In the pew of a suburban synagogue, a bored 13-year-old dressed for Rosh Hashanah in uncomfortable pantyhose and chafing heels observes a well-dressed crowd mumbling, standing and sitting at the commands of the rabbi at the front of the room. At the end of the service, this teenager declares she’s had enough: “I decided that Marx must have been right about opiates and, on that very same Day of Judgment, I declared myself an atheist.”
The teenager was Danya Ruttenberg some 20 years ago, and this episode now opens her memoir Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion (Beacon, $24.95). From this pew, she traces her path to the religion department of Brown University, to San Francisco in the heady days of the first Internet boom, to Jerusalem, back to San Francisco and ultimately to rabbinical school. (She was ordained by the University of Judaism in May.)
Ruttenberg no doubt began her book with a moment of teenage rebellion in order to make her gradual commitment to a life of Jewish practice seem all the more striking. But the true beauty of her story is found not in this large transformation (teenage atheists are a dime a dozen) but in the moments of small transformations. This is where Ruttenberg’s prose is at its powerful best.
More than a decade later, back in the pews, and learning to pray on Shabbat evenings in San Francisco’s Beth Sholom synagogue, Ruttenberg writes that “when praising God ‘who gives life to the dead,’ sometimes I’d feel flush with the cycles of nature, of winter and spring, death and rebirth, and atoms humming even as they decomposed into fertile soil. Sometimes I felt happy, as if for the first time after all that grief. Sometimes I felt my mother, somehow, vibrating inside me. Sometimes, as I prayed for the revival of the dead, I just felt God nurturing and enlivening me, and wondered vaguely how I could have ever lived without this.”
The story Ruttenberg tells of her journey into spirituality and Judaism is enriched by moments like this, but also by the continual presence of friends. Ruttenberg’s mother died of cancer while she was a college student — a process that she describes with pathos and sensitivity in the early chapters of the book — but other than in this story and a few other scattered moments, her family is largely absent from her narrative.
Instead of family, Ruttenberg has a small core group of friends that remains with her as she grows more observant of Jewish law. Not necessarily Jewish, not necessarily religious in traditional ways, these friends go to great lengths to provide her with kosher food, but more importantly with safe space in which to change and grow. She finds other friends falling away, as she lets go of clubbing and costuming to take up Shabbat and study.
Ruttenberg sprinkles her text with brief quotes from mystics and other religious teachers; sometimes these additions enrich her writing and other times they distract from it. Throughout, though, it is her voice that emerges most strongly as we accompany her on her religious journey, “the strange and brambly path we didn’t know that we’d been trying to find all along.”
Claire Sufrin recently received her Ph.D in Religious Studies from Stanford. This fall, she will be a Schusterman Teaching Fellow in Jewish Studies at Northeastern University.