The Wan­der­ing Womb: Essays in Search of Home

  • Review
By – March 27, 2023

Did you know the mik­vah is sup­posed to be built even before the tem­ple in a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty? That Jew­ish women dur­ing the anti­se­mit­ic Sovi­et Union used axes to hack through nat­ur­al bod­ies of frozen water to immerse them­selves when noth­ing else was avail­able? Or that pael­la was invent­ed to test Jews and Moors dur­ing the Span­ish Inqui­si­tion, due to its heavy use of treyf?

S.L. Wisenberg’s essay col­lec­tion The Wan­der­ing Womb will teach you all this and more. It is a fact-filled explo­ration of the Jew­ish body, the Jew­ish woman and her place or absence in tra­di­tion, and what a Jew­ish inher­i­tance means on a soul-lev­el in Amer­i­ca today.

Wisen­berg rais­es such ques­tions to bring aware­ness to top­ics that receive lit­tle atten­tion. Regard­ing the ori­gins of male cir­cum­ci­sion, she asks: Why could [Abra­ham] not have agreed to sim­ply cut Isaac’s hair … ?” On fam­i­ly puri­ty laws, she won­ders: How can even the newest of a New Age fem­i­nist rit­u­al make up for the his­toric misog­y­ny of Jew­ish law? What is the new rit­u­al to acknowl­edge the fact that the reli­gion was not made for us, for me … ?” Wisen­berg thus calls out the bar­bar­ic and exclu­sion­ary roots of the eth­nore­li­gion into which she was born and with­in which she has lived all her life.

Of all the ways Wisen­berg zeroes in on the unspo­ken, under­ly­ing, and unde­ni­able roots of her peo­ple, none is more pow­er­ful than her essay, The Jew in the Body.” In it, she naked­ly writes down a state­ment that has always haunt­ed her: “ … as a near-sight­ed eight-year-old girl who had had asth­ma since she was only a few days old, I knew that … if … I was tak­en away to a con­cen­tra­tion camp, I would die imme­di­ate­ly. As I was meant to.”

… is this voice one that has trav­eled up and down the DNA lad­ders?” she asks. Did this voice orig­i­nate in our ene­mies … ? In the haters of Jews? Is this the self-hat­ing Jew­ish voice?”

Here, Wisen­berg grap­ples with the issue of inter­gen­er­a­tional trau­ma, quot­ing a woman she knows who works with tor­ture vic­tims: trau­ma lodges in the spinal cord, is car­ried from gen­er­a­tion to generation.”

This is the heart of the book, the ques­tion of ques­tions: Is one doomed if their ances­tors were doomed? Is a liv­ing body in the present a frag­ment of the past? Can we ever tru­ly escape per­se­cu­tion, or do cer­tain blood­lines car­ry its mem­o­ry with­in them? 

While read­ers will cer­tain­ly encounter these big-pic­ture mean­der­ings about the nature of exis­tence, they will also find lighter fare. Cer­tain essays, like Late Night,” will enter­tain read­ers of all stripes who hap­pen to be night owls. And in Spy in the House of Girls,” a Sloane Crosley – esque romp through dif­fer­ent soror­i­ty hous­es, the near­ly thir­ty-year-old writer par­tic­i­pates in the process of pledg­ing — just to see if she can get a bid.

Emi­ly Sulz­man is a writer and PhD stu­dent study­ing lit­er­ary non­fic­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cincinnati. 

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