Published on July 19th, 2016 | by Danielle Leshaw1
NURTURE THE WOW: An Interview with Danya Ruttenberg
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.
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. – Danielle Leshaw
MUTHA: 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.
MUTHA: 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 the public sphere when they were in high school. Could I picture Yonatan at 15? I tried. He was five when I was writing this book, and I tried to trust my judgement. In terms of revealing stuff about my own life, there were times when I felt like the mommies were going to see all the ways I’m a bad mommy, and the rabbis were going to come for me because they’re going to witness how I’m such a bad rabbi! Typically, we see our failures as failures of individuality rather than of systems. I had to work up the bravery just to get stuff down on paper. Once I wrote it down, though, it got a lot less scary to think about publishing.
Power is a heady thing. I’m thinking of Vanity Fair, and Thackeray, who tells us the mother is the name of god on the lips of all the children. So yeah, we have all of this power, this ability to hardwire the way our kids see themselves, how they measure their own lovability, how we ensure as much as possible their physical security—and yet we’re not God. It’s a complicated and highly unsettling place to be—the more we’re aware of the paradox, the less likely we are to screw it up completely. At least, I hope that’s the case.
MUTHA: What I love about your book are these types of spiritual assertions in the face of the dichotomies, and that the basic tenets—finding a spiritual home in the deep moments of love and interaction with the kids, AND that this home is a legitimate path to understanding the universe—well, that basic idea is translatable for parents with older children. Mine are 10 and 13, and what they do now is so different than what they used to do. Unlike the nursing or the bathing of their younger years, which are prevalent motifs in your book, now it’s about sitting on the couch next to them while they complete their math homework, or talking about important stuff in the car as I drive them to their friend’s house, or, thank god, when I’m still invited to lie down in bed with them as they fall asleep. As you remind us, the “boundaries between our bodies and their bodies are thin.”
DANYA RUTTENBERG: I wrote Nurture the Wow for parents with younger kids, but only because that’s the world I know now. I did try to focus on variety of voices and represent a multitude of parenting stages. Ultimately, I’ve been surprised and delighted that parents of older kids find it meaningful and that it’s resonating deeply with them. That’s been a happy surprise. I admit that I was hoping that people would get that this isn’t a ‘how-to’ book, as in, here are some concrete parenting moves, or here are three things you can do to illicit a desirable result from your child. This isn’t a book about moving towards efficiency, or ways to improve your child’s chances at getting into Harvard, but rather about opening up to what’s happening here and now.
MUTHA: An in many ways, your book is a reminder for some and a new insight for many, that the spaces in which we parent must be considered sacred and holy. We juxtapose this with a more historical approach that women don’t have a spiritual core because they haven’t gone to a particular place—to the church or the synagogue or the meditation circle—and we’re left hoping, but without much support from our theologians, that mindfulness, gratitude, presence, and prayers of the heart can all be achieved in the context of the home.
DANYA RUTTENBERG: There has historically been the notion that spirituality and children are placed in competing spheres, and women are relegated away from wherever it is they’re keeping the spirituality. Historically, the public, set-apart space, such as the church, synagogue, yeshiva, or the monastery, that this is where the magical work happens. There’s an impulse towards enclosure, where the big scary world isn’t intruding, and this is where to do the powerful inner work, but it’s a false dichotomy. One of the writers who’s most influenced me, Carol Lee Flinders, talks about the ways in which the freedom to be enclosed—to choose enclosure—is a hallmark of male privilege. As it turns out, there are lots of other ways into a relationship with the divine. Historically, women have been cloistered into private space, but not because they had the freedom to be anywhere – we’ve had to work to take back the night. Separate, enclosed, designated spaces of spiritual privilege are not the only way in. Spiritual experience can happen with and through the messiness of an integrated life, one in which there’s no time for the weeklong meditation retreat. The rabbis had these massive blinders on, mainly because they weren’t over there doing this type of parenting work.
MUTHA: Speaking of this type of parenting work, the first line of the book is Everything is terrible. The last section of the book refers to some wisdom from the Jewish sage Ben Bag Bag: Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. Look into it, grow old and worn over it, and never move away from it, for you can not find any better measure than this. How has the writing of the book changed you, and how are you better from it?
DANYA RUTTENBERG: So much has changed in the course of the six years it took to write and publish. I wrote the book because I was feeling a great amount of tension in my life. I was living in Boston, working at Tufts, and thinking that I had a clear philosophy around my spiritual and religious practice as it pertained to Jewish law. But in reality, the way I thought about practice was really changing but I wasn’t sure exactly how and why, or how to articulate the changes. It would take sitting down and writing the book to understand those changes. In part, I was feeling dissonance in my life because the spiritual practices that had anchored me were no longer computing. So this book, and what it afforded me— being able to go deep into certain questions about spiritual practice and ritualized moments—was a huge letting go, and I was able to better embrace the sense of flow that I hadn’t been at peace with. And what followed was an exploration of some of the tensions in my life, like, for example, my feelings of not being very good at playing with my kids. And the ongoing important struggle of really seeing my children as full human beings and not seeing them as a minor character in a play starring me. Well, this is something I have to keep learning and relearning. But I’m getting there more quickly. Who am I, where am I, what I do at this moment?— this is all happening a little earlier in the game.
MUTHA: There’s really nothing like female rabbis having kids and then being like: I am so done with the traditional rabbinic yardstick. We change after children, and it’s not that there’s no wisdom left in our canon for us, it’s just that this particular wisdom doesn’t work very well anymore.
DANYA RUTTENBERG: There’s a lot of wisdom, but nobody built the bridge. There’s no “I-Thou” (Martin Buber’s philosophical masterwork) written with children and parents in mind. But there’s really rich, spiritual ways of seeing the world while living life on the ground with the kids, and that’s what I tried to do with this book. I want people to see this as a serious book, with theologians taking seriously topics that are generally considered to be soft. If it had been written by a man, they’d love it! It would be all over the press! Women theologians have braved new ground about how we think about the philosophy of religion. Is this book lightweight? Not at all.
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.”