The death of her beloved grandmother propels twelve-year-old Caroline into a few months of soul-searching and confusion over her Jewish identity. She also grapples with many age appropriate issues besides her nana’s death: her friendship with BFF Rachel, peer pressure from a mean, popular girl, and a changing body. But the emotional core of her story comes from her struggle with her spiritual identity. Caroline isn’t sure who she is or who she wants to be. The story begins at her nana’s funeral. Her poppy gives her a special gift— her nana’s Star of David necklace. Caroline takes the necklace, but is uncomfortable wearing it because her family is interfaith and secular. She fears hurting her parents, and is rather embarrassed to admit to her busy physician mother that she suddenly has an interest in being Jewish. The novel progresses quite realistically, from the day Caroline decides to stay home from school on Yom Kippur (feeling foolish, since she doesn’t know what the holiday means), through some yearnings for a bat mitzvah like her best friend is planning, to sticking up for that friend when another girl makes a snide comment about Jews. Like an older version of Confessions of a Closet Catholic, the author has created a sincere, emotional novel about a confused girl (6th grader this time) who questions her place in the world. Baskin has chosen to keep all of Caroline’s questioning internal, which is reasonable since the character has such a compliant personality. However, readers may become frustrated as Caroline asks no questions out loud, nor does she confront her parents with her confusion about how it is that her grandparents are so Jewish while her own family ignores all aspects of the religion. Her internal dialogue is delineated by italicized type. At one point she silently states, “Mom, I want to be Jewish too. Like you. I want to know funny little Yiddish words. Like Nana and Pappy. I want to know what you do on Yom Kippur. Like Rachel. I need a bat mitzvah.” Caroline’s declaration is full of heart and tender passion. The real strength of its heart comes through the novel’s intermittent flashbacks, where we see Nana and Caroline together. This relationship is much more satisfying than Caroline’s bond with her busy mother with whom she chooses not to share her deepest feelings. By the end of the novel she voices her true feelings and says that she is indeed Jewish. “Because my mother is Jewish, I become a bat mitzvah when I turn twelve. Automatically. I don’t have to do anything. Just be me. My aunt Gert told me that.” This proclamation will likely motivate lively discussion! All in all, the strength of this book is in the journey that many young people will identify with as they ask themselves these same questions. As Caroline so eloquently says about her heritage, “It was mine if I wanted, like a gift that someone gave me a long time ago that I forgot to open.”
Lisa Silverman is director of Sinai Temple’s Blumenthal Library in Los Angeles and a former day school librarian. She is the former children’s book review editor of Jewish Book World.