Every Jewish woman living anywhere from California to New Jersey has at least one thing in common, said best-selling author Ruth Andrew Ellenson, something as strong as any tradition.
“Everybody has a story about guilt. We cannot agree on Israel, religious observance, or kashrut, but we all can agree about guilt — which seems to be universal.”
On Wednesday, May 11, Ellenson will share humorous insights from The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt, the best-selling book she edited, with guests at the Main Event of the Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County. The event is chaired by Debbie Friedman, Wendy Friedman, and Melissa Jerushalmy.
In the program, “The Joy and Oy of Being a Modern Jewish Woman,” the award-winning author will explore what it is to live in today’s world, delving into such subjects as intermarriage, lesbianism, to become or not to become a Jewish mother, and being the perfect Modern Orthodox daughter.
“I feel like typical Jewish lectures are full of heavy issues discussed in a serious way,” said Ellenson in a phone interview with NJJN. “I feel a bit of laughter will get you a lot further.”
The book is a series of often humorous autobiographical essays by notable Jewish women writers in which they explore feelings of guilt about being too Jewish or not Jewish enough, about being less than perfect or falling into a dreaded stereotype.
“The division of loyalties often occurs between who you actually are and who you are expected to be,” said Ellenson. “It’s in this grey area where the conflicts occur.”
Women’s Philanthropy director Audrey Napchen said the theme dovetails with its efforts “to offer activities that bring women together as part of a greater community” and “to take a big community and make it smaller by allowing us to get to know one another.”
While always a factor in Jewish philanthropy, the role of women in the Jewish world has changed dramatically in recent years, Napchen said.
“This program will allow us to appreciate and value our lives as Jews and women,” she said. “Yet we will be able to take a step back and laugh about it.”
Conflicts arose for Ellenson, the daughter and stepdaughter of rabbis, when she became interested in secular culture. “As my act of teshuva [repentance],” she said, she began to write for the Forward while also writing for People magazine. Her father, Rabbi David Ellenson, is president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
“My inspiration had to come from somewhere,” laughed Ellenson. “My father loves to claim being my artistic inspiration.”
The Guide, which won the National Jewish Book Award, takes on the conflict in “a fun, accessible way so no one feels alienated,” said Ellenson.
“You don’t have guilt without pleasure,” she said. “It would be more accurate to call the book the Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt in the Post-Feminist Era — but that’s not as catchy.”
“I meet women constantly who say, ‘My mother made me feel guilty all the time, but I’m not like that; I never make my daughter feel guilty,’” laughed Ellenson. “And the daughter is sitting right there, shaking her head.”