November 06, 2007

Explorations in Judaism

Marne can't really get why her mother is so...vague in response to her great idea to spend time with Aunt Carole in Hawaii. Dad tries to explain that Mom's not close to her sister, Aunt Carole, but really, who is Mom close to anymore these days? Since her little sister's disappearance years before, Marne and her family have been in limbo. There's too much work and too much worry and too much left unspoken in Marne's life. She'd love to get away—and Hawaii coincides neatly with her best friend Kim's family vacation as well.

Hawaii is meant to be a relaxing escape to a new world, and it is—there are gorgeous guys, great beaches, the works. Yet, Hawaii is also stressful in unexpected ways. Upon arrival, Marne finds that Aunt Carole isn't Carole anymore—she's Aunt Chaya. She's married to a rabbi, has seven kids, and she's the head of a community of Hasidic women who are a force in their neighborhood like nothing Marne's seen. Marne's family is secular, and don't even attend temple for holidays, so nothing could have prepared her for her adoring girl cousin, who won't look at her because she's "not dressed" when her legs are bare, or for her uncle, with his beard, or for her intense boy cousin and his gorgeous psalm singing. No meat and dairy in the same kitchen? And the whole neighborhood is invited over to Friday night supper?

Hawaii is awash with so much that is new that Marne almost drowns. What has she gotten herself into!? These people are weird. There is nothing cool about how they wear so many clothes while the sun is shining and people are on the beach. Hello? It's Hawaii. And what's wrong with talking to boys? What makes Aunt Chaya think she can tell Marne who she can and can't talk to?

There's a steep learning curve to Marne's summer vacation, and both she and Chaya have to temper their expectations. Marne learns there is something to be said for the Hasidic traditions, and the family's more conservative ways, as she experiences "the sudden quiet, the comfort" that enfolds the family from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, the Shabbat. When Chaya has to call on Marne to lend a hand in an emergency, Marne learns that she is stronger than she believed, and what Chaya does for her community has value.

After weeks of feeling that she is both a stranger and alien, Marne has taken the first steps to fitting in when Kim and her family arrive for their family vacation. Marne is overjoyed, but finds out the hard way that she has changed. Kim is the same as always, but Marne's not on the same wavelength anymore. Finding a place for herself and an identity is what Marne needs, and now she's determined to find a spiritual identity for herself as well.

Strange Relations is the rare book that details the inner life of a religious household in contrast with a more secular world view. Frequently the storyline is lost in explanation, and at times the Hasidic family members seem more like spokespersons for conservative Judaism than characters in a novel, but Marne's struggles are genuine and the search for a spiritual identity is one that will engage serious-minded older teens.

This review was first published in the October '07 Edge of the Forest Children's Literary Journal.

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