Q&A: David Gregory on Finding His Faith

By | Sep 01, 2015

David Gregory’s unceremonious exit from his moderator gig on NBC’s Meet The Press last summer, amid sunken ratings and rampant rumors, was a highly public career humiliation. But privately, for Gregory, it was also a test of his faith.

His religious mentor, the Washington, DC-area Jewish educator Erica Brown, had once asked him to consider this question: “Who would you be if you lost it all?” In his new book, How’s Your Faith?  so named for a personal query from President George W. Bush while Gregory was covering the White House — Gregory explores the answer amid a broader examination of his religious identity.

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At six-foot-five and with an Irish complexion, Gregory describes feeling “undercover” among fellow Jews. When he speaks to Jewish organizations, he often begins his remarks with the words, “Yes, I am,” to audience chuckles. (Gregory is the product of a Catholic mother and a Bronx-born, culturally Jewish father, Don Gregory, formerly Ginsberg.) But he writes in his book of feeling most at home in Judaism throughout the years-long exploration of his faith. Gregory spoke with Moment about his interfaith family, Shabbat martinis, and what’s next for him.

You’ve wanted to be a journalist since high school. When you pictured writing your memoir then, did you ever imagine that it would be about your faith journey?

[Laughs] No, but I never pictured writing my memoir. I mean, even when I was young and really ambitious, I don’t think I ever thought about writing a book. I was very determined and very ambitious about getting into journalism, and television journalism in particular, but no. I certainly didn’t imagine that any kind of memoir would be a spiritual memoir.

What inspired you to start exploring your faith?

I was in a place in my life where I was really coming of age. I was becoming more steadily successful, I was covering the White House. I felt successful, I had a wonderful wife and three kids, and I think I felt more vulnerable, really, for the first time in my life. Things were great, and [there was] a little bit of “What else is there?” and “How do I find a different way, a higher way of expressing gratitude?” and “How do I not mess it up?”

What I would say now is that I feel like there was more of a spiritual longing for me to become a fuller person, and figure out what that meant. And I think that coincided with the idea of leading my family in faith. My wife, Beth, grew up as a Protestant in a Methodist church, and we had committed to becoming a Jewish family. I was really trying to think about, O.K., well, what does that mean in terms of my children and how I want to teach them and how I want to lead us as a family? What does that require of me? And I think those things came together for what I would describe now as more of a spiritual longing.

You say in your book that you’re deeply moved by other faiths, and you’ve sought counsel from spiritual leaders of Islam and Christianity. As you explored, did you ever consider converting to another religion?

No, I’ve never considered converting. I’m definitely inspired by Christian teachings, by the lessons of Jesus, by the gospels. I think there’s an intimacy about the relationship that Christians have with God that sometimes Jews lack. So I do think that Judaism is, at its very core, incredibly intimate and incredibly spiritual, and I just think they’re a nice complement. I quote Larry Hoffman, who’s a professor and a rabbi in New York, who talks about Judaism and Christianity as this double helix. There are fundamental differences, and they’re kind of moving around each other — they don’t touch, but I think there’s so much that the traditions share that I’ve been inspired by. But no, I’ve never thought about converting. I feel very rooted in Judaism, not only because the faith inspires me, but I have a very deep feeling now that it’s who I am, that it’s where I come from, and that the tradition has fallen into my lap. And that’s a very powerful feeling of ethnic identity, cultural identity and religious identity. So I feel very centered in Judaism.

You talk about the many different aspects of Judaism in the book – cultural, ethnic, spiritual, religious. Which of those do you identify with most?

What touches me most is the spiritual realm, because I think I’m most interested in pursuing a life of faith as a means to become a better person, a more complete person. I think ultimately the best way to do that is a connection with God, to be inspired by God, to think about what God expects of me. And so I think the spiritual connection is what moves me the most — so that can be through ritual observance, through Shabbat, through prayer. I think that’s probably the most powerful piece of it, to me. Certainly identity, the idea of a shared history, is powerful, but I think it’s the spiritual goals and the spiritual journey that I feel most of all.

You’ve experimented with some of the more ritualistic parts of Judaism  keeping kosher, wearing tefillin — and of all of them, you’ve chosen to embrace observing Shabbat, having Friday night dinner with your family. What is it about that ritual that appeals to you and your family?

Well, just to be clear, I’ve never actually observed kosher rules. I don’t eat pork. I do eat lobster and I don’t keep kosher, but I don’t eat pork. So there’s a symbolic kind of elevation there, just on that one area. And I think for me, Shabbat is… the idea that we really stop what we’re doing and create this zone in which to just be, and to just celebrate, and to just feel blessed and think about God’s grace, to think about our family, to literally exhale and just relax. That, to me, is such a powerful idea.

And then, experiencing it with the children, whether they light the candles or they memorize the prayers — my younger kids went off to camp for three weeks in New Hampshire, and I sent my daughter these travel Shabbat candles. And she wrote me a letter saying, “Thank you so much for the candles” — you just turn on a light, you don’t actually light the candles — and she said, “I turned on the lights and I said the prayers.” And the idea that she would now do this on her own when she was away from me was so powerful to me, because it just meant that we have this soulful connection that we share. It’s something that connects us through thousands of years to a tradition and to each other. So the ritual observance of Shabbat is relaxing and peaceful and meditative, but I think it elevates us as a family. It’s something that I feel like my wife as a Christian can share readily. She really enjoys it. It’s very familiar to her from the observance of the Sabbath as a Christian growing up. So I think stopping time, honoring each other, relaxing, coming together as a family, and doing something that is different, that looks different, that feels different —I have a martini on Shabbat that is different than having a martini at any other time — setting the table nicely, having the kids wear a collared shirt and nice shorts or pants, you know, all of that says, “Hey, this is different. This is special.” And that has been truly the most meaningful Jewish ritual that I’ve experienced.

In your book, you describe choosing one of the identities you were born with – either your mother’s Catholicism or your father’s Judaism. Why did your Jewish identity stick?

It’s an interesting question because it was not so much that I chose it as — it was what I was. You know? I mean, I think for a lot of Jews, you are simply Jewish. It is kind of how you grow up, it’s who you’re around. And in my case, my mother’s faith was really not present. She was Catholic but had left the church, and my father was not a religious man at all, but he felt ethnically Jewish. So I think what stuck was that this is who I am and what I am.

Did you ever consider changing your name back to Ginsberg?

You know, it’s funny — I have thought about it. But, you know, it’s — I guess that would feel strange. It’d be, in a way, kind of a respect for the tradition of the family. But I am who I am, and that’s Gregory, because that’s what feels most familiar.

You say in the book that you and your wife have been “liberated” by your interfaith life to create something new for your family. Which aspects of that have been liberating and which have been challenging for you?

Well, I think the challenging part is — just to be self-critical— I don’t think I realized how difficult it was for Beth to give up her traditions as a family, and the compromise and sacrifice involved with not being able to share what she grew up with with our children. And I think I knew it at some level, but I don’t think I appreciated it as much, because I wasn’t as faith-filled a person. And so I think coming to grips with why that’s really difficult is something that’s challenging. I think Judaism can feel very exclusive to the outsider, whether it’s Hebrew, or the flow of the service, or the concept of chosenness in the Bible… the whole tribal quality of Judaism, I think that’s been a challenge. And the learning piece and the sharing piece, that part has been challenging.

What I think has been really wonderful is that Beth is kind of a spiritual person, and has always been on this path, and so… she really inspired me by challenging me about what it is I believe and how I was going to lead the family. And so in that way, I feel like there’s a universal practice that we pursue that some may criticize but works for us, and we think is rooted in Jewish values and Christian values that are very similar, and that are about ritual and are about my connection to God and an expectation of, or rather, an attempt to fulfill what God expects of us.

A lot of American interfaith families raise their kids with a blend of two religions. But you and Beth decided that you would pick one. What motivated that choice?

We celebrate Christmas, and we have a Christmas tree, the kids have been to church — we as a family don’t go to church regularly; I will go with Beth more often, and encourage her to go and like to go with her. But I think we felt that it was important to be centered religiously in one place. It’s challenging enough because Beth is not Jewish, and the kids understand that, so, she has a commitment, but she’s not interested in converting. So that creates questions for the kids at times. But again, I think we felt it was important to be centered in Judaism, and not to try to pursue it all. While I totally respect and fully understand the religious importance of the birth of Christ and Christmas, I grew up with it as just a really celebratory American holiday that was very joyous, and it’s always been that way for me and continues to be that way.

Interfaith marriage remains a fraught subject for much of the American Jewish community. You attend a synagogue [Temple Micah in Washington, DC] where the rabbi has fully embraced it as essential to Judaism’s survival, even as others see it as having the opposite effect. Should other congregations follow suit?

I think that the reality in American Judaism is that interfaith marriage is not just a reality, but it’s a growing reality.

I think that we, as an interfaith couple, have a legitimate and, I hope, a thriving place in the Jewish community. That does require some things of us in terms of educating our children and observance and participation, and I think we’re trying to do that. So I understand that in the Jewish community there is a concern about the loss of Jewish character of our community. But it’s happening. So I’m not as interested in settling the debate about whether it should happen or not. Even if people struggle with it, they’re going to know people who marry outside the faith. And it’s how we adapt to it and how congregations adapt to it that I think is important. So, yes, it’s important to be open to it and to be accepting of it. And I hope more will be that way as we move forward.

I’ve read that you’re in a Torah study group with David Brooks and Jeffrey Goldberg.

Yeah, so this is a group that Jeffrey and I started, and David is in it. It meets kind of irregularly — kind of a tough group to get together. It’s made up of a few journalists and a couple of others. It’s a loosely knit group that meets irregularly, but yeah, it’s a great group of guys.

I think a lot of people would probably enjoy being a fly on the wall for that kind of gathering — or, at least, a few people who work here probably would. What’s it like when you get together? Do you stick to Torah or do some discussions or arguments about current events break out?

There’s conversations about Israel, there’s conversations about journalism, politics, and then we’re just like — all right, enough, let’s get down to what we’re studying. And we often study with Erica Brown — we’ve studied with a couple of others as well, but Erica is mostly the one. She’ll bring a piece of text. And I think what’s special about it is that when you study text, you can get into a different realm of discussion — certainly a different realm of discussion than we would ordinarily get to just amongst ourselves. It’s special time. These are a bunch of smart guys and interesting guys that just kind of become a lot more introspective. To share that time, often in the middle of a workday, I’ve always found to be pretty special. And funny — we have a lot of laughs, too. Even amid the learning. So yeah, it’s a pretty cool thing to be part of.

And Erica Brown being modern Orthodox, and you, of course, having a Catholic mother and a Protestant wife, has that ever been —

[Laughs] No, no. She kind of meets me where I am. She describes me as post-denominational. She’s like, you’re a Reform Jew based on certain choices you’ve made, but she doesn’t necessarily consider me to be Reform. Within Judaism there’s things that inspire me that I’ve gravitated to, things I’ve experimented with, but I try to kind of work into my practice and my observance what really moves me. That may be kind of a progressive approach, but that’s also how I view other faiths as well. There’s other traditions that I find inspirational, and I do like to gather up from other places. But I think it’s important, as a rabbi told me recently — you need to be centered in one place. And I’ve thought about that. And again, that’s what’s been important to me, to be centered in Judaism.

Would you identify as a Reform Jew?

Not necessarily. I mean, I got to a Reform synagogue. But I don’t know that I fit neatly into any one category. Except by virtue of the, you know, having a Christian wife. I’m definitely best suited to be in a Reform synagogue, that’s probably true. [Laughs]

There is, as you know, one issue in particular that’s dividing the American Jewish community right now, and that’s the Iran deal. Any thoughts about American Jewry or the deal itself?

On the deal itself, I’m kind of struggling with it. I’ve just been looking at all sides of it, and I’m still wrestling with it. I certainly think it’s important that anything be done that prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon or puts that off as long as possible. Because I just don’t think a military solution is the right one.

I’m interested to see the political response to it, because this is an issue that can unite the Jewish community across ideological lines. So even more Democratic Jewish voters might be opposed to this deal. And I’m kind of interested to see how that turns out.

One thing that does trouble me, as I’ve watched the debate unfold on this, is that I don’t think it’s a good thing for Israel to become a partisan issue in America. I think it really should not be that. It has not been for a long time, and I think that would be a bad state of affairs.

What’s next for you?

Well, I think a lot of things. I’m really excited about this book. There’s certainly a lot of journalism that I’m excited about doing. I’m very interested in not just television, but in mobile — I think a lot of that technology in terms of news content and interview show content is still really interesting to me, and I’m having a lot of discussions along those lines. I’ve taken this time off and used it to good advantage, and I’m thinking about the next thing that I really want to do. I’m excited about what that’ll be, and I think it’ll probably be a little bit different. And I’m really interested in turning up the volume on the matters of faith as well. I think writing about this, sharing my own story, and thinking about it has been really satisfying to me, and I’d like to continue to do that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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