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Devotion: A Memoir

Review

Devotion: A Memoir

At first blush, Orthodox Judaism, Hindu yoga and Buddhist
meditation have little in common. But all three use ritual as a way
to order time and space and to explore one’s connection to
the sacred. In her new memoir, DEVOTION, Dani Shapiro reflects on
the role of ritual and religion in her life as she comes to terms
with parenthood, middle age, the loss of her own parents and
life’s anxieties, as well as its potential for peace.

Raised as an Orthodox Jew (whose relatives fell mostly to the
“black hat” end of the spectrum), Shapiro felt that
little tied her to the Judaism of her youth. She was drawn instead
to yoga and meditation, and the myths and rituals of Alcoholics
Anonymous. But in her early 40s, watching her son grow up and still
mourning the loss of her parents years earlier, she began to drift
back toward the familiar rites of Judaism.

For Shapiro, these rituals and chants, prayers and observances
are not about religion per se; she is not overly interested in
membership or even the notion of God. What she is seeking is a
solace and comfort in the midst of uncertainties of day-to-day
life, and she hopes to find some in acts of devotion. She refuses
to simply accept the rituals and instead examines them for meaning
and for how they may fit in her own life. She surrounds herself
with teachers who explain that though the answers may not be out
there, asking the questions is an important spiritual practice as
well.

Shapiro’s memoir is especially poignant and insightful as
she navigates the tricky waters between religion and spirituality.
She identifies as a Jew, but her relationship to Judaism generally
and to her own family in particular is fraught with doubt,
frustration and disbelief. She practices rituals of both Hinduism
and Buddhism but is not actually a practitioner of either of those
faiths. She joins Jewish congregations and speaks with rabbis but
has difficulty reconciling the observances before her and the ones
of her youth. Tangled up in her childhood religious memories are
the figures of her devout but possibly depressed father and her
angry and narcissistic mother. As she struggles with faith and
religious practice, she also struggles with her parents and their
beliefs.

DEVOTION is a slow and quiet memoir; its short chapters read
like little essays or even meditations laced together, sometimes
quite loosely. There is not a lot of resolution but plenty of
candor, emotion and beauty. Shapiro’s anxiety is palatable as
she writes about the things that worry and scare her and about the
uncertainties that plague her. Her attempts to find peace and
practice devotion are heartfelt and earnest, and though the book is
far from fast-paced, it is compelling and sometimes even
dramatic.

DEVOTION already is being compared to Elizabeth Gilbert’s
EAT, PRAY, LOVE, but Shapiro’s record of her spiritual
journey is much more subtle and, in many ways, much more universal.
The writing here is as delicate and striking as the subject matter.
Though many things happen to Shapiro, not much occurs in the book.
In other words, unlike many memoirs that are full of action and
conflict, DEVOTION is full of contemplation and thoughtfulness, all
of it written with a skilled writer’s balance of tension and
ease.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on December 29, 2010

Devotion: A Memoir
by Dani Shapiro

  • Publication Date: February 1, 2010
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0061628344
  • ISBN-13: 9780061628344