The book cover shows an abstracted body, its limb unconnected, and with no head.
Credit: Courtesy the author

In the most famous lines of his 1855 poem “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman writes, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” After reading S. L. Wisenberg’s insightful new book, The Wandering Womb: Essays in Search of Home, it’s clear that she, too, contains multitudes. 

The Chicago-based author, editor, and educator explores themes of Jewish identity, womanhood, and embodiment in this nonchronological collection of essays, which spans many decades of her life. (Previous versions of five entries have appeared in the Reader, the earliest in 1987.) Part memoir, part history, part travelogue, The Wandering Womb is rich with incisive reflections, personal vulnerability, dry humor, and, yes, a few contradictions.

The Wandering Womb book launch
Tue 4/11, 7 PM, Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark, register online at, free, 773-769-9299

As a woman, Wisenberg expresses pride in her experience of menses, “the sea that connects me to all women,” yet she furtively discards her feminine hygiene products in public bins while staying with a male acquaintance who has no trash can in his bathroom. She lampoons the superficiality of Greek life while participating in sorority rush as an undercover 29-year-old, only to admit afterward that “deep down, goddammit, I wanted all of it.”

As a Jewish American, Wisenberg writes movingly about generational trauma, tracing her ancestry from eastern Europe through Selma, Alabama, and Houston, Texas. Her family escaped violent pogroms and the Holocaust, and Nazis haunted her childhood imagination, yet she feels ambivalent about patriarchal Jewish rituals and is unmoved by her first and last visit to Auschwitz, which she calls a destination for “vampire tourism.”

In “Grandmother Russia/Selma,” an essay written in 2020, she tells of her ancestors’ migration from Lithuania, then part of the Russian empire, at the turn of the 20th century. “We left the empire and didn’t go back, didn’t look back—because we were not Russian, we were Jews. They wouldn’t let us be Russian,” she writes, adopting the first-person plural as she often does when writing about her family history. “Russia did not care. Mother Russia was a large and blue-cold mother who had millions more at home she could treat indifferently, millions living and starving in the blue-cold folds of her shawls.” 

This stark image comes across as especially chilling in 2023, more than a year into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a country led by a Jewish president. Although she did not rewrite the piece in light of this war, Wisenberg acknowledges the vastly changed circumstances in an afternote. 

When her grandparents and great-grandparents arrived in the southern United States, the nation was only a few decades beyond the Civil War. “In a Black-white society, they were deemed white,” she writes of her Jewish ancestors. “They wore their bestowed whiteness fearfully, then naturally.” Wisenberg is clear-eyed about the complexity—and complicity—of assimilation during the Jim Crow era, noting that she was born in a segregated Houston hospital only three months after Emmett Till was murdered. 

The topic of complicity comes up repeatedly as she discusses the history of anti-Semitism in Europe before, during, and after the Holocaust. Her grandfather remembered pouring boiling oil on local assailants during the 1903 Kishinev pogrom. In 1995, the French government belatedly acknowledged the nation’s collusion in rounding up French and foreign Jews during World War II. And on her visit to Auschwitz, Wisenberg observed the many photos of Polish martyrs (“priest after priest”); more emphasis has since been given to the Jewish victims, following a controversy over a convent that was established at the camp site in the 1980s.   

Credit: Linc Cohen

But this collection is not only a look back at history; Wisenberg also explores what it means to be a progressive, feminist, non-Orthodox Jewish woman today. In one essay, she recounts her visit to the mikvah, a ceremonial bath that Orthodox Jewish women take for purification after their periods and before their weddings. Wisenberg muses on the tension that she feels between “the historic misogyny of Jewish law” and her desire to participate in traditional rituals. Although she has reinterpreted certain customs for herself—such as asking her rabbi to create a wedding ceremony without God or Hebrew—she wonders, “How far can you go in changing a symbol or practice to make it relevant, before it’s no longer Jewish?”

Numerous essays are not specifically about Jewish themes but address elements of womanhood at various stages of life. I especially connected with several pieces written during or about her late 20s and early 30s (unsurprisingly, given my age). In “Spy in the House of Girls”—the aforementioned essay about her incognito, belated experience of sorority rush—Wisenberg looks back on her college years, not so much with nostalgia but with a wistfulness for what might have been. Despite the many professional and personal accomplishments of her 20s, she expresses a sense of loss for the friends who have slipped away amid the changing seasons of early adulthood.   

In several pieces about living with chronic asthma, surviving breast cancer, and attempting to exercise more when she turns 30, Wisenberg reflects on the relationship between body and mind, between the physical and the spiritual. “This is not ritual as you know it,” she imagines explaining to her rural ancestors during an aerobics session, “but perhaps I am performing a ritual of the secular humanists we have become. Or maybe what I was doing was religious, a physical prayer to praise the heart’s relentless pumping, the continual necessary moving of parts.” 

If there’s one quote that sums up this collection, I’d argue that it’s a passage from an essay titled “In Wrocław, Formerly Breslau.” She writes, “We want to know what is hidden. Our heritage, Jewish and female, is buried in the backyard, the great Jewish backyard that is Europe.” In The Wandering Womb, Wisenberg excavates layers of her personal, family, and cultural history, drawing connections to the present that will resonate with a broad audience, whether or not they share aspects of her identity.

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

Local Lit: S.L. Wisenberg collects her thoughts

Reading S.L. Wisenberg’s stories, you can’t help thinking that they must be about her. But when asked if her work is autobiographical, she says, “Remember what Flaubert said? ‘Madame Bovary, that’s me.’ “Or remember in The Miracle on 34th Street,” she continues, “when Kris Kringle says, ‘There’s the French nation, the British nation, and the…