Danya Ruttenberg
Danya Ruttenberg

In this latest GrokNation interview, Mayim Bialik talks with Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, author of Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting.

Mayim Bialik: Your book, Nurture the Wowis really fascinating and before I ask you a few questions about it, can you tell us who you are, what your “day job” is, what your kid situation is, and what else your life is like so our readers can get a better idea for how many things you do and what you have accomplished!? You’re a really amazing woman and an inspiration for so many of us. Please tell us about yourself!

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg: Sure thing!  I’m a rabbi–I was ordained in 2008, after 5 years of rabbinical school and 5 years before that working as a freelance writer. I was lucky to get mentored by amazing writers really early on, which is how I was able to publish an anthology on Jewish feminism (Yentl’s Revenge) before rabbinical school, and write a memoir about my journey from punk rock and atheism to the rabbinate (and occasional bouts of punk rock!–it’s called Surprised By God) and edit an anthology on Judaism and sex (The Passionate Torah) while I was in rabb school.  My entire career since ordination has been working with Hillel (a Jewish organization on college campuses); I’ve been the rabbi on a couple of campuses, and have been working on programs on the national level over the last few years.  It’s been really gratifying to be able to develop relationships with so many incredible college students, as well as to get to help impact their experiences in a bigger-picture way.  I’ve got three kids; Yonatan is 7, Shir is 4, and Nomi is 10 months.  They, and their dad (my husband) are all pretty great. I’ll keep them.

MB: Your book is really filling a void in parenting books with its spiritual and grounded take on being a parent which is really refreshing. I’m curious: why did you decide to write this book? I mean, with so many books about parenting out there – I know because I wrote one too! – I wonder what you felt you could bring that was new and needed in this arena?

RDR: There are, indeed, a lot of great books (obviously yours included!) about how to raise kids out there–books that fill in important gaps and offer valuable perspectives on what to do in order to raise kids who are happy, confident, and able.

Nurture the Wow, however, isn’t about that — it’s about how parenting impacts the parent–how it changes our hearts, and our ways of seeing the world, and how it can transform every aspects of our selves and lives if we let it.  It’s about how the framework offered by spiritual traditions can nourish us during the hard, frustrating, bewildering, delightful, heart-exploding work of raising little kids — how certain perspectives and ideas can transform the crazy-making moments, expand the exquisite ones, and provide a way to experience the labor of parenting as a spiritual practice in its own right.

It’s also about what parents can teach these traditions (and it’s rooted in Judaism, as you know, but also draws on Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and secular and literary traditions)–since those of us who are knee-deep in childcare know a few things that weren’t, shall we say, on the radar screens of the great sages throughout the ages, who weren’t exactly responsible for managing tantrums and enforcing naptime. Parents, I believe, can expand our collective understanding of what spirituality is and can be–we just have to be willing to take their insights seriously.

I started working on it when I realized how radically I had been changed through becoming a mom, and how few theologians throughout history had been knee-deep in the work of childcare.  So lots of wisdom over here, and lots of wisdom over there, and yet, there wasn’t really a bridge between those two things.  So I decided to build one.

MB: How does having a spiritual awareness help you – or how can it help others – as a parent?

RDR: In so many ways.  It can give parents a language to articulate the flashes of goodness that come with raising kids, and to transform some of the harder times into something meaningful, profound, and, yes, even sometimes joyous. The traditions that I draw on can help us to figure out what to do when we’ve screwed up with our kids. They can open a window to love, compassion, and patience when it’s needed most. And they can help us find more delight in our kids—even when being fully present with them demands a great deal of effort.

When we care for our kids, we can go so far down into love that we might find infinity on the other side; we can use the boring and the hard moments to pop us open; we can find new ways of experiencing our bodies; we can open the doors of perception in immersive play*; and even find within the depth and intensity of these bonds something akin to the mystic.  We experience transcendent love in a million decidedly, non-transcendent moments every single day — even when it just feels like we’re trying to make it through the day in one piece.  That is, if we go deep enough into our parenting — into the beautiful parts and the hard parts, all of it — I believe that it can transform how we see ourselves, others, and the world. (*”Immersive play” is when you’re so deep in the act of playing that it feels like you’re “in the zone”: you’re not thinking about the to-do lists, you’re spontaneous, just being the best evil pirate monster that ever was. :))

MB: What does it mean to have a “wow” experience as a parent?

RDR: Well, it can look like a lot of things.  Our kids live in what Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “radical amazement” a lot of the time.  They see the world fresh: this hill of ants, or those bubbles, or that stick they just found, is, like the most fascinating and wonderful thing in the world.  And I think so often we get into this harried distracted place where we say something like, “Yeah, yeah, the ants are cool….come on, we gotta go.” But if we can actually let go of our agendas for a moment and stop and really look at the ants, or the bubbles, we can experience some of that magic, too.  Our children can be our teachers to help us rediscover wonder in our own lives, and in the world.  So that’s one way.

Another thing that happens, sometimes, is when we just really look at our kids and let even the fact of their existence sink in.  They’re like, these exquisite creatures with working lungs and hearts and ear canals, with personalities that’re both already formed and still forming.  Somehow, these whole, gorgeous beings have come into the world, and are now sitting at the dinner table, kvetching about whatever it is that you’ve prepared.  There’s a wow in and of itself in there, isn’t there?

MB: What’s it been like putting this book out there? I remember a lot of people found fault with any small – or big – thing I wrote about in my book even if I clearly stated that it was just MY experience, and may not work for everyone. Have you felt any of that with this book?

RDR: I’ve been waiting to get blowback about some of the things I’ve shared in the book– both about some of the parenting decisions I wrote about and some of the things that I’ve said about how my relationship to Judaism has changed since my kid was born.  You know, awaiting the chorus of, “Bad mom! Bad rabbi!”  It’s been refreshingly quiet on that front, but I have no doubts that that could change in an instant.

MB: Thank you for your time and good luck with this and all of the wonderful things you have going on!

RDR: Thank YOU for letting me come play in your sandbox!  I’m so grateful.

To learn more about Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, visit her website: danyaruttenberg.net.