Danya Ruttenberg grew up fiercely liberal. Her family attended a Reform synagogue in Chicago, but she says, “I was a cranky atheist … the feminism came early and was never really questioned.” During her last year at Brown University, the death of her mother prompted her to rethink religion. She began sitting shiva, praying, asking the cosmic sort of questions that a strictly realist view of the world could not alone answer.
“I felt threatened by it,” she says of her sudden spirituality.
Though she now lives in Brookline, Mass., working at the Tufts University Hillel, it was in New York that she found a home for her newfound spirituality, and she visits regularly to lecture and teach classes. “I realized that if I wanted liberal people who were also really into their Judaism, I had to be in New York,” she says.
Ruttenberg, who was recently ordained at the Conservative movement’s American Jewish University in Los Angeles, has published three books on Judaism, two of which relied on relationships she made with Jewish writers here. Her first, “Yentl’s Revenge,” was a compilation of essays on feminist views of Judaism. Her second, a memoir titled “Surprised By God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion,” was a 2010 finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. And last year she published “The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism,” a volume she co-edited that also covers women’s roles in Judaism.
She says that her writing and Judaism have tempered her more radical views. “The issue is how do you take tradition seriously and modern values seriously, too?”
Favorite writers: Virginia Woolf, “because of how breathless ‘To The Lighthouse’ leaves me, every time, or Carol Lee Flinders, because the questions she asked in ‘At The Root of This Longing’ are ones with which I may very well grapple for the rest of my career.”
Favorite Jew: “Either Maimonides, because I’m doing some Mishneh Torah learning now and his thinking continually astounds (even when I don’t agree), or my 15-month-old son Yonatan, from whom I learn every day the most important things.”
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