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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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  • Malki Rose says:

    Is it not possible that the ambiguousness of her Jewish identity could be due in part to the universality of the immigrant identity experience?
    Food and family relationships in migrant families acts as the uniting religious structure.

    Although Jews often find it ‘comforting’ when presented with an explicitly Jewish character, perhaps the Jewishness was not the pertinent point… else the author would have made it so, no?

  • rivqa says:

    Sounds to me like an opportunity missed; to assume that the audience won’t understand a Jewish character is to seriously underestimate it.

    Although not a book, I’m reminded of “Hey hey it’s Esther Blueburger”, which was about a young Jewish girl and set in Adelaide. There are many explicitly Jewish scenes that may not be fully understood by someone not familiar with Jewish culture, but they would nonetheless convey insights into the character and/or story.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Malki,
    I agree with you that the immigrant experience shares many universalities.
    However, I don’t think this a reason to vanilla over or hide explicit ethnicity. The universality you speak of is more of a reason to leave the details in.
    One doesn’t need to be African, American, or African American to be entertained and take meaning from Roots. Likewise, one doesn’t need to be of Italian heritage to appreciate The Godfather trilogy. In many ways, the issue is similar to the discussion being had over on http://galusaustralis.com/2009/06/347/jews_in_pop-culture/

  • ilana Leeds says:

    I will look forward to reading this. At least it is not another ‘let’s bash the Orthodox Jewish Lifestyle’ book and make fiction out to be reality. Sounds more like creative non-fiction a bit.
    As the child of a post-war Austrian immigrant to Australia who could not have lived further from the Salzburg Alps than outback Australia, I often used to be bewildered by the differences between us and them, despite trying very hard to fit in with them. (Aussies whose parents were both Australian born and bred.) Something which made both parties very uncomfortable due to different cultural experiences in the home, so there was this subtle drawing back and lines of differences being drawn in the air between us despite us being part of the one group or community. No surprise that my best friends at boarding school were of Italian or Greek or Indian heritage. We found a common bond in having parents or grandparents who were ‘different’ and who spoke, dressed and acted differently to the Aussie norm. But we still loved Australia with a passion.
    I find it intriguing to read of the experiences of others, but see especially in the case of the Shoah a need for education and understanding. Not only Jews died in the Shoah and it could happen to any ethnic group given the right conditions and people holding similar hatreds or being envious of a group.
    I think we need to understand that being different is good and not somehow difficult or derogatory. People are different and deserve to be appreciated for their differences.

  • rachsd says:

    Hi Rivqa,

    When I was reading the book, I was trying to think of a secular Jew in Australian fiction etc and couldn’t really think of anything substantial, but I haven’t seen “Hey, Hey, it’s Esther Blueberger”. It sounds like it has some commonalities with Dress Rehearsal. I will have to go and borrow it on dvd…

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