Inherited inner turmoil

The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt Edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson Penguin 320pp., $24.95.

By RONIT PINTO
October 9, 2005 12:27

The catchy pink-and-white cover of The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt looks like a Jewish Sex in the City, but colors and covers can be deceiving. In this compilation of 28 essays, Jewish women of all ages and backgrounds explore how guilt cultural, spiritual and emotional affects them as Jewish women in the 21st century. Though these writers courageously dive deeper than the book cover, they still throw in plenty of old-fashioned Jewish humor. In "Expecting," best-selling author Rebecca Walker, married to a Buddhist African American, decides to name her baby Tenzin. Tenzin is the name of the Holy Dalai Lama. Her parents were hoping for Samuel, David or Moishe. As she grapples with her decision she writes "I felt like Judas I feel like I am letting the clan down I also want him to relate to his Jewish roots." Chicago native Kera Bolonik, in her piece, "You Sit in the Dark, I'm Coming Out of the Closet," describes that when she was 15, "camping out with a bunch of Jewish teenagers in the West Bank seemed far less dangerous than telling my mother I might be a lesbian." Her accepting but desperate mother told her two daughters, one gay and one who dates only non-Jewish men, that she and her husband put a contingency clause in their wills: "Whoever married a Jewish man first would get everything." Some of the most intriguing stories are by women from Orthodox communities. How can it be that Daphne Merkin, author of the controversial book on sex fantasies Dreaming of Hitler, born and bred of preening Orthodox German-Jewish stock, could usher in Yom Kippur, "the Holiest of Holy Days, in the most faithless way imaginable: By having a manicure and pedicure at Iris Nails on the Upper East Side [of Manhattan]."? Dealing with her guilty conscience as the clock ticks into the holiday, she eventually fesses up to the dark admission that she has never located her inner Jew. "And yet I continue to hope it is here, a shimmering and sacrosanct kernel that got lost somewhere between Iris Nails and Yom Kippur," she said. In "Shtreimel Envy," filmmaker Pearl Gluck takes us on a journey with a group of hassidic men, including her father. Years after leaving her hassidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, she finds herself trekking through Satmar, Transylvania, in search of their founding rebbes' graves. "I felt a little like a Jewish Rosa Parks as we swerved along the highway," she said as she and one other woman sit separately from the men on the back of the bus. Though the hassidim feel they must pray for Gluck's fallen slippery soul, she still feels that "here among the pilgrims, more than anywhere else, I am at home I am as much an artist and filmmaker who is inspired by feminism and modernity as I am the daughter of a Hassidic Jew who is utterly bewildered by the life his only daughter leads." Other women deal with baby guilt, whether they have children or not. Novelist Rebecca Goldstein tells us in "Philosophers with Wombs" that she put off having kids for years after she was married to pursue academia an uncommon choice in her Orthodox world. "I felt inexplicably guiltless about all this, even though there were expert guiltilizers assigned full-time to my difficult case," a.k.a. her mother and mother-in-law. She even postponed telling them of her pregnancy as long as possible, in a way to spite them. But having one of her own changed everything. " Where mothers, mothers-in-law and department chairs couldn't touch me, my infant daughter did. She grabbed those disputed insides of mine and really worked me over," she says, describing her struggle between motherhood and her career. Binnie Kirshenbaum tells us in "Being Fruitful" that she never wants to have kids. Her Jewish mother isn't alone in her dismay. "My mother was hardly the only one who tried to make me feel guilty about my being childfree," she writes. "These people tend to lash out at me to let me know, in no uncertain terms, that they consider me to be utterly selfish and unwilling to devote my time, my money, and myself to my genetic offspring." Susan Shapiro, author of Lighting Up, a memoir chronicling how she quit her 27-year cigarette habit, concludes the anthology with a powerful piece called "Quitting Guilt." She stops going to all family and social events she didn't want to attend and winds up publishing three books in one year, tripling her income and falling madly in love with her husband again. "Was there a correlation between RSVPing 'Sorry I will not attend' to the daily requests of my relatives, pals, prot g s and playmates to getting exactly what I wanted? You betcha. In fact, I accomplished such major feats only because I stopped pleasing others. Instead horror of horrors for a nice Jewish girl who grew up in my milieu I was taking care of myself first." All of the stories in The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt, whether humorous, intense or both, grapple with complex themes like how we live up to other's expectations and how our cultural heritage shapes who we are. The anthology editor, Ruth Andrew Ellenson, a rabbi's daughter, writes, "between the ideal of who you should be, and the reality of who you are, lies guilt. And when you're Jewish, there's no shortage of people who are willing to point out just how guilty you should feel."


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