Finding a New Normal in My Reading Habits: Yeshiva Girl by Rachel Mankowitz

Like many people who love reading would insist, books are a comfort to me. I think a great weekend would be spending hours at a time reading a whole novel in one sitting. I do hold onto many of my books and sometimes I even am comforted simply by sitting in front of my bookshelf and observing the many shapes and colors of the spines or taking one book off the shelf and feeling the grain of the paper and the smell of its pages. And yet, even in reading it is important to sometimes branch out of my comfort zone. Leaving my comfort zone means I can earn a reinvigorated enjoyment of my comfort reads once I return to them. It also means I can learn and explore new ideas and sometimes even find more things to enjoy that I hadn’t expected.

Yeshiva Girl is not the type of book I normally read – my reading “home” often includes castles in idyllic natural settings, magic, swords, and plucky characters boldly facing what challenges them. These are the things that I return to over and over. Books with themes about sexual assault usually fall more into the category of “dentist office” – I go there because it can be important, even though it’s uncomfortable. That’s not to say I dislike such books. Lolita, for example, is a beautiful piece of literature which I adore even though I had to take lots of breaks while reading it to cope with the subject matter.

I picked up Yeshiva Girl because I follow the author, Rachel Mankowitz. I stumbled across her blog years ago with her post “Harry Potter et Moi” and since have continued reading her weekly posts about life, her dogs, her Jewish faith, and more. I often find that her posts contain beautiful nuggets of insight that are thought-provoking; her writing feels dynamic – always moving fluidly from one point to the next. She published the book a while ago, but although I knew I wanted to read it, I delayed a little due to it having what is for me a “dentist” topic. Ultimately though, I found that reading Yeshiva Girl was a rewarding experience, not one to fear.

Yeshiva Girl follows Isabel, a teenage girl who is suddenly transferred to an orthodox school in the midst of an inquiry into her father for sexual contact with a student. The novel reads a lot like one of Mankowitz’s blog posts; the writing moves quickly and is told in intimate detail from a first-person perspective. There are a fair number of musings about Jewish precepts that she also has written blog posts about, such as “Embarrassing a Person is Like Killing Them,” and “Be a Mensch.” I found many of these insights into Jewish life and religion interesting and thought-provoking.

Isabel is smart and inquisitive, and she also deals with anxiety, disordered eating, and a dysfunctional family life. Experiencing life from Isabel’s point of view as she navigates teenage relationships, growing into an adult, and coming to terms with her own abuse as a child feels deeply personal. Although these are all YA themes and although the book is marketed as being for teenagers, I couldn’t help but feel that that book was really meant for an adult audience. This is for two reasons: firstly, Isabel’s story, although told from a 15 year-old’s point of view, is sometimes told with the clarity of retrospect to such a degree that it feels like an adult reminiscing about what it was like to be 15. Isabel may be confused and in turmoil, but her voice is sure. The feeling of reminiscence is driven home by the second reason: the technology level described in the book is that of perhaps 20 or more years ago. Although I dislike it when other novels conspicuously emphasize current technology, the way a modern teenager would interact with others has been fundamentally changed to the degree that a modern teen might even categorize this as “historical fiction.” Isabel’s friend must pass on the message to her boyfriend when Isabel stays with her grandparents for a weekend so that said boyfriend can call her on her grandparents’ landline instead of her parents’. Isabel is occasionally bullied at school, but there is no hint at all of bullying extending to online interactions – in fact, no one uses a computer or cell phone for the entirety of the book, even when the absence seems glaring. This is not a problem for me (I sometimes miss the pre- smart phone and social media days!) but may be a small barrier for a current YA reader. Although it is a very real portrait of a brilliant character, I do not feel like I just connected with a modern teenager, but rather I am left with the distinct impression that this story is perhaps from an old high school friend, confessing to me the distress they went through that I was oblivious to at the time…

Interestingly enough, by reading the book as a confessional, I feel *trusted* by Isabel, which also makes me feel motivated to be someone who is *trustworthy* and more open to being a better friend to those who may need my support. It is said that reading novels makes people more empathetic, and this underscores the importance of continuing to read things outside of my comfort zone and growing better able to understand the mindset of the people around me on a daily basis.

I am glad I read this book for the insight into various aspects of Jewish life and for opening my eyes to the way some people may cope with childhood trauma. Mankowitz’s writing is engaging to the effect that I read this in only a week, which is much faster than my average rate of reading! I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys books about people handling tough situations or thought-provoking discussions of religion – and I recommend it even more for those people who find it a step outside of their comfort zone.

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