A Jewish woman and an African-American boy form an unlikely but meaningful connection in this novel set in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood.
Eleven-year-old Jamal Holden has had a troubled life: six years before, in 1985, he saw his father unjustly and fatally shot, and the cop who did it got away scot-free. Now, his mother’s heart is failing; when she collapses, Jamal pleads for help from the residents of his apartment building, and Chaya Bloom, a widowed, devoutly Jewish woman, calls an ambulance. After Jamal’s mother dies, Chaya decides to take Jamal in and raise him herself. Although she has her doubts about how fit she is to raise a young, African-American Christian boy, she’s convinced that she’s doing right by her own beliefs and the memory of her late husband, a Lubavitch rabbi. Chaya and Jamal’s days are filled with such activities as cooking gefilte fish and visiting the local library at Grand Army Plaza, where Jamal loses himself in books. He charms Chaya with his intelligence and devotion, while Chaya wins him over with her kindness and wry wit, and they forge a deep bond. But that bond is tested by bigotry from Chaya’s snooty, shallow daughter, Fagele; Fagele’s maid, Daisy; Jamal’s violent classmate Stinky; Chaya’s neighbors, and others. Somehow, the two must find a way to survive and thrive. Refreshingly, this story doesn’t shy away from strong emotions or tricky topics, but its best moments hinge on the loving, playful central relationship. When Jamal and Chaya trade banter or just chat about their cares, it feels like an honest portrayal of two very different people who are nonetheless unconditionally devoted to each other. Chaya’s charm is evident in her internal monologues: “ ‘Pleased to meet you,’ Chaya said, thinking that the teacher’s handshake felt like a wet herring in cream sauce.” But Luxenberg is less adept at managing the plot, as most of the problems resolve quickly and a little too neatly; somehow, even the case of Jamal’s father’s murder is resolved in a mere 20 pages.
Despite awkward pacing, this compassionate tale effectively illustrates tolerance as lived in reality rather than as an abstract ideal.