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Seeking that Deeper Place

From Judaism to Buddhism and (sort of) back again

“I had reached the middle of my life and knew less than I ever had before,” writes Dani Shapiro in her quietly searing memoir, Devotion (Harper, $25). Shapiro can easily tick off all that is right in her life: loving husband, healthy child, charming old house in Connecticut, work that both sustains and rewards. But inside, she is falling apart. At night, she “quivered in the darkness like a wounded animal.” She knew that “something was very wrong,” but could not locate source of the trouble.

So Shapiro begins a tentative spiritual quest that leads her back to the Orthodox observance of her childhood, to present day yogic practice, the teachings of the Buddhists, Thomas Merton and many points in between. Quickly, we see that her relationship with Judaism is fraught. Her devout father was often at odds with her mother, who went along with his wishes, often with resentment that she did not attempt to hide from her daughter. For a time, Shapiro rejected her religious upbringing, shucking it off like an uncomfortable, ill-fitting garment.

But in the course of this book, we watch her circle back to the faith of her beloved and deceased father. In a memorable scene, she makes a trip to the Jewish Theological Seminary in NY, where a rabbi teaches her to put on her father’s tallit and tefillin. “I felt a kind of slamming inside; doors blew open and closed at once…Heat rose to my face. It was forbidden territory — so off limits as to seem almost sexual.” But she perseveres, and finds a way to understand both her father and the faith that governed his life: “Maybe this simple, repetitive act gave my father courage, each morning, to face the day. Maybe it reminded him of who he was and what was important to him. And maybe, through his example, he taught me a lesson about the importance of a daily connection to that deeper place.”

Unlike Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love (to whom Shapiro will inevitably be compared) whose own spiritual pilgrimage led her thousands of miles from home, Shapiro feels the need to remain rooted to her surroundings. When a magazine editor with whom she works offers to send her on assignment to cover yogic practice in India, Shapiro declines. Her real work, she maintains, is right in her own backyard.

Shapiro’s story does not unfold in a linear fashion, but is assembled, collagelike, from the bits and pieces of memory and family history that she weaves into a rich and satisfying pattern. The effect is both powerful and haunting; we watch her move from past to present, parent to child, confusion to a fragile sense of peace. While she does not come to accept the Judaism of her youth as whole cloth, she nonetheless fashions her own fabric — a way to live as a Jewish woman, wife and mother, on her own idiosyncratic terms.