Not So Shy

  • Review
By – June 21, 2023

Shai Epstein is a twelve-year-old Israeli who has just relo­cat­ed to the Unit­ed States. From Shai’s point of view, her par­ents’ deci­sion to move their fam­i­ly was heart­less. Shai’s father is a mol­e­c­u­lar biol­o­gist who has been pre­sent­ed with a promis­ing career oppor­tu­ni­ty in San Diego. Shai, uproot­ed and lone­ly, dis­miss­es his inno­v­a­tive work on genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied plants with pre­teen dis­dain: I don’t care about Abba’s avo­ca­does.” In adopt­ing the per­spec­tive of an Israeli immi­grant child in Amer­i­ca, Noa Nim­ro­di explores both uni­ver­sal themes of alien­ation and the spe­cif­ic chal­lenges that Israelis might con­front when accli­mat­ing to a new cul­ture. Imag­i­na­tive chap­ter titles, such as Can­dy Helix, Kosher Marsh­mal­lows, and World Peace,” add momen­tum as the nar­ra­tive unfolds.

Shai is as con­fused about her strange new envi­ron­ment as she is con­vinced that adult rules are arbi­trary. Eng­lish pro­nun­ci­a­tion is impos­si­ble, and idioms, even worse. (How can the sug­ges­tion to break a leg” before a per­for­mance not be hos­tile?) Some of her neigh­bors have polit­i­cal objec­tions to her father’s research, caus­ing Shai to resent the deci­sion to move even more. Her new school dif­fers in cru­cial ways from her school in Israel. Nim­ro­di choos­es to focus on the small details of Shai’s new rou­tines rather than on broad­er edu­ca­tion­al dis­par­i­ties. Her unhap­pi­ness is unabat­ing. Usu­al­ly com­mu­nal Jew­ish hol­i­days become soli­tary expe­ri­ences, and anti­semitism sur­faces as an ugly and unfa­mil­iar presence.

Inci­dents root­ed in igno­rance as much as hatred are demor­al­iz­ing, yet they also com­pel Shai to con­nect with her grand­par­ents’ back­grounds in Europe and Iraq. A delib­er­ate­ly ambigu­ous end­ing high­lights the degree to which even her par­ents, famil­iar with ter­ror­ism in Israel, are unsure how to respond to hate­ful events in a new envi­ron­ment. Nim­ro­di is care­ful to empha­size that indi­vid­u­als, not entire eth­nic­i­ties or reli­gions, are respon­si­ble for these actions — although read­ers might look for more insights into the his­tor­i­cal con­text of those actions and their trou­bling legacy.

Friend­ships are a source of both joy and ten­sion for chil­dren, and Shai’s rela­tion­ships with her peers lead to emo­tion­al growth. The fam­i­ly of her new friend Kay-lee has under­gone trau­ma of a dif­fer­ent nature. The girls have more in com­mon than Shai had antic­i­pat­ed, includ­ing the sta­ble pres­ence of a lov­ing grand­moth­er. Nim­ro­di skill­ful­ly weaves her theme of lan­guage and com­mu­ni­ca­tion into this sub­plot, with mov­ing results. When Shai’s fam­i­ly meets fel­low Israeli expa­tri­ates and shares a Shab­bat din­ner with them, Shai finds noth­ing in com­mon with their daugh­ter, and is appalled by the father’s con­stant unfa­vor­able com­par­isons of Israel to the Unit­ed States. The irony that he is dis­loy­al to Israel in a coun­try where Jews face prej­u­dice is not lost on Shai, and only sharp­ens her con­vic­tion that her own father’s career pri­or­i­ties — which have tak­en the fam­i­ly away from their Israeli home — are misplaced.

While there are many nov­els for young read­ers about the trau­ma of leav­ing one’s home to find a new one, Nim­ro­di offers a dis­tinc­tive view of Israelis mak­ing this jour­ney. Read­ers will empathize with Shai’s dis­tress. Iso­la­tion, anti­semitism, and the ever-present shad­ow of ter­ror all play a role — but so do the dis­ap­point­ments and rewards of any young immigrant’s 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.

Discussion Questions