Tweens And Teens
Three novels look at the coming-of-age years.July 10, 2009
Rabbi Rachel Esserman
The Reporter (Binghamton, N.Y.)
The teenage years are a time of questioning: Who am I? What is my spiritual path? What is my relationship to my country and the world? Three recent novels for tweens and teens explore different aspects of those questions.
They are: “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea” by Valerie Zenatti (Bloomsbury), “The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah” by Nora Raleigh Baskin (Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers) and “Spanking Shakespeare” by Jake Wizner (Random House).
“A Bottle in the Gaza Sea” opens with a bang, literally. On Sept. 9, 2003, a bomb went off in a Jerusalem café, killing a man and his daughter who was due to be married that day.
Israeli teenager Tal Levine is profoundly shaken by the bombing, which seems to end all hopes for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Fighting despair and hoping that someone on the other side of the border also longs for peace, Tal writes a letter, complete with her e-mail address, and places it in a bottle thrown by her soldier brother into the Gaza Sea. Although Tal expects to hear from a Palestinian woman, she is answered by Gazaman, a sarcastic young man.
The heart of “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea” is Tal’s and Gazaman’s attempt to get past the stereotypical images they have of each other. Tal admits she may be naive in her hopes and she recognizes that it is impossible for her to truly imagine the lives of the Palestinians. Gazaman finds himself drawn into explaining his life to Tal.
While Zenatti has written a moving story, it is hard for me to get past two points. First, Gazaman’s letters are written by an Israeli, which makes me wonder if his desires are based on reality or only on Zenatti’s hopes. The second is that even though her two characters make a connection, ultimately, they can’t escape history. The book does end on a hopeful, if painful, note.
In “The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah,” the death of her beloved grandmother Nana sends 12-year-old Caroline Weeks on a spiritual search. The daughter of a non-religious Jewish mother and a Christian father, she considers herself someone who celebrates a little of both religious traditions, although neither of them seriously.
However, family secrets, which are revealed after Nana’s death, lead Caroline to seriously contemplate whether or not she is Jewish. Her decision is complicated by the bat mitzvah preparations of her best friend, Rachel Miller, and by an anti-Semitic encounter with a fellow classmate.
Although Caroline’s religious search plays an important part in the story, she is also a typical teen who worries about her class picture and whether or not the boy that she likes likes her. There are also wonderful sections when Caroline thinks about the time she spent with her grandmother. Readers looking for Caroline to fully return to the fold may be disappointed. Yet, this excellent book can serve as a way for parents, particularly those in intermarried families, to open discussions about the nature of family and religion.
Not all woes are political or religious in nature. In fact, it was a relief to encounter Shakespeare Shapiro, who has no problem with being Jewish. However, this troubled, but very funny, teen, has difficulty with almost everything else in his life. “Spanking Shakespeare” tells the story of Shakespeare’s last year in high school.
Most readers will count their blessings that Sarah and David Shapiro weren’t their parents. In an effort to distance themselves from Shakespeare’s grandparents, they did everything different, including naming their two sons Shakespeare and Gandhi. Although his parents’ rocky relationship bothers him, what really concerns Shakespeare is his lack of popularity at school.
The chapters in “Spanking Shakespeare” alternate between sections of Shakespeare’s autobiography and his tales of woe about his daily life, especially his (lack of) a romantic life. Yet, during the course of the year, Shakespeare learns to look not only at his life, but to understand and empathize with the life of someone else.
The book makes for fun reading and some sections made me laugh out loud. Teens should enjoy meeting Shakespeare, and adults who want to remember why the teen years should not be idolized may feel the same.