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About the Author

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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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“Surprised by God:” On Falling in Love with Religious Law

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Danya Ruttenberg’s memoir, Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion, about how she grew from an athiest-Jewish high schooler to an observant-Jewish 30-something rabbi is really fantastic: well-written, engaging, skating that line between the personal and the universal with surprising grace. While reading it, I had to restrain myself from going to Amazon and ordering copies of the book for several friends on the spot.

Here’s the short version of the story: Upper middle-class Jewish girl from a non-religious home of divorced parents becomes an atheist in high school while finding ecstatic experiences in the punk rock scene. In college, her mother dies of cancer: This makes Danya isolated from her peers, and she finds spiritual consolation in long walks beneath the moon, where she experiences feelings of transcendent connection to the world around her — at the time, she doesn’t connect these experiences to the idea of “God” or religion, even though she majors in religion. After college, she moves to dotcom-era San Francisco, where she lives a hipster life with lots of friends and parties: She loves it and feels free. But she’s still searching for something. She stumbles on the idea that her lone experiences of connection and ecstasy might be related to organized religion. She starts attending synagogue on Friday nights, but doesn’t talk to anyone there. She feels deeply connected to the Jewish rituals she gradually begins to participate in. She goes to Israel for the full experience and is freaked out by a Hasidic wife in Tzfat who has nine kids, not to mention the prayer barriers separating men and women — not her style. She returns to San Fran, returns to her synagogue, which now has a meditation program, and gets seriously religious, gradually starting to observe Shabbat and kosher laws, etc. The constant tension is: How to integrate her earlier life, her love of fun?  She discovers new Jewish communities, young people like her. She eventually goes to rabbinic school. She writes this book.

As mentioned, she’s a great writer, and she weaves in quotes and insights from the world’s great spiritual teachers (Buber, Merton, Rumi, etc) in an effective way. But I was also very frustrated by the book. For one thing, I wanted her to mature more. Toward the end, she talks about the importance of community over individualized practice, and about the value of day-to-day observance versus moments of religious ecstasy- both important points. But I still had the sense that while she is several degrees removed from the flush of conversion (she was born Jewish, but in a practical sense “converted” to a set of practices and outlooks very far from what she was brought up with), she is still lingering in that stage.

For one thing, she remains enamored of ritual law. She mentions how rabbis debated over the most minute aspect of Jewish laws — to her this is an example of religious people seeing God’s divinity shining through the mundane details of life. Personally, I think that’s an overly kind way of seeing it. Debating over minute details has some serious downfalls, especially went put into practice, yet she seems to see no potential dark side here.

Ruttenberg experiences the rules and rituals as her own choice, which is fine — that’s her experience — but she does not much consideration to the fact that this very modern experience of “choosing to practice” is not something most Jewish folks, or religious folks, have shared. In other words, if she grew up traditionalist Jewish community, would she still feel the same way about being all Jewish all the time? She gives only a passing nod to the idea that religion can be a negative force in the world — I would very much like to discuss with her, for example, Shalom Auslander’s memoir about the horrors of growing up in his own dysfunctional, frum family. Finally, part of the promised juicyness of the book is hearing how Danya reconciles her feminism — and breezily described bisexualism/lesbianism — with her embrace of traditional Jewish law. Last time I checked, there were some serious issues there! She mentions how she wears a kippa and tzitzit and tefillin — items usually used by men only — but doesn’t deal with other issues, like divorce rights, or rules about menstruation. Did she ever have a moment when the wrong-headedness of those rules forced her to question the essential truths in her faith? If one rule is bad, in what sense are other still valid? I’d like to hear her wrestle with those questions.

Most of all, I would like to hear from Danya when she has children. Because then all the issues she’s dealt with — how to manage individual desires in the face of a system that tells you exactly what to do all the time — will be ratcheted up to a much more extreme level. She writes about going out one morning with friends after a night of partying, and how she craved eggs, even though she knew the restaurant wasn’t kosher. Okay, it’s one thing to deny yourself: What about when your child is begging you to eat eggs at the restaurant? It’s one thing to adopt the custom of daily prayer or shabbat observance for yourself — quite another thing to decide if you will impose it on your children.

Of course I’m being unfair here. Lots of observant folks have kids — look at the lady in Tzfat, after all! And just because my own religious life has suffered since having children doesn’t mean that Danya won’t navigate those waters with more grace and stamina than myself.

Ruttenberg has indeed come a long way in her religious journey, and she writes about in a very engaging way. I’ll just look forward to speaking with her when she’s a few more years down the road. Until then, I give this book a high recommendation for readibility.

There Is 1 Response So Far. »

  1. The look in one’s children’s eyes…worth more than all the religious rituals and practices in the world? [Pause here for thought.]

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