'The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt' At the center of the book is the battle between obligation to one's community and the obligation to one's individual interests and needs. It's that tension that produces guilt — and it's the springboard for a collection of delightful essays.
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'The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt'

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'The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt'

'The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt'

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a minute, we'll talk to health-care workers on the front lines of a global crisis.

But first, got guilt? Ruth Ellenson does. She wrote "The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt," and for this week's book segment, NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates talked to Ellenson about everything from pedicures on Yom Kippur to divorcing the perfect Jewish man. Here's her report.


Meet Ruth Ellenson.

Ms. RUTH ELLENSON (Author, "The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt"): Between the ideal of who you should be and the reality of who you are 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, are all too eager to bring it to your attention, or 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 mistake and screw it up for everybody.

BATES: Or maybe just enlighten everybody. Ellenson is the daughter of a rabbi and a Christian convert to Judaism. Ironically, the idea for the book on Jewish guilt came to Ellenson in the middle of the Methodist service she attended with her maternal grandmother.

Ms. ELLENSON: And I was sitting in church, watching her sing in the choir, and thinking, `What on earth am I doing here?' and the delight I saw in her face by my presence was mitigated by my own guilt for sitting in front of a giant crucifix, and those divided loyalties very much inform who I am and how I approach my religious identity, which I imagine they do for many modern people.

BATES: When she returned home, Ellenson contacted Jewish women writers she admired to ask them to contribute essays on this inner conflict. To her delight, nearly all of them jumped at the chance, and she ended up with an assortment of intriguing essays.

Ms. ELLENSON: That spanned the range from writers like Tova Mirvis, who's an Orthodox Jewish woman who writes beautifully about the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox world, talking about how, for her, guilt isn't induced by an individual relationship with God, but rather by a community that always watches and judges, to writers like Rebecca Walker, who is of African-American and Jewish parentage.

BATES: The book is full of such tugs. Katie Roiphe writes about her feminist mother's campaign to make her a suspiciously retro wife and mother. Daphne Merkin sheepishly reveals how a slow-drawing pedicure made her miss Yom Kippur services. And Kyra Bolinick(ph) discusses how her mother came to terms with having a lesbian daughter.

Ms. ELLENSON: What happens is that Kyra's mother comes to accept it for herself, but worries about the judgment of her community that she lives in. And when she discovers that her community actually isn't going to be judgmental and that everyone in her Yiddish club that she goes to actually also has a gay child, it somehow makes it OK for her to accept it. So not only--it's a particularly poignant example of how a community influences what we do and don't feel guilty about.

BATES: And then there's the matter of Jewish-Americans' relationship to Israel.

Ms. ELLENSON: If you're going to write about something like guilt, the more brutally honest you are in its complexity, the more compelling the essay is going to be. So there were things that I knew I wanted the book to cover, and Israel, for example, was an important one.

BATES: And a volatile one. Ayelet Waldman writes of growing up in a fiercely Zionist home where her father promised Israel was the only place where good Jews would be happy. So after college, she went there to volunteer for a year of army service. And Waldman made a shocking discovery.

Ms. ELLENSON: She does not relate to Israel, does not support it, is very much an American, and finds herself in a state of exile in the very place she was supposed to think of as her homeland. And on a personal level, I have gotten a lot of people reacting to that essay, saying, `This is the type of ambivalence I feel, but feel unable to talk about.'

BATES: At several readings, angry audience members have wept as they've told Ellenson how much damage she's done by making public debates that are normally kept within the Jewish community, and it's exactly that struggle, the battle between obligation to one's community, with its dictates and traditions, and the obligation to one's individual interests and needs, that is at the center of this book. It's that tension that produces guilt, and that, says Ruth Ellenson, has value.

Ms. ELLENSON: The truth is guilt is not always about emotion. Sometimes it shows you that you have a conscience. And sometimes it shows you--in choosing which guilt you accept, it shows you who you are and which guilt you reject, it also shows you who you are.

BATES: And maybe even who you're not. Ruth Ellenson says the evolution of feminism and liberal Judaism in the last 40 years has given the women in "The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt" something their mothers and grandmothers didn't have: a chance to define themselves on their own terms. What's not to like? Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

BRAND: And you can hear Ruth Ellenson reading from the book. Go to our Web site, npr.org.

Back in a moment with more DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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