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Humor and pathos on the road to Jewish identity

Special to The Times

THE cover and title of “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” is noticeably edgy. The book seems aimed at a young, hip audience interested in a humorous exploration of the ways Jewish women are beleaguered by guilt. The reasons they feel guilty, we’re told, are manifold: dating non-Jews, not providing enough grandchildren, failing to follow kosher laws, not calling your mother, divorcing the perfect Jewish man and so on.

“Has Judaism survived pogroms, the Holocaust, and countless other calamities only to be lost as we give into the temptation to eat a bacon cheeseburger or substitute davening with sessions on a shrink’s couch?” asks anthology editor Ruth Andrew Ellenson in her introduction. “Our bubbes may have worried that as immigrants to the new country they were ‘too Jewish’ to fit in. Now, over one hundred years later, we worry if we’re Jewish enough.”

But covers and titles can be deceptive. Rather than being just about “girls” and “guilt,” the book is really a collection of strong and moving stories about what it means -- culturally, spiritually and emotionally -- to be a Jewish woman in today’s world.

In “Great, My Daughter Is Marrying a Nazi,” editor and author Jenna Kalinsky takes readers inside her experience of falling in love with a German, marrying him and moving to Germany, only to feel like an exotic among the locals. “My Jewishness had gone from being an easygoing, organic part of me to being both my dirty secret and my entire glaring identity.”

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Living in Germany, surrounded by reminders of the Holocaust, becomes simply too much -- both for the author and her marriage. Though her husband tries to soften her experience by bringing her coffee in the mornings, armfuls of flowers and planning a ski trip, his efforts aren’t enough. “I thanked him, but by then we were flanked on all sides by avalanche. The roar, the noise, made it impossible for me to say thanks loudly enough, or for him to hear me.” Readers follow as history pulls apart the fabric of their marriage.

In “Mercy” by novelist and USC professor Gina Nahai, we enter a powerful story of the author’s childhood in Iran: “And so we lived, my multicultural family and their many layered sorrows, seven Jews and one Catholic in a country that was ninety-seven percent Shiite Muslim.” When the author moves to the U.S. and finds the writer’s voice that will allow her to tell of the thwarted hopes and dreams of Iranian women -- particularly those of her forebear -- she’s aware that in doing so she’s committing a transgression of sorts: "[T]he very act of speaking would ... split open, for so many, wounds they had stitched closed.” And yet, the stories ache to be told.

Ayelet Waldman’s “Land of My Father” tells of the author’s return to her Israeli homeland after living for years in the United States. Having finished college, she’s ready to live up to her father’s dream for her: to serve in the Israeli army and make a home in Israel.

When the commanding officer gives her the chance to avoid serving -- a commitment she’s been trained to see as her privilege and honor -- she comes to realize that living in Israel is not her dream at all, but her father’s. “I could no more bring my father joy by ending my exile [in America] than I could bring myself joy by living in a country where I felt so wrong.”

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Leavening the weighty subject matter are light essays, humorous excursions into meeting Jewish men via an online service called JDate.com, surviving Christmas and playing the game “Spot the Jew.” These jocular tales form the interstitial spaces that allow us to catch our breaths before plunging forward.

“The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” grapples with complex themes. What does it mean to live up to others’ expectations -- or to fail to live up to them? How does cultural heritage shape who we are? The authors answer these questions in various ways: Some cleave close to family heritage, others form new rituals as they go, some make jokes, others fume, and some are honest seekers.

Yet for all the laughter and lightness the book’s presentation suggests, the deepest stories in this collection are the most satisfying.

Bernadette Murphy is a regular contributor to Book Review and the author of “Zen and the Art of Knitting,” a work of narrative nonfiction.


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