Once upon a time, Heather Dean was an assimilated American Jew, utterly wrapped up in the world of American pop culture. Today, she is a Torah observant wife and mother, living in the Jerusalem area, producing and hosting a weekly podcast for Aish.com.
The story of her life-altering transition is told in her recently published memoir, Searching for Heather Dean: My Extraordinary Career as a Celebrity Interviewer and Why I Left It.
As a young girl, Dean dreamed of working in television. As an adult, her career as a celebrity interviewer exceeded even her wildest dreams. Dean estimates that she conducted more than 1,500 interviews in the entertainment industry.
At the peak of her career, she worked for MTV, E! Entertainment Television and AP Radio, regularly interviewing America’s top celebrities including movie stars, comedy legends, Broadway actors and famous models. Speaking with people like Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, Tom Hanks and Madonna was an everyday activity for Dean.
However, within her high-rolling lifestyle, packed with press junkets, movie premiers and comedy clubs lay the seed of her spiritual discontent.
In her early 30s, she started looking for a solution for the stress-related hypochondria she was experiencing. Dean was dealing with the prospect of losing her beloved mother to cancer and simultaneously her freelance production work at MTV.
The confluence of stressors brought another troublesome symptom into her life. Dean developed a case of aviophobia – fear of flying. For someone who made her living traveling to interview A-list celebrities, this phobia was a potential career killer.
Recalling something her mother had said years before about rabbis offering counseling to people, Dean decided to speak with a rabbi. The problem was, though she lived in New York City, she was so distant from anything having to do with Judaism she did not know a single rabbi.
Through a friend, she successfully located a local rabbi and made an appointment. From that initial meeting, which she scheduled to get help with her most pressing symptoms of hypochondria and fear of flying, she eventually became a Torah committed Jewish woman, living in Israel.
The story of that transition, which took place over a multi-year period, is retold in detail in the second half of Dean’s memoir. Israel certainly played a pivotal role in allowing her to see herself as part of the Jewish people.
“To actually see my history in the Land was something I couldn’t put into words, but felt very deeply. This is where my people are from. That is why any time there was an opportunity to come back to Israel, I would take it, even thought it meant reorganizing my work schedule.”
Today, Dean describes herself as an introverted and private person. Asked why she would publish her story, she said, “It occurred to me on one of my milestone birthday that this journey is incredible. Looking back now, I see the Hand of Hashem.
“Hashem gave me this amazing career, in a very competitive industry, interviewing top-level models, Broadway stars, comedians and movie stars. It was the most fun job for someone who loved pop culture. It was amazing that Hashem gave me that career, but the miracle is that I walked away from it. I never felt I was sacrificing a thing.
“For about half a year, I really was ambivalent. That career and lifestyle and a rent-stabilized apartment in New York City was very enticing. There was a draw.
“But once I realized this is really what I wanted, I totally walked away from it. My career was on an upward trajectory. Who knows what would have happened? But I was ready to walk away to something much more meaningful.”
After extending her leave of absence several times while learning Torah in Jerusalem, Dean met her husband, got engaged and decided to make aliyah. When she called her editor to tell him the news, he said, “I’m so happy that you’re getting out of this business.”
Dean used the expression pirsumei nisa (publicizing a miracle) to describe her motivation for writing Searching for Heather Dean. “It really is a nes (miracle) and that is why I feel compelled to tell the story. I have to say on record that Hashem did this miracle for me.”
Dean hopes her book will be read by, “anyone, in any walk of life, who is so immersed in popular culture. They should know the truth about the industry they are obsessed with,” she expressed.
More than that, she has another, more personal audience in mind. “I would love for unaffiliated Jews to read this book, because I want them all to know that I totally get their perspective. I totally get it because I had a unique perspective, being among these people having that much access to so many top tier celebrities and I don’t judge it.
“I wish them all well, but I want to let them know, anyone who might be obsessed with celebrity culture or have a celebrity crush or be glued to entertainment productions, it’s a hard life and not enviable at all.
“I totally understand the allure of, and the draw to, different forms of entertainment. I want to incite every Jewish reader to also look at the price paid by people who are dead set on being famous. They compromise so much of themselves.”
In the end, she concluded that, “It’s a colossal waste of time and energy. I know what kind of a cesspool the entertainment industry is.” Thanks to her Torah learning, she also discovered that “there is something so much more meaningful out there. I decided to go for a life upgrade, to become a religious Jew.”
Searching for Heather Dean is, “my very spiritual, truth-seeking journey. It started with someone who is so not interested [in Judaism]. Each step of the way, it was my own decision and well thought out.”
Her advice for anyone looking into the possibility of a religious life? “Do a search of your holy books,” she recommends, “and make your own decisions.”
After living as a Torah Jew in Israel since 2000, Dean describes herself as “first and foremost, a wife and a mother. Those are my top projects.” Her children, now elementary and high school aged were born and raised in Jerusalem. The family speaks English at home.
She is in her third year of producing and hosting At Home In Jerusalem, a weekly podcast for Aish.com. It is, “ten minutes of Jewish inspiration about the Jewish home, to help make home life better. One week the topic might be specific about parenting or dating or marriage or the upcoming holiday.
“That makes a full circle, coming back into media production. Instead of interviewing great big stars, I interview stars of the Jewish world,” she explained.
Dean thinks her book would make a great movie. “It would be a great project for the right actress in a great role. That would be really fun.”
But her biggest unrealized dream, like her life, is a spiritual one. “I would like to welcome Moshiach. That’s really my goal. I’m really waiting for him and sad every day that passes that’s not the day,” she concluded.