Finding Self and Home in S.L. Wisenberg’s “The Wandering Womb”

As a reader and a writer of “a certain age,” I get excited when I have the chance to read the work of mature voices. And while I do find joy in humorous meditations on the woes of womanhood I am also looking for texts that are reflective, wise, and worldly. Enter S.L. Wisenberg.

A reader doesn’t have to be a Jewish feminist of a certain age to find something that resonates in S.L. Wisenberg’s compelling collection, The Wandering Womb: Essays in Search of Home. These pieces are far more than personal essays. Wisenberg weaves her personal experience growing up in Houston, Texas as the grandchild of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants with reflections on her own experience as a woman in the world. She connects her observations to literature and history, writing a book that hums with both the past and contemporary life.

Wisenberg’s first note in the acknowledgment is that the collection was written over several years. This is apparent to the reader as the author’s age in one essay may be twenty years off from her age in the next, yet the overall effect is a cohesive portrait of a writer living a life rich with experiences. The essays range in content from girlhood classes at Neiman Marcus (“The Year of the Kneesock”), to her infiltration of the rush system at Northwestern University (“Spy in the House of Girls”), to her study of Jewish Mikvahs (“Mikvah: That Which Will Not Stay Submerged”), to musings on adult hospitality (“Something to Sell”). This luxe tapestry of stories and ideas creates a vivid image of Wisenberg as a woman, as Jewish, and as a thinker in the world.

Wisenberg opens the titular essay with an explanation of hysterikos, the ancient idea that if a woman had any ailment, physical or emotional, it was undoubtedly related to her wandering womb, as the uterus was want to float around the body unless it was doing its most important job, growing a child. Throughout the piece, the author characterizes the womb as a pear, beggar’s bowl, feral creature, and vilde khaya (wild animal), and she connects this wandering womb with women’s desire to be elsewhere, to escape their circumstances. In episodic segments, Wisenberg moves from Andre Breton’s Lunch in Fur to Plato to Josef Bruer’s Case of Anna O, the woman who develops a hysterical cough at the bedside of her tubercular father. Perhaps Anna just wished to escape her ailing father, to join the music she hears from another room, muses Wisenberg. The piece is nuanced and complex — a reader will return to it finding some new pearl upon each reading.

“South Florida, Before” is not only a love letter to old Miami, before South Beach became the playground of movie stars and models, but it’s a meditation on the author’s relationships with women, more accurately womyn, and her exploration of her sexuality. Wisenberg paints beautiful sketches of the women of her youth, a couple they called the “nymphs”; Debra, who may have been Israeli or Mexican; Anna, who had her own “Cha cha lady.” Each time Wisenberg gets close enough to make a move, she realizes that the spark is not there. Eventually, on the cusp of leaving Miami, she connects with a young man and realizes that it’s a he, not a she, whom she’d like to bring back to her apartment. Many years later, she writes with nostalgia for a South Beach that is no more, as is so often the case as time progresses.

“Auschwitz: Like the Back of his Hand” opens with the stark revelation, “I went to Auschwitz because it seemed the place had been with me always. But when I was there, I couldn’t feel the weight of history.” Wisenberg then introduces the reader to an acquaintance, Alan, who claims he knows Auschwitz like the back of his hand. He’s obsessed with it — seems to know everything about it, and yet the author seems bored. She confesses to having purchased a bootleg tape of Enya at Auschwitz. “What does it mean that I was willing to buy a tape at an extermination camp? That I was willing to turn my mind from the past, from the horrors … for the sake of a bargain?” Wisenberg resists the adulation of the camps because visiting them seems more like an act of tourism than that of respect. Ultimately, she feels more about observing dank smelling snails atop the headstones at a Jewish cemetery than she did about her visit to Auschwitz. She’s “thankful” that the snails made her feel something. This essay invites readers to wonder what it means to “visit” historical landmarks. I’m still thinking about it.

The three essays I discuss here are illustrative of Wisenberg’s range and complexity as a writer. The collection includes far more, from the funny to the sobering — all of which are astute and thoughtful. Her style is expansive, and her essays illustrate a broad spectrum of creative work. This book is at once intellectual, deeply personal, and delightful. I’m looking forward to reading it again.

The Wandering Womb: Essays in Search of Home
By S.L. Wisenberg
University of Massachusetts Press
Published March 31, 2023