Once More with Chutzpah

  • Review
By – February 1, 2022

When eigh­teen-year-old Tal­ly Gel­mont and her twin broth­er, Max, sign up for a syn­a­gogue trip to Israel, Tal­ly has more than one pur­pose in mind. The daugh­ter of a Catholic moth­er and a Jew­ish father, Tal­ly hopes to deep­en her sense of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. As she humor­ous­ly quan­ti­fies her goal, I expect to be sev­en­ty-five per­cent more Jew­ish by the end of the trip.” But Tal­ly is also com­mit­ted to help­ing Max, who has become social­ly with­drawn since he suf­fered the trau­ma of a car acci­dent from which he sur­vived but the dri­ver did not. Her attach­ment to her twin has also become a way to mask her own strug­gles. Haley Neil’s new young adult nov­el explores sev­er­al dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences with­in the con­text of its char­ac­ters’ immer­sion in con­tem­po­rary Israel.

Neil is clear­ly cog­nizant of poten­tial read­ers’ polar­ized opin­ions of Israel. Tal­ly express­es aware­ness of the con­tro­ver­sy; in one inte­ri­or mono­logue, she recites a list of such charged issues as Israeli acqui­si­tion of Pales­tin­ian lands, as well as unequal access to health care and jobs. She even reveals that her Israeli grand­par­ents, who live in Flori­da, oppose annex­a­tion of the West Bank.

Ulti­mate­ly, how­ev­er, the nov­el is about Tal­ly. She is a sen­si­tive and bright young woman who mon­i­tors her anx­i­ety and pan­ic dis­or­ders, as well as her acute sen­si­tiv­i­ty to phys­i­cal con­tact. For all of her self-aware­ness, Tal­ly nev­er comes across as self-absorbed. She is an authen­tic indi­vid­ual, not a sym­bol, and read­ers will eas­i­ly relate to her psy­cho­log­i­cal jour­ney as well as her eth­nic and reli­gious one.

The Israel of Tally’s trip is not per­fect, but nor is it a failed soci­ety defeat­ed by its unde­ni­able flaws. When she vis­its Yad Vashem, Masa­da, and the beau­ti­ful beach­es and rich con­tem­po­rary art scene of Tel Aviv, Tal­ly does indeed deep­en her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, whether or not she achieves the sev­en­ty-five per­cent increase she ini­tial­ly want­ed. While Tal­ly is afraid that her own inter­faith back­ground will set her apart from a more obser­vant par­tic­i­pant, Saman­tha, oth­er char­ac­ters reflect the true range of Jew­ish sub­cul­tures; David, the madrich, or trip guide, is from a Yemenite fam­i­ly, and the quirky and out­spo­ken Saron is Ethiopi­an-Amer­i­can. Sev­er­al char­ac­ters are LGBTQ, and open­ness to dif­fer­ent gen­der iden­ti­ties is a reas­sur­ing assump­tion among them. As much as Tal­ly strives for bal­ance in eval­u­at­ing Israeli soci­ety, her appre­ci­a­tion for the country’s his­to­ry, cul­ture, and con­tin­u­ing rel­e­vance to dias­po­ra Jews is evident.

The rela­tion­ship between Tal­ly and Max is the cen­ter­piece of the nov­el. Although Tal­ly nar­rates the sto­ry, as she grad­u­al­ly comes to terms with the unre­solved prob­lems affect­ing her life, Max is also por­trayed with com­plex­i­ty. Max is con­cerned about Tally’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, but he is also unable to process the recent tragedy that upend­ed his expec­ta­tions. Neil has cre­at­ed two mem­o­rable young adults in dia­logue with one anoth­er. Just as Israel is a source of pride and a chal­lenge to improve, Tal­ly and Max look for­ward to a future of change and renewal.

Once More With Chutz­pah is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed for read­ers aged thir­teen and older.

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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