The Mod­ern Jew­ish Girl’s Guide to Guilt

Ruth Andrew Ellenson

By – October 17, 2011

Read­ing this book is like tak­ing a trip to Baskin-Rob­bins, only instead of fla­vors of deli­cious ice cream, you get deli­cious fla­vors of guilt, each irre­sistible in its own, fun­ny, weird, touch­ing, infu­ri­at­ing but inevitably engag­ing way. If you’re a woman, you’re bound to rec­og­nize your­self (or your moth­er or grand­moth­er) some­where among these 28 painful­ly hon­est essays, prob­a­bly more than once.

It might be the man­i­cure and pedi­cure that Daphne Merkin, raised Ortho­dox no less, got on Yom Kip­pur. Or the Jew­ish breasts, noses, hair — those sup­pos­ed­ly dis­tinc­tive Semit­ic fea­tures that so obsessed Baz Dreisinger when she played spot the Jew” with her sis­ter at the mall. Maybe it will be the mes­sage Lau­ren Grod­stein saw in Mon­i­ca Lewinsky’s behav­ior in the Clin­ton White House: Jew­ish women always giv­ing, nev­er getting.

The col­lec­tion is orga­nized into five cat­e­gories whose titles are almost as much fun as some of the essay titles. The first sec­tion, Chai Anx­i­ety: What, Me Wor­ry?” for exam­ple, includes an essay called Among the Holy Schlep­pers” by Jen­nifer Bley­er, who traces the ori­gins of her Jew­ish jour­ney to a Grate­ful Dead con­cert she attend­ed at age 16. The sec­tion titled Babes in Goy­land” includes Amy Klein’s uproar­i­ous piece, True Con­fes­sions of a JDate Addict.” Accord­ing to the bios that appear at the end of the book, all of the con­trib­u­tors are pro­fes­sion­al writ­ers, includ­ing nov­el­ists, jour­nal­ists, writ­ing pro­fes­sors and screenwriters.

Most of the essay­ists ham­mer the guilt theme right on the head. With oth­ers, the theme seems more sub­dued. The writer is usu­al­ly the suf­fer­er of guilt, self-imposed or oth­er­wise. Occa­sion­al­ly, she’s the per­pe­tra­tor. What exact­ly is guilt, any­way? To the edi­tor, Ruth Andrew Ellen­son, an Israeli-born writer liv­ing in Los Ange­les, guilt lies between the ide­al of who you should be and the real­i­ty of who you are.” Is Jew­ish guilt worse than gen­tile guilt? Maybe not, but Jew­ish guilt can cer­tain­ly be more in-your-face, as the essays in this book suggest.

Robin K. Levin­son is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist and author of a dozen books, includ­ing the Gali Girls series of Jew­ish his­tor­i­cal fic­tion for chil­dren. She cur­rent­ly works as an assess­ment spe­cial­ist for a glob­al edu­ca­tion­al test­ing orga­ni­za­tion. She lives in Hamil­ton, NJ.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Jew­ish Book Council

    1. Do you agree with the open­ing state­ment of the book, Between the ide­al of who you should be, and the real­i­ty of who you are, lies guilt”?

    2. Which essay did you feel exem­pli­fies your own ver­sion of Jew­ish guilt? Is there an essay that you per­son­al­ly iden­ti­fied with more than others?

    3. Were there any essays with which you found your­self feel­ing uncom­fort­able? What about them made you uncom­fort­able? Were you embar­rassed or guilty or did you feel dis­ap­prov­ing or dis­heart­ened by the essay?

    4. Do you think the essays in this book are time­less exam­ples of Jew­ish guilt or do you think these feel­ings of guilt are spe­cif­ic to the mod­ern world in which we live? Are they more rel­e­vant to women of a cer­tain age, gen­er­a­tion, or location?

    5. Ruth Ellen­son writes that the book is focused on women because Jew­ish male angst is …prac­ti­cal­ly an indus­try unto itself…and it often fea­tures Jew­ish women as the butt of the joke” (p 6), but that the images of Jew­ish women don’t match up with real peo­ple. Do you agree? She also states that the stakes are high­er for women. Is there more of a bur­den on Jew­ish women? If so, is it embed­ded in the reli­gion or cul­ture or is it a self-imposed sense of obligation?

    6. The Holo­caust is men­tioned in a num­ber of the essays. Do you think this is sur­vivor’s guilt? Do you think Holo­caust guilt is preva­lent among Jews today or more spe­cif­ic to peo­ple who have had some per­son­al experience?

    7. Do you think the guilt shared in this book is, in fact, Jew­ish”? Or is it more uni­ver­sal to women in gen­er­al or peo­ple of a par­tic­u­lar background?

    8. The intro­duc­tion ends with the hope that the essays in this book will make you laugh at [the] absur­di­ty, break your heart, or in choos­ing which guilt you accept or reject, help you come to a clear­er under­stand­ing of who you are” (p 7). Do you think the book is suc­cess­ful in this? Were there spe­cif­ic accounts or moments in the book that brought this out more than others?