Going Rogue (at Hebrew School)

  • Review
By – December 31, 2020

Sup­ple­men­tal Jew­ish edu­ca­tion, more com­mon­ly known as Hebrew school, is a well-known source of ten­sion in many fam­i­lies. Casey Breton’s delight­ful mid­dle-grade nov­el places this fact of Jew­ish life at the cen­ter of an engag­ing and seri­ous sto­ry. When par­ents them­selves are unsure about the source of their com­mit­ment to Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, chil­dren are quick to sense hypocrisy. Going Rogue presents this con­flict, while at the same time assur­ing young read­ers that resis­tance to their par­ents’ demands is rea­son­able, a sign of matu­ri­ty and independence.

Ten-year-old Avery Green suc­cinct­ly iden­ti­fies what Hebrew school is in his life — a dream-crush­er.” He lives in a com­mu­ni­ty with few Jew­ish fam­i­lies and his most intense inter­ests are sci­ence, foot­ball, and Star Wars. Not only do these inter­ests offer no con­nec­tion to after-school reli­gious class­es, they even con­flict with them both in his sched­ule and in his val­ues. Avery’s par­ents are not tra­di­tion­al­ly obser­vant, and they have not been able to con­struct a com­pelling argu­ment for Jew­ish edu­ca­tion. The oppor­tu­ni­ty to meet oth­er Jew­ish kids and an amor­phous sense of con­nec­tion with famous Jews, from Sandy Koufax to Albert Ein­stein, fail to impress Avery. Worse, the irra­tional nature of reli­gious belief direct­ly con­tra­dicts his under­stand­ing of the uni­verse. Even Avery’s beloved grand­moth­er, Bubs, offers what seems to be the most eva­sive answer: Don’t wor­ry, bubeleh. When you’re my age, you’ll understand.”

When Avery is final­ly allowed to par­tic­i­pate in foot­ball, he inter­acts with two peers who are polar oppo­sites. Damon is aggres­sive and cru­el, egged on by a father obsessed with win­ning and prov­ing his tough­ness at any cost. Gideon, both a team­mate and a fel­low Hebrew school stu­dent, is the peren­ni­al out­sider — social­ly awk­ward, phys­i­cal­ly unco­or­di­nat­ed, and odd­ly unwill­ing to defend him­self. One of Breton’s achieve­ments in the nov­el is to allow these char­ac­ters to devel­op, avoid­ing clichéd con­clu­sions about their nature and their poten­tial to change. Avery’s Hebrew school is also full of quirky indi­vid­u­als, in par­tic­u­lar Rab­bi Bob, who leads by exam­ple and shares Avery’s love of Star Wars. Even when Avery chal­lenges the appar­ent trib­al­ism of Jew­ish social cohe­sive­ness, Rab­bi Bob is patient and under­stand­ing. After all, if adults con­stant­ly tell chil­dren to judge peo­ple as indi­vid­u­als, how can eth­nic­i­ty or reli­gion deter­mine human con­nec­tions? Avery is not hos­tile or antag­o­nis­tic; Breton’s nar­ra­tive skill frames his rea­son­ing as a nat­ur­al response to adults who have not come to terms with their own doubts.

Avery’s expe­ri­ences in Hebrew school and in foot­ball force him to think about what it means to be a friend, a mem­ber of his fam­i­ly, and of his com­mu­ni­ty. Grad­u­al­ly, Hebrew school begins to seem less irrel­e­vant, and more of a poten­tial resource for his devel­op­ing moral com­pass. Gideon’s pre­vi­ous­ly irri­tat­ing qual­i­ties become con­vert­ed into a kind of wis­dom and his eccen­tric grand­pa, Yapa, becomes a pow­er­ful provider of uncon­di­tion­al love. Even Avery’s par­ents’ con­cerns and their attach­ment to Jew­ish con­ti­nu­ity seem less arbi­trary. Rab­bi Bob’s sta­tus as a Jedi to his stu­dents is not root­ed just in his pos­ses­sion of a gen­uine lightsaber, but in his abil­i­ty to make Jew­ish tra­di­tions real and mean­ing­ful. Casey Breton’s nov­el is a thought­ful explo­ration of what it means to con­scious­ly choose, with the help of role mod­els, a Jew­ish path in life.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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