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Houses of Worship Aren't Always the Key to Spirituality. Just Ask This Theologian Mother


NURTURE THE WOW: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting

By Danya Ruttenberg

Flatiron Books, 2016


National Jewish Book Award Finalist 2016


I first met Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg when we were cloistered in the remote hills of Georgia at a summer retreat that brought together a diverse array of Jewish campus professionals. She had a nursing baby in tow, I had left my children at home, their own nursing a thing of the not too distant past. Several times a day, a group of rabbis would rebel against the fluorescent lighting and the frigid air conditioning, making pilgrimage to the fresh air and sunshine of the back deck. There, we’d stage impromptu rabbinic gatherings, discussing how to create a Judaism so full and so deep that every student on every campus would swoon with commitment and covenantal love. Years later, what remains, and what stands out, aren’t the manifestos of our work lives, but rather the quiet, shared moments among new friends. The commonalities in our personal pursuits and life journeys. Images of Danya with a newborn tucked into a baby sling, bouncing and rocking and keeping her firstborn Yonatan, now seven, content and secure. Danya had already been well published by then, and I had just begun to write a novel in earnest.


It would be two years before Danya hatched the idea for her new book, "Nurture the Wow." Two years of parenting a baby before she would re-enter the world of the theologians. It takes that long to get your footing back, one could argue. Sleepless nights, a newish body, the unending balance of work, dishes, adult relationships, and more dishes. But Danya was no stranger to sitting and writing, and knew that the effort was worth the return. In 2009, her spiritual memoir, "Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion," was widely received and nominated for the Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature.


Clergy members of all faiths present books as offerings to community members and students who visit their offices—some rabbis have a stack of Anita Diamant’s "Choosing a Jewish Life," intended for those that are considering conversion, or moving towards partnership with somebody who’s Jewish. Others keep sacred scripture on hand, the stories of our ancestors serving as guides on our own journeys. We all have what I lovingly call our arsenal, and "Nurture the Wow" now holds a special place in my office. There’s a stack of smallish, bluish books on my white shelves, with my dear friend’s name across the cover, for when the babies are born and parents are both celebrating and struggling. This book, its own philosophical masterwork, can and should be a must read for all those welcoming new life into their homes. And it should be revisited as the children grow, and as the family changes, for as Danya tells us, “The work of parenting is fully woven into our lives—when we lie down, when we rise up, when we sit at home, and when we’re walking by the way. When we choose to live it fully, that’s when we begin to understand. We may never find any measure better than this.”


We Skyped recently—Danya from Jerusalem, me from Pittsburgh—and to nobody’s surprise, we started out with some tears. Because writing is hard, career is all-consuming, and parenting is terrifying (lather, rinse, repeat). Once we got through crying and a few deep breaths, we settled down for the stuff of interviews. 


This book is beautiful and such an accomplishment. I hope you feel really amazing about it, because I certainly do, as your friend and colleague, and I should tell you that the group of young families that I handed the book to recently during our playground/pot-luck/chaotic gathering also found it amazing – and also kind of intimidating! One young mother quietly asked, upon holding the book in her hands: How did Rabbi Ruttenberg find the time to write this? How about we start by unpacking that a bit.


DANYA RUTTENBERG: When my oldest was about two years old, I asked myself the question: How many theologians throughout history have been mothers? Most theologians are men, with some monastics who were women, but historically, women have otherwise been occupied. Add various socio-economic difficulties, combined with no authoritative space to do the thinking and the writing, and we simply don’t have a wealth of writing on the theology of parenthood, since the men writing theology didn’t tend to be in the trenches of childcare. The ideas and questions that come up when raising kids were simply off their radar. So I began to organize a tremendous Gmail folder where I’d collect questions and articles and research and quotes and things I’d found. At the time, I didn’t have time to think through the questions or the answers or the organizing principles. But then it was my birthday, and the gift I requested was the gift of time. To simply sit for a few hours alone, in a coffee shop, to get some work done. It was a Sunday. I began to organize this massive folder into something coherent—and I knew that in order to write the book, I had to work part time for a year. I’m fortunate enough for our family to be able to make that choice. A thing of privilege.


"Nurture the Wow" is part memoir, part theological treatise, part feminist doctrine. There are a few mentions of your mother who died when you were 21 years old, your brother gets in briefly, your husband a shout out or two—and of course, your two older kids get lots of space on the page. Maybe tell us about how you decided to incorporate different aspects of yourself and your family into this book, with the awareness that you hold much power over those you write about.


DANYA RUTTENBERG: I tried to trust that I was being thoughtful about the stories I was sharing. I also actively considered what stories the children would be less happy to discover out in th