Off the Shelf: Finding meaning while wandering

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Essays that combine the personal with the political: that would be a good description of S. L. Wisenberg’s “The Wandering Womb: Essays in Search of Home” (University of Massachusetts Press). Her essays serve as an exploration of her identity as a Jew, woman and American. However, she doesn’t limit herself to any one perspective, so her point of view depends on the lense through which she is looking.

Although Wisenberg grew up in Texas with parents who were born in the U.S., she was still influenced by previous generations who’d emigrated to the U.S. from Europe. In “Grandma Russia/Selma,” she notes that, at times, she writes as if their history was hers personally: “I say that we left the Russian empire. It sounds like I was there, back in the dusty or muddy wooden shtetl with its chickens scratching, and potatoes and onions waiting in the cellar, then on the ship with its smells, ploughing through the Atlantic. But the Russian empire lived and died before I was born.” Her connection to her ancestors’ past and the evils done to them in Europe makes it possible for her to appreciate how the Black population of the U.S. feels about slavery, something she discusses in part two of the essay. Wisenberg writes of the Confederate museums she visits in Selma, where a man talked about the traumas suffered by Southern whites during the Civil War, while ignoring the trauma those who were slaves faced. But the author notes that less than mile away is the Slavery and Civil War Museum, which offers a very different view, focusing on the horrific journey slaves experienced on their way to the Americas. Wisenberg does an excellent job showing how both Jews and Blacks have experienced the U.S. differently than white Christians.

Several essays speak to the fact that Wisenberg has been dealing with severe asthma since she was young. “Notes on Camp” explains how the author came to believe nature is dangerous. Readers won’t blame her for saying that she didn’t understand the appeal of summer camps because she experienced illness and discomfort, including being forced to leave camp due to heath issues. In “The Jew in the Body,” Wisenberg discusses the psychological problems caused by her asthma: she experiences “a voice from my body, a silent voice inside my body, since always, telling me, you do not deserve to live,” partly because she would never have survived the Holocaust. At times, that voice threatens to take over her life and it’s difficult for her to remember all the good things – “the miracles: of light, of food, of wine. Of good company. The pleasures of the body... words [that] can save me” – she has in her life.

The Holocaust and Jewish persecution in Europe also play a major role in Wisenberg’s thoughts. She expresses her disappointment about not experiencing strong feelings during her visit to a concentration camp in “Auschwitz: Like the Back of His Hand.” She notes that the visit “felt like a class field trip. It felt like a failure of imagination, projection. It was not as vivid as a book. There were no people there, only tourists.” She also thinks that the wrong people are visiting: “We are not the people who need to visit Auschwitz. It should be deniers. But they stay home.” She also writes of family members who made it out of Europe before the war (“Luck in the Valley”) and of their buried Jewish past in Poland (“In Wroclaw, Formerly Breslau”).
Many of the essays focus on Wisenberg’s personal life, whether looking for a Halloween party (“Halloween, Chicago”) or traveling with a friend (“Separate Vacations”). She discusses working for a newspaper in Florida before moving to Chicago in “South Florida, Before.” Her problems with some Jewish practices are offered in “Mikvah: That Which Will Not Stay Submerged.” One of the strongest essays in the book is “The Ambivalence of the One-Breasted Feminist,” in which she writes about her experience with breast cancer and her decision not to have reconstructive surgery. Wisenberg questions her reasons for not doing so, wondering whether she wants people to notice her body in its new state or ignore it. She also ponders if the desire to be noticed is something that connects to her life as a writer.

This review only covered a few of the topics discussed in the 28 essays found in “The Wandering Womb.” The works do not appear in chronological order, although clues are offered about which time period Wisenberg is writing. Most of these essays jump from one thought to another, rather than offering a cohesive narrative. Sometimes, this offers readers a wild ride through the subject, although, at other times, it can be difficult to understand the connections between sections. However, all the essays are all well written and consistently interesting.