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Another Young Jewish Protagonist hits Australian Bookshelves

May 17, 2011 – 11:13 pm5 Comments

By Rachel Sacks-Davis

As a teenager, I devoured books but I don’t remember coming across one Australian young adult novel with even a minor Jewish character. I would not have expected to do so given that Jews are a small minority in Australia, so I have been intrigued to hear of two Australian young adult fiction books published within the past two years with Jewish protagonists.

Robyn Bavati’s controversial book about a girl born to an Ultra-Orthodox family, Dancing in the Dark, was reported on at Galus Australis last year. Growing up in a charedi community in Melbourne, the Jewishness of Bavati’s protagonist, Ditty, was unmistakeable and central to the plot.

In contrast, the protagonist of Zoe Thurner’s more recent novel, Dress Rehearsal, is a secular Jew called Lara Pearlman. Lara is an impulsive teenager who is in her final year of high school in a small, fictional coastal town. Set upon the backdrop of the school drama production, Dress Rehearsal is Lara’s coming of age story, and its central themes include body image, relationships with friends and family, love and lust, alcohol and drug use, and social inequality.

Although Lara’s name is very Jewish, a reader who is unfamiliar with Australian Jewish culture might miss that she is Jewish altogether. To a Jew-obsessed reader such as myself, however, there were a number of subtle but familiar characteristics that roused my Jewdar.

The most explicit reference to Lara’s Jewishness is her late grandmother’s upcoming consecration, or as it is called in the book, the ceremony for her gravestone. But there are also a number of other subtle allusions.

Lara has a complex relationship with food that is inextricable from her relationship with her mother and late grandmother. Her mother would like Lara to eat less but cooks strudels nonetheless; and her grandmother, to Lara’s mother’s chagrin, loved to feed her grandchildren homemade doughnuts.

Indeed, Lara’s grandmother’s memory is invoked repeatedly by Lara and her mother, not only with regards to food, but also regarding issues of social justice, poverty and suffering. When she thinks about these issues, Lara often refers back to her grandmother’s stories about her own deprived childhood. Dress Researsal also contains some oblique allusions to what seems to be anti-Semitism.

There is a certain pleasure in struggling to identify whether what seems to be a reference to Jewishness is indeed a reference to Jewishness, but at times I wondered whether certain Jewish characteristics had been purposefully diluted because someone – the author, editor, or another proof-reader – thought that it would make the novel more palatable for non-Jewish young Australians.

Lara’s grandmother supposedly suffered through the Depression. My father’s mother, also Jewish, immigrated to Australia as a young child and experienced the Depression, as did many other Jews of her generation. But Lara’s grandmother apparently lost her whole family in the Depression, which seems unusual and makes me wonder whether, in this case, the Depression is actually a stand-in for the Holocaust.

Similarly, when one of the characters makes what seems to be an anti-Semitic slur, saying to Lara “But then I suppose we can’t expect much from your kind,” this is left unexplained and implicit.

I don’t know whether non-Jewish young Australians would find it harder to identify with Lara if she was more explicitly Jewish, but it interesting to consider. Either way, Dress Rehearsal is a pleasure to read, and for Jews, there is an additional element of interest.

Dress Rehearsal is Zoe Thurner’s debut novel, published by Fremantle Press.

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