Steeped in historical past – Chicago Reader

In essentially the most well-known strains of his 1855 poem “Tune of Myself,” Walt Whitman writes, “Do I contradict myself? / Very properly then I contradict myself, / (I’m massive, I include multitudes.)” After studying S. L. Wisenberg’s insightful new guide, The Wandering Womb: Essays in Search of House, it’s clear that she, too, comprises multitudes. 

The Chicago-based creator, editor, and educator explores themes of Jewish identification, womanhood, and embodiment on this nonchronological assortment of essays, which spans many many years of her life. (Earlier variations of 5 entries have appeared within the Reader, the earliest in 1987.) Half memoir, half historical past, half travelogue, The Wandering Womb is wealthy with incisive reflections, private vulnerability, dry humor, and, sure, a couple of contradictions.

The Wandering Womb guide launch
Tue 4/11, 7 PM, Ladies & Youngsters First, 5233 N. Clark, register on-line at, free, 773-769-9299

As a girl, Wisenberg expresses pleasure in her expertise of menses, “the ocean that connects me to all girls,” but she furtively discards her female hygiene merchandise in public bins whereas staying with a male acquaintance who has no trash can in his rest room. She lampoons the superficiality of Greek life whereas taking part in sorority rush as an undercover 29-year-old, solely to confess afterward that “deep down, goddammit, I wished all of it.”

As a Jewish American, Wisenberg writes movingly about generational trauma, tracing her ancestry from japanese Europe by Selma, Alabama, and Houston, Texas. Her household escaped violent pogroms and the Holocaust, and Nazis haunted her childhood creativeness, but she feels ambivalent about patriarchal Jewish rituals and is unmoved by her first and final go to to Auschwitz, which she calls a vacation spot for “vampire tourism.”

In “Grandmother Russia/Selma,” an essay written in 2020, she tells of her ancestors’ migration from Lithuania, then a part of the Russian empire, on the flip of the twentieth century. “We left the empire and didn’t return, didn’t look again—as a result of we weren’t Russian, we had been Jews. They wouldn’t allow us to be Russian,” she writes, adopting the first-person plural as she typically does when writing about her household historical past. “Russia didn’t care. Mom Russia was a big and blue-cold mom who had thousands and thousands extra at house she may deal with indifferently, thousands and thousands dwelling and ravenous within the blue-cold folds of her shawls.” 

This stark picture comes throughout as particularly chilling in 2023, greater than a 12 months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a rustic led by a Jewish president. Though she didn’t rewrite the piece in mild of this battle, Wisenberg acknowledges the vastly modified circumstances in an afternote. 

When her grandparents and great-grandparents arrived within the southern United States, the nation was only some many years past the Civil Struggle. “In a Black-white society, they had been deemed white,” she writes of her Jewish ancestors. “They wore their bestowed whiteness fearfully, then naturally.” Wisenberg is clear-eyed concerning the complexity—and complicity—of assimilation throughout the Jim Crow period, noting that she was born in a segregated Houston hospital solely three months after Emmett Until was murdered. 

The subject of complicity comes up repeatedly as she discusses the historical past of anti-Semitism in Europe earlier than, throughout, and after the Holocaust. Her grandfather remembered pouring boiling oil on native assailants throughout the 1903 Kishinev pogrom. In 1995, the French authorities belatedly acknowledged the nation’s collusion in rounding up French and overseas Jews throughout World Struggle II. And on her go to to Auschwitz, Wisenberg noticed the numerous pictures of Polish martyrs (“priest after priest”); extra emphasis has since been given to the Jewish victims, following an issue over a convent that was established on the camp web site within the Eighties.   

Credit score: Linc Cohen

However this assortment will not be solely a glance again at historical past; Wisenberg additionally explores what it means to be a progressive, feminist, non-Orthodox Jewish lady immediately. In a single essay, she recounts her go to to the mikvah, a ceremonial tub that Orthodox Jewish girls take for purification after their intervals and earlier than their weddings. Wisenberg muses on the strain that she feels between “the historic misogyny of Jewish legislation” and her need to take part in conventional rituals. Though she has reinterpreted sure customs for herself—comparable to asking her rabbi to create a marriage ceremony with out God or Hebrew—she wonders, “How far are you able to go in altering a logo or apply to make it related, earlier than it’s now not Jewish?”

Quite a few essays should not particularly about Jewish themes however deal with components of womanhood at numerous levels of life. I particularly linked with a number of items written throughout or about her late 20s and early 30s (unsurprisingly, given my age). In “Spy within the Home of Ladies”—the aforementioned essay about her incognito, belated expertise of sorority rush—Wisenberg appears to be like again on her faculty years, not a lot with nostalgia however with a wistfulness for what might need been. Regardless of the numerous skilled and private accomplishments of her 20s, she expresses a way of loss for the buddies who’ve slipped away amid the altering seasons of early maturity.   

In a number of items about dwelling with power bronchial asthma, surviving breast most cancers, and trying to train extra when she turns 30, Wisenberg displays on the connection between physique and thoughts, between the bodily and the non secular. “This isn’t ritual as you realize it,” she imagines explaining to her rural ancestors throughout an aerobics session, “however maybe I’m performing a ritual of the secular humanists we now have change into. Or possibly what I used to be doing was spiritual, a bodily prayer to reward the center’s relentless pumping, the continuous needed transferring of components.” 

If there’s one quote that sums up this assortment, I’d argue that it’s a passage from an essay titled “In Wrocław, Previously Breslau.” She writes, “We need to know what’s hidden. Our heritage, Jewish and feminine, is buried within the yard, the good Jewish yard that’s Europe.” In The Wandering Womb, Wisenberg excavates layers of her private, household, and cultural historical past, drawing connections to the current that can resonate with a broad viewers, whether or not or not they share elements of her identification.

The Wandering Womb: Essays in Search of House by S. L. Wisenberg
College of Massachusetts Press paperback, 248 pp., $22.95,

Studying S.L. Wisenberg’s tales, you possibly can’t assist considering that they have to be about her. However when requested if her work is autobiographical, she says, “Bear in mind what Flaubert stated? ‘Madame Bovary, that’s me.’ “Or keep in mind in The Miracle on thirty fourth Road,” she continues, “when Kris Kringle says, ‘There’s the French nation, the British nation, and the…

Sorority rush at Northwestern: an undercover report

Three months earlier than her thirtieth birthday, S.L. Wisenberg determined to undertake a ceremony of passage she’d been too afraid to do when she was a scholar.

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