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 But Tally is also committed to helping Max, who has become socially withdrawn since he suffered the trauma of a car accident from which he survived but the driver did not.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 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.