find then once you actually figure out the right order, then you find yourself cutting a lot of lame transition language. When something is not in the right order, you’re trying to force it to work. You’ll have all this language being like, “This brings me to this next point,” which doesn’t quite connect to my last. You can get rid of that language.

Zibby: Have you seen the new Little Women?

Sarah: No, I haven’t, but I want to.

Zibby: There’s a scene where she takes all these pages of a manuscript all over the attic. They’re all over the floor, so just reminded me of it.

Sarah: That is totally how I write, totally how I write.

Zibby: Thank you, Sarah. Thanks for coming on. Sorry for all my unsolicited advice.

Sarah: No, I appreciate — listen, I actually find it flattering. I do think there’s something special about this in-person verbal communication. I do all my book events as conversations. I don’t do a standard book talk because it just doesn’t work for me. I like to be in conversation. I feel like that is such a great way to reach people. A book, it’s a commitment. I sit and be alone with it, but actually being able to talk and share this way is pretty special.

Zibby: Thanks. Special for me too.

Sarah: This is a joy. Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks.

Sarah Hurwitz, HERE ALL ALONG