by Paula L. Freedman
First sentence: “When Ben-o came over on Saturday for movie nigt, my dad answered the door wearing gray silk pajama bottoms and his Math Teachers Play by the Numbers T-shirt, an unlit pip clenched between his teeth.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s a lot of questions about religion and God in this. Plus some 7th-grade kissing. If we had it at the bookstore I’d probably waffle between putting it in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) and YA (6-8) sections. It could easily go either place.
Tara Feinstein is your typical New York City middle schooler. She has two best friends, Rebecca and Ben-o (thusly named in fourth grade when there was a Ben D., even though he’s since moved away), and is looking forward to 7th grade. She’s been attending Hebrew School for the past few years — her mother, who is Indian, decided that Tara needed to get in touch with her Jewish (from her father) side — and is wondering whether or not to go through with her bat mitzvah in December. And like a typical middle schooler (at least one in my house), she has questions. About whether or not going through a bat mitzvah is somehow denying the Indian side of her. About whether or not there is a god. About why Ben-o is acting so strange and Rebecca seems to be hanging out with a girl that Tara just Doesn’t Like. Typical middle schooler stuff.
There really isn’t much overall conflict in this. Mostly it’s like life: a series of ups and downs. Tara and Rebecca accidentally ruin a priceless heirloom sari that Tara’s been given by her aunt. The new friend Rebecca has turns out to be a bit of a kleptomaniac. Ben-o turns out to like like Tara, but covers it up by hanging out with another girl, which is confusing to say the least. So, there is Drama (which, on the one hand, will make this book imminently relatable to everyone, but I was a bit Done With, only because there’s so much middle school Drama in my own house that it was a bit overkill for me).
What I did enjoy was the melding of the cultures. How Tara’s Indian aunt called Tara’s Jewish grandmother “Ruthie-ji”. Or that the grandmother would bring a matzoh ball soup to a Diwali celebration. Or the way Tara melded the two at her bat mitzvah: wearing a dress made out of the ruined sari and serving Indian food. What better way to celebrate the good things in all cultures and traditions? I also enjoyed her musings about God and the afterlife and religious traditions. It’s that which kept me reading in spite of my Drama overload. And it’s was those elements that made the book good (for me).