Did you know the mikvah is supposed to be built even before the temple in a Jewish community? That Jewish women during the antisemitic Soviet Union used axes to hack through natural bodies of frozen water to immerse themselves when nothing else was available? Or that paella was invented to test Jews and Moors during the Spanish Inquisition, due to its heavy use of treyf?
S.L. Wisenberg’s essay collection The Wandering Womb will teach you all this and more. It is a fact-filled exploration of the Jewish body, the Jewish woman and her place or absence in tradition, and what a Jewish inheritance means on a soul-level in America today.
Wisenberg raises such questions to bring awareness to topics that receive little attention. Regarding the origins of male circumcision, she asks: “Why could [Abraham] not have agreed to simply cut Isaac’s hair … ?” On family purity laws, she wonders: “How can even the newest of a New Age feminist ritual make up for the historic misogyny of Jewish law? What is the new ritual to acknowledge the fact that the religion was not made for us, for me … ?” Wisenberg thus calls out the barbaric and exclusionary roots of the ethnoreligion into which she was born and within which she has lived all her life.
Of all the ways Wisenberg zeroes in on the unspoken, underlying, and undeniable roots of her people, none is more powerful than her essay, “The Jew in the Body.” In it, she nakedly writes down a statement that has always haunted her: “ … as a near-sighted eight-year-old girl who had had asthma since she was only a few days old, I knew that … if … I was taken away to a concentration camp, I would die immediately. As I was meant to.”
“ … is this voice one that has traveled up and down the DNA ladders?” she asks. “Did this voice originate in our enemies … ? In the haters of Jews? Is this the self-hating Jewish voice?”
Here, Wisenberg grapples with the issue of intergenerational trauma, quoting a woman she knows who works with torture victims: trauma “lodges in the spinal cord, is carried from generation to generation.”
This is the heart of the book, the question of questions: Is one doomed if their ancestors were doomed? Is a living body in the present a fragment of the past? Can we ever truly escape persecution, or do certain bloodlines carry its memory within them?
While readers will certainly encounter these big-picture meanderings about the nature of existence, they will also find lighter fare. Certain essays, like “Late Night,” will entertain readers of all stripes who happen to be night owls. And in “Spy in the House of Girls,” a Sloane Crosley – esque romp through different sorority houses, the nearly thirty-year-old writer participates in the process of pledging — just to see if she can get a bid.
Emily Sulzman is a writer and PhD student studying literary nonfiction at the University of Cincinnati.