Book Review for “Conversations with My Body: Essays on My Life as a Jewish Woman” by Elana Sztokman.
Summary: “Elana Sztokman arrived in Israel in 1993 as a young religious mother wearing a long skirt and a hat covering her hair. Today, nearly 30 years later, after spending years fighting for women’s rights in Orthodoxy, writing books about gender in religion, and eventually leaving that world behind, she confronts the personal struggles behind the public persona, revealing the traumas from her past that affected her entire relationship with her body. From two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Council Award comes a refreshing and very personal exploration of cultures of the female body in Jewish life. This collection of essays – marking the 25-year anniversary of her feminist awakening and spanning a diverse career of research, writing, and advocacy around Jewish women’s experiences – offers political and personal insights and retrospectives on some of the most burning issues today.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Non-Fiction, Women; Settings: Contemporary, Israel; Other Categories: Diverse Authors – Jewish, #OwnVoices, Essays.
I always find writing reviews of non-fiction to be more difficult than writing about novels. This is even more the case when I know the author, as I do with this book. Elana and I were colleagues for a short while (too short, if you ask me), and I got to know her fairly well on both a professional and personal basis. This was, of course, after I’d read and reviewed her book “The War Against Women in Israel,” and also after we found ourselves in a protest rally together in January of 2017 (you can guess what we protesting). In any case, I believe I’m well aware of Elana’s staunch feminist stands, and I can attest to her writing skills. So, when she asked if I’d read and review her newest book, and offered to give me a copy, I didn’t hesitate for an instant. (I hope that this familiarity will allow me to call her by her given name and not her surname, as is my usual practice.)
While reading this book, it struck me that Elana has a very unique ability to look at the practices of how orthodoxy treats women, from the inside out. As someone who grew up within that world, and tried to follow its rules and practices, her rebellion feels both more painful and more honest than say, some sociologist or psychologist who is either not Jewish or has never led a religious life. Sure, their objectivity in researching this aspect probably lends some credence to their theories and conclusions, but they can’t ever understand the mind-set of the women who actually live in this world, at least not truly. Because of this, I found Elana’s essays to be not only interesting, but they felt real and honest and heartfelt. Elana tells us stories of her own struggles that sometimes make us wonder how she ever endured. Her survival is even more miraculous because she still identifies as being a religious Jewish woman, and she still seems to believe in God with a very deep, spiritual faith. I am in awe of Elana because of this, and believe she is easily one of the strongest women I’ve ever met.
I should admit that I’d actually read a few of these essays before – both some that appeared in some publications, as well as some excerpts from her book. This collection of essays, which span 25 years of writings, is both expansive and exhaustive, but in a good way. Through them, we really get an excellent idea of the nuances and intricacies of this essentially misogynistic sect of the Jewish religion. In addition, in the final chapters here, Elana gives us excerpts from her doctoral dissertation. In this part, there are sections of her research that any outsider would read and say “this is a cult, and a dangerous one at that” and not be far off the mark (in my opinion). On the other hand, Elana also makes the case that as restrictive as the orthodox world looks, the secular world isn’t a whole lot better regarding how it treats women and girls. They give them the freedom to don whatever they like on their bodies, but then blame them for getting sexually assaulted or raped because of how they dress, who they go around with, or how they act in public. As my dear departed mother would have said “we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.”
Yes, there were times when I thought that maybe Elana could have edited down or given excerpts of one or two of these essays, because some of the information seemed a bit repetitive; pieces on similar topics appeared in several different publications, and they were all included in full. I also found some of the parts of the dissertation to be a bit too clinical and dry for my taste, but I understand why she included them in this book. They give a level of background that also shows that Elana isn’t the only woman out there who isn’t totally comfortable with how the Jewish orthodoxy treats women and girls. What upsets me is that many of the things that the founders of feminist movements (and even suffragettes) were fighting for back then, are still things women struggle with to this day. That’s what makes this a very important book, and I urge both men and women to read it, and I’ll give it a very solid 4.5 stars out of five. (And by the way, I totally ADORE the cover of this book! Just gorgeous, no?)
Lioness Books and Media released “Conversations with My Body: Essays on My Life as a Jewish Woman” by Elana Sztokman on January 30, 2021. I would like to thank the author for giving me a copy of this book for review. This review was also published on my Times of Israel blog.
This novel qualifies for the following reading challenges: New Release Challenge (#11).