Off the Shelf: Mitzvah projects and new schools

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I always celebrate when I see Jewish-themed novels being published for the younger generation, particularly tweens. “Eddie Whatever” by Lois Ruby (Carolrhoda Books) seemed perfect for our annual b’nai mitzvah issue because the plot centers on a bar mitzvah student and his mitzvah project. The publishers also sent a copy of “AfterMath” by Emily Barth Isler (Carolrhoda Books), which features a Jewish main character facing a difficult time in her life.

In “Eddie Whatever,” 13-year-old Eddie Lewin is not thrilled to have to do a community service project for his bar mitzvah, wondering how he’ll find the time what with juggling schoolwork, bar mitzvah prep and baseball practice. He’s even less happy to be roped into becoming a volunteer at the Silver Brook Pavilion nursing home. The residents refuse to learn his last name, calling him Eddie Whatever, and argue about trivial matters, some of which he doesn’t understand. Eddie does make a connection with a few of the residents, but problems arise when their possessions start going missing. Eddie knows he didn’t take anything, but someone is trying to make him look guilty. Plus, he’s worried about the tension he feels at home, and even though they deny it, he wonders if his parents are going to get divorced.

Eddie’s story, which is told in the first person, is engaging from the start. It helps that he basically a good kid, but not such a goodie-goodie that he won’t appeal to readers. Eddie notes how many things he’s not good at (including baseball), but his willingness to forge ahead makes him someone worth emulating. The plot contains several interesting twists and turns, and some serious material concerning the history of a few residents. However, “Eddie Whatever” was definitely fun to read and would make a worthwhile book for tweens to share with their parents. 

The word fun, however, does not describe “AfterMath.” The adjectives that come to mind are powerful and moving. Twelve-year-old Lucy, who also narrates her story in the first person, is attending a new school because she and her parents moved after her younger brother, Theo, died from a congenital heart defect. While her parents’ lives remain relatively stable (they are commuting to the same jobs), Lucy feels lost in their new home. It doesn’t help that the students in her grade survived a school shooting years before and lost many classmates, including one who used to live in Lucy’s new home. 

What surprises Lucy that her classmates speak openly about the shooting, but that makes Lucy feel her grief about Theo’s passing is less important. It’s not easy making friends at school since most of her classmates ignore her as if she doesn’t exist. Lucy also feels alienated from her parents: her father lives in his own reality and her mother keeps redecorating the house, as though new furniture will make everything alright. Lucy longs for them to talk about Theo and to acknowledge the changes in their lives. 

“AfterMath” is a wonderful and emotional novel. The story captured me from its beginning and I loved the lessons Lucy learns about herself and her parents, particularly that parents don’t always deal well with their own sorrows. Yet, the work is not preachy or condescending. Although aimed at tweens, adults readers can also appreciate this novel – whether or not they have children with whom to share it.

Reading these two books also made me think about myself when I was the characters’ age. I’ve written before how there were few serious novels – and even fewer Jewish-themed ones – when I was that age. However, even if authors had been writing for tweens, they could not have written these books. When I was a tween/teen, b’nai mitzvah students did not have to do mitzvah projects as do the students in “Eddie Whatever.” I’m not sure when those became common, but they were not done in my community in the late 1960s, nor were the students I tutored in the 1980s required to have one. The projects do add something to the process of becoming an adult – making students learn about helping others, something that hopefully they will continue to do for the rest of their lives.

As for the trials Lucy faces in “AfterMath,” while there were siblings who became ill and died, no one worried about school shootings when I was young. They may not have been unknown at the time, but I don’t remember hearing of any, nor being afraid to attend school. We never had active shooter drills, although I have some vague memory of nuclear attack alerts (did we hide in the hallway with our heads’ down?), but have no idea if that is real or imagined. In junior high, we were debating the Vietnam War and petitioning to let female students wear pants to school, something that feels so long ago.

But that’s the beauty of these two books: they gave me a window into a different world. I also believe they can help tweens better understand their own feelings by exploring the dilemmas Eddie and Lucy face, and help adults appreciate the challenges tweens face today.