An Interview with Judy Gruen

The humorist talks self-discovery, Judaism, and the material left on the cutting-room floor.

An Interview with Judy Gruen

A longtime journalist and freelancer whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and elsewhere, Judy Gruen is also the author of such humor books as Carpool Tunnel Syndrome: Motherhood as Shuttle Diplomacy and Till We Eat Again. In her new memoir, Bylines and Blessings: Overcoming Obstacles, Striving for Excellence, and Redefining Success, Gruen reflects on her varied career, the slings and arrows she’s endured along the way, and why she’d rather be known for who she is — a wife, mother, grandmother, and Orthodox Jew — than for what she does.

While Bylines and Blessings is a memoir of your writing life, it’s one with a specific focus: figuring out who you are professionally versus personally (and which takes priority). What did you learn about yourself in the course of putting it together?

Writing this book didn’t involve as much self-discovery as a memoir usually does, because I share insights and experiences I’ve gathered over the course of 40 years — a big majority of my life. I did learn two things, though. One was that this book had been hiding in plain sight, and I had no idea until I began writing a blog series called “Chasing the Byline” about my early years as a writer. It was intended as a creative romp down [a] memory lane of stories I had never told — about the hard-won lessons I learned through my writing life and my personal life, about ambition, dedication to craft, rebounding from disappointments, savoring successes, and as I grew in maturity, trying to live up to my sense of Jewish ethics and values in both my professional and personal life. I began to realize that exploring this nexus between faith values and writing was something important and not anything I had seen explored in other memoirs. 

Still, I was nervous to invest a great deal of time and effort into another memoir, especially with an unknown return on investment. But working with a great developmental editor, as well as a life coach, I tapped into my defined purpose and enthusiasm. Once that happened, my productivity soared. I surprised myself, and that was the second thing I learned: that I could write a book faster than I had ever imagined once the vision and intention were in place.

Although it’s been nearly seven years since the publication of your last memoir, The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith, do you see that earlier book as being in conversation with this new one?

Skeptic has a more singular focus on my transition from a secular, though emotionally connected, young Jewish woman into one who navigated a new life into traditional Jewish practice and found it extremely enriching. I had never planned on writing this book, either, but I was deeply pained by the flurry of anti-Orthodox memoirs that began to appear around 2012 and presented Orthodoxy as an unbearably miserable existence that naturally drove people away, tossing their wigs and black hats off the Williamsburg Bridge. Publishers loved showing traditional religion in its most restrictive light, but with no counterbalancing narratives, these “anti” memoirs were all that was made available to the general public. So my memoir was a work of protest. Stories like mine were real and true and demanded telling.

It’s not a Hallmark greeting card, either. Along with the beauty, I show the challenges, the fears, the newbie awkwardness, and the messiness and complexity of this life I had chosen. Bylines and Blessings also has a faith angle but is more wide-ranging, discussing a passion for craft, rolling with the punches, fusing family life and career, following your dream, and resolving the tension between commercial ambition and a more spiritual definition of success. I had to revisit a small bit of content from Skeptic (though rewritten with a fresh eye) so that readers who hadn’t read that book could understand where this tension came from. Both books share a core idea of wanting to follow what is true, precious, and fulfilling.

You’ve written extensively about growing from a secular, liberal Jew into a conservative, Orthodox one. While this evolution has obviously impacted what you write, has it had a discernible effect on how you write — or, at least, on how you approach the act of writing?

Absolutely. It’s made me appreciate the preciousness of language more than I could have imagined. For example, the Torah (Five Books of Moses) is written with great concision — every word, every letter, has a purpose and meaning. There are no true synonyms in Hebrew, either. For example, we have more than 10 different words for happiness (not bad for a people who has suffered so much hatred for more than 2,000 years), but each one is nuanced, and no two convey the precise same thing. Judaism also has strict laws governing speech because of the immense power of words to hurt and to heal. If the world of journalism had to live by even one fraction of these rules, the entire industry would implode. These lessons in personal responsibility and the power of language have made me extremely mindful in choosing my words. This goes beyond the good writer’s concern with clarity, impact, and inspiration. Is my writing possibly violating someone’s privacy or maligning someone’s reputation needlessly? As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, “Words can create worlds and words can destroy worlds.” I want to be on the right side of that equation.

It’s easy to look back on a career and identify pivotal points, but it’s much harder to do so in the moment. Can you think of a time when, as a young writer, you came to a crossroads and clearly recognized it as such?

One of the first scenes in Bylines and Blessings is set during my journalism internship in New York. At 20 years old, I fancied myself an up-and-coming hotshot writer. When my editor sat me down to review all his red-line edits on my first article and saw the look of shock on my face, he said, “Judy, if you want to become a professional, you can never be jealous of your own words.” I got the message, and I decided I’d always welcome good editing advice. I still do, all these years later. I wasn’t very young but I learned another big lesson after the publication of my first book, Carpool Tunnel Syndrome, in 2001. I was 40 and very excited about a speaking engagement at big Jewish community center scheduled for September 11th.

Obviously, there was no speaking engagement that night. In addition to the shock and trauma of the terrorist attacks, my mother had just died after a short, intense illness. Nothing seemed funny, and I questioned the value of my humor writing at all. But my rabbi, who is a very wise man, told me I needed to keep going. “We need to laugh more than ever,” he said. I also had so many people tell me how much they appreciated the laughter from my articles that I became convinced laughter wasn’t a luxury but a life tool. It had been so in my own life, but I needed reassurance from others to keep at it. Lately, facing full-metal-jacket security when I go to synagogue or enter a kosher store, and seeing how much overt hatred is directed to the Jewish people now, it can be hard to sit down and write new light humor pieces. But it’s necessary.

Humor comes naturally to you, and I imagine your impulse is to be funny when you write. Is it tough to rein in your wit when the situation calls for it — or has that situation mercifully never arisen?

Oh, the pain of having to leave so much delicious material on the proverbial cutting-room floor! Maybe one day, I’ll sneak some of it into a novel, but for now, I’d rather stay married.  

Holly Smith is editor-in-chief of the Independent.

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