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Eat, Pray, Love Your Brother

The Julia Roberts blockbuster—and the Elizabeth Gilbert memoir it’s based on—get the prayer part all wrong

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Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love. (Sony Pictures)

I would rather sit on a stoop in the rain than see Eat Pray Love. In fact, I did just that. Last weekend, my kids were attending a drop-off birthday party at a movie theater, which not only spared me from having to sit through Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore but allowed me to attend a movie all by myself. Four out of five moms agree: Getting to sit in the dark theater, with no one tugging on you, eating trans-fat-laden popcorn, is one of the greatest joys in life. But the only movie playing at the same time was Eat Pray Love. So, I went to sit on a stoop in the rain to wait for the end of Kitty Galore.

You see, I read the book. And it infuriated me. I loved the beginning passionately, then felt increasingly angry and hoodwinked as it went on. The Elizabeth Gilbert who went to Italy to rediscover food and sensory pleasures after the breakup of her marriage was hilarious and witty. I loved her description of the “gorgeous flower-chain of curses” tossed onto a soccer field by an old Italian man watching the game. I loved that she was an unabashed word nerd like me, telling us that the word for fan in Italian is “tifoso,” derived from the word for typhus—“in other words, one who is mightily fevered.” I loved that she lusted for her young Roman conversation partners but knew that acting on that lust was a mistake.

Oh, I knew Gilbert had done some stupid things in the past. But she owned them. I respected the way she was cryptic about what killed her marriage—she was protecting her husband. I liked the way she was rueful about her self-destructive passion for a younger actor/writer/poet/yogi. When Gilbert took off for Italy, leaving both ex-husband and lover behind, I rooted for her. I rejoiced as she began to eat again. I wanted to suck down plates of pasta with her and giggle over glasses of Barolo. She was my buddy.

But then she left Italy. She went to India to learn how to pray. And I started to turn on her. At first, I made excuses for her inability to write about faith and grace with the same charm she conjured up when she wrote about food. After all, Anne Lamott had the same trouble in Traveling Mercies; it’s hard to make something as internal as spirituality feel immediate. The writing-class rule is “show, don’t tell,” but how do you externalize belief? The book began to feel labored. When Liz wrote about her difficulty meditating and being silent, her self-deprecation started to come off as cutesy. The chattiness I’d loved in Italy was starting to feel glib.

And then one scene pulled the yoga mat out from under me completely.

It’s the scene in which—spoiler alert—Gilbert has a revelatory, out-of-body meeting with her husband’s spirit on an ashram rooftop. She and her husband’s spirit forgive each other, and it is beautiful. The divide between them is gone. Suddenly, his anger and hurt evaporate, because she and he have transcended their earthly selves and their souls have communed.

I was infuriated by Gilbert’s creation of a situation in which she’s been absolved, in which her husband’s soul has done something the man himself could not. It felt like the laziest sort of self-justifying hippie nonsense. I think you have to live with people not liking you. And it’s hard for people like Gilbert (and me), people who really want to be liked, but that is the real work, accepting that not everyone will like you. It’s harder than creating a transcendent moment in which the other person really does forgive you, even if he doesn’t know it consciously.

Of course, I can’t know that Gilbert’s ex’s spirit didn’t meet hers on the astral plane. But I think it’s much more challenging and meaningful to accept that you may never receive absolution. It is braver—and I think more Jewish—to do everything in your power to make right the wrong you’ve done and still acknowledge that forgiveness may not be granted. It’s miserable to live with loose ends. It’s prettier to conjure up resolutions. But it isn’t authentic.

I finished the book because I am a masochist, but I was seething. So much self-examination to so little end! Maybe I just can’t escape my earthly Jewish guilt and perpetual ambivalence about everything. I realize that Elizabeth Gilbert isn’t Jewish, and she’s more than entitled to her own freeform spirituality. But it made me start thinking about how Judaism is more about community than self-acceptance. Ours is not a full-on feel-good religion, like Gilbert’s version of Christi-Bu-ism. But neither is it self-aggrandizing pablum. I do believe the world would be a better place if we spent more time turned outward than inward.

I think back to when I lived in San Francisco and heard so many High Holiday sermons about self-forgiveness—so much talk about forgiving ourselves, so little emphasis on apologizing to others. I think the reason I’m more comfortable with the word “religion” than the word “spirituality” is that religion involves doing rather than just thinking and feeling. Meditation and silence aren’t enough. Healing the world—the actual, physical world—is a more lasting goal.

I don’t want to be too hard on Gilbert. I actually think she did heal the world—her book made people happy. (Not me. Other people.) That’s nothing to sneeze at. Helping readers forget their troubles for a while, letting them in on a life of world travel and adventure, is a mitzvah. I understand that the real Elizabeth Gilbert is a lovely and charitable person. I am glad that she—another spoiler alert—found love again, and I don’t begrudge her a kid-free footloose life, a gazillion dollars, or the privilege of being played by a toothy movie star with lots of hair. But I still think the Jewish takeaway is that Eat Pray Love’s spiritual vision may be a nice place to visit, but we shouldn’t want to live there.

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My book group read the book, and at our meeting not a one of us was enthralled. But you nailed her, not maliciously, but accurately. Thanks, always love your columns.

nancy schwartz sternoff says:

oy margorie, you graciously and diplomatically did not use the words “narcissitic” and “self-absorbed” and all their synonyms. one of the worst tell-alls/love me love me love me books i have read in years.

skeptic says:

ok, I read the book, too, but haven’t seen the movie. She goes to italy to focus on food, but doesn’t learn Italian or Italian cooking, and hypes the glory of meeting a few ordinary tourists and locals who can (!) ride a motorcycle – it is good writing, but not adventure. Her story is supplemented by a few weeks scrubbing temple tiles and then, when the romance of that fades, falling in love with someone who is burdened by a life divided by several continents as well as the offspring of previous marriages – what a joke that she presents this as a great way to end up. Take the money and run.

This reminds me of the value of asking people to forgive you around the time of the high holy days, a tradition in some Jewish communities. Asking is a request that takes an outward effort and it may not get you “liked.”

Marjorie Ingall is an good writer. She captured me with her own sense of awareness. I did not read the book or see the movie but I enjoyed Marjorie.

Thank you.

Patricia Friedberg says:

I do not understand why I am actually finishing this book. Is it because I don’t think it can get any worse? It does. Is it because she writes in such a way that anyone with a eight grade education can read it, or, is it because I hope the final chapters make up for the previous ones? Well so far they haven’t.

I do not know what sex has to do with prayer. I do not know what witchdoctoring has to do with self realisation. And as for promising to be celibate for a year, it was an idle promise which she broke when she was supposed to be meditating with her Bali medicine man.

Does it give food for thought? Yes. How come the book got published?

Miriam Freund says:

Missed reading the book but, the review and comments by those who have, made me feel glad I hadnt. Yet, it was on all best seller lists for a long time.

Mirinyc

Steph F. says:

Hey, Marjorie,

You did the mitzvah of making us think, and that’s more valuable than making us feel better (in my view, anyway). I really appreciated your point about being turned outward rather than inward — I think American individualism has gotten so implicated in selfish consumerism that we may never get them untangled, and that means we have a real mess on our hands — as well as the point about religion being about doing. So many folks these days say the term “religion” makes them uncomfortable whereas “spirituality” does not, and that’s a shame for just the reason you state. Like Heschel said, religion should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

I, too, read the book for a book group. Loved Italy, liked Bali, hated India (not the country, just the section of the book). Thanks for helping me to understand why it didn’t resonate with me the way it did for others.

Lori Tessel says:

I chose not to read the book after I saw Elizbeth Gilbert on Oprah. Her whiny and self-absorbed attitude annoyed me so much that I wrote an email to Oprah telling her that was the biggest waste of an hour. By the way, let’s not forget that this trip of hers was paid for with an advance for the book! It was not pure soul searching and rebirth, it was also “let’s write a book.”

Still congrats to her for making it happen and helping those who were looking for help.

Rachel Forman says:

I didn’t read the book. The movie was offensively implausible, unlike Pretty Woman, which was implausible but fun. She goes abroad and a week later has wonderfully supportive, gorgeous, wise friends everywhere she goes? Where was the money coming from? Like I said, great cinematography of lush verdant scenery. If you want a more than two hour escape from just about anything, by all means see it!

Michele Clark says:

The book lost me right at the beginning because it was clear that she wasn’t going to share anything about the really hard stuff which is, to me, what in her made her want to be with her husband, what in her made the rake of an actor so appealing. THe movie was similarly superficial, but then I expect less from a movie so I found it enjoyable as long as you don’t assume that it has anything to do with most individuals’ real growth and development, real individuals’ experience of prayer or the road to forgiveness. The man Elizabeth ends up with has so many life attachments that I’m sure the complexities of his outer world and their mutual outer worlds on different continents will keep them so busy that she won’t have any time for further self-reflection which she actually doesn’t do very well.

Roberta St. Denis says:

Thank u thank u thank u.. I love your book review.. Your use of words and in depth veiwpoint are wonderful.. I have not read the book, nor seen the movie. Might watch the movie one day when it is out in the video store or on cable, lol Just readiny your review was fun enough for me, thanks again..

MaryAnn Stuart says:

I did not read the book or see the movie and never intended to, but I appreciate the review with your inciteful commentary. I, an American Gentile (goya ?), seldom feel comfortable with the popular American flow. Thank you for articulating a more helpful and practical point of view in a generous and entertaining manner. That’s what I love about many Jewish writers–not only the writing itself, but the wholesome character of the Jewish spirit that inspires it.

Wendy says:

Hinduism, like Judaism is about helping others and community. I just wanted to point that out. I read the book but I have not seen the movie yet.

Kudos for your incisive analysis of the book. Aside from some funny lines, I found the book annoying and self-absorbed — but without the piercing revelations that should emerge from that!

When are you writing a book, Marjory?
Thanks for sharing your insights.
I mostly see foreign movies. Saw this one and enjoyed sceneries in
all segments.
I did not regret it , as I thought that it’s ok to see a film that is not GREATLY intelectual,enjoy the photography of beautiful places in the world that makes you wish you will be there again and again (except INDIA-the part that they showed in the movie),on a hot muggy summer NYC’s day.

Michelle says:

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this review! It is spot on and I really appreciate this because at the end of the day, I can’t seem to shake the “it’s all about me and my needs” theme that really drives the story. I want to cheer Liz on (and did love the Italy part of the book), but really she checked out of her life and left a lot of wreckage in her wake. As a former Catholic, I have been steeped in guilt my whole life, but it does motivate one to look outside of self. Self-sacrifice, no matter the form, is just that: sacrificing self for the benefit of someone else.
“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:3 (NIV)
Blessings!
Michelle M.

As a Jewish seeker, her book resonated with me deeply, but I will not see the movie because I have heard it does not do justice to the book (her writing blew me away). Anyway, I could relate to the scene where the spirit of her ex-husband meets her on the astral plane; some time ago I had a series of dreams in which an ex (boyfriend, not husband) showed up to offer closure, forgiveness which was not granted in the physical plane even after I asked for it, and forgiveness which I was not yet able to offer myself for behaving in a way I later regretted. We all make mistakes, or act unskillfully, but eventually we need to move on so our past actions don’t permanently ruin the rest of our lives. That is teshuvah! And that is Jewish. God wants us to rejoice in our lives, not live in a state of misery. At some point we need to release ourselves from the errors of the past.

terry g werntz says:

DITTO!!!

Dang – this is so good!

Suri Friedman says:

I avoided the book like the plague, but went to see the movie and actually enjoyed it! I think it’s a great Selichot activity. Here’s why–It made palpable pain that others experience that I have been fortunate to miss and help me see the struggle that is part of another life. It also articulated a very painful truth–many things and people once beloved are no more, for a host of reasons. Rather than resent their loss, embrace their memory, love them and let them go. Thanks, I needed that!

kate kinser says:

Thank you for a Jewish response to this “next big thing.” I have heard intelligent interviewers on Public Radio, et al. who are so split off from any spiritual tradition and so ignorant of spirituality’s ethical imperatives that they go “ga-ga” over Elizabeth Gilbert because she dared to tread wehre they would never go. Thank you for putting a finger on what troubled me about “Eat, Pray, Love” and why Gilbert’s answers are so limited. Bravo.

Renee Hartman says:

Thank you. You have “saved” me from wasting time on a book I did not want to read and suspected I would not like. However, I picked up a 23 cents copy at a yard sale and thought, well, perhaps, since everyone talks about it. I think that copy will be placed in an upcoming sale.

Ananda says:

I feel sad about the slams this review brought on and of course glad all the same for free speech and varied opinions. Overall I think this review and most comments are strangely unkind and disconnected. There are so many paths to God. Cant we honor this particular journey as it’s particular journey? Or is it written somewhere that if you write a book and have a movie made of it, you must have it all figured out?

Riva Blechman says:

Watching Eliz. Gilbert on Oprah, I began to feel uncomfortable. Combine that with a tinge of nausea and I realized I had no desire to read her book and now, to see the film. My reaction was so strong that I couldn’t ignore it. I analyzed it thus: she is so self-enamored, narcissistic, ego-driven that she couldn’t have gained much (or any) insight from her adventures. Whether food driven or spiritual searching, Elizabeth is all about feeding Elizabeth. Interesting that so many of Oprah’s shows are about feeding! So, I haven’t read the book (I wouldn’t dare recommend it to my book clubs) and I won’t see the movie. I guess I’ll live. I’d like to acknowledge what other responses have already stated: The Jewish view of the world is outward, to extend a hand, to help with love and caring. And have a sense of our place in the world.

Matthew Zurim says:

“Ananda says:
I feel sad about the slams this review brought on and of course glad all the same for free speech and varied opinions. Overall I think this review and most comments are strangely unkind and disconnected. There are so many paths to God. Cant we honor this particular journey as it’s particular journey? Or is it written somewhere that if you write a book and have a movie made of it, you must have it all figured out?”

No, Ananda, some of us can’t “honor this particular Journey” on account that Gilbert’s “spiritual” journey is so idolatrous and vapid, it ought to offend sincere and thoughtful adherents of any major world religion worldwide. .

lili garfinkel says:

I began to read the book and couldn’t go that far.. it was too revolting..and too all about me… masochism is finishing that book
PS.. I did see Cats and Dogs in 3D with my granddaughter and totally enjoyed it… dare I say more than the first 30 pages of Eat Pray Love

Thank you for this review, Marjorie. It is well-written and not unkind and it makes some very important points, especially as seen from a Jewish perspective. However, what disturbs me is that so many of the comments to your review were written by people who have not read the book! I find this very un-Jewish. As a writer myself, I know just how much any review, good or bad, can affect me personally and professionally — and I find it rather meaningless and difficult to react to opinions of others who never read my work. Having said that, I did read Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” and have some of the same issues with it; it is a rather self-absorbed account of a woman who is recovering from depression and divorce. And it does end in fairytale fashion in Bali, where Liz falls in love with her Mr. Right. But here’s the rub: whether you agree with Liz’s view of spirituality or not, and her way of coping with a bad marriage, her writing is good. More importantly, it is witty and entertaining — not a bad prescription for a best-selling book! I am willing to suspend judgment on how others find their spiritual path as long as they do good in the world. And it seems to me that Liz Gilbert does just that when she fund-raises for her Balinese, single-mother friend and donates the money so that her friend can buy a home. That’s Tikkun Olam. How come none of the Jewish commentators noticed that? Why are we so eager to throw stones at others so quickly? Is that the Jewish way, especially at this time of the year?

kathy says:

…But isn’t each and every opinion given “self-enamored, narcissistic and ego-driven”? Isn’t this the “Journey” we are all going through? What I really liked about the book (haven’t seen the movie yet) is that she is expoiting her own journey. She doesn’t seem to be taking anyone else on her self-enamored, narcissistic and ego-driven journey. I LOVED the book. And yes, we all have the choice to go on the journey w/ her or just close the book and realize that we don’t have the need at this time in our life, but can rejoice that she’s going on it and learning and being successful in life, love, career etc.

Scott Sr says:

Wow! and accurate too. Read it, saw it [admittedly through the lens of an Orthodox Christian], but your capture of the essence was remarkable. From the exquisite early work to JPD “just plain dumb” by the end is remarkable. Is there an Award for blowing good writing, or screen play writing – give a 10, and a high 5. As Charlie Brown would have said … augghhhhhhhhh!

Haya, I’d LOVE to talk more about the Bali section. Thanks for bringing it up. I would, however, urge people NOT to read this if they don’t want spoilers. GO AWAY GO AWAY GO AWAY STOP READING NOW STOP GO GO GO GO!

Are they gone?

OK — I thought it was interesting that Liz kind of knew (or strongly suspected) the woman was scamming her, yet kept donating money to her anyway. (I forget if the woman actually WAS scamming her.) She also asked her friends to help the woman out, even as she was unsure about what the woman was doing with the money. I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had: Did she do the right thing?

And Haya, I agree that Gilbert is a charming, witty stylist. But I feel she’s sometimes a little glib, using her charm and wit to deflect difficult, dark and real emotion. (This is SO TMI, but when I was looking for a therapist a few years ago, one of my major criteria was finding someone I couldn’t charm. I worried that if I had too chatty a relationship with a therapist, I’d be able to deflect and worm my way out of doing the hard work of therapy. Granted, writing a book isn’t therapy; it’s art. But I would have found the book more authentic if it had been a little less charming. You know what I mean?)

I’m still uncomfortable completely trashing a book that brings a lot of people joy and lets them fantasize about travel, escape, happiness and true love.

Petra says:

Great review.

I think that the book did so well (and why people find themselves inexplicably finishing the darn thing) for 2 reasons:

1. It’s fluff. Brain Candy. I don’t buy the spiritual stuff either. If it’s true for her as an individual, good for ol’ Lizzy!

2. The “Reality” factor. Since none of us can jet off to these fabulous countries, we live through the author. No worries! She takes care of everything and keeps us all well informed and “in the know” in an insecure-clingy sort of way. It’s non-fiction without any risk.

I did finish this book by the way…

Haya Pomrenze says:

Bravo to Margorie for nailing what I was unable to fully articulate after seeing, I mean suffering through the movie. The best part was the spaghetti eating scene in Italy. It was perhaps the most realistic scene in the movie. The al dente spaghetti was more done than the chracters who were poorly developed leaving me rather apathetic about their plight. But I am still dreaming about the pasta.

malka leah says:

This article, and all the comments, finally reconfirmed that I’m not the only one in the world who has had a harsh reaction to Elizabeth Gilbert and her book. It’s very common for women to have dependency issues with men. Ms Gilbert tells us in her book that she has a history, of always needing to be with a man. I was initially impressed with her willingness to write about this, and to take a year off from being involved in another relationship. She expressed a desire to have a year of celibacy and to remain single long enough to find her own true relationship with herself. These were healthy thoughts. Then on the third part of her trip, she meets another man, falls for him , has sex with him and marries him. Duh ! Could I be the only one in the world who sees this love and sex addiction relapse, masquerading as, “Now I have found true love.” ??? What really bothers me is the millions of women who are worshipping her as a role model, and forming groups around this book? What’s wrong with this picture ???

So interesting to see a Jewish perspective on such an un-Jewish book! Whether you liked Gilbert’s writing (or for that matter, Roberts’ acting), the spirituality of India is clearly worlds away from Jewish spirituality.

I was prepared to hate Eat, Pray, Love…sounded like the paper version of a chick-flick. Didn’t love it but didn’t totally hate it. Did love that her buddy called her “Groceries.” Casting for the movie is baaaad. Annie LaMott did manage to make her spiritual journey interesting in Traveling Mercies…read the entire thing without getting out of my chair.

Just finished the book this morning and couldn’t agree with you more. Please, less self-absorption and more g’milut chasadim.

I read the book and parts of it made me laugh out loud particularly Gilbert’s depiction of the predawn ashram prayer service (the geet)What kills me is that we are the original eat, love pray people and the Shabbos is the day of eat pray love (not necessarily in that order)

phyllis nimkoff says:

Everyone above has expressed all my thoughts. Your comments on religion almost matches mine; thank you for that as well!

ayallah says:

i am not even sure how to address this….i have yet to see the movie and read the book close to its release, weeks before i left my husband. i think what is bothering me the most in your comments is throwoing your own religion into this. i too am jewish and know from many texts and much study one can not forgive until one has forgiven themselves. it is indeed an inward journey in judaism that leads to a strength of faith and belief which moves one toward action, one must align with one’self, one’s body, one’s heart and in the book it is through a deep inner journey of self nourishment, self reflection which leads one to be capable of outerwardly loving others
you are way to hard on her and i think not totally understanding of your own religion…..

ayallah says:

one more thing, judaism is more in tune with vedic culture than any other religion
perhaps you need to research a bit more!!

J Carpenter says:

Perhaps the author isn’t “finished” with living? Eat, Pray, Love . . . there’s more to do: Love,Feed, Serve, Share, Work, Sacrifice, Give, Reconcile, Forgive, etc.

I’m glad she at least she has the parts of speech right in her title—

God is a Verb, right?

Excellent column, Marjorie. While I did like the book a lot I know many people do not; yours is the first analysis I’ve come across that really explains in a thoughtful and specific way what made you not like it.

“Skeptic” above in comments said Gilbert went to Italy to focus on food and did not learn Italian. Actually she went to Italy to study the language and was fluent by the time she left. As for the friend in Bali the only sense in which Gilbert felt scammed was the reasons Wayan gave for not having bought land already, and possibly the attempt to get more money out of her. At the end Gilbert took a stand, and the land was bought.

I liked the movie too, but not as much as the book. Lots of gorgeous scenery in it.

it seems a good movie!!
just one question: can someone tell me what’s her relation with the young boy?? did she really loved him?? did they get back together at the end? all the details…
i really need your help in this.
thank you

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Eat, Pray, Love Your Brother

The Julia Roberts blockbuster—and the Elizabeth Gilbert memoir it’s based on—get the prayer part all wrong

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