The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith
by Judy Gruen



She Writes Press, 2017. ISBN 978-1-631-52302-1.
Reviewed by Susan Hanson
Posted on 01/08/2018

Nonfiction: Memoir

In an age when turning off your cell phone can seem countercultural, actually keeping the Sabbath may seem downright alien. But ironically, it's that dissonance that makes The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith so appealing.

Raised in a Reformed Jewish home, author Judy Gruen was quite comfortable living her upwardly mobile secular life. Granted, she'd grown up attending synagogue with her mother and maternal grandparents, Polish immigrants whose Conservative Judaism struck her as stern and joyless. But her family's religious practice extended little beyond Shabbos dinner on Friday nights and Passover with her Nana and Papa Cohen. Her paternal grandparents, Cece and Papa Rosenfeld, were even less religious; as Gruen describes them, they were good humanists whose "broadly intellectual, even cosmopolitan and fun life" appealed to her greatly.

The tension represented by these strikingly different grandparents ultimately surfaces in Gruen herself. A feminist with all the usual liberal credentials, she nonetheless wants a more intimate experience of her own Jewish faith. "As a teenager," she writes, "I tasted occasional moments of spiritual uplift, moments that touched me and left me craving more." A post-bat mitzvah trip to Israel and a post-college graduation trip to the Soviet Union to reconnect with family only intensified this longing. "I lived in the freest country the world had ever know," Gruen recalls, "and I was determined not to squander that freedom but to embrace my Jewish identity fully."

The Skeptic and the Rabbi follows Gruen as she does just that. Through her growing relationship with Jeff, who is also on a quest for a greater spiritual depth, she tests the waters of Orthodoxy--hesitantly, even disapprovingly at first, for by no means is this an overnight conversion. One by one, Gruen confronts the strictures imposed by this new Torah life, fighting a host of assumptions and misconceptions along the way. Writing with humor and astonishing candor, Gruen depicts a journey that is authentic and life-giving. It's a joy to accompany her on the way.

What makes The Skeptic and the Rabbi so refreshing, beyond Gruen's ability to spin a good story, is its portrayal of an individual who is thoughtfully choosing her path, a path frequently at odds with the culture. Equally important is the utter freedom Gruen has to accept or reject the practices of a more Orthodox life. At no time does her community or her husband pressure her to make the choices they have made; she is left to follow her own mind and heart.

Writing in the Foreword, Gruen's friend and sometime mentor Michael Medved wisely observes, "When an individual pursues a new religious path, she may hear angels singing or bells ringing, but it's the beginning, not the end, of her most important story. Any seeker who longs for a climactic resolution of all doubts and divisions, capped with the words 'and they lived happily ever after,' won't find such trite conclusions in religious congregations of any denomination."

While offering the reader a greater understanding of Orthodox practices, Gruen's memoir can speak to a person of any faith--or even none. Indeed, the experience she describes could easily belong to a young Muslim woman who chooses to wear the hijab in defiance of her family, or a Christian who forgoes a lucrative career to work with the poor. At heart, this is a book about finding and claiming one's identity, about authentic choices, about embracing tradition out of love and not duty.

Read an excerpt from this book.


Judy Gruen has written several award-winning humor books and co-authored the business book MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and many other media outlets. Visit her website.

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