“The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson (Dutton, $24.95).
When Ruth Andrew Ellenson achieved the writer’s milestone of selling her first book, her father responded in classic Jewish parental fashion.
“He was thrilled and said, ‘Honey, that’s wonderful.’ Then there was a long pause,” Ellenson recalled. “And he said, ‘I guess this means I have to wait longer for grandchildren.'”
As the editor of the newly released “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt,” Ellenson now has both the professional and personal credentials to speak on behalf of any Jewish woman who struggles with the notion of “letting my people down. I’ve always been interested in what’s complicated about being Jewish and how you balance the different parts of life,” said the 31-year-old freelance journalist. “Jewish women have been given opportunities they never had before. We live in a time of choice and so there are myriad new ways to feel guilty.”
Ellenson’s anthology, which consists of 28 essays by some of America’s most prominent Jewish female writers, presents itself as a kid-in-the-candy-store experience for the angst-ridden Jew. Got guilt about marrying a German? Overeating on the holidays? Not thinking about the Holocaust enough? Joining the Israeli army to please your father? Pore through this collection and there’s bound to be an essay that will resonate. Consider the reviews of the book, which range from Publisher’s Weekly to the Los Angeles Times and have been consistently positive — yet far from homogenous. Each critic, it seems, has his or her own favorite group of essays.
“I didn’t want people to only write about the guilt they have because of their non-Jewish boyfriends,” said Ellenson, who’s kicking off a book tour of readings at the Skirball Cultural Center Sept. 15. “I wanted to veer away from stereotypes and I really looked for a diversity of experiences.”
Daphne Merkin in “The Yom Kippur Pedicure” and Tova Mirvis in “What Will They Think,” for example, both explore the legacy of growing up Orthodox and how they continue to embrace and/or struggle with that identity. Kera Bolonik recalls the time she came out to her mother, who divulged her daughter’s lesbianism to her Yiddish club. Rabbi Sharon Brous ruminates on why “she’s a living breathing trigger for other people’s guilt” because of her status as a spiritual leader.
Mothers, grandmothers and boyfriends, however, certainly do not escape scrutiny and they take center stage in some of the funnier and more poignant essays. Cynthia Kaplan’s “American Express” chronicles the writer’s relationship with her ailing grandmother and deftly straddles that fine line between hilarious and heartbreaking. Lori Gottlieb writes about the failure to screen her mother’s calls, while Binnie Kirshenbaum figures out how to honor her mother’s memory without having children. Then there’s Amy Klein, The Journal’s religion editor, who provides a play-by-play account of her online romances in “True Confessions of a JDate Addict.”
In addition to Klein, Gottlieb and Brous, other L.A. contributors include fiction writers Aimee Bender, Gina Nahai and novelist/TV reporter Francesca Segre. What links the anthology together “is the issue of how everyone seeks to incorporate Judaism into their lives even if they don’t fit a traditional Jewish mold,” Ellenson said. “Some use humor, some use introspection, but everyone’s trying to be honest about how they connect or don’t connect to being Jewish.”
Born in Jerusalem and raised in Los Angeles and New York, Ellenson has spent years reconciling various contradictions and complications of identity. The daughter of Rabbi David Ellenson and of a convert mother, Ellenson, in her book’s introduction, writes about attending a church in Virginia to watch her grandmother sing in the choir.
“So there I sat, a rabbi’s daughter in the church of her forefathers, bathed in the ruby light of stained-glass windows depicting Jesus,” she said. “And paralyzed by guilt.”
Ellenson describes growing up in “a practicing Conservative Jewish home with an emphasis on the intellectual. I was always very connected Jewishly, even when I was rebelling,” she said. “Like during the time I was yelling at my father about why can’t we be Buddhists, I was involved in Young Judea and going on trips to Israel. Or how about this? I love Shabbos lunches, but I hate going to services.”
For Ellenson, who received her master’s in fine arts from Columbia University, “rejecting my Judaism has never felt right, nor has trying to be more observant than I actually am. The question of where people find their happy mediums has always fascinated me,” she said. “And that’s what I loved about creating this book. It made me appreciate that through my own guilt, I have been searching for the truth and trying to embrace what I love and what I struggle with.”
Currently at work on her first novel, Ellenson says “an anthology is the best way to explore a question you’re deeply curious about because you’re dealing with a variety of opinions. It allows you think about things in a way that you haven’t before.”
So will there be a sequel to “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt?” Ellenson laughs before answering. “The thought of saying no to that question fills me with guilt.”
Ruth Andrew Ellenson appears with Aimee Bender, Gina Nahai and Lori Gottleib, Sept. 15, 7:30 p.m., Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. $20. To R.S.V.P., call (310) 335-0917 or visit www.writersblocpresents.com.
On Sept. 25, at 2 p.m., Ellenson, Amy Klein, Rabbi Sharon Brous, Lori Gottleib and Francesca Segre will be at Dutton’s Brentwood, 11975 San Vicente Blvd. For more information, call (310) 476-6263.