Rabbis book explores her Jewish revival in the city by the Bay

San Francisco plays a starring role in Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s memoir, “Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion.”

“When I visited San Francisco for the first time in college, it exerted this very inexplicable pull on me in a way that no place ever had,” said Ruttenberg, who will return to the city to speak at the JCCSF’s Bookfest 2008 on Nov. 2. “I felt myself very drawn to the place, for reasons to this day I don’t totally understand.”

Ruttenberg is now a rabbi living in the Boston area, but her story begins like so many others: She grew up in a not-very-Jew-ish home and felt more drawn to a club with a mosh pit than a synagogue. Yet her mother’s death from breast cancer while Rutten-berg was in college propelled her on a kind of spiritual search. She started going to Hillel on Shabbat to say Kaddish for her mother, but never could bring herself to stay for dinner.

Ruttenberg bolsters her own journey in “Surprised by God” with quotes from other spiritual figures and writers, in the hope of telling a more universal story of someone taking on a more observant life. “I wanted to use my story as a way in,” she said in an interview, “but I wanted the anchor to be ‘this is a timeless part of taking on a spiritual practice and it isn’t about one person’s story, this is about patterns and something universal.'”

Moving to San Francisco straight out of college changed Ruttenberg’s relationship with Judaism for good. It was 1997, and the dot-com boom was at its peak. Ruttenberg was immediately drawn into a thriving social scene. “There was a sense that if you had a good idea or promise or talent, excellent things were going to happen,” she said. “The Burning Man scene was fresh and exciting with a lot of creativity there, and queer culture — everything was exploding.”

But somehow Ruttenberg didn’t feel completely fulfilled by the constant parties and happenings. Something was missing, and she began visiting synagogues to find her place, just as she had found her hair salon, and her coffee shop. She found it at Congregation Beth Sholom, in the Rich-mond District.

“I tried out a whole bunch of synagogues and had a lot of very interesting experiences, and none of them felt like home,” she said.

At Beth Sholom, though, she immediately felt like she belonged. “It felt no-frills — it was a straight-ahead Conservative synagogue, and services themselves had this vibrancy and electricity to them. It was a straight- forward journey through the prayer book, but it was strong and alive and you could get lost in it. That’s what I was looking for.”

Along the way she began observing Shabbat, while worrying what her non-Jewish friends will think of her if she missed a great party because it was on Friday night.

As the title suggests, she said, “A lot of the book is about my fears and anxieties about becoming religious and the implications of how religion will change my life. The title is a very tongue-in-cheek way of referencing what is really hard and painful about taking this practice seriously.”

The memoir ends without Ruttenberg explaining the “aha” moment that led her to rabbinical school.

“There are enough people who are really sure that the only way to do Judaism seriously and enter your practice seriously is to do it professionally, and that’s not the message I wanted to send,” she said. “My message is more that everyone can take their practice seriously and do it in a nuanced way, with depth, and the job you do is incidental.”

“Surprised by God: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Religion” by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg (256 pages, Beacon Press, $24.95)

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg will be speaking in conversation with Louis Ferrante on the topic of “Letting God In” at 5:15 p.m. Nov. 2 as part of Bookfest 2008 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F.

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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."