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Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion

4.16  ·  Rating details ·  376 ratings  ·  77 reviews
At thirteen, Danya Ruttenberg decided that she was an atheist. Watching the sea of adults standing up and sitting down at Rosh Hashanah services, and apparently giving credence to the patently absurd truth-claims of the prayer book, she came to a conclusion: Marx was right.

As a young adult, Danya immersed herself in the rhinestone-bedazzled wonderland of late-1990s San Fr
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published August 1st 2008 by Beacon Press
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Michael Doyle
Aug 27, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: judaica
Ruttenberg's story helped me let my guard down and become more at ease with PDRs--public displays of religiosity (my term.) As a Jew-by-Choice, my early sense of simultaneous disorientation, fascination, and surprise at my journey were echoed in Ruttenberg's own journey from secular Jew to religious. I doubt the book will convince an atheist reader to the joy and benefits religious people find in their lives. But religious readers of any persuasion will understand where Ruttenberg is going here. ...more
Aug 24, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: jewish-themes, memoir
What a pleasure, to read a "ba'al teshuvah" kind of story that is not Orthodox! Well written & compelling. ...more
Feb 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir, jewish
I don't read spiritual awakening/religious journey memoirs, but I doubt I would ever find one that speaks to me like this one. From her modern, pluralistic-but-serious approach to Judaism, her struggles integrating her secular and religious lives, and coming to San Francisco (and Beth Sholom synagogue!) in her 20s, this memoir can be shockingly relatable to my own biography at times. (Sadly I was never a cool punk rocker in my adolescence.)

As someone who is trying to put together a meaningful l
Not without its good parts, but generally disappointing.

What I hoped to get from this book was a reflection on how one might balance a traditional Jewish lifestyle with modern life, and I get the impression that’s what Ruttenberg set out to write. As someone trying to convert, I am acutely aware of how difficult this is. And at times, she does get to it. But the interesting parts of this book are dragged down by the amount of waffle and generally not-so-great writing. I did finish the book and
Jun 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. I enjoyed watching the gradual unfolding of Ruttenberg's spiritual life, from a straight-up atheist to becoming a rabbi (although this book ends before her rabbinical studies begin). It was comforting to read of someone who for a long time so thoroughly rejected a life of the spirit, finding joy and meaning in places other than the divine. Even as Ruttenberg asks more and more questions about faith and spirit, and experiences things that she cannot explain through ath ...more
Aug 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2020
Read this in a time where I'm feeling quite disconnected from others (as I'm sure is true for many people in this surreal pandemic time). The sense of community and caring for one another has always been religions' most glowing attribute to me, even if others did not quite fit me right. Reading about Rabbi Ruttenberg's spiritual journey has given me a lot of food for thought. Balance is never easy. ...more
Jan 14, 2021 rated it really liked it
How could I not want to read a book whose title simultaneously evokes C.S Lewis and Dr. Strangelove?

An excellent treatment of a young woman's discovery of God, her religion, and her spiritual life.
Elevate Difference
Jan 10, 2009 rated it really liked it
As a self-identified atheist, I found it odd that I was so compelled to read Danya Ruttenberg’s memoir about her life-long journey to Judaism, Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion. I had read Ruttenberg’s first book, Yentl's Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism—a collection of young Jewish feminists discussing how to negotiate their faith and their feminism—a few years ago and fell in love with the complexity of the topics that Ruttenberg encouraged each contri ...more
Apr 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir
I've read a lot of Jewish memoirs, but Danya Ruttenberg's journey is the closest, so far, to my own. At least generally.

What I mean is that she grew up in a largely assimilated family, flipped the bird to religion at 13 (around the same time that I did) and ultimately returned in young adulthood. (I "returned" slightly earlier, and strangely, had more of a singular "call from God" experience than she did, even though she's far more comfortable with the idea of God than I am.) Then we gravitated
Jun 18, 2009 rated it liked it
I really enjoyed reading this book until about half way through, and then the narrator's attitude changes so much that I had a hard time identifying with her. It seemed that she began letting her pursuit of religion define her and a lot of what she believed in the beginning changed drastically. I know that everyone is allowed to change in their lives, but I don't think "finding religion" has to redefine who you are. I have been studying Judaism and would like to officially convert someday, but I ...more
Feb 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg describes her coming to faith, religious practices, and the transformation that God has worked in her in such open language that, even for a non-Jew like myself, you can relate to so much of her story and find new ways to think about your own faith. I think this book and her experience of moving from atheism to Judaism make a powerful argument for the relevance and goodness of religion in an age when that's not always assumed. I also learned more about Jewish faith and pra ...more
Apr 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
Very cool book. The author relates, in a very honest way, her spiritual search as it takes her from a rather meaningless bat mitzva to college searching to the single life in San Francisco and ultimately to rabbinical school. Along the way, she wrestles with the conflict that is often inherent between contemporary values and the ancient values and practices of Judaism. She comes to grips with them in ways that are non-judgmental, and finds her own path. Gave me great insights into the "next gene ...more
Mar 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed reading about Rabbi Ruttenberg's journey to Judaism. This book is thoughtful, and draws on ideas found in many religious traditions—in fact, it was quite enjoyable the way the author brought in texts and ideas from a variety of different religious traditions as well as scholars. ...more
Jul 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
As a longtime follower of Rabbi Ruttenberg on social media, I have been awed by the breadth of knowledge, humor, and all-around life that she brings to her discussions of social activism, religion, and politics. This book did not disappoint.

My reading notes include quotes from Kierkegaard ("infinite resignation is the last stage before faith"), two quotes from Rabbi Heschel (Judaism demands "a leap of action rather than a leap of thought" and "Few are guilty, but all are responsible"), a refere
Dec 27, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This lovely book is part memoir, part Jewish spiritual thesis. Although Rabbi Ruttenberg's experiences in Judaism and Jewishness are for the most part different from mine, I found much to relate to here. The way she learns from other faith traditions without appropriating them, and her fusion of religion and social justice, were of particular interest. It's an intense read (this should be obvious from the subject material; one does not move from being an atheist to being a rabbi by being blasé) ...more
Nov 04, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
The story starts off slow but builds nicely. I don't think it will be very interesting to people who aren't already on some sort of spiritual Jewish path. But I enjoyed the straightforward, clear writing. Rabbi Ruttenberg has some important things to say about spirituality and politics - having experiences of breaking down the barriers between self and other should make certain politics easier and harder. I've read a few spirituality stories from Buddhists so it was nice to have a Jewish perspec ...more
Nov 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
Thoughtful enough for me to want to argue w/it; every few pages would wake me up, remind me of something I’d wrestled with and sometimes forgotten about years before. The period after grieving, for instance, when you suddenly step outside your life and wonder about it and about the questions you asked yourself in childhood and then forgot.
Aug 06, 2019 added it
I enjoyed this it was relatable. Sometimes felt like she was trying to shoehorn in every possible religious scholar she could but also that probably comes from being a religious scholar.
Feb 24, 2019 rated it liked it
This book didn't resonate with me much, but for reasons that are very particular to me, so....three stars seemed like the best compromise.

First, stylistically, I found it jarring. There are.....a lot of quotes. Far too many; even though I've read and liked a number of the authors quoted, the constant barrage broke up the narrative and didn't always seem to do the quoted authors justice. But not everyone will react similarly.

Second, this is very much a book about "religion." Well obviously, you s
Danya Ruttenberg’s "Surprised by God" caused me to sit up and take notice. Raised Jewish, Ruttenberg is proud as a teen of being a hip, feminist, intellectual atheist. After her mother dies, she finds her way back to increasingly observant Judaism. She struggles with keeping the Sabbath, keeping kosher – and keeping her nonobservant friends. Her commitment to deepening her receptivity to God by limiting her choices in some areas (not driving or carrying money on the Sabbath, becoming a vegetaria ...more
Aug 11, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: book-club, judaica
I should have liked this more. Memoir? Yes. Judaism? Yes. Personal journey? Yes. Super-intelligent writer? Definitely. All things I'm here for. But after the first third, I just didn't care. The author's voice exhausted me - a friend used the word "strident" to describe her, and god, yes, everything was so serious and all-in. I've read another book by this author, and I adored it, so I'm going to put my dissatisfaction with this one on me. Maybe it was the wrong time. ...more
Sep 27, 2008 rated it really liked it
I keep picking up memoirs written by Jewish authors that detail how they fell away from their religion and either found God again and turned to Christianity or became more deeply immersed in the Jewish religion, as in the case of this book and in its author Danya Ruttenberg. I thought the book was very interesting and the methods she used to learn about her faith were really cool. But at times, I felt like I was back in my Non-Fiction Writing Class in college where we had to use sources to suppl ...more
Floare Russell
I started this book with the idea that it would offer a biography of someone, as opposed to yet another book on how to be Jewish or what Judaism means. I wanted to put Judaism in context to a life. This book does that, and brilliantly, but it does a lot more than that too. Danya weaves philosophy from Talmud, Herschel, Catholic nuns, Christian theologians and even Zen masters into her narrative as you travel with her through her life until her return to religious Jew. Despite using philosophy li ...more
Jan 29, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I really liked this book for several reasons. One, it really spoke to where I am at spiritually myself (growing up in a faith, rejecting it, then missing it and trying to reincorporate it into your life in a way that works and makes sense). She also brings up the tension, spoken or unspoken, that can crop up between your religion and your friends, which is also something I relate to. Two, it taught me a lot about modern Judaism that I wasn't necessarily aware of, and I always like learning more ...more
Margaret Klein
May 27, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2013
This was a book that touched me personally. We seemed to be having parallel lives 20ish years apart. She wrestles with many of the same issues I have and comes away with answers that work for her. I recommend reading it to my book group at the shul to jump start their thinking about the high holidays. The book group did not love the book. While she presents some intriguing topics for discussion (what is the role of ritual, when have you been surprised by G-d), this group wanted her answers and l ...more
May 28, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: jewish-etc, memoir
I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. I'm fine with books that straddle genres, but I don't like "seminary term paper" to be one of the genres -- and this book is both memoir and several seminary term papers blended awkwardly. So many quotations from so many spiritual traditions!

I also couldn't shake the feeling that I might not like Ruttenberg if I met her. She seems kind of pretentious and kind of full of herself, even as she's writing about how she struggles to be a better person
John Middleton
Nov 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
What can an old Catholic guy and a young female Rabbi possibly have in common? A lot, as it turns out. I’ll keep this book on my reading table and return to it often. I bought a copy for my daughter, who’s not religious at all, because I know she’ll enjoy Ruttenberg’s story and appreciate her voice.

If I taught a class on “How To Write Memoir,” this would be the textbook.

If I taught a class on “How Be A Good Writer,” this would be on the required reading list.

If I taught a class on “Worthwhile
Dennis Fischman
Jul 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
I used to be put off by discussions of spirituality. Too often (25 years ago), they seemed navel-gazing and unconnected to the struggles of other people. What's wonderful about this book is how Ruttenberg shows the ways that a desire for transcendence can lead us right down to earth, and the understanding that God is one can lead us to grasp that we are one, too. Her personal story is worth reading. The book is also a springboard for reflection and a sourcebook of great quotes about the search f ...more
Andy Oram
Oct 17, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: religion
I appreciate Ruttenberg's candor in sharing her personal story and the piercing insight with which she examines earlier phases of her life, and I celebrate that she integrated all the threads of her life and spirit into a path that's productive and vital. But it's just one person's story after all that, and doesn't sound much different from what I've heard from other people who come home religiously after much experimentation. ...more
May 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I adored this book. Rabbi Ruttenberg is frank, honest, and inspiring in her journey to religion. Despite coming from very different places (I was searching for G!d even as a child, she was a strong atheist until young adulthood), I could relate deeply to her journey. I also found places where this book inspired me in new directions on my own path, and challenged me in areas I have become complacent in. It was also an enjoyable read.
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Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is the author of Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting (Flatiron Books, April 2016) and Surprised By God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion (Beacon Press), the latter of which was nominated for the 2010 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish literature and a 2009 Hadassah Boo ...more

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8 likes · 1 comments
“My commitment to my friends forced me to develop a complex ethos of pluralism on the ground. I had to find ways to practice Judaism as I understood it while, at the same time, accepting that those around me might not believe or do the exact same things that I did. I had to respect someone's choice to drive to my house on Shabbat, just as I hoped that members of other Jewish communities would respect my choice to wear a yarmulke and tzitzit or to pray in a mixed-gender setting. As Ben Dreyfus, founder of an independent minyan (prayer group) in New York, puts it, "if you want the protections of pluralism, you have to buy into pluralism yourself. This doesn't mean you have to believe that other positions are valid, but it does mean you have to respect their right to exist."15” 4 likes
“Does it even need to be said that there are times when one must stand up to the community, and use one's voice in support of an unpopular view? Or that complicity is participation? Sometimes the issue at hand may concern a gross injustice, sometimes it may just be about individual boundaries. Sometimes a dissenting view will be heard and accepted, sometimes it will be ignored. None of this changes our obligation to move through the world with honesty and bravery.” 3 likes
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