Shi­ra and Esther’s Dou­ble Dream Debut

  • Review
By – February 12, 2024

In Shakespeare’s plays, the Bible, and oth­er time­less works of lit­er­a­ture, the con­fu­sion of two iden­ti­ties often plays a cen­tral role. Char­ac­ters in these sto­ries may be twins, sib­lings, or even indi­vid­u­als who col­lude in a decep­tion in order to achieve a goal. Anna E. Jor­dan has put a new twist on this trick in her mid­dle-grade nov­el about Shi­ra and Esther, two girls with an emo­tion­al con­nec­tion and con­trast­ing dreams. Jordan’s inven­tive plot incor­po­rates a range of ele­ments from Jew­ish cul­ture with real­ism and humor.

Shi­ra Epstein is moth­er­less and about to become a bat mitz­vah. She is the daugh­ter of the rab­bi and strug­gles with the expec­ta­tions he has placed on her to embody the val­ues of Torah. Her inner core calls out for the stage, not the study hall.

Esther Rosen­baum has nev­er known her father. She’s grown up with an actress moth­er known as Red Hot Fan­ny,” who is ded­i­cat­ed to per­for­mance, not reli­gious prac­tice. In fact, this fiery star of vaude­ville and Yid­dish the­ater wry­ly sug­gests that if God directs the world, the result has been bad cast­ing all around.” Esther is drawn to Judaism and search­es for the spir­i­tu­al con­nec­tions that are alien to Fan­ny. Esther’s frus­trat­ed real­iza­tion about the dis­so­nance between her mother’s dreams and her own applies to Shira’s dis­tance from her father’s world­view, too. When the oppor­tu­ni­ty to audi­tion for a tele­vi­sion vari­ety con­test comes to town, Esther and Shi­ra con­front con­flict­ing choices.

Set in Idyll­dale, a place that com­bines urban and small-town qual­i­ties, Shi­ra and Esther’s sto­ry pro­vides a panora­ma of Jew­ish Amer­i­can life. Idyll­dale, as the town’s name implies, is heimish and famil­iar, pop­u­lat­ed by char­ac­ters who are root­ed in Jew­ish life. The lov­ing if over­bear­ing moth­er, the boy who is a sweet­ly com­ic side­kick, the wise elder­ly woman, and the pious father are all mem­bers of the cast. Each has their own unique traits, and each needs to find the right moment to ful­fill their des­tiny. Ref­er­ences to telegrams, news­boys hawk­ing papers, and Brown­ie cam­eras invoke the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, yet Shira’s upcom­ing bat mitz­vah cer­e­mo­ny includes the much more recent prac­tice of girls read­ing Torah.

There are no bad Jews in this book. Shira’s father ref­er­ences the Yid­dish proverb that holds that God cre­at­ed a world with many lit­tle worlds,” sup­port­ing the idea that all Jews have their own legit­i­mate ways of express­ing their Yid­dishkeit — that con­for­mi­ty is not an ide­al. Speak­ing of Yid­dish, there is plen­ty of the mameloshen in this book. Rather than the typ­i­cal sprin­kling of oy veys” and schleps” that authors often use to sig­nal the lan­guage, Jor­dan has done her research, incor­po­rat­ing care­ful­ly inte­grat­ed Yid­dish words and phras­es that give depth to the narrative.

While the con­fu­sion of char­ac­ters’ iden­ti­ties is not a new premise in children’s fic­tion, Jor­dan has reimag­ined its Jew­ish pos­si­bil­i­ties in this tale of chil­dren and par­ents divid­ed by their visions of the future — but unit­ed by love.

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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