Courtney Zoffness’s book of personal essays, Spilt Milk, is a powerful exploration of a range of experiences that many women face — sexual abuse, childhood trauma, concerns about social justice, and anxieties around motherhood — viewed through a Jewish lens.
In ten essays, Zoffness weaves traumatic memories from her childhood and young adulthood together with her current experiences as a mother of two young sons. She begins with a reflection on the inheritance of anxiety and fear. During her childhood, her parents’ worries about potential tragedy — indicated by their obsession with alarm systems, locking doors and windows, and having emergency bags prepared — created deep anxieties for the author. Images of this hypervigilant parenting are juxtaposed with descriptions of her son’s anxieties and panic attacks, and her fears about her own inability to help him relax.
Zoffness writes about her difficulties navigating a parenting style different from that of her own parents, and how her desire for a healthy family is complicated by the fact that she herself is still seeing therapists, and even astrologists, in order to be a less anxious woman and mother. These anxieties bleed into other areas of parenthood, particularly when her four-year-old son becomes fixated on police officers, an eventuality she describes in “Boy in Blue.” Zoffness’s honest, contemplative essays regarding white privilege and racism and the way society encourages a desire for power and control in young boys make this book extremely relevant and highly engaging.
Some essays focus particularly on Jewish themes. “Holy Body” revolves around an exploration of surrogacy from a Jewish perspective as Zoffness discusses why one of her friends, who is a mikveh attendant, chose to become a surrogate for a Jewish couple struggling with infertility. Zoffness sections this essay into seven Hebrew meditations connected to the mikveh. She contemplates a more progressive approach to the mikveh by recognizing that it has been used by barren and fertile women alike as a means to separate profound moments, including weaning and the reclaiming of one’s own body. Simultaneously, she discusses the surrogacy experience of her friend, who believes in the gratification of goodwill and in the beauty of providing a couple with parenthood. Ultimately, Zoffness feels that surrogacy is not talked about enough in the Jewish community.
Other chapters, such as “Daughter of the Commandments,” humorously yet carefully comment on bat mitzvah party woes, ranging from discomfort about money to a boy crush ruining the party. In other essays, such as “Hot for Teacher,” Zoffness portrays issues that plague women — such as groping, unwanted attention, and a specific case of highly inappropriate comments made by a male student in one of her creative writing courses — to show how they impact her self-perception and her approach to raising two young boys in a country that values power over women. Zoffness navigates motherhood while traumatic experiences from the past and anxieties of the present cause her to continually rethink and contemplate her reactions. Spilt Milk is full of acute observations that any woman and mother will find relatable.
Jamie Wendt is the author of the poetry collection Fruit of the Earth, published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company (2018) and winner of the 2019 National Federation of Press Women Book Award. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals and anthologies, including Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility, Lilith, Raleigh Review, Minerva Rising, Third Wednesday, and Saranac Review. Her essays and book reviews have been published in Green Mountains Review, the Forward, Literary Mama, and others. She holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska Omaha. She teaches high school English and lives in Chicago with her husband and two children.