Are You There, God? It’s Me, Rachel!

Deborah Heiligman's Work Is Jewish Coming of Age Novel

By Beth Schwartzapfel

Published August 15, 2012, issue of August 17, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Intentions
By Deborah Heiligman
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 272 pages, $16.99

‘I wish I were Amish,” says 16-year-old Rachel Greenberg. “Or a Hasidic Jew … All the rules are set for you, all the decisions made. Wouldn’t that be nice?” The narrator of Deborah Heiligman’s new young adult novel, “Intentions,” is neither Amish nor Hasidic. But she is a Jew — and a teenager struggling to understand her faith and her place in the world.

Set in a small Pennsylvania city resembling the Allentown of Heiligman’s childhood, “Intentions” follows in the tradition of classic coming-of-age novels such as Judy Blume’s “Forever.” Torn between two would-be boyfriends, alienated from her best friend Alexis and bedeviled by her parents’ frequent arguments, Rachel seeks solace in her weekly religious studies class. But, when she witnesses her philandering rabbi performing a very unrabbi-like act on the bimah, she experiences a crisis of faith. “Before,” Rachel says, early on in the book, “I thought that most people were basically good, and I was sure that holy people were, well, holy. I just had the crap beat out of that stupid idea.”

Although Judaism is front and center in “Intentions,” which draws its title from the rabbi’s instructions to pray with kavanah, or intention — the particular details of Judaism are secondary. At the core of the story are questions that all teenagers grapple with: faith in goodness and justice; faith in friends and in family; and, most importantly, faith in oneself.

Heiligman, a veteran children’s book author perhaps best known for her National Book Award–nominated biography “Charles and Emma: A Leap of Faith,” has written about religion before. But “Intentions,” her debut novel, represents the first time she’s grappled in depth with the question of what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century. If you don’t believe in God — which Rachel is pretty sure she doesn’t — and on top of that it’s dawning on you that the rabbi is not a perfect person, but rather “just a guy, a man… Hairy legs and a penis,” then what’s left to believe in?

As the novel proceeds, Rachel handles her friendships and love interests poorly; she smokes pot, takes tentative steps towards losing her virginity and sends text messages constantly. “Intentions” is quite explicit: Teenagers curse, have sex and talk back to their teachers. But the beauty of Heiligman’s work is her unflinching sense of what teenagers actually do, think and say — not what we want them to do, think and say. And that includes the sense of yearning that accompanies most kids’ coming of age: They long to return to the time when the hardest decision they had to make was choosing what to order at the Red Eagle Diner and, at the same time, they crave independence and wisdom, even though they know these come at great cost.

It’s when Rachel is willing to shoulder that cost — to bear the weight of living with the problems she’s created and the ones she hasn’t — that she herself becomes a grown-up. She may not be perfect, but she is still someone she can be proud of; if she can’t have faith in God, she can at least have faith in herself.

Beth Schwartzapfel is a Boston-based journalist and writer and a frequent Forward contributor. Read more of her work at www.blackapple.org


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.