Guilty Consciousness

By Ruth Andrew Ellenson

Partially adapted from the introduction to The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt, Ruth Ellenson, ed. (Plume, 2006).Between who you are and who you should be–that unreachable ideal–lies guilt. And when you’re Jewish, there’s no shortage of people who are willing to point out just how guilty you should feel. Families, rabbis, and communities happily, but perhaps not so helpfully, bring it to your attention, and you can even agonize over it yourself. For me, it often takes the form of the following internal reprimand: “Jews have barely managed to survive for thousands of years, and you, you little pisher, are going to make one bad decision and screw it up for everybody.”

The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to GuiltBut guilt can also be constructive. In fact, the book I edited, The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt, practically owes its existence to Jewish guilt in its many forms. The idea came to me in an odd setting: A small town church in Lynch Station, Virginia. I was sitting with my Methodist grandmother, who, if she knew the word for nachas, was having some of it while showing me off to her friends in the choir. She was singing about Jesus in front of a giant cross. I was watching her. And then my expensive Jewish education kicked in and I felt truly strange. My grandmother caught my eye and beamed down at me, delighted by my presence. Oy. I was paralyzed by guilt.

Was I contributing to the erosion of my culture? Perhaps. But as I soon found out, I was hardly alone in my emotional experience. Talking to other Jewish women at home, I found that many felt constant pressure to stay connected to family, community, and Torah. Some found it unbearable and rebelled: One woman I know secretly fantasized about marrying a Muslim just so her parents would shut up about her being single. Another spent the month of December seeking out Christian friends whose trees she could decorate, pleading her case as a victim of Madison Avenue and Hallmark commercials about keepsake ornaments. Another publicly flared up in anger when her non-Jewish spouse was spurned by her family and she herself was treated as a traitor to the tribe, but alone at night she secretly worried that her parents might be right.

They weren’t alone. Every time the topic of guilt came up, my fellow Jewesses would be bursting with stories of their own–full of pent-up feelings and strangely hilarious tales about how their individual freedom and sense of duty had duked it out. Let’s face it: opportunities for Jewish women to feel guilty today are compounded, thanks to the enormous strides of feminism and liberal thought. Many Jewish women (though certainly not all) have choices our bubbes never dreamed of. The world is our non-kosher oyster: We can become rabbis, or have no more connection to Judaism than a passing thought on Yom Kippur that maybe we should skip lunch. We can go study Talmud at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem or walk around wearing a T-shirt that says “Yo Semite” without fear of being hauled off by either a beit din or a roving white supremacist.

But if the opportunities for Jewish women to express ourselves have increased exponentially, so have the ways to feel guilty. If the guilt of our parents was the guilt of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, brought on by a desperate need to fit in with a society that wouldn’t really accept Jews, then the women I know are Portnoy’s daughters–struggling with the guilt that springs from finally being accepted. Much like Irish, Polish, and other turn-of-the-century immigrants to America who were once marginalized, most of us are simply white folks now. But is this a good thing? Just how assimilated do we really want to be?

Many of my peers seemed to have two responses to this dilemma: sanctimonious observance (the kids who paid attention in Hebrew school) or total obliviousness (the kids who beat up the kids who paid attention in Hebrew school). I wasn’t comfortable with either response. I knew Judaism was not the only attribute that defined me, but I was certain that it formed the most important core of my self. And still the question–How much do we owe our heritage, and how much should we follow our hearts?–lingers.

It would be easier to rebel against the constant sense of obligation if there weren’t so much to love about being Jewish. It is an unparalleled source of warmth, comfort, intellectual richness, and spiritual meaning for me as I navigate the world. As a kid I found myself bizarrely eager to share with my friends that I called my father Abba, not out of homage to a Swedish rock group, but because it meant “father” in Hebrew. I felt profound love sitting around tables on holidays and sharing meals with people who were engaged morally and intellectually in the world, comfort in knowing that most Jews would get my jokes, and a real fascination with the amazing course of Jewish history and the stories of the Torah and Talmud. When I visited Israel, the strange thrill I felt when I saw Hebrew graffiti in the alleyways of Jerusalem was equally powerful as the sense of awe I felt when I recited prayers that Jews had chanted for thousands of years.

My anthology is not called The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Being Good and Nice for a reason. Some of the voices inside are funny, some are angry, and some are perplexed. I hope that they’ve resonated with readers as much as they resonated with me. Sitting in church that day watching my grandmother, I wish I’d known I wasn’t the first–or the last–Jewish woman to feel that my loyalties were as divided as Solomon’s baby. It helps to know that I’m surrounded by women who are struggling to define themselves and be true to Judaism at the same time.


About Ruth Andrew Ellenson

Ruth Andrew Ellenson is a journalist who edited the anthology The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt which received the National Jewish Book Award. She has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Forward.