The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt

An engaging anthology with consistently good, thought provoking writing is an elusive creature which is why The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson is such a treat. The women in here are guilty, some of wanting Christmas trees, others of not keeping kosher and yet others of not getting married at all, or to the right man, or of not wanting kids.  These are universal enough issues of individual desires against traditional demands, however what makes this such a worthy anthology is how sensitively and deeply the writers have written about their problems. Here there are no cliched statements threaded together leading to trite happy-happy-joy-joy endings.

The first essay I turned to was ‘Great, My Daughter is Marrying a Nazi’ by Jenna Kalinsky. Jenna fell in love and married a German who is obviously not a Nazi and yet, half a century after the Holocaust, history defines  the terms of their relationship be it the form of the people she meets in Germany all too eager to welcome her or the signs and monuments about what happened to the Jews at this particular spot. Jenna’s essay deals with memory and how to move on when everything around you wants you to do the opposite. Jenna’s writing is so candid, so probing that her voice and her experiences merit a full memoir on this topic which I for one would be eager to read. Had an essay on Israel and Palestine included in this anthology it would have been the far richer for it, as it is, the scattered mentions of the issue and the guilt it evokes make the absence all the more glaring.

Another fantastic essay on land and home and loyalty and identity is Ayelet Waldman’s  ‘Land of My Father’ in which Waldman explores her feelings for Israel and America and which one is really home. Gina Nahai’s thought provoking essay ‘Mercy’ delves into the relationship between her Jewish-Iranian grandmother and French-Catholic grandmother  and their influences on her life. In ‘Big Mouth: Jewish Women and Appetite’, Wendy Shanker begins her gorgeous exploration of body image and what fat really implies with a Japanese Reiki practioner asking her ‘Why are all Jewish woman so fat?’  And in ‘Spot the Jew’, Baz Dreisinger continues the conversation about self worth and what it means to fit a stereotype:

Looking back now, I see that my high and mighty attitude was simply a way of dealing with the beauty standards of Jewish high school– which, I’m told, are as straightforward today as they were back in the 90s. In my high school, the more ‘un-Jewish’ you looked, the more beautiful you were. White was right; Jew was P-U. That meant culry hair was a no; kinky hair a no-no; and blow dryers, and absolute necessity. Short or shapely was unflattering; flat and long, stunning. Any girl who had miraculously managed to be blonde– even dirty blonde, even boosted-by-a-bottle-blonde– had the whole school at her pseudo-shiksa feet.

  This particular passage reminded me of Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye as well as all the girls I know, no matter where they are originally, from going into paraxosyms over how beautiful it is to have little or no butt or breasts i.e. being flat and tall. And that is the beauty of all these essays; to see one’s own guilt, worries and many, many affirmations reflected within. Yes the girls in these essays are guilty, but that does not mean that all guilt is debilating or wrong; indeed guilt is good and this is a worthy guide to get you there.