Call­ing Cobber

  • Review
By – January 18, 2021

Sheri Sinykin’s newest nov­el art­ful­ly com­bines sev­er­al issues of great inter­est to mid­dle-grade read­ers. Eleven-year old Jacob Cob­ber” Stern lost his moth­er six years ago and his mem­o­ry of her is grad­u­al­ly fad­ing, a loss near­ly as painful as her death. Cobber’s father’s own grief has made him emo­tion­al­ly unavail­able, and even Cobber’s best friend — new­ly enrolled in Hebrew school — has become less acces­si­ble to him, becom­ing a source of sad­ness to him. The most sta­ble anchor in the boy’s life is his nine­ty-nine-year-old great-grand­fa­ther, but recent­ly his mem­o­ry laps­es and acci­dents have forced Cob­ber to con­front the pos­si­ble loss of one more per­son in his life. Child­hood depres­sion, com­ing to terms with death, and issues of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty all find expres­sion in this believ­able and sen­si­tive sto­ry of one boy’s life, as he learns to seek and accept sup­port for the life events which over­whelm him.

The unusu­al place­ment of a great-grand­fa­ther, rather than grand­fa­ther, at the novel’s cen­ter, height­ens the urgency of Cobber’s fears as well as the chang­ing nature of Jew­ish Amer­i­can life. Set in the year 2000 in a small Wis­con­sin town with few Jew­ish fam­i­lies, Cobber’s sto­ry reflects the loss­es of con­nec­tion with their past reflect­ed in the Stern family’s ten­u­ous self-def­i­n­i­tion as Jews. Papa-Ben, almost one hun­dred years old, still remem­bers life in Rus­sia and his dif­fi­cult process of assim­i­lat­ing after immi­grat­ing to the Unit­ed States. His wife and chil­dren have died, mak­ing him an old tree with no roots,” and his grand­son Lar­ry, Cobber’s father, has aban­doned the Jew­ish prac­tices with which was raised. Although Cob­ber attends Sun­day school week­ly to hon­or his late mother’s wish­es, he balks at the idea of prepar­ing to become a bar mitz­vah when his best friend begins after­noon Hebrew class­es in prepa­ra­tion for that mile­stone. When his Eng­lish teacher asks Cob­ber and his class­mates to write haiku poems about their iden­ti­ty, he is forced to admit that he feels no con­nec­tion to any­thing larg­er than himself.

Rather than roman­ti­ciz­ing an osten­si­bly rich­er Jew­ish past, the nov­el rais­es sub­tle ques­tions about what it means to be Jew­ish when that iden­ti­ty is freely cho­sen. Chal­leng­ing his father, Cob­ber asks if an oblig­a­tory bar mitz­vah is tru­ly impor­tant: I can still be Jew­ish, right? Isn’t it like being white? A label? Some­thing you just are?” His father’s ten­ta­tive response that being Jew­ish can be much more than a mean­ing­less cat­e­go­ry is uncon­vinc­ing, giv­en his own iso­la­tion from his com­mu­ni­ty. There is no facile con­clu­sion about what it means to be a Jew. Papa-Ben’s roots in the Jew­ish past have lost a viable con­text in the present, and their rel­e­vance to Cobber’s search for mean­ing is unclear. Sinykin presents Cobber’s strug­gle for his own solu­tion, includ­ing a sin­cere form of per­son­al spir­i­tu­al­i­ty with­in Jew­ish tra­di­tion, with sub­tle­ty and balance.

One of the great­est achieve­ments of this book is the way in which Sinykin embeds the most pro­found ques­tions about love, loss, what it means to be human and to be Jew­ish, with­in the inti­mate scale of one fam­i­ly cop­ing under extreme pres­sures. There are moments of humor, when Cob­ber and his friend joke and tease one anoth­er, as well as scenes of heart-break­ing sad­ness, as Cob­ber and his father attempt to cope with past loss­es and inevitable future ones. Papa-Ben and Cob­ber stand at oppo­site ends of the life cycle, alone in their mourn­ing, but also embrac­ing one anoth­er and find­ing strength in a com­mon tie to Judaism.

Call­ing Cob­ber is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed and includes an Author’s Note” and a use­ful glos­sary of Hebrew, Yid­dish, and oth­er terms.

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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