In a talk about Jewish guilt yesterday at the Joseph Slifka Center, Ruth Andrew Ellenson spoke about one of the authors in her new anthology, “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt,” who was inspired to write an essay after resolving ambivalent feelings about her achievements.
Ellenson read an essay by Aimee Bender describing a realization that Bender and her friends often shared all of their bad news without talking about their successes, prompting Bender to put up a sign in her house that read “House of Love and Bragging” and to encourage everyone in her life to talk about their achievements.
Bender’s experience, Ellenson said, illustrates the conflict between a traditionally Jewish emphasis on community support and the American celebration of personal achievement.
“As Americans, we were raised to believe in the supremacy of the individual,” Ellenson said. “And to be Jewish is to know that is a lie.”
Modern Jewish women, she said, have the opportunity to practice their religion on an equal standing with men, so they feel guilty if they do not fully embrace their Jewish heritage. Due to sex segregation at religious services her great-grandmother attended, Ellenson said her ancestor had to lean over a balcony far away from the rabbi in order to hear. But Ellenson, who is the daughter of two rabbis, said she too often takes equal treatment at services for granted.
Judaism has changed so much over the last few generations, Ellenson said, that many women feel torn between the past and the present.
“I’m sure [my great-grandmother] would be very ashamed of me,” she said.
Ellenson said her new book discusses modern Jewish identity and the “push-and-pull” that many modern Jewish women feel. She said she believes the role of Jewish women is too often oversimplified by prominent Jewish men like Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, who focus on the stereotypes of the Jewish mother, the nagging wife and the Jewish-American Princess while creating far more complex male characters.
“Jewish male guilt has gotten its due,” she said. “I think Jewish male guilt is what we often think of as Jewish guilt.”
Ellenson said she decided to write her book to remedy the lack of attention paid to female Jewish guilt. Some of the women she approached about contributing were writers whom she “hugely admired,” she said, while others had particular stories she felt needed to be shared.
While some students in the audience said they thought the talk was enlightening, others said there was not enough discussion of broader issues in Judaism.
“It’s a cool event that really speaks to how a Jewish girl can live her life in a modern way,” Romy Drucker ’07 said. “Guilt is definitely something that Jewish girls have.”
But Sarah Frasure MED ’08 said the other audience members may have missed the bigger point Ellenson was trying to illustrate about Judaism and its modern applications.
“I thought it was really interesting,” she said, “But I wasn’t really sure why people chose to focus the discussion on women’s guilt.”
Bender’s essay is one of 28 pieces in the collection, which Ellenson compiled and edited.