An Oddly Different Heroine for Orthodox Girls

Her punk clothes are tzniusdik (modest) and she hides out in the high school bathroom to write poetry, rather than smoke cigarettes. In Never Mind the GoldBergs (Scholastic, $16.95) by Matthue Roth, Hava Aaronson relishes her brand of self-expression. Though Orthodox and living in Brooklyn, she cuts and dyes her own hair into various punk styles. Her mother is a workaholic with a powerful career predicting the future of money, and she is being rasied primarily by her father. Surprise: this strong young feminist character comes from a 26- year-old man.

Roth creates a shtel without insulation in this young adult novel. Hava’s best friend in Brooklyn is Ian, her vegan punk Gentile neighbor. Roth starts out describing the rules of Hava’s shtetl, then proceeds to show how Hava and her friends negotiate with them while they figure out where they will eventually “hold.” Hava leaves New York, where her friends are often overly preoccupied with checking to see which couples dare to hold hands in public. She travels to a callous Hollywood to star in a sitcom about a modern Orthodox family; offstage, she navigates and stands up for her own boundaries in a whole new universe. On the set of the sitcom “The Goldbergs”—described by one of its producers as a “Jewish ‘Cosby Show'”—Hava eats cold kosher sandwiches from home every day, watching others eat hot gourmet food. Acclimating to her own importance, she demands decent kosher food on the set. Most shocking to her cast-mates, she realizes it is already dusk and simply walks off the lot during an important point in the filming, wandering around L.A. until she finds a place for Shahbes.

Roth says he knew from the start that the protagonist in his debut novel would be a strong female. “I saw her character in my head, spunky, anti-authoritarian, in-your-face, and a woman. I’ve always seen an undercurrent in traditional Jewish storytelling, Hasidic stories especially, with women characters who were strong in unconventional ways. I wanted to . . . have someone who could be a strong woman in that my-body-my-vote way, but also in a way of coming into her own intellectually and socially.”

Hava is not looking to escape her neighborhood in reaction to the trite (if true) constraints of a stifling Orthodoxy or a cruel patriarchy. Rather, she’s motivated by a more universal yearning for freedom, independence and self-expression. That magical time between adolescence and adulthood when we are not afraid to dream is captured here. One day Hava is bored in Yiddish class, sneaking off to the bathroom to listen to her Hole CD on her Discman and the next day she is flying to L.A. to become a star, without even bothering to make a list of the pros and cons of such a bold move. She has an opportunity for change in her life, and without knowing what will come next, she goes for it.

Roth grew up in what he describes as a semi-observant home in Philadelphia. He took up religion again in college. Now in L.A., he is working on a novel about an old European Jewish ghetto and the “ghetto” of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Natasha Rosenstock is a writer living in Washington, DC.