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The Myth of Jewish Guilt

What is it about Jewish guilt? One woman says she forever diets because of her Jewish guilt, while another blames Jewish guilt for her constant overeating. Jewish guilt is the culprit for why you are so tidy, or so messy, date too much, or too little, indulge your children or discipline them. Jewish guilt explains why you worry about your parents, your children, your cleaning lady, the poor of Africa, or why you worry that you don’t worry enough.

Jackie Mason notwithstanding, Jews drink, Jewish men fix cars, Jewish women don’t really pray in the direction of Bloomingdale’s and married religious Jews don’t punch holes in their sheets. The only place you’ll find a Jewish mother sitting in the dark, waiting for the bulb to change is in a dilapidated Borscht Belt casino. And the routine about Jewish guilt stopped being funny 20 minutes after the gefilte fish bit went stale.

Yet the commonplace canard about Jewish guilt insists on lingering, in print, in conversation and as the stand-up comic’s standby. More important, those who invoke the stereotype insist that it reflects a genuine Jewish affliction. This is nonsense. Worse, it is pernicious nonsense. What this persistence does reflect is the ongoing bleeding of serious Judaism into kitsch Judaism. So, herein, a plea to close the hospice door and let these exhausted clichés fade into their goodnight.

There is no credible empirical evidence — I’ve looked hard and carefully — that Jews feel more unwarranted guilt than others. The hypothesis is of course too amorphous to confirm or disconfirm with reliability; interestingly, however, when it comes to testable mental states such as psychosis, the data suggests that Jews suffer less than average. To be sure, sensitive, reflective individuals are discomforted when they disturb the traditions, the communities and the families to whom they feel attachments. This is true of Jews… and everyone else.

Judaism is, in fact, deadly serious about guilt. Every fall, Jews stand for hours in synagogues, reciting their sins and asking forgiveness (Note: always in a communal context, with liturgy always phrased in the plural). Guilt is institutionalized, ritualized in daily prayer, part of the fabric of religious practice and language, but it is never personalized as an ineluctable trait of individuals. If I repeated an “It’s my Jewish guilt” line to my Hasidic mother, she wouldn’t have the vaguest idea of what I was talking about; her traditionally religious grandchildren would be equally uncomprehending. Russian Jews don’t get the gag, nor do Argentine Jews or Syrian Jews. Nor do Israelis. Nor, for that matter, would much older American Jews.

How, then, did this bromide about Jewish guilt attain its status as a distinctive Jewish disposition? Unlike jokes about kishke, which Jews actually ate (and eat), and such slurs such as the Jews’ association with money — originally propounded by non-Jews — the Jewish guilt syndrome is a Jewish creation, the invention of the previous generation of assimilated American Jews (see Portnoy, Alexander). When these Jews became untethered and estranged from Jewish tradition and the established forms of expiation, they created a psychologized specter of guilt as a “Jewish condition,” a Judaism so lite, it fits on an HBO laugh track and on your friend’s T-shirt.

A recently published book, “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” (Penguin Group USA), exemplifies the breadth of this presumption. Unlike the sophomoric parade of Jewish-mother books that, incredibly, still makes its way to the humor shelves of Barnes & Noble, this anthology features well-written contributions by significant, contemporary Jewish women writers. But while each entry describes some episode of guilt, crucial differences among them should be emphasized. Some are heartfelt accounts of their authors’ struggles, often ongoing, with the demands of Jewish tradition and the pressures of their Jewish subcommunities. The excerpt reprinted in this newspaper by the invariably brazen Daphne Merkin is representative of these conflicts. These are worthy investigations, as are the explorations of Jewish women experiencing guilt about their Christmas trees, non-Jewish romances or trading their expected domestic lives for careers. They are of particular interest to us because they are our stories (though, undoubtedly, you could find the same strains among women calibrating their lives as Methodists and Mormons, Shias and Sikhs).

However, other contributions to this book gush with ludicrous and often offensive extrapolations from the authors’ own experiences to a national neurosis. What is striking — and sociologically significant — is not what these authors say, but the ease with which they say it. The tone is set by the editor’s introduction, in which she asserts that Jews are only too delighted and eager to make others feel guilty. Then she reduces her rabbi father’s discomfort with her dating a non-Jew as typical guilt-tripping. And so it begins.

Molly Jong-Fast, Erica Jong’s daughter, asserts that “we suffer two great inheritances of the Jewish people: irritable bowel syndrome and guilt,” and deems our quintessential Jewish way of life as “praying on a shrink’s sofa.” A recurrent theme is the daughter’s difficulties with her mother, magnified to represent the irredeemable villainy of all Jewish mothers. Lori Gottleib, for example, complains that nothing she does is good enough for her mother, who is “not abusive or even mean-spirited. She’s just, well, Jewish.” Katie Roiphe, writing about the “infinite voraciousness” of Jewish guilt that refuses to allow anyone to be happy, is upset because her mother would like her to have children: “Could it be that lurking inside all the Jewish feminist mothers of the 70’s is a 1950’s housewife who values china patterns and baby carriages above the passions of the mind?”

Well, actually no. And this spiteful accusation demeans a generation of pioneering Jewish women. (And by the way, hoping that your child will have children of her own is not peculiarly Jewish, is not anti-feminist and is not equivalent to valuing china patterns.) Other essays in this collection illustrate even more dramatically a Judaism diminished to the depths of the banal. In one loopy piece, the writer submits that being fat is a universally recognized feature of Jewish women. And do you know why Jewish women eat so much? It’s a response to the Holocaust, she explains. Oh, my goodness.

Lighten up, some might chastise. Why so sensitive? This misconstrues my gripe. Nations, ethnicities, do have distinctive characteristics, and Jews have enough of them to keep humorists busy for a long time. But humor and self-criticism gel only when they attach to something real. Alas, as the mythology of Jewish guilt attests, American pop-Judaism converts Judaism’s rich complexities to shtick and slogans. The platitude becomes a defining reality. And that’s not funny at all.

Joshua Halberstam is a writer in New York City and the author of “Schmoozing: The Private Conversations of American Jews” (Berkley Publishing Group, 1997).

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