Episode 33: Sarah Hurwitz: From the White House to the Torah (Transcript)

Episode 33: Sarah Hurwitz: From the White House to the Torah

[Theme music]

Nahanni Rous: Hi, I’m Nahanni Rous, and this is Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive...where gender, history and Jewish culture meet. We’re back for our fall season! To kick things off, we’re talking Torah with Sarah Hurwitz, Michelle Obama’s former speechwriter. She has a new book called Here All Along, Finding Meaning, Spirituality and a Deeper Connection to Life in Judaism. This is the first of three interviews with authors for this fall season of Can We Talk?. Stay tuned for conversations with The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum about evolving portrayals of Jewish women on TV, and with Abby Stein, a transgender activist who grew up in a Hassidic community in Brooklyn that she can no longer go home to.

[Theme music]

Nahanni: When Sarah Hurwitz was in her late thirties, she had what she calls her dream job: She was a White House speechwriter for a president and first lady she admired. At the end of the Obama Administration, she took a break from politics and wrote a book that chronicles her own foray into Jewish learning and tradition. I sat down recently with Sarah in her apartment in Washington, DC, just a few blocks from the White House. We talked about speechwriting, the women of the Bible, silent meditation, and what she’s looking for in a presidential candidate.

Nahanni: Sarah Hurwitz! It's so nice to meet you.

Sarah Hurwitz: So nice to meet you, too. Thank you for having me.

Nahanni: I'd love to start by talking a little bit about your experience as a White House speechwriter, which you were for all eight years of the Obama administration, is that right?

Sarah: That's correct. All 8 years.

Nahanni: Early in your time at the White House you switched from being a senior speechwriter to President Obama to being the head speechwriter to First Lady Michelle Obama. How did that switch come about?

Sarah: So, you know I had met Mrs. Obama in 2008 when I started working on the Obama campaign in the summer of '08. I had originally been working as chief speechwriter for Hillary Clinton on her '08 campaign. And after she conceded, I got hired on the Obama campaign and I was writing for him, but I met her when they asked me to help her with her 2008 Democratic National Convention speech. And we hit it off. I loved working with her on that speech. Then Obama won and so we went to the White House and I worked for him the first couple of years, but I would occasionally help Mrs. Obama with speeches here and there, and after a while, I just realized I liked the topics she was speaking on better. I felt more at home in her voice. It just felt more natural to me. And eventually I just decided to make the switch. It was a pretty unusual career move in the White House. I think people were a little bit surprised but it just made a lot of sense for me and I never looked back.

Nahanni: What was different about writing for each of them?

Sarah: They're very different roles. The president is the commander-in-chief. He is the first responder. And when any time there is any kind of crisis, he is really the first one who steps forward and speaks on behalf of the United States. And that can be very intense.

Sarah: Whereas her role, it's a little bit more personal, right, it's tailored to each particular first spouse depending on their interests, their strengths, you know, the needs that they see that they want to meet. You know, people so often just said to me she seems so real. And it's not seems. She is real. You know, I think people so respond to her honesty, to her warmth, to her just commitment to going high even when others go low... and that was her line, I did not come up with that. It was totally her line. I think people just respond so well with it... even people who might not agree with her politically, right? I think they just appreciate who she is and what she represents.

Nahanni: How do you look back on that “When they go low we go high” now?

Sarah: I actually think it's still true. I think that when they go low and you decide oh, I'm just going to try to go lower, you become part of the very ugly white noise and you don't really break through, but when they go low and you decide to go high, I think you can break through. Going high doesn't mean going easy on people. It doesn't mean being nice. Going high can mean being very fierce and tough and strong and courageous, but it means not resorting to nastiness, to cruelty, to violence, to abuse. Going low, you just become part of the very ugly white noise out there and I think it's morally problematic and just strategically not very effective.

Nahanni: Something we think a lot about at Can We Talk? and the Jewish Women's Archive is the power of storytelling. And you write in your book about how First Lady Michelle Obama loved to incorporate her own life story and talk about her own identity in her speech writing. And I'm wondering whether her ability to talk about her life story and her identity was something that made you think about your own story and your own identity.

Sarah: What a great question. You know, she had such an inspiring story, right, she grew up in very humble circumstances. She worked hard. She got a great education. She became very successful. And that story resonated so deeply both here in America and around the world. And I think that what I saw from her more than anything was just this relentless authenticity, this real commitment to sticking to her truth and to being very honest about how she felt and how she thought and so I think it did inspire me to start thinking about my own story, to start thinking about how I wanted to use my own voice. And I think I learned from her that when I'm trying to figure out what I want to say the most important thing I can do is just stop and ask myself what is the deepest and most important and most helpful truth that I can tell at this particular moment. I feel like she was always doing that as she was figuring out how she wanted to use her voice in the world. And that's something I've learned from her.

Nahanni: When you started wanting to learn more about Jewish tradition, was there a moment when that began for you?

Sarah: You know, I think a lot of people expect that I had some big existential crisis or decided I wanted to go in a big spiritual journey. But the truth is I was dating a guy, we broke up. I was 36 years old and I just had all this time on my hands that I was looking to fill and I happened to get an email newsletter from the Washington DC JCC, advertising an Introduction to Judaism class. And I signed up really on a whim. It could have been a karate class and I might have signed up. I was really just looking to fill time but what I saw in that class totally blew my mind. You know, I’m someone who grew up without ton of Jewish background, you know, I went to Hebrew school. I sat through the high holy day services that I didn't really understand and after my bat mitzvah, I kind of drifted away thinking that there just wasn't much in Judaism that was relevant to my life. But in this class studying these texts I saw so much wisdom about how to be a good person, how to live a meaningful life, how to find spiritual connection... And that class led me to a second intro class which led me to meeting with rabbis, attending silent Jewish meditation retreats, and just reading hundreds of books on my own.

Nahanni: So are you actually saying that if you had instead gone to a karate class, you might be a black belt in karate by now.

Sarah: I don't know about a black belt but I you know, I don't know. It's a good question, right? How far would I have gone, but I've taken it as far as Judaism... probably not. I don't think karate would have held as much deep meaning for me as Judaism.

Nahanni: Would you say that there was a gap that that knowledge started to fill for you?

Sarah: Yeah, I would. You know, I think that the reality is that in my everyday secular life working in the White House or on campaigns, there aren't a lot of spaces where you can just stop, take a pause, and ask questions, like what does it mean to be a truly good person? What are our obligations to others, in our community, outside of our community. What's the deal with God? These are not conversations that people have at DC cocktail parties and I think in studying these Jewish texts and taking these classes and meeting these rabbis, I found spaces to really ponder these much deeper questions.

Nahanni: You've described a little bit about your Jewish background growing up. Can you talk a little bit more about how Jewish tradition fit into your life leading up to the moment when you started exploring it more?

Sarah: Sure, you know, I grew up. I attended Hebrew school. I had a bat mitzvah. Attended High, holy day Services twice a year, and I think that when you grow like I do and your only point of contact with Judaism are Hebrew school high, holy day services and maybe a seder you're not necessarily going to walk away thinking wow, Judaism has profound wisdom that's deeply relevant to my life. Anyway, I think growing up I was very proud to be Jewish, but I don't know if I could have told you what that meant.

Nahanni: So your book is called here all along. I've got a copy right here. The subtitle is finding meaning spirituality and a deeper connection to life in Judaism. With a parenthetical phrase, "After finally choosing to look there--" and the word finally is underlined. Why did you add that last part?

Sarah: I wanted to show people that this was a human approach I'm not an expert. I'm not a rabbi. I'm not a scholar. I am an ordinary Jew who for most of my life had no idea what Judaism had to offer. And I finally chose to look there and was amazed at what I found. You know, I really want to show how this book is relatable. It's warm. It's funny. It's accessible and it's not in any way judgmental. So many people say to me, "Oh, I'm such a bad Jew," and it breaks my heart. There's no such thing as a bad Jew right? There are Jews who have had the opportunity to learn and have Jewish experiences and there are Jews that haven't and you know, so I just, you know, it makes me sad when anyone thinks about them of themselves as bad or unworthy as a Jew and I really wanted to convey to people that this book is an open door.

Nahanni: So not being a rabbi and being relatively new to your own Jewish education and immersion, what does your perspective bring?

Sarah: Yeah, you know I think approaching Judaism with beginner's mind, I had to teach myself a lot and I think what I what I found when I was first learning is a lot of the books, even very introductory books seem to be assuming a lot of knowledge that I didn't have. They would say things like the rabbi's said blah blah blah and I be thinking who are the rabbi's? Okay, well it turns out, when the temple was destroyed in the year 70, the rabbi's was like well, sorry the temple, right? Okay. So the temple, you know back in the year 70 and before we were making sacrifices of animals at a large temple in Jerusalem, like woah, animal... You know, there's so much history and background that you need to understand even the most basic you ideas and thoughts in Judaism and I think that you know, being a total beginner, I had to teach that to myself. And so I think it was easier in some ways for me to teach that to others because I had to go through that process of translating it for myself.
I also think my background is as a speechwriter was really helpful because as a speechwriter, that's your entire job: to translate things that are confusing, boring, off-putting, to really to translate them into language that's accessible, vivid, moving, and to translate them into stories and arguments that persuade and inspire people.

Nahanni: I think it takes a lot of courage to go from the very top of your profession to something that's relatively new for you.

Sarah: It was incredibly scary. Yeah, I'm not gonna lie. It was definitely not what anyone thought I would do and I had so many moments of fear self-doubt, insecurity.
Nahanni: At what point did you know that you were going to write a book?

Sarah: So I started thinking about writing a book, maybe three or four years ago. As I was reading and studying, I found myself frustrated because. I found that some of the books were intro books that really focused on the how to of Judaism but not as much on the why to and my other option were these...

Nahanni: What do you mean by that?

Sarah: So, it's like how to light the Shabbat candles, how to host a Seder. But not why. Where does Shabbat even come from? Why is it meaningful? How is it relevant to our lives today? and I found a lot of books that were just wildly esoteric and academic and I just couldn't really penetrate them. So I thought you know, why is no one written the book that I need when I'm starting to learn? Something that explains the basics while also trying to unearth some of the deeper insights. So I you know, it started thinking about it writing notes in the margins of my books. But I really thought even two and a half years ago, three years ago, I thought, no, I'm not qualified. Not a rabbi. I'm not a scholar. But then a dear friend of mine Adam Grant who is himself an incredibly accomplished and renowned writer. He's written best-selling books. He's a professor at Wharton. He... a friend of mine sent me to him and I told him look Adam. I can't do this. I'm not qualified and he spent an hour on the phone with me really just pushing back and telling me I could do it and just giving me all this encouragement and all the support and that phone call was really the moment where I thought you know what maybe I can do that.

Nahanni: One of the experiences that you talk about is going on a silent Jewish Meditation Retreat and I'm wondering for someone whose entire career was built around communication and words, what was that like?

Sarah: So I love these retreats and I know I've now done I think 11 of them and people all have some people will say like, oh, how could you go for a week without talking. And for me it's just no problem. I'm a bit of an introvert. So I love these moments where I can be in silence, but still be part of this community. You know when you’re on these retreats, it’s very communal, you're surrounded by 50 60 other people who are also taking part in the meditation. You have wonderful rabbis and others who are leading the retreat and you know, my first retreat that I did, it was this transformational experience where over the course of these five or six days I just my mind really quieted down, you know, I was able to kind of have a little distance from my thoughts and to really get a sense of like oh, wow. I'm quite anxious right? I'm thinking the same thoughts over and over again. Do I really need to do that? and I also in the course of meditating and praying, just had a sense of being connected with something bigger, something that is... I can't articulate it. I don't like the word God because it's very small. It's very small, human word that connotes a man in the sky that I just don't believe in, but the Divine I think is a nice big word. It connotes something that's ineffable, inexplicable, way too big for our human minds to sort of cabin and grasp but I just I felt that I sort of touched into something deeper. Just that sense of openness to a deeper connection to life, to feelings of awe and gratitude and wonder, and it's something that I have continued to explore on additional retreats and another moment since then.

Nahanni: What do you do with the masculine language around God and liturgy?

Sarah: I do with that pretty much the same thing as I do with the original version of the US Constitution. The Torah, our liturgy, these are very very old documents right there. You know, the Torah is 2,500 years old. Our liturgy dates back, you know, 2,000 years, some of it. You know, those were times when it was typical to use the male pronouns and I just don't use them myself.

Nahanni: As you read the Torah, really, I think you say for the first time as an adult. Did you read it through the eyes of a speechwriter to world leaders? Did you find yourself thinking about for example the speeches that Moses was giving?
Sarah: What a funny question, you know I didn't I think I'm much more read it as a Jew who is exploring the core sacred text of Judaism. Right, I didn’t didn’t really think about it in terms of... Moses does give a lot of speeches right? Not just at the end with a those long speeches, but throughout he's kind of constantly exhorting these very difficult Israelites. But no I didn't I read it much more as okay. This is sort of the founding text of my people. How do I understand it today? And how have we thoroughly reinterpreted and reimagined it over the centuries?

Nahanni: What do you think about the style of leadership of Moses who is you know said to be irritable with people and sort of tries to run from the responsibility. Like what do you what do you make of that model of leadership as compared with political leaders today and the image that they try to project.

Sarah: I am so moved by Moses as a leader, right this guy wants nothing to do with this. He is the most reluctant leader you can possibly imagine, he tries to get out of it in every way possible, but eventually he accepts the charge and you just see him struggling with this, right, struggling with these fractious, disobedient, difficult people and I find it so moving. I find his anger so understandable and relatable. I mean, it's just I find his problems with delegating very relatable, right, you know, he needs Jethro to come and tell him listen man, you're gonna burn out. I find it just tremendously moving. I also think it's just important to note that Moses entire life. It was made possible by a series of remarkable women.

Nahanni: And what do you do with the fact that those female figures are largely silent? Like they don't speak very often.

Sarah: It's interesting. That's true. But I also think they are really rich and complicated and interesting people and I think that a lot of their power is actually behind the scenes. You see this series of remarkable women who are engaging in acts of just breathtaking courage and civil disobedience at great risk to themselves to make Moses’ life possible. You have these two midwives who disobeyed the Pharaoh. These women aren't royalty. They're midwives. And by the way, there are many people who read the text and think they're Egyptian. Right, so they could be Egyptian women who are engaging in civil disobedience to save Israelite babies. You have Moses’ mother who when she's told, you have to drown your child in the river, actually puts her child in a basket in the river in an attempt to save him. You have Pharaoh's daughter who sees Moses in the river and exclaims as it says in the Torah, oh, there's an Israelite baby. What does she do? She rescues him. You have Miriam, Moses sister. Who's watching this happen who cleverly convinces Pharaoh's daughter to hire her own mother as Moses' wet nurse, right? And then you have Pharaoh's daughter who takes this baby, this Israelite Hebrew baby, and raises them in Pharaoh's Palace under his own nose, committing basically an hourly act of disobedience, right? These women are extraordinary. They're Heroes. They are activists. They are engaging in these amazing acts of courageous moral disobedience. And they are exercising power in ways that were available to them as women at the time. And you know, they certainly don't get enough air time in the Torah, but we can give them are time as modern people. We can recognize their central and critical contributions and their heroism and their courage.

Nahanni: Do you find yourself filling in some of those blanks and imagining what they might be saying in certain moments?

Sarah: Yeah, I mean, I think that's part of the the project of the Torah, right? This is a very sparse kind of document, right, it actually leaves very much to the imagination. You know, there's not you don't get a lot of information about what characters are thinking or feeling and so that's part of the richness of the Torah as an interpretive document. It's what you know, we're it's what rabbis were doing in the Talmud. They were filling it in it's what interpreters and commentators have continued to do since then. We're consistently filling in gaps and all the big holes with you know, our own wisdom our own kind of moral sensibility that's indeed shaped by the Torah, but you know, we it shapes us and we shape it. It's sort of a dialectic. So I think that's very much part of Jewish tradition.

Nahanni: Well, I love your comparison of the interpretation of fundamental Jewish texts with the US Constitution amendments and the Supreme Court cases that came next, and I'd love for you to talk a little bit more about that.

Sarah: You know, sometimes people when they read the Torah they think “well, this is awful... it's sexist. It's violent. Oh, how could I how can I accept this?” And of course you shouldn't accept this right? I mean the original version of the US Constitution, you know, people were were enslaving others under that that document women in have the right to vote under that document right? There were some serious, serious problems with the original version of the US Constitution and fortunately we've undergone a process by which we've amended it. We've reinterpret it. We've reimagined it. We still have a tremendous amount of work to do in that process. We are far from being finished, but it's similar with the process of Judaism. Right? The Torah is our it's an ancient document. And we have for 2500 years continued to reimagine it. The Torah itself prohibits amendments to it, but I think if you look at many of the interpretations of the Torah, they essentially amend it, right they they re-interpret it so wildly that they will essentially reinterpret laws out of existence, right? The Torah tells us that if we have a wayward and rebellious son we should take him to the town center and stone him. If you look at how the rabbi is interpreted it, it's like pages and pages of this torturous reasoning by which they finally come up with an interpretation that is so narrow that it's basically impossible to implement this law. They essentially interpreted a law from the Torah out of existence, right? We've been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years. And I think it is very similar to the American process of interpreting our core document, the Constitution.

Nahanni: In your chapter on life cycles you write that as an unmarried woman who does not have children, you don't have a personal experience with many of the Jewish lifecycle rituals. How does it feel for you that so much of communal Jewish life revolves around family.

Sarah: Yeah, you know a rabbi I really admire recently said something to the effect of Judaism assumes either that you are kid or that you have a kid and that's obviously a huge overstatement, but I think there is something to that. Traditionally, to some extent probably for most Jews that was true. But I think today that just no longer the case. There are so many Jews who are choosing not to have children. There are so many Jews who aren't married. That's typical the American population in those trends and I think Jews are no exception. And so I think that it can feel for many of us like there isn't quite a place where synagogues kind of do revolve around families and lifecycle rituals. And so it feels a little bit hard to engage as a single person whose doesn't have kids, you know, there isn't you know, there aren't many lifecycle rituals that really apply to us and I'm not saying that that's wrong but I do think it's something that we're going to need to think about going forward. How do we honor the members of our community that don't necessarily fit into a framework that was developed hundreds, if not thousands of years ago? Times have changed and so how do we honor that in a way that's respectful to Jewish tradition, but that really, you know, let's all people participate in a really inclusive way.

Nahanni: Has that made it hard for you to feel connected?

Sarah: I wouldn't say it's made it hard for me to feel connected to Judaism. I connect to Judaism very much through study. It sort of frustrates me when people say "Oh well, Sarah your Judaism is very academic. Not everyone wants an academic Judaism." And I have no idea what they're talking about. Law school for me was academic, right? That was an intellectual exercise. Jewish study for me is very, very emotional. Very personal, very spiritual, right, when I study Jewish texts about what it means to be human I moved. You know, sometimes I'm inspired sometimes I get really angry. Sometimes I'm frustrated. But it's a very emotional experience and I think that we've kind of lost that. I don't feel like I've been unable to connect to Judaism because of that because I, I connect in different ways than just the typical lifecycle rituals or synagogue membership.

Nahanni: It's feels like a very empowering story.

Sarah: You know, it has been so empowering. My knowledge is the tiniest, tiniest tiniest drop in the bucket of knowing Judaism. I could spend a million lifetimes studying Judaism and still only know a fraction of what is to be known about Judaism. So I don't, I certainly don't want to overstate my knowledge, but I think having a certain threshold of knowledge in Judaism. It allows you to make an argument. When someone tells you well, this is the way it's done in Judaism. I can say that's not true. I can say well, okay, maybe in your version of Judaism. But here is here's another version here's the text that support it. And here's how I think this fits in tradition, and that is tremendously empowering.

Nahanni: I want to ask about your plans for the future.

Sarah: That is a great question. I don't really know. I'm not someone who's ever had a 5-year plan or a 10-year plan. That's not really realistic in politics where your future is determined by whether your candidate wins or loses or things that are often beyond your control, but you know, I thought about some ideas for another book I'd like to write on Judaism. I’ve thought about maybe going back to work in politics. You know, I'm really open to a variety of things.

Nahanni: Do you see do you see the knowledge that you've gained about Judaism informing the next step that you make professionally?

Sarah: I do. I think through my through my experiences with Jewish spirituality and my study of Jewish theology, I've begun to just have this sense that each of us has something divine within us, right, something that we have to offer the world that if we can just get quiet and really listened carefully to kind of that inner voice. I think then we can lead a life of real purpose and impact and meaning and I think that Judaism has given me some spaces in which to do that kind of work and that kind of listening, so I think, hopefully whatever comes next I'll be able to figure out something that's that's you know an opportunity for me to help others for me to make a difference in the world for me to be of service in some way.

Nahanni: Are you listening for anything in particular in the 2020 democratic primary race?

Sarah: You know, I think we have a lot of really interesting and very impressive people running and I think just in general, when I listen to political candidates, political leaders speak, I'm listening for a sense of authenticity for a for a sense of someone who really knows who they are and knows what they want to say, because I think that's just tremendously important. I think that listening too much to poles are trying to test the wins all the time, I just think it you get a little bit lost and I think that people respond very well to authenticity, even if they don't agree with a candidate or a leader if they sense that that person is deeply authentic and cares deeply about what they're saying, I think they tend to respond well to that.

Nahanni: Do you think that a good speech writer can give somebody that authenticity?

Sarah: No. I don't. I think it has to come from the speaker him or herself.

Nahanni: Well, thank you so much, Sarah.

Sarah: Thank you, it was a pleasure. I really appreciate you having me.

[Theme music]

Nahanni: Sarah Hurwitz’s new book is titled Here All Along, Finding Meaning, Spirituality and a Deeper Connection to Life in Judaism After Finally Choosing to Look There.” Here All Along is one of the Jewish Women’s Archive’s book club picks. If you’d like to take part, visit jwa.org/bookclub, and find our group on Goodreads.

Nahanni: Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. We’re thrilled to welcome on board two new producers: Mariel Carr and Anne Hoffman! Anne and Mariel have been hard at work helping us create great new episodes, and adding some sparkle to Can We Talk?. You’ll be hearing much more of their handiwork soon.

Nahanni: Our team also includes Judith Rosenbaum and Becky Long. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You can find Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk, and anywhere you get your podcasts. Please take a moment to review us on iTunes, and share your favorite episodes with your friends so that others can find us. If you’d like to help us produce more episodes of Can We Talk, please go to jwa.org/donate to make a contribution.

Nahanni: We’ll be back in a few weeks when Judith interviews New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum. They’ll discuss some of the dozens of Jewish female characters on television… both these days and in the past. Shana tova to all who are celebrating the Jewish New Year.

Nahanni: Til next time, I’m your host, Nahanni Rous.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 33: Sarah Hurwitz: From the White House to the Torah (Transcript)." (Viewed on January 19, 2020) <https://jwa.org/episode-33-sarah-hurwitz-white-house-torah/transcript>.

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