Dani Shapiro talks about being raised Orthodox Jewish, uncovering a decades-old family secret, and writing her new novel — her most spiritual work yet.
Lion’s Roar: What is your relationship with Buddhism? Are you Buddhist?
Dani Shapiro: Buddhism makes more sense to me than anything else. When I reach for spiritual literature, it’s always Buddhist, or almost always. I have a meditation practice, and often listen to a meditation of Thich Nhat Hanh’s on following the breath. It’s fourteen minutes long, and there isn’t a word in it that isn’t both true and useful.
At the same time, it’s complicated for me, having been raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, it always felt to me like it was either that way or no way—there was either that path or no path. And though I certainly feel myself to be Jewish to my core, for most of my adult life, it’s been a matter of finding a place where I could comfortably sit and be.
These words are laden because they’re so overused, but I consider myself a very spiritual person. Being able to disentangle that from religion has been part of my life’s work.
Can you say more about that process of disentangling?
I wrote a memoir years ago called Devotion, which was about my spiritual quandary at midlife as the mother of a young son who was asking me questions about what I believed. That was a life altering book for me—writing it and also bringing it into the world. I had always felt, because I had been raised to feel, that the take-a-bit-from-here-and-a-bit-from-there approach was complete bullshit, just not okay at all. One of the things I finally came to understand was that it’s actually a beautiful practice. Why reject what works just because it’s from various different spiritual paths?
What was your experience growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home?
My father was from an Orthodox family. My mother was not. So, they always had a lot of conflict around how to raise me. But I was raised Sabbath observant, kosher. I went to a yeshiva until I was in seventh grade. I was fluent in Hebrew. Then, complicating that was the discovery many years later that my dad was not my biological father, and that, in fact, I am biologically half-Jewish.
You discovered that he wasn’t your biological father because, on a whim, you did a DNA test for ancestry. What was it like to learn that you were donor conceived?
In a way, as shocking as it was, that discovery cleared up a lot for me. I had felt like all the puzzle pieces didn’t fit together. It’s always hard to find words for this. When I was growing up, I was always told that I didn’t look like I belonged. So, the result of those comments was that I didn’t feel that I belonged. Consequently, there never felt like there was a place for me.
Prior to writing Devotion, I used to think, wouldn’t it be great to be raised with nothing, because then you could just pick and choose with no guilt and no sense of betrayal? What I realized over the course of writing that book is that actually people who are raised with nothing often have a hard time attaching to anything. There isn’t a groundedness. As much as I didn’t love—and rebelled against—being raised Orthodox, it gave me a grounding in liturgy, and eventually something to push away from.
Sylvia Boorstein is a leading teacher in the Insight tradition. In what way has she been a friend to you on your spiritual path?
I remember the very first retreat where I met her. I actually didn’t go for Sylvia. I went for Stephen Cope because he and I had met at a literary event, and I was blown away by his book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. He was co-teaching the retreat with Sylvia, and the minute she started speaking, I knew I had found my home.
One of the times she asked if anyone had a question, my hand shot up. I am so not a hand raiser. It was like, what’s my hand doing in the air? Because it was a metta meditation retreat, my question to her was, “When we say, ‘may I be safe, may I be happy, may I be strong, may I live with ease,’ who are we asking?”
The question was urgent for me because if it was a prayer, I couldn’t do it. The way that my mind went was, if you’re praying, it means you believe in God, as in the man with the white beard in the sky, and the God of my childhood was a punishing God, a vengeful God.
Sylvia just cocked her head and said, “It really doesn’t need to be metaphysical. It’s the expression of a wish.” I thought, oh, I can do that. I can spread these wishes to my loved ones, to familiar strangers, to people I have difficulty with, to all living beings. That was the beginning for me of a reframing.
Your new book, Signal Fires, is not overtly Buddhist, and yet it seems to be infused with Buddhism.
I agree with that. It’s been described as my most spiritual work, which is interesting because it’s a novel, and I’ve written nonfiction that is much more overtly spiritual.
What are some spiritual concepts you grappled with in Signal Fires?
I was thinking a great deal about time and death and energy. The structure of the novel is not chronological—it moves around in time. It was the only way I could tell a story about the feeling I have that whoever we’ve ever been and will ever be is always alive within us. I find that to be a very comforting idea, and I gave some of that thinking to several of my characters.
I was also thinking a great deal about place. If something tragic has happened in a particular spot, does that somehow still exist in that spot, decades later, centuries later? We walk on streets and paths and in places where profound things have happened. Do we absorb that? I feel like we do. I wanted to find a way to capture that in a work of literature.