Tag Archives: Jewish

Shmutz by Felicia Berliner

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Shmutz by Felicia Berliner

Felicia Berliner. Shmutz. Atria, 2022. ISBN 978-1982177621 272 pp. $27

****

A young ultra-Orthodox woman details her discovery of porn in this fascinating novel about religion, sexuality, and rebellion. Eighteen year old Raizl has always had a head for numbers and gets a dispensation to work as an accounting assistant in a jewelry company, and a scholarship to attend college and take accounting courses. The scholarship comes with a shiny laptop (it’s not clear how she connects to the internet) which is presumably for assignments, and access to therapy.

The Internet is full of people having sex, discovers Raizl. She learns the English words for names of body parts she only knows in Yiddish, and from watching illicit videos it’s a slippery slope to eating bacon and egg sandwiches, cheeseburgers and fries, changing into tight jeans in the restroom at school, and fooling around with boys at the beach. In the midst of this, she has increasing responsibility in the accounting job, increasing belligerence towards her therapist. She shares a Maccabeats video with her little sister, and goes on several dates arranged by the shidduch, eventually accepting a suit from an auburn-haired young man who informs her no computers will be allowed in their home.

Bonus points for clever placement of hamantaschen on the cover. The writing is immediate and both authentic teenager and authentic ultra-Orthodox. Scenes detailed the porn Raizl watches and later, her fantasies, are untitalling for this reader, reduced to observation of the mechanics. The story ends were any good YA novel leaves off: at a launch point for a new beginning of sorts.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #Shmutz via #NetGalley

See You Yesterday by Rachel Lynn Solomon

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See You Yesterday by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Solomon, Rachel Lynn. See You Yesterday. Simon & Schuster, 2022. ISBN 978-1665901925 432 pp. $19.99

*****

Barrett (named for the poet) Bloom is looking at her freshman year of college as the opportunity of a do-over. High school was hell: her expose in the school paper on a corrupted grading system for star tennis players led to her being a social pariah, but also bullying, the loss of a good friend, and a deceptive, mean prom date who took her virginity just so he could brag about deflowering her as revenge for her getting his brother kicked off the tennis team. On her first day of classes, Wednesday, September 21, Barrett discovers her no-show roommate is Lucie, the former friend (whose boyfriend was the one who got kicked off the team!) and the day gets worse from there. She botches her interview with the school paper, is unprepared for physics 101, and accidentally sets fire to a frat house. She runs away, gets lost, finds her way to campus, passes out in the common room, and…. wakes up again on Wednesday, September 21.

Stuck in a Groundhog-Day like time loop, the only bright and shining part of her day is getting to know Miles Kasher-Okamoto, the son of her physics teacher, who seems to be stuck in a time loop of his own. Their bristly temperaments towards each other slowly become sparks as they try to figure out why they are stuck, and agree to approach getting unstuck together from Mile’s more scientific leanings and Barrett’s magical ones. They enjoy going on adventures with no consequences, traveling, exploring, getting tattoos, buying a lot of rescue dogs, and narrowly escape death.

Another approach to find their way back to their reality is to right past wrongs, and this becomes an opportunity for Barrett to try to repair her relationship with Lucie, for Miles to allow his addict brother Max to make amends, and for Barrett to face the shitty things that happened to her on prom date–including confronting Cole Walker– and clue both Miles and her Max in, so she can begin to heal. The pair even tries to track down a former professor from UW who taught a very popular class on Time Travel for Beginners, and while her advice is ultimately helpful, nothing helps, until a missing sock provides an epiphany.

I was thinking of this book as Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl meets Casey McQuiston’s One Last Stop: while only two are about the college experience and two are about time loops, all three novels have deeply fleshed out, real new adult characters alongside interesting and non-stereotyped supporting characters strong setting, a compelling story, a sweet, strong first time romance, great pacing, and honestly? just perfect voice and writing.

I loved See You Yesterday for the theme of acceptance and the author’s normalizing what might still be considered marginalized people. Barrett’s mother has dated both men and women, and her current love interest is on the verge of proposing; another character isn’t so sure she likes men all that much and is looking forward to exploring; Barrett is curvy and (mostly) unashamed and gets comfortable being adored as she is; Miles is Asian American, and both are Jewish, but Miles says he is not half anything when he’s telling Barrett about some of the comments he’s heard (presumably from other Jews) about not being a matrilineal Jew. As a Jew by choice, I love seeing myself reflected back in what I’m reading, and their improvised Shabbat on a Wednesday was just so lovely. Barrett’s observation that “Much of Judaism is about making do with what you have, and I’ve always loved that there are so many ways to observe” resonated with me. It should be noted the setting of the book takes place close to the High Holidays, and while they are not mentioned, it is a time of reflection, apologies, atonement, and new beginnings.

I also really loved the pop culture woven throughout–the age of the protagonist means she has a mom that grew up in the 2000s and her introduction to the Gilmore Girls and love of all things from the turn of the 21st century is a nicely woven thread throughout the narrative.

The title is great and I don’t love the pink cover, which features a sketch of the characters at three points in time and coordinates with the author’s last YA book, Today, Tonight, Tomorrow.

I flipped to Good Reads to note I’d finished the book, and realized Rachel Lynn Solomon wrote my favorite book (thus far) of 2022: Weather Girl! As in Weather Girl, the Seattle setting features strongly into the narrative.

One of my favorite things to tell kids embarking on their higher education journey is that college is what YOU make of it. Watching Barrett come to this realization that it’s not college that will change her, but that she will change, is so satisfying.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #SeeYouYesterday via #Netgalley

Weather Girl by Rachel Lynn Solomon

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Weather Girl by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Solomon, Rachel Lynn. Weather Girl. Berkley, 2022. ISBN 978-0593200148 352 pp. $6

*****

I am in love with everything about this book. I appreciate my romance with a side of issues, peopled with real, imperfect characters, and Weather Girl’s protagonist Ari Abrams struggles with depression, managed by therapy, anti-depressants, and a fake-it-til-you-make it attitude. She struggles to keep her game face some days at her job as a television meteorologist, where her boss and her boss’s ex are creating a toxic work environment instead of the mentoring Ari had been hoping for. After an Emmy gets hurled through the window at the local Hilton, Air and the sports broadcaster on her shift, Russell Barringer, make a drunken pact at the annual Christmas party to Parent Trap their bosses into getting back together to create more office harmony, and find themselves bonding at swing dance lessons, a company retreat where Ari slips and breaks her elbow, her first hockey game on a double date with the bosses, and finally, an actual date to watch a solar eclipse.

Ari is fresh off a breakup and single dad Russell hasn’t dated in years, and it’s quickly apparent that the sparks between them aren’t just desperation. While Ari accessorizes with weather-themed jewelry and is on a single-handed mission to bring back the brooch and seems very comfortable in her skin and with her own desire, Russ defines himself as fat and is more self-conscious than Ari about getting naked in a refreshing and vulnerable twist. Part of Ari’s evolving to be more authentic is coming to terms with her own mother’s mental illness, that is just now getting addressed, and her mother’s lack of stability as a parent and in her romantic relationships.

The scheming to get Seth and Torrance back together seems to be working, and Ari is finally getting the things she needs to grow at her job, and things are great with Russell… until the bosses figure out what’s going on, and Ari sabotages the whole thing.

I loved Ari’s voice, which is sometimes funny, sometimes anxious, and wholly real. The chapters are titled like weather headlines and are cute, clever, and yet not over-the-top. Ari’s brother, his chef husband and their wise beyond their year five-year-old twins are strong characters, as is Russell’s twelve-year-old musical theatre geek daughter. Jewish practice is woven throughout, and an importance touchstone in the book. The sex is real: not just PiV, no immediate effortless orgasms, and with a hefty dose of consent, anxiety and insecurities. Most satisfying are the adult conversations Ari manages to have–with her brother, with her therapist, with Torrance, with her mother and with Russell. Her bravery to sort out the messy parts of her life is aspirational. This is book I want to own and re-read, and it’s going on my shelf next to Get a Life, Chloe Brown.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #WeatherGirl from #NetGalley.

The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Danan

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The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Danan

Danan, Rosie. The Intimacy Experiment. Berkley, 2021. ISBN 978-0593101629 336 pp. $16

*****

Best romance I’ve read this year (so far). Author Rosie Danan tackles dating, consent, slut shaming and Judaism in this sexy novel about Naomi Grant, a sex worker and former porn star looking for a venue for complement her online and streaming site Shameless with live and lively lectures on sex, intimacy, dating and pleasure. Naomi connects at a conference for educators with Ethan Cohen, a hot young rabbi looking for a way to reinvigorate continuing education and increase membership at his first congregational pulpit. With not much to lose, the unlikely duo contrive a seven session series to cover the gamit of meeting someone to date to how to end things and survive a breakup. With less that a dozen folks at the first session, and so few attending a speed dating event that Ethan and Naomi just have to pitch in, subsequent sessions increase in attendance exponentially… and so does the discomfort of most of the synagogue’s Board members.

Fiesty Naomi and compassionate Ethan have instant attraction, and are beautiful people, but they are also refreshing flawed, aware of their flaws, and disclose their flaws. Naomi struggles with residual trauma from high school, having reinvented herself after nude photos meant for her boyfriend go viral; Ethan struggles to connect to his remaining family and to maintain the respect of his board (and keep his job). Their characterizations are complex, their backgrounds pretty different, and yet… this is a OTP if ever there was one.

As a Jew by choice, I crave to read romance with Jewish themes, and such books are few and far between. I’d like to think I completely “got it” from the occasional Hebrew phrase to the culture of practice to the lessons from Torah and Talmud that Ethan and Naomi share. The Intimacy Experiment does not come off as a religious story, although faith plays a strong role, and thus should not alienate non-Jewish readers.

There is a lot of talk about sex, but really only one steamy scene (and it’s totally hot, and tempered with uncertainty and honesty). Danan could have gone into more specific detail about how the Jewish tradition incorporates the values of consent and mutual pleasure in sexual relationships, especially as Ethan is continuously trying to justify the course, but maybe because it’s so couched in marriage and procreation.

The book (almost!) concludes with the best self-care, post-breakup advice, ever, because some unfortunate protests lead to Naomi delivering her final class to students at her former high school, instead of the participants at Beth Elohim. But, if there is no HEA or HFN ending, it’s not a romance, right?

My review is not doing justice to the clever writing, bravery and honesty of Rosie Danan; her skillful plotting so that Ethan and Naomi speed through the set topics of the lectures as they apply them in real life; the authentic voice of her characters; the humor; the attention to every detail. I can’t wait to see what synagogue is going to pick this for book club; I volunteer as tribute to lead it.

I read #TheIntimacyExperiment on #NetGalley the same week it came in on hold for me in OverDrive at my library… and read it AGAIN, because it was just that good.

The Only One Club by Jane Naliboff illus by Jeff Hopkins

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The Only One Club by Jane Naliboff illus by Jeff Hopkins

Naliboff, Jane illus. by Jeff Hopkins. The Only One Club. Flashlight Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0972922531 32 pp. $

***

The Only One Club is a sweet, if slightly didactic, story about inclusivity. The only Jewish girl in her class is assigned to make Hanukkah crafts as her classmates make Christmas decorations. She decides to put herself into the Only One Club. When everyone wants to join, she finds something unique about each friend, and even her teacher. The illustrations are straightforward.

This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Rabbi Alan Lew

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Lew, Alan. This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. Little, Brown 2003. ISBN 978-0316739085 288 pp. $26

*****

An overview of the High Holidays that lead me to a lot of soul searching, apologies and forgiveness, this book about the Days of Awe offers Jews a clearing understanding of the path from repentance to forgiveness starting not with Rosh Hashana, but actually back in Elul with Tisha B’Av. Rabbi Alan lew is insightful, profound and accessible. I would even argue it has reach beyond a traditional Jewish audience to anyone seeking to make meaning and develop a practice of apology and seeking forgiveness.

“What is your role in the recurring disaster(s) in your life?” is a central question in the book that I personally keep returning to; this is an annual re-read.

Purchase where there is a population to benefit from this book.

Market Day by James Sturm

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Market Day by James Sturm

Sturm, James. Market Day. Drawn and Quarterly, 2010. ISBN 978-1897299975 96 pp. $21.95

****

This wonderfully subtle story set in the early 1900s about an artisan rug maker trying to make ends meet as he starts a family is lovely, but slow and dark. His craft is being replaced by cheap machine-made carpets. The spare writing and flat illustrations are marvelously done. I especially loved the transitions between Mendelman’s observations and the rugs he weaves and how the tones shift to brighter (though still muted ones) when he comes hopefully upon a new venue to sell his wares.

The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green by Joshua Braff

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Braff, Joshua. The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004. 259 pp. ISBN 1-56512-420-0 $22.95 A/YA

***

You don’t need to be Jewish or to have grown up in the late 70’s / early 80’s to appreciate this coming-of-age tale by New Jersey Braff. Jacob Green, the middle boy child in a kosher family, has a verbally abusive narcissistic father who is more like a fifth child than a dad, throwing temper tantrums over his son’s learning disability.