The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to That Which She Already Knows Too Much About
Even if you have only a passing familiarity with Judaism, guilt is probably the last thing you'd think Jews need instructions for. Stereotypes of domineering parents (but especially mothers) and significant others (especially wives) are everywhere, reinforcing the caricature of Jews as a people defined by guilt. True or not, the experience of guilt resonates with enough members of the so-called “tribe” to deserve some formal exploration. More a guided tour than a how-to book, The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt offers up a collection of essays where the G word serves as a starting point for personal reflections about Jewish identity and culture. Not surprisingly, the book is strongest when its contributors’ examinations of their choices and relationships transcend the whole cute guilt device.
The title demographic of "modern girls" is apparently made up of women who are anywhere from twenty-ish to forty-ish, are relatively affluent and tend to live in New York City. A less overtly feminist project than 2001's Yentl's Revenge, the Girl's Guide turns out to be less about the breadth of Jewish identity than it is about certain -- rather predictable -- kinds of struggles. Personal essays on family and relationships comprise the bulk of the book: the section on family includes several stories about overbearing mothers begging their daughters to get married and have babies. A piece about JDate, the online dating hell specifically for Jews, is both nightmarishly relatable and horribly tiresome. An essay about informal husband hunting flattens its writer into a nearly unbearable cliché. Some of the essays that should be entertaining come off as panicked.
Though a section called "Babes in Goyland" claims to be about "Love, Sex, and Self-Image," there isn't a whole lot of sex. Things like sexual identity and race are not priorities of this volume. Also conspicuously absent is anything about tikkun olam, the central Jewish value of repairing the world, and any awareness of the ways that social action and activism might figure into the lives and consciousness of these otherwise hyper-introspective women. The writers included here also dance around the weightier political issues: Israel figures in as a character, but not so much as a topic. Personal histories are privileged, though the Holocaust gets its share of attention.
Of course, this is an anthology, by definition made up of individual accounts. It’s difficult to establish a sense of collective purpose or history through this format. But the diversity of Judaism also gets lost here. Nearly everyone represented is a Jew of the Upper East Side Manhattan variety (or was, at some point), and the constant invoking of New York City as homeland and cultural mecca gets grating. A ridiculous number of contributors seem to have gone to Brandeis and/or Columbia University. Writers repeatedly make the same references, to Lenny Bruce, pastrami, and therapy of all kinds. Gina Nahai's beautiful piece about being a Jewish Iranian helps break up the homogeneity, as does Rebecca Walker's reflection on naming her newborn son. Baz Dreisinger's candid essay draws connections between "looking Jewish" and other traditions of racial and ethnic "passing." Kera Bolonik gets to be the token dyke, with a piece about her struggles coming out to her family. Mainly, diversity exists through the nationalities of the men these women pair off with.
Most of these kinds of anthologies -- a favored format of "third wave" women -- are tedious to read through all at once, and on the surface the Girl's Guide looked like no exception. But somewhere around Dara Horn's "The Last Jewish American Nerd," I got sucked in, and devoured the whole thing. Yes, the New York myopia is irritating. Yes, the book doesn't pay specific attention to many of the things that the more liberal Jews among us consider priorities. Yes, all the italicized Yiddish-isms can be a bit much. All this would usually make me throw a book like this at the wall. But there’s something cozily satisfying here. Many of the essays are sharp and thoughtful, and the book manages to be compelling and frustrating in similar ways. Maybe it’s impossible not to feel some degree of ambivalence when reading about experiences that are supposed to be close to your own.
Jennifer Bleyer, founder of Heeb magazine (which did its own guilt-themed issue last year), contributes a notable essay, confessing that she feels guilty for her publication having made Judaism -- which she happily considers the ultimate "outsider" group -- seem cool. It’s clear that many of these writers have some desire to assimilate, but also feel a deep need to claim the outsider status that keeps Judaism somehow authentic. Their individual stabs at defining their communities may not add up to the whole of what’s really out there, but their experiences -- and especially their questioning -- shed some light on a culture that I can be proud of, so long as guilt is not our legacy.
The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson