The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman
"A wonderful glimpse into the world of orthodox Jewish teens while giving a richly complicated story of choices and the ramifications they have."
Mari Lowe, the author of The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman, teaches at an orthodox Jewish middle school much like the one described in the book. She evokes the atmosphere of the school perfectly, but more than that, she clearly remembers well how it feels to be a student at such a place.
Shaindy is a trying to fit in at Bais Yakov school, where the cool kids all know how to rollerblade. Naturally Shaindy isn't cool, and she doesn't own the right brand of skate shoes anyway. Her mother nixes the idea firmly.
"I'm not spending that much on a pair of shoes you aren't going to wear, Ema had said, and I'm determined to show her that I can do it and earn those Heelys. Except the rollerblading isn't going that well. My legs split and my knees bend and I'm falling off the patio and onto the grass, my arm slamming into a clod of dirt that feels suspiciously wet."
The rollerblades are a symbol of how the other girls seem to move effortlessly through the social tangles of school while Shaindy stumbles. She doesn't seem to fit in anywhere. So when Gayil, a perfect, popular girl shows an interest in Shaindy, inviting her to play what are supposed to be "fun" tricks on other girls in the school, how can she say no?
"I don't think twice about it. 'And you want me to come with you?' I blurt out, still unsure about it. 'Not one of your friends?'
Gayil scoffs. 'They can't keep a secret. . . . You though . . . I bet you're good at secrets. . . . Are you in?'
I follow behind her . . . trying to seem cool and disinterested. 'I'm in.'
Inside, I'm on top of the world."
The pranks, however, don't seem so funny or innocent to the girls they happen to, and Shaindy finds herself as left out as ever: "Whatever has happened, it isn't going to change who I am in school. I'm the shadow, the girl no one notices . . ."
Even worse, the teacher is determined to find the guilty culprit. Tensions grow as Shaindy feels pushed to do things she doesn't feel comfortable doing. And she's not making Gayil into a close friend or ally. Instead she's losing what credibility she might have had with her other classmates. As things come to a head, Shaindy faces hard choices. Should she tell on Gayil to protect her own reputation?
"Never have I held someone else's future in my hands, like I do right now, knowing that even Gayil finds my accounting of the past week to be undeniable. I'm going to win, to take down the perfect girl, and I'm going to get the revenge I deserve."
All of this happens as Yom Kippur approaches, the day of atonement. As Shaindy says in answer to her teacher's question about what the holy day means:
"'You have to apologize . . . it's not just about erasing what you've done, but about erasing the hurt from the other person too.' Everyone does that on the last day of school before Yom Kippur, the dance of sorry-do-you-forgive me? that doesn't really mean anything and demands only one response."
The meaning of the holiday is a thread that runs through the story. What does it mean to ask for forgiveness and mean it? Why does it matter? How do we make the right choices, the ones we feel good about? What responsibilities do we have toward other people?
And this is where the book works best, in making Yom Kippur richly meaningful though Shaindy's daily decisions. What kind of person will she choose to be?
"I could be that girl again, the one who'd done terrible things in the name of friendship. It would be so easy to fall back into it, to do anything to gain Gayil's approval and affection. And I don't know. I miss that girl a little bit. I miss Gayil. But I don't think that Gayil's friendship is my end goal anymore."
Most non-Jews have no idea what this holy day is about, and Shaindy's story offers a beautiful explanation of it in terms that any middle-schooler will understand. We all face tough choices, especially during the social turmoil of middle school. If we're lucky, we'll know how to trust our own instincts, like Shaindy ultimately does. The author offers a wonderful glimpse into the world of orthodox Jewish teens while giving a richly complicated story of choices and the ramifications they have.