As a young woman, Dani Shapiro abandoned Orthodox Judaism, alienated by rituals and rules whose meaning had never been explained to her. Nonetheless, as the novelist describes in her moving new memoir, "Devotion" (Harper, $24.99), she found herself in her 40s feeling "terribly anxious and unsteady . . . I needed to place my faith in something." In a recent conversation with Newsday, Shapiro discussed the way she's combined Buddhism, yoga and the faith of her forebears in a personally meaningful spiritual practice.
There are a growing number of books about middle-aged women's spiritual journeys. Why is this a popular topic?
Maybe it's that this generation feels we can create our own spiritual paths. I know for me, coming from a very religious background, I didn't feel that I could or wanted to go back to that. But when I moved from New York City to Connecticut, where there were very few Jews, I suddenly realized that I felt more Jewish, because I had to think about it. As I began to explore what it was that gave my life meaning and connected me to any sense of something greater than myself, Judaism was in the mix.
It's not the traditional religion your father practiced. Did you feel uncomfortable leaving those rituals behind?
I had already left them behind, but I wasn't entirely comfortable with where I was. I had been raised with all or nothing, and it had left me with nothing. But it had also left me with this vestigial feeling that all is the only way. I had a secret belief that people who build a spiritual life for themselves, gathering wisdom from all different corners of the world, were just seekers of easy comfort. I don't believe that anymore.
So what is the faith that you've constructed for yourself?
There are times when I'm meditating that I feel an "at-oneness" with everything and everyone that is the closest thing to a spiritual experience of anything I know. In yoga, there are poses where the alignment is all about not leaning forward into the future or backward into the past. There's joy and meaning in being able to do that: I can do it about 1 percent of the time, but it's 1 percent more than I could when I started!
As you write in the book, "There is no perfection. We do the best we can with the tools we have at our disposal."
Exactly. I have a very different feeling now about my father and his rituals. He may not have been thinking about the words he was saying, or even believing some of what he was saying, I don't know. But it was an act of devotion: Here is what I do at the beginning of my day to remind me of what matters in life. It's like the book of Buddhist wisdom that sits open on our kitchen table, or the Emerson essays my friend used to read to her kids every morning before they went to school. It doesn't matter what the ritual is, it's the fact of it.