This is very exciting, and rather apropos of the immanent New Year:

Link to story online here.

Surprised by God
By Danya Ruttenberg

In his Laws of Repentance, Maimonides delineates the path of the repentant.

“The way of repentance is to shout before God tearfully and beseechingly and to do good deeds and to distance oneself from the sins of the past. And to change one’s name as if to say, ‘I am someone else and I am no longer the same person that did those things.'”

Embracing Judaism and adopting a religious life is a radically transformative experience. So much so that the individual who embarks on the path to God is expected to metamorphose, to undergo a name change that reflects a more profound revamping of identity. The seeker of God makes a deep break with the sinful past and wholeheartedly embraces faith and a life of service to God.

But what about the old self? Is it to be erased totally and irretrievably? Are old haunts, habits, passions and friends to be abandoned? Surely some aspects of one’s very being can be preserved.

Is there any room for personal expression? Where did the old “me” go? Are all those years of experiences, aspirations and struggle to be negated?

In Surprised by God, Danya Ruttenberg, a young, recently ordained Conservative rabbi, articulately describes her struggle to maintain aspects of her old self – an intellectual, hip, self-proclaimed atheist – while she embarks on a long spiritual journey that eventually leads to a life of faith and the rabbinate.

Ruttenberg’s life in America is not unlike that of many bright, young, financially secure unaffiliated Jews. She goes through various phases as she matures from a “combat-booted, hard-core music fan-girl” who as a teenager in the ’80s delved deep into the Chicago punk scene, to a college postgrad (Brown) in the late ’90s who experimented with gender roles and outrageous costume partying, and freelanced for feminist zines while wallowing in the excesses of the heyday in Northern California’s Bay Area.

Along the way, Ruttenberg – who loses her mother to cancer and begins saying Kaddish for her – is gradually led by an “inner voice” to move closer to faith, eventually arriving in Jerusalem to pursue Torah studies. But in the holy city she experiences an identity crisis. To stay in Jerusalem would mean to totally eradicate her old self. “The gap between who I had been (the girl of grimy dive bars and lavish costumes for citywide dance parties) and where I was then (adrift in a sea of religion in Israel) was too great to jump in a couple of months.”

One way of resolving the crisis – a path chosen by many young Jews new to an observant lifestyle – is to radically break with the past. Old passions, associated with the life before faith, are stashed away deep in the back of the brain. Uncultivated, they fade away, becoming nothing but a distant memory or a dull yearning. Punk music and rap, surfing and breakdancing, gay rights, social activism, globalization and racial equality are sidelined. The naturally universalistic tendencies of unaffiliated young Diaspora Jews yearning to connect with all of humanity are replaced by the more idiosyncratic obsessions of the newly observant Jew struggling to adapt to the mores, traditions and historical baggage particular to the “chosen people.”

For Ruttenberg this is not an option. Her sense of self is too strong to be utterly negated. Although she embraces a fairly stringent form of Jewish observance, which includes no traveling or using money on Shabbat, a kosher diet and praying three times a day, she nevertheless maintains ties with diverse circles of friends, both Jewish and not, and tries to integrate elements of her old self with the new.

Ruttenberg chooses a non-Orthodox stream of Judaism that allows her to experiment in fusing variant identities. In an attempt to reconnect with her old costume-party-going self, she crafts a kippa out of fake blue fur, sews on a plastic alien and a few glow-in-the-dark stars “to give it that extra-galactic flair” and plans to dye her tzitzit a “hot pink extravaganza.”

She later falls out of this flashy, self-conscious stage in her religious development because “God forbid someone might think I was doing so out of anything but deepest faith in, and service to, the divine.”

But according to Ruttenberg, “bouncing around like a Jewish glitter diva… helped me define myself against what I perceived to be a more mainstream Judaism in which I didn’t feel entirely at home.”

Ruttenberg’s memoir might be a very personal, subjective account of one Jewish woman’s religious coming-of-age. However, it is indicative of a whole generation of young, unaffiliated American Jews yearning to learn more about their Judaism, but apprehensive about compromising who they have come to be.

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