You probably don’t have to think too hard to guess what my feelings are of the stereotypes of Jewish women as guilt-inducing shrews. I’m not much of a fan, to say the least. (For more on debunking that particular myth, check out Joyce Antler’s latest book, You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother) However, some stereotypes do, in fact, come from somewhere, and the truth of the matter is that I am the most guilt-susceptible person you’ll meet. It’s actually quite fantastic.
And as much as this sounds like something I should be working out on an analyst’s couch, I like to see it another way. I think guilt has a lot of power to impel our virtue. As case in point, I give you my recent decision to attempt to stop buying new sweat-shop made clothing. This leaves me far fewer options than you’d imagine, although I’ve been getting sound shopping advice from such organizations as Co-Op America. My mother—perhaps the Ur-source of both my guilt and my values—accused me of launching this new scheme just to make it impossible for her to buy me clothes. (No comment.) As I explained to her, I just can’t deal anymore with the thought of seven-year-old children sewing my garments for pennies a day. I wish I could say it was a nobler sentiment than that—but I’d be lying. The sheer guilt of it started to turn into lead in my stomach, and a new Rosh Hashanah resolution was born.
Of course, guilt, like modesty, honesty and other fun –sty values, is only useful when it’s self-produced. We can’t count on others—like, say, those in positions of power—to be powered by guilt as much as by their own proclaimed altruism. But what we can do is harness our own feelings of guilt, when they arrive, and let them pull us toward more ethical behavior. That way, we can help turn that pesky stereotype on its head and improve the world at the same time—killing two birds with one stone. (They’re metaphorical birds, though, so don’t feel too bad about it.)