The Debra Darvick Interview: Why the stories in ‘This Jewish Life’ make it a part of your life, too

TODAY, ReadTheSpirit is proud to welcome author and columnist Debra Darvick into our online magazine and our bookstore. You may have enjoyed her columns in national magazines, including Good Housekeeping.  Now, you can enjoy her wide-ranging stories every week. Plus, starting today, you can order her signature collection of real-life Jewish stories: This Jewish Life.

VISIT DEBRA’S NEW ONLINE HOME: Debra brings hundreds of stories with her in the relaunch of her Debra Darvick online home today. Please, get to know Debra and, when you  have time, explore her rich array of online stories.

READ DEBRA’S BOOK: As you will discover right here—in our author interview with Debra today—This Jewish Life is for everyone. But, let’s invite Debra to speak for herself. This is our weekly author interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.


DAVID: Jewish families are a tiny minority in the world. Why are millions of people still so fascinated with Jewish faith and culture?

DEBRA: But let me answer your question in another way. The Jewish people have something to say that is valuable in our world today. Judaism’s ancient wisdom survives because it speaks to every generation of people, not just to Jews.

DAVID: Let me underline that point you’re making. The Gallup Poll occasionally asks Americans to name their favorite books of the Bible. Far and away, the Bible’s most popular book is always Psalms, followed by Genesis. Gallup finds that the majority of Americans say they read the Bible at least occasionally and their first choices after Psalms and Genesis are Matthew, John, Revelation, Proverbs, Job and Luke. That means 4 of the 8 most popular books of the Bible are from the original Jewish collection of scriptures. You do, indeed, have something to say.

DEBRA: That Gallup Poll doesn’t surprise me at all. Genesis is the fist book in the Bible; it has the most lively, visual stories: the Garden of Eden, the snake, the flood, animals two by two. Millions of little children grow up on these stories. And Psalms? They are comforting. Throughout human history, people have wanted to know—needed to know—that there is a force bigger than we are as mere humans. Where do people turn when horrible things happen to find words calling out in faith and hope? They turn to Psalms.

DAVID: Of course, we’re also talking about something much deeper than a popularity poll. Scholars widely credit Judaism as a foundation of Western tradition. That may sound like a startling conclusion if our readers haven’t thought about that before. But I can tell you that you’ll find such conclusions in world histories—and it’s a point made by Pope John Paul II, as well, as he wrote about the origins of Western faith and culture.

DEBRA: The Jewish religion’s ethical and social principles are inseparable from the watershed concept of monotheism—one God—that Judaism gave to the Western world. Think about the power of these ideas: Billions of people now believe that there is one God who set the world in motion. For the Jewish people, this was a singular Divine Force who gave a people a set of laws—the 10 Commandments—to model in the world and to share with others. This was a historic break with the religious and cultural norms of the era in which the Jewish religion emerged.

DAVID: The influence is even larger than these associations, right? We see Judaism’s wisdom among great artists and writers—and even in our governance.

DEBRA: Yes, that’s right, there are people who like to say that America is a Christian nation. And we also can recognize Jewish wisdom in our tradition of law and deliberation. America is a nation of law. The writers of the Constitution were well grounded in the Hebrew Bible. Our Supreme Court’s process of deliberation and interpreting the Constitution echoes the rabbinic process of deliberating and interpreting what the laws in the Torah really meant.

‘This Jewish Life’: Marking Our Sacred Time

DAVID: We also have inherited the Jewish approach to marking our sacred time. Of course, since Jesus and all of his first followers were Jewish, it’s natural that the Christian calendar is associated with a number of Jewish milestones in the calendar. More importantly, I think, Jewish holidays and festivals highlight major themes that matter to millions of families around the world, whether they are Jewish or not.

I know that a festival like Hanukkah is actually a relatively minor observance in the Jewish calendar—but the Hanukkah theme of religious freedom is an issue shared by people all around the world.

DEBRA: That’s true with many of the seasons and holidays included in the book. On the Jewish calendar right now, we are in a period called the counting of the Omer. This is a seven-week period between Passover (and the Exodus from Egypt) and the holiday of Shavuot which celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. On the Christian calendar, Shavuot, which literally means weeks, is called Pentecost.

In the book, the Passover story is that of a Russian family who were immigrants to America. The theme of Passover is liberation—the Exodus story that is so important in African-American churches. You can imagine the painful situation of Russian Jews for so many decades under Communism. This family you will meet in the book could only walk past a locked synagogue on Jewish holidays. Passover is the story of liberation and here is a family who lived through one of the world’s most dramatic times of liberation. The foundational text reading for Shavuot is the Book of Ruth. In This Jewish Life, the Shavuot story is that of a convert to Judaism (like the Biblical Ruth).

DAVID: These are good examples about the way we mark sacred time and use those periods to remember our most important shared stories. Judaism also established even larger spiritual themes that have shaped world religion to this day—like monotheism, the faith in a single God as opposed to many gods. In your book, I think another big theme readers will discover is the universal yearning for home. A famous Christian writer, Frederick Buechner, says that all religious journeys really are about a yearning for home. That’s something we inherit from the Jewish people.

DEBRA: The Hanukkah story is a great example of that. It’s a soldier’s story that I’m sure any soldier or veteran who reads this book will understand.

DAVID: I love that story, too. It’s set in the First Gulf War, more than 20 years ago, and is told by a young American Jewish soldier who finds himself stationed in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, awaiting battle. Then, it’s Hanukkah, and he finds his way to a small gathering of U.S. soldiers about to mark the holiday.

Here’s part of what he says: “I had tucked a trio of letters addressed to ‘Any Jewish Soldier’ in my back pocket. There we were in the desert about to go to war, singing songs of praise to God who had saved my ancestors in battle. The feeling of unity was as pervasive as our apprehension, as real as the sand that found its way into everything from our socks to our toothbrushes. … That Hanukkah in the desert solidified for me the urge to reconnect with my Judaism.”

Now, Debra, I think so many readers who have family members connected with the military will read a chapter like that and feel a strong emotional connection to these men and women.

Debra Darvick: ‘We all long for home.’

DEBRA: I agree and I’ve been really pleased when non-Jews come up to me and tell me how much they have enjoyed this book. This book does serve to educate people about Jewish life, but these stories also inspire, soothe and make people rethink the really important values in their own lives.

That’s an important truth you’ll find in this book. We share so much. We all long for home. We all weep sometimes. We all have moments of great joy. We all know about kids who make decisions we’re not happy about. Families. Homes. Love. Tragedy. Forgiveness. If you’re not Jewish and you read this book, you will realize right away that these are universal experiences, universal truths.

I like to think of this book as similar to Abraham’s tent—open on all four sides. If you’re not familiar with some of the terms, there is an extensive glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish words to help people quickly discover those words. There are short introductions to each section of the book to help people understand the major themes in these seasons.

DAVID: The stories are so well told! And, the pacing is perfect. Even busy readers can enjoy meeting these people in the pages of your book—a little bit each day.

DEBRA: The stories are short; most are about five pages long. You can read them out loud and even kids as young as 8 or 9 might enjoy sitting around and listening. There are stories about young people, too. The Rosh Hashanah story is about a college student who spends the new year’s holiday on a boat during a semester at sea.

DAVID: That’s another story about the yearning for home—combined with a story of dramatic self-discovery. This girl actually is suffering from a deep home sickness as the big holiday approaches, knowing how her family back home would be celebrating. She’s off the coast of Asia at that point. But, instead, she and some other students—Jewish and non-Jewish—wind up sharing the holiday. It becomes a new starting point in her life.

I could name a dozen stories that I would call my favorites in your book. How about you? Do you have a favorite story in the book?

DEBRA: That’s like asking which of your children is your favorite. But, yes, among these stories some do stand out. There is one story about a man who was in Paris at the liberation as World War II was ending. He describes what it was like to be part of the first Jewish service when the ark was opened again. I get shivers just retelling that story. He describes what it was like to bring out the Torah—so much outpouring of feeling that people ran up to kiss the Torah. They were so overjoyed. He recalls the moment when a young girl ran up to him, pulled the yellow star from her coat and placed it in his hands. So dramatic! But that’s just one story in the book. Many are appropriate to the seasons of the year; many are appropriate to different settings in which people may read the book.

‘This Jewish Life’: Experiencing gratitude

DAVID: What did you learn while writing This Jewish Life?

DEBRA: One of the most important things I learned is gratitude. This definitely was not a one-woman endeavor. As I spoke to all of the people who appear in the book, I had to think about my identity as a writer. Over time, I realized that this wasn’t about me seeing my name on the cover of a book but about the gift God gave me to listen and help people express their deepest selves.

As I worked on a person’s story, we would talk and I would write up a draft. Then, I would call each one on the telephone and read the story to see if I had told it right. Sometimes, I would get to the end and there would be silence on the phone. The first couple of times that happened, I would freak out, thinking that the silence meant I had blown it. But, no, they were silent because they were crying. They were feeling such emotion because their story finally was brought to light—their story was made cohesive so that others could now share in it. It was deeply moving to know I was helping people to make their inner-most experiences real in these stories.

Want to read some stories by Debra?

Check out Debra Darvick’s new online home at ReadTheSpirit. Or, visit the Bookstore page for This Jewish Life.

(This interview originally published at, an online magazine covering religion, values and cultural diversity.)

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