The anatomy of a decision

Judy Gruen’s memoir weaves together family history and her own struggle with Judaism.

JUDY GRUEN began her journey to observant Judaism after meeting her husband, Jeff. (photo credit: BRANDI SCHLEGL/FLICKR)
JUDY GRUEN began her journey to observant Judaism after meeting her husband, Jeff.
If you met Judy Gruen today, you might take notice of her modest clothing and her wig and perhaps you would assume that you pretty much know her story. But if you read her new memoir, The Skeptic And The Rabbi: Falling In Love With Faith, you may be surprised by how she became the middle-aged Orthodox American Jewish woman standing before you.
By her own account, until she reached her 20s, Gruen was a typical American Jewish girl. She uses the contrasting perspectives of her grandparents’ world views to lay the foundation for her own life-changing decision.
Her mother’s parents, Nana and Papa Cohen, were Eastern European immigrants who preserved their religious lifestyle even against the potent material pull of America. Gruen paints a clear picture of her maternal grandfather.
“Papa was usually sitting at the dining room table studying a weighty tome of the Talmud, written in both Hebrew and Aramaic. Or, he’d be reading the Yiddish newspaper, the Forvertz, or writing one of the innumerable articles he wrote for the Jewish press.”
By contrast, her paternal grandparents were thoroughly American, and utterly committed to atheism. A plate of ham in their refrigerator symbolized how far Papa and Cece Rosenfeld had moved from their own Jewish roots. Where Nana Cohen was the quintessential housewife, serving her husband tea and cake, Cece Rosenfeld was a practicing holistic physician in the 1950s and 1960s, when that was a rare thing for a woman to be, even in Los Angeles.
Although Gruen spends much more time fleshing out the twin pulls of her maternal and paternal grandparents than she does on her own parents’ marriage, she describes her mother lighting Shabbat candles and serving a traditional Friday night dinner. By contrast, she explains that “Dad’s religion was the UCLA Bruins,” which preempted his synagogue attendance.
The narrative weaves back and forth through time, starting in 1965 and ending in 2011. The bulk of the drama takes place in the mid-1980s when Judy meets Jeff, a newcomer to her native Los Angeles.
Although it’s clear to the reader that Jeff will eventually become her husband, Gruen elaborates on the push and pull of their relationship over the years, because it formed the context for her own struggle with Judaism.
“Jeff captured my attention in ways no other young man had before,” Gruen establishes for the reader. Their immediate ease with one another made her decision about whether or not to embrace traditional Judaism all the more complex, because Jeff was a package deal.
As Gruen retells her story, it’s obvious that she did not make any kind of instant, overnight transition. The book portrays her struggles, her journey, her doubts and her joys over a period of several years. At one point, after experiencing her first class with an Orthodox rabbi, Gruen uses humor to admit her own limitations.
“My first class with Rabbi Lapin also revealed how little I really knew about Judaism, even after so many years of active participation in Jewish educational life. I began to feel embarrassed at the misplaced confidence I had in my knowledge. In truth, my Jewish IQ was probably lower than that of a potato knish.”
Ultimately, after gradually learning, refining, discussing and establishing expectations, always in the context of her relationship with Jeff, the pair marry.
Gruen’s description of the negotiations she and Jeff conducted so that each would be comfortable enough with the religious lives they shared comprise an instructive example of how to conduct a healthy marriage.
In later chapters, she discusses her early experiences with the mikve, the ritual bath Jewish law requires for married women of child-bearing years, and with her first sheitel, the wig worn by many observant Jewish wives to cover their own hair. Throughout the book, Gruen evidences an astounding memory for detail.
Finally, the last chapter is set 18 years later, at the wedding of her eldest son.
She might have been a skeptic in the mid- 1980s, but by 2011, Gruen has seamlessly integrated her spiritual identity and even passed it on to the next generation.
With humor and skilled storytelling, throughout the pages of The Skeptic and The Rabbi, she demonstrates how her transition was accomplished in a way that is accessible for even the casual reader.