Off the Shelf: Coming of age – part one by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When I was a teenager, few books were published for that age group, except for unappealing romance novels, and even fewer of those contained Jewish characters. I quickly moved to adult books that featured more serious themes. As an older adult, I find myself fascinated by the large number of books written explicitly for teenagers, which are now referred to as books for young adults. I know I’m not the only adult reader of this genre; YA fantasy novels such as “The Hunger Games” appeal to a wide age range of ages. However, many people may be unaware of the increasing number of Jewish-themed works. What is striking is the variety of plot lines featured and the integration of Judaism into these books. This two part-review will look at eight recent works.

“You Asked for Perfect”

After reading an article about the intense competition students in the 21st century face when applying to college, my first thought was that I wouldn’t have been accepted by my alma mater if I applied today. The level of this competition became even more clear when reading Laura Silverman’s “You Asked for Perfect”(Sourcebooks Fire). Ariel Stone, who is in his senior year of high school and on his way to being valedictorian of his class, sounds like the perfect teenager, at least according to the resume he’s preparing for college. He’s taking advanced classes in school, regularly attends synagogue, volunteers at a dog shelter, is first violinist in the school orchestra and makes time for his younger sibling’s soccer games. His life seems under control, that is until he fails a calculus quiz.
It’s hard for Ariel to ask for help because he doesn’t want to ruin his parents’ and friends’ image of him as perfect. Rather than use one of the school’s tutors, he asks a classmate, Amir Naeem, to help. The two teens’ families know each other, although Ariel originally thought Amir was standoffish. What he discovers is that Amir is actually nice, so nice that Ariel finds himself falling for him. Both teens’ parents know their sons are attracted to men: that’s not the problem. The problem – at least for Ariel – is finding time for a social life. He’s not getting enough sleep as it is, which is having an impact on his attention span and his ability to cope. Something may have to give, but the question is whether that will be school, his personal life or his health.
“You Asked for Perfect” contains interesting and likeable characters. The teens are under an enormous amount of pressure – some from their school and families, but also from within themselves. In addition, the novel does an excellent job showing how even involved parents can misread what is happening in their child’s life. Readers may find themselves wishing they could counsel Ariel about his future, and about how life exists outside of high school and college. That’s part of the charm of this novel: the people inhabiting it feel so real you’d like to invite them into your life.

“In the Neighborhood of True”

What do you do when your non-Jewish grandmother suggests that you not mention to her friends that your late father was Jewish and that your mom converted? That’s the problem Ruth Robb faces “In the Neighborhood of True” by Susan Kaplan Carlton (Algonquin). The year is 1958, and Ruth’s family has just moved to her mother’s home town of Atlanta to cope with life after her father’s death. Ruth wants to be popular and attend sweet tea parties and the more exclusive debutantes’ balls, but, to do so, she must hide her Jewish heritage. 
Ruth’s mother is not keen on her daughter taking part in the debutantes’ balls; in fact, she originally moved to New York City to escape from that life. She also doesn’t want Ruth and her younger sister, Nattie, to forget their Jewish heritage. Nattie is happy to attend synagogue services, but Ruth worries someone from her private, exclusive school will see her and ruin her new social life. She and her mother come to an agreement: Ruth can attend the debutantes’ social events if she goes to services. To complicate matters, Ruth falls for one of her fellow students, a Christian whom she’s afraid will break up with her if she tells the truth. Although Ruth admires their synagogue’s rabbi for his stand on civil rights, she’s not sure she wants to make waves or is brave enough to challenge southern ways.
The novel opens with Ruth traveling to a court room in order to testify about an unnamed event. That introduction allows readers to ponder – along with Ruth – what it means to tell the truth about oneself and the world. Adult readers may find the romance aspects less interesting than teens and be irritated about Ruth’s desire to fit in, but her emotions make sense in the context of the time. The opening creates an element of suspense and the novel’s ending is very moving. Parents may want to read this work with their teens because it’s certain to generate conversation about civil rights and personal identities.

“It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories” 

Looking to understand a wide variety of young adult experiences? The short stories in “It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories” edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman (Alfred A. Knopf) feature young Jews from different backgrounds and social circumstances. The stories do have one theme in common: most of the characters feel insecure, which leads them to worry about the direction their lives are taking.
All of the stories are excellent. A few stood out:
“Indoor Kids” by Alex London is a clever look at a gay, Jewish nerd who is navigating life as a counselor at a Jewish summer camp. Whenever he has a problem, he creates a “decision-tree,” which offers yes and no answers to a variety of options. Unfortunately, all branches lead to negative answers, that is until he is rescued by someone just as nervous and insecure.
Amalia, the narrator of “Two Truths and an Oy” by Dahlia Adler, is attending an orientation before her first year at New York University. An Orthodox Jew who attended a yeshiva, she is looking forward to reinventing herself in college. However, she finds herself less able than she thought to leave her past behind.
David Levithan’s “The Hold” is a wonderful, funny and ultimately moving look at what it means to be Jewish, particularly if you don’t fit the traditional mold. Its gay narrator not only explains how different gay life was in the 1980s, but the many different ways he feels one can be Jewish.
Different ways of being Jewish also play a role in “Aftershocks” by Rachel Lynn Solomon and “Jewbacca” by Lance Rubin. In both, characters who are non-observant find themselves having dinner at the homes of their more observant friends. Trying to hide their true Jewish identities turns out to be problematic. 
Although Naomi is only attending the national Jewish youth gathering to help her friend Rachel, she feels uncomfortable in crowds and is not looking forward to the long weekend. However, she finds meaning and courage with someone else just as nervous as she is in Laura Silverman’s “Be Brave and All.”
There should be something of interest in the book for almost any teen. “It’s a Whole Spiel” would be a perfect bar/bat mitzvah or Chanukah gift, one that parents should also read so they can discuss the stories with their young adults.

“A Danger to Herself and Others”

The only Jewish content in “A Danger to Herself and Others” by Alyssa Sheinmal (Sourcebooks Fire) is the religion of its narrator, Hannah. However, this amazing novel will appeal to adults and teens. Instead of finishing her summer pre-college program, Hannah finds herself in an institution for disturbed young women. Something happened to her roommate that put her into a coma, although exactly what occurred is not clear. When Hannah is finally given a roommate, Lucy, at the institution, she decides to make Lucy her new project. 
While this sounds like the beginning of a traditional thriller with an unreliable narrator, Sheinmal does something very different and far more disturbing. To tell more of the plot would ruin the surprises, of which there were many. The novel does generate questions about the nature of our perceptions and what constitutes a “normal” human being. It also raises an ethical dilemma: when and how are we responsible for our actions? “A Danger to Herself and Others” proved to be the most moving and devastating of all the novels in this two-part review.