Being a Jewish teenager by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

For some teenagers, being Jewish plays a major role in their lives. For others, it’s a minor part of their identity, at least until they come face-to-face with antisemitism. Seeing their lives reflected in the novels they read, however, is something both they and their parents can appreciate.

“The Violin Players”

I wish I could say that the reprint of “The Violin Players” by Eileen Bluestone Sherman (The Jewish Publication Society) was out of date, but unfortunately its message is as relevant today as when the novel was first published in the 1990s. It may seem strange to read about a teenager who is not glued to her cell phone, but that’s true of Melissa Jensen who moves from New York City to the Midwest when her father accepts a position at a college there. She could have stayed with her grandparents, but this secular Jew did not want to bend to the rules of their Orthodox practice.

Although Melissa expects to hate her new school, she finds herself befriended by the cool kids and discovers that the school orchestra is far more professional than she expected. Even better, she has a chance for the lead in the school play. She also finds herself attracted to Daniel Goodman, another violinist in the orchestra who is an extraordinary musician. Life seems perfect until antisemitism raises its ugly head. No one suspects that Melissa is Jewish so, when a bigoted, popular classmate makes ugly comments about Jews, no one is willing to tell him to stop – including Melissa. When things start to escalate and Daniel’s best friend is targeted, Melissa must decide whether to embrace her heritage and risk censure, or fight prejudice.

“The Violin Players” is well done and Melissa is an engaging character. The novel contains enough suspense for the pages to turn quickly. Although it teaches a lesson, it’s never preachy and Melissa’s discoveries feel natural and real. The novel will generate discussion in a classroom setting or in a teen book club. It can also be used as a starting point for parents to talk with their teenagers about contemporary antisemitism. 

“It’s My Party and I Don’t Want to Go”

Unlike Melissa, Ellie Katz, the narrator of “It’s My Party and I Don’t Want to Go” (Scholastic Press) loves being Jewish. It’s speaking or standing before large groups of people that scares her. After she has a panic attack during her older sister’s bat mitzvah party, Ellie decides she can’t have the same type of event. However, when the time comes to plan her own bat mitzvah, Ellie doesn’t want to disappoint her parents who are planning a big party. She decides the only way she can prevent the large ceremony and party from happening is sabotage. With the aid of her only friend, Zoe, she makes plans to derail the event that include e-mail hacking, food fights and strange requests to the DJ. However, Ellie discovers that each action has unintended results and those results include hurting the people she loves the best.

“It’s My Party and I Don’t Want to Go” is laugh out loud funny at times and Ellie is a delightful character. The issue of panic attacks is taken seriously over the course of the book, which also makes some good points about the natural self-absorption of teenagers. While it might sound strange, the obituaries Ellie mentally writes for herself when facing her fears are the best parts of the novel. This excellent work can help teens who have performance fears or are very shy: it never talks down to them or pretends their feelings aren’t real. 

“The Castle School (for Troubled Girls)”

Being Jewish only plays a minor role in Alyssa Sheinmel’s “The Castle School (for Troubled Girls)” (Sourcebooks). It’s the forbidden tattoo Moira Dreyfuss gets that’s the final straw for the parents of this troubled teen. Combined with her skipping school and sneaking out of the house at night, Moira’s parents decide she should attend a special school, one that can help her come to terms with the death of her best, and only, friend Nathan. Moira feels she’s being punished by being sent away, something she believes she deserves, but for reasons her parents don’t suspect.

Moira takes an instant dislike to the school and the creepy Dr. Prince who runs it. She believes something sinister is happening behind the scenes, but also finds herself bonding with her fellow students, many of whom she’s surprised to learn want to be there. Although Moira is the novel’s narrator, each student has her own chapter, which describes what brought them to the school – something that adds depth to the narrative.

The plot’s twists and turns are entertaining and surprising – for both Moira and the reader. The novel is also extremely moving: I found myself crying on and off during the last 100 pages, a sure sign that Moira and her friends felt real and alive.