Oy Vey! Book Offers Guidance to Wrestling with Jewish Guilt

c. 2005 Religion News Service LOS ANGELES _ It came to her, the rabbi’s daughter, while she was sitting in her grandmother’s church. It was the voice of guilt. Ruth Andrew Ellenson, whose mother converted to Judaism and whose father runs Hebrew Union College, where most Reform rabbis are trained, had gone to church to […]

c. 2005 Religion News Service

LOS ANGELES _ It came to her, the rabbi’s daughter, while she was sitting in her grandmother’s church. It was the voice of guilt.

Ruth Andrew Ellenson, whose mother converted to Judaism and whose father runs Hebrew Union College, where most Reform rabbis are trained, had gone to church to hear her grandmother sing in the choir.

But it wasn’t easy. “Was it worse to betray my Judaism by sitting in front of a giant cross, or to disrespect my beloved grandmother by bolting?” she wondered. Unable to decide between the two, Ellenson sat still, “paralyzed by guilt.”

As Jews around the world prepare to observe the High Holidays, beginning with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, on Oct. 3, and culminating in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on Oct. 12, many of them are bound to feel guilty about some of their behavior the past year.

Now, the Jewish women among them, at least, can find comfort in Ellenson’s new book, “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt.”

The term “Jewish guilt” tends to conjure up stereotypical images of nagging, overprotective mothers and their angst-ridden sons. But anthology of essays edited by Ellenson explores in a nuanced way the different kinds of guilt experienced by modern American Jewish women.

In humorous and poignant essays, authors discuss healthy guilt, unhealthy guilt, motivating guilt and paralyzing guilt. Women ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s examine what it means to be a Jewish woman today and how guilt plays into decisions ranging from marriage to career to getting a pedicure on Yom Kippur.

The anthology does not resolve the question of where a Jewish woman’s responsibility lies between her people and herself. But, Ellenson says, the book uncovers a simple truth: A Jewish woman who wrestles with guilt is not alone.

“Jews often feel guilty,” Ellenson, 31, said in an interview, “because there has been so much which the Jewish community and Jews have been threatened with _ their survival, violence, the controversy currently over Israel.” There’s the sense that, “If you don’t stick up for your people, who will?”

“Everybody explained guilt, as an American Jewish phenomenon, as related to the fact that in Eastern Europe, (Jews) didn’t have enough to eat, the Cossacks were around the corner,” said Riv-Ellen Prell, author of the book “Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender and the Anxiety of Assimilation.” There was a fear among many immigrant Jews that the more “American” they became, the less “Jewish” they would be. Many saw assimilation and intermarriage as betrayal of those who suffered to preserve Judaism through thousands of years of persecution and near-annihilation.

The idea of Jewish American guilt has long been associated with Jewish mothers and their sons. In 1965, the best-selling nonfiction book in the country was Dan Greenburg’s “How to Be a Jewish Mother: A Lovely Training Manual.” The cover showed a white-haired woman feeding her grown son a spoonful of what might as well have been guilt.

Until the 1970s, when the feminist movement emerged in full force, it was mainly Jewish men, the sons of immigrants, who felt guilty as they steped beyond the realm of family and into the wider world, leaving their mothers and sisters behind, Prell said.

Now that Jewish women enjoy the same flexibility of movement and freedom of choice, they, too, may feel pangs of guilt about the elements of family or tradition they outgrow.

“If the guilt of our parents was the guilt … brought on by a desperate need to fit in with a society that wouldn’t really accept Jews,” Ellenson says in her introduction, then the women she knows are “struggling with the guilt that springs from finally being accepted.”

Judaism is a religion passed down through mothers. “If Jewish women seem to feel the culture rests on me,” Prell said in an interview, “it’s empirically true.” American Jewish life is not just about what happens in religious school or the synagogue. Judaism is a religion based in the home.

Tobin Belzer, a sociologist who studies Jewish identity issues in young adults at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, pegs Jewish women’s guilt to their having sky-high expectations for themselves. “Guilt is what happens when things don’t turn out exactly as scripted,” Belzer said.

“There are times in which one should feel guilty,” cautioned Rabbi Elliot Dorff, professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. “That’s obviously true when someone has done something violent and immoral, but that’s also true when one has let down one’s community.”

Because Judaism is a minority religion, Dorff said, every Jew’s decisions matter, especially when it comes to intermarriage and raising one’s children Jewish.

“The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” incorporates the requisite pieces on intermarriage, but it also includes an essay by Aimee Bender, a fiction writer in Los Angeles, who feels guilty just for having a good day.

Ayelet Waldman, a novelist in Berkeley, Calif., writes about growing up with a Zionist father, her failed attempt to move to Israel and her ambivalence toward the homeland of the Jewish people: “I am wracked by guilt for having betrayed him, for failing to believe in his ideal, and, even more, for having failed to be happy in Israel in his stead.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous, one of a handful of women rabbis in Los Angeles, writes about how she, as a symbol of religious authority, is an instant trigger for other people to feel guilty about what they’re not doing in their lives.

“Guilt can be a very positive and effective way to get people to do the right thing in the world,” Brous said in an interview. If guilt persuades someone to help the poor, so be it.

For Brous, guilt is a double-edged sword. Not only does she make other people feel guilty, but she herself feels guilty when confronted with some of the more orthodox Jewish establishment who look askance at her rabbinate, because she is a woman.

For others, the element of guilt is more basic.

When Ellenson, for instance, called her father in excitement after finding a publisher for her book, he said, “Oh honey, that’s wonderful!” Then he added, “I guess this means I’ve got to wait longer for grandchildren.”

It didn’t take long for the guilt to set in.


Editors: Check the RNS photo Web site at https://religionnews.com for photos to accompany this story. Search by slug. Also note that Rosh Hashana begins at sundown Oct. 3; Yom Kippur begins at sundown Oct. 12. In second graf, Andrew is CQ.

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