A dozen years ago, as author Dani Shapiro cradled her seriously ill infant son in her arms, the feeling of aloneness that characterized the existential crisis she had long felt became more of a spiritual plea.
She didn’t realize it at the time, she said, but those pleas were actually prayers for her baby to overcome the rare disorder he had developed at six months, which carried only a 15 percent survival rate.
Today that child, Jacob, has fully recovered and at age 12 is preparing for his bar mitzva. In the intervening years, his mother took an unusual path to make peace with the Judaism of her childhood she had largely turned her back on.
Shapiro outlined her spiritual journey in her highly acclaimed latest book, Devotion: A Memoir.
On Jan. 8 she shared her insights with 125 community members gathered at the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth for the annual Kallman-Weinstein lecture of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley.
The lecture, established in 2003, is named for former Schechter board member and long-term planning committee chair Elaine Weinstein, who died in 2000, and former board member and treasurer Jonathan Kallman, who died at age 47 in 2002. Both were Highland Park residents active in the temple.
Shapiro was raised by a devoutly Orthodox father and secular mother in Hillside and attended the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in Union before it moved to Cranford. (The Cranford campus has since closed.)
Her father, whom Shapiro “adored,” was killed when his daughter was 23 in a “horrific” car accident that left her mother with 80 broken bones.
Shapiro rebelled against her observant upbringing as soon as she left home and became an actress after graduating college. After her father’s death, she turned to writing “to make sense of the chaos.”
“I had this sense when he died that I had not given him enough reasons to be proud of,” said Shapiro. “He has always been my moral compass. I ask myself, ‘What would my father want me to do?’”
With the passing of years and the assistance of a Buddhist, a yogi, and a rabbi, she came to recognize the role Judaism had played in shaping her life.
“When I’m driving in silence, Hebrew words pop into my head,” she said. “You know the way some people have Bruce Springsteen running through their head? I had ‘Ma Tovu’ running through mine.”
The author of numerous essays and magazine pieces, Shapiro has written six other books, including another memoir, Slow Motion. Devotion was selected as an “editor’s choice” by The New York Times, a “people’s pick” by People Magazine, and a “must read” by O Magazine, and resulted in interviews in national publications and an appearance on Today.
“I thought it’s not going to be Jewish enough for the Jews and not Buddhist enough for the Buddhists, but the opposite happened,” as readers of many faiths found they could relate to her quest.
When Jacob, at five or six, began questioning his mother’s religious beliefs, Shapiro started to think about her relationship to Judaism. A search for an institution to educate him for his bar mitzva also provided motivation.
Having moved from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Shapiro and her screenwriter husband settled in decidedly un-Jewish Litchfield County, Conn. There was a small Reform temple with an older membership where the couple was not conformable, and a Conservative synagogue 45 minutes away with no school.
“I finally realized if I wanted a Jewish community I would have to build it,” said Shapiro, who arranged for a female rabbi and her partner, also a rabbi, from Bridgeport to come to her house to form a study group with other Jewish youngsters in the area. Shapiro dubbed it the “Litchfield Mishpacha Group — three words you will never again hear put together.” She hopes to continue it after Jacob’s bar mitzva in May.
Through the two rabbis’ guidance, the group’s children, many with no previous Jewish background, have seen and held a Torah scroll for the first time and put on a tallit and tefillin.
“What has happened is that my home has very much become a more Jewish home,” said Shapiro.
She said that as she watched Jacob wrap himself in her father’s tallit, she knew he wouldn’t have approved of the lesbian rabbis, but that he would have been pleased to see Jewish tradition being carried on by his grandson.