If there was one specific experience through which I came of age as a Jewish woman, it was my mother’s death my junior year of college. It happened much later than, perhaps, most of the other rites of passage described on these pages, but adulthood certainly hadn’t happened by means of my bat mitzvah—a fundamentally empty event involving a new dress, new bank account, and the same insecurities I’d had since before needing a bra. Over the seven years following that, I, like most kids who were raised with privilege, teetered on the strange border between childhood and adulthood—taking steps towards independence but not quite ready to stand on my own.
When I was 20 my mother was diagnosed with metastatic cancer, and for perhaps the first time I let needs other than my own dictate my priorities. I left behind a fun, romantic summer and came home to organize my mother’s life around radiation. Autumn was divided between university and my native Chicago, and by the time I came back after final exams, it was already time to set up hospice. I served as my mother’s primary caretaker. When she died I found myself turning to Jewish ritual, because I couldn’t think of anything else to do.
By the time I emerged, first from shiva, then from a year’s Kaddish, I was ineradicably changed—sadder, wiser And, wide open in grief the rituals and the liturgy managed somehow to penetrate, sending me back to shul again and again even after I had long discharged my mourner’s duties. If the experience of my mother’s dying and death brought me crashing into adulthood, and the months that followed brought me to Judaism, to a spiritual practice, to choosing to engage in a relationship with God. It was a rite of passage in every sense of the phrase.
Danya Ruttenberg is the editor of Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism (Seal Press) and studying for the rabbinate at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles