The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt

Dutton  2005


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.

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?

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