The only Jewish kid I knew growing up in Colorado Springs, CO was a nerdy guy whose mother sued the neighborhood elementary school when she realized we only sang Christmas carols around holiday time (this was in the mid 80s). I felt bad for him, even though I thought it was very brave of his mother. It must have been a pretty alienating childhood.
But then I moved to Barnard and lived in New York City and I was actually the one who sometimes felt alienated from Judaism–the thing that gave the other girls on my hallway an immediate social circle when school started, the thing that made my roommate wait for me to turn on the bathroom light on Saturday mornings, the rich tradition of valuing education, telling moving stories, of doing good for others. I was, to put it plainly, a little jealous.
I felt that again while reading Danya Ruttenberg‘s beautiful memoir, Surprised by God. In it, Ruttenberg, who is still fairly young–though a rabbi, a theologian, and an accomplished writer–traces her own path from atheist Brown undergrad to Rabbinical school student. After a Jewish-ish growing up, she wholeheartedly embraces philosophy and the heady side of religion while in college, but when she loses her mother to a painful cancer, things start to unravel. Moving to the west coast during the dot com boom, she’s introduced into a world of excess, glitter, and individuality. She falls in step–making costumes for the upcoming theme party, scraping by on freelance writing, and getting, well, drunk a lot. But there is just something missing. And before long, she goes seeking for just what that is…
I won’t give away the rest, but I really recommend this book for anyone who has that same inkling (as in, there must be more than this) or has wrestled with organized religion (it doesn’t have to be Judaism). Ruttenberg does a masterful job of weaving in quotations from religion’s greatest thinkers while taking us on her contemporary pilgrimage of sorts. It’s entirely relatable, which in my experience, is unusual for a religious text. It’s young. It’s hip. And it’s still profoundly serious.
The added bonus is that Ruttenberg is a committed feminist, so her gender lens is used throughout. She writes:
…feminism was important to me because it gave me space to be who I needed to be; it, like punk, saved me from having to fear my intelligence or my strength, and it helped me to articulate why I was so repelled by what I perceived to be the pretty girl aspirations of so many of my classmates. Simply put, I wanted more than that.