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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.