Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, ends tonight at sundown. That might not be terribly significant to readers of a Catholic blog like ACNM, but it is to me. Not only do my work responsibilities include frequent, delightful interaction with non-Catholic religious professionals, but I like knowing that other religions have non-secularized holidays, too. The fight against a secular Christmas might be a wash, but I don’t see any commercials for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and attendance for All Saints Day isn’t always great. I can relate. It’s not easy being different, but it’s who I am. I haven’t always felt that way, though, and in my most recent read, OyMG, by Amy Fellner Dominy, Ellie discovers that being true to your religion can be extra tough.
Ellie Taylor is a great debater, but she wants to be even better. The best way to do that is to get into the ultra-exclusive private school in her Arizona town, Benedict’s Academy. To get a privately-funded scholarship, she needs to attend the Christian Society day camp at Benedict’s and ace her final speech (in the oratory event, which means she gets to talk about whatever she wants). All seems golden until she finds out that the rich benefactor who gives the scholarship might have a problem with Jews. But since it shouldn’t really matter what religion she is, it won’t matter if she pretends to be half-Christian by virtue of her Lutheran-raised father…unless it does.
Since I read and enjoyed The Possibilities of Sainthood, I have been searching for a good YA about someone from another religion. I clearly have a personal affinity for Catholicism, but it helps to have allies in the world. Catholics aren’t the only religious people who are frequently misunderstood. Catholics aren’t the only ones who have countercultural religious practices. I actually read two books about Muslim girls in the process, searching for a religious twist and a well-written story, but I found it in OyMG. It turns out that OyMG is exactly what I was looking for: it’s just like other YA novels (teenagers with problems, a romance, and a quest for identity), but with a protagonist who is religious and happy about it.
Although OyMG fits the YA prototype I so dearly love, I really appreciated that Dominy was able to realistically weave in some teachable moments without seeming heavy-handed or pushy. Ellie doesn’t have a problem with Christians, she just doesn’t want to be one. Even when she tries to hide her Jewish side and embrace her nonexistent Christian side, Ellie finds connections between Jesus and herself. She truly struggles over denying who she already is (a Jew) for something she hopes to become (a well-trained orator). It takes talent to turn touchy subjects into a compelling storyline, but here, it works.
Without giving away too much of the storyline, I was impressed at how tense and intimate the story became. Complicating Ellie’s situation is her crush on the scholarship benefactor’s grandson, but it’s clear that the crush comes second to her struggle over ambition, religion, and the truth. The chapters pass by too quickly, but the story seems naturally fast-paced instead of being artificially rushed along. I appreciated greatly that Ellie’s religious life was realistic instead of oppressive, joyful instead of guilt-giving. The experience of reading didn’t change my life, but it left me satisfied. To young people who struggle with their faith, I wish much grace, and to our Jewish cousins in faith, I say L’Shanah Tovah.
Next time: Unwind, a dystopia focused deeply on life issues, because if life isn’t protected in the womb, will it still be protected outside of it?