Photo Credit: Menucha Publishers

Title: Coercion: A Yael Reed Novel
By Ruthie Pearlman
Menucha Publishers, 272 pages

 

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This is Book 8 in the Yael Reed School of Secrets series. If you haven’t read the previous books in the series, be assured you don’t need to. The author does a marvelous job of describing characters from previous books, alluding to and giving background information about previous incidents without being intrusive or confusing to a newbie to the series (like me).

If you are a fan of the trope of boarding school girl detective mysteries, then this story is for you. It was a lot of fun and has all the elements: drama, intrigue and conflict – all in a Jewish setting. I got invested enough in the characters to want to read the previous books in the series. The grown up and newly married Yael Reed (now Yael Yair) goes back to her high school alma mater to help with a blackmailing case.

The tantalizing glimpses we get of Yael and her Israeli secret service (Shabak) husband made me want to go back and read about how they met and their courtship. I enjoyed the image of the “single girl [who] had subsisted on a diet of canned soup with cut-up hot dogs in it” now cooking during her shana rishona because her husband’s superiors had sent him home for a long weekend. (“Even the Torah prescribed you didn’t go to war during this first year! You go home for Shabbat and look after your wife!”) I’m an experienced Shabbos cook at this point but who hasn’t had erev Shabbos mishaps? When she was so busy with the chicken recipe that she missed the point when the soup boiled over…let’s just say that making Shabbos for over a quarter of a century doesn’t stop that from happening. It just means you’re used to it and can clean it up pretty quickly by now, instead of bursting into tears. And yes, I use timers.

Although this is more of a fun action story that doesn’t have so much depth of character, there were two aspects that snagged me. The first is the psychologically interesting scenario where students in the boarding school find out about some of the girls’ private emotional or clinical psychological issues. How much privacy is warranted once the information becomes public? What can everyone do when all the girls are talking about it among themselves? I was actually surprised that there was not more Torah guidance given to the students when that happened. They are in a Jewish school and surely the rebbeim and administration could have counseled them and have an assembly to give some framework and a Torah hashkafa approach. I taught in high school for many years and I think that is what we would have done. We would have spoken about lashon hara, ona’as devarim (verbal oppression), and ben adam l’chavero (relations with one another).

It was interesting to see how social opinions and relationships shifted when the information came out. In the boarding school, different girls had different struggles and challenges. Each one probably thought that she was the odd one out and that if people found out, they wouldn’t be liked. In fact, some information did impact friendships and conduct.

The other interpersonal complexity in the story that really spoke to me was a friendship triangle. Simmy, one of the main characters, has a burgeoning friendship she wants to nurture with another student she clicks with, Dalia. Simmy ends up constantly having to negotiate between what she wants and what is polite, due to pressure from her roommate Rina, who is needy and jealous. Rina lays guilt trips on Simmy for not always spending time with her, and interferes as much as she can to prevent Simmy spending time with Dalia.

This conflict captured my heart. As a Torah Jew who was brought up to be kind and thoughtful and look out for people in need, sometimes this can directly clash with taking care of my own needs. Where do we draw the line? Where do we put ourselves and our wants and needs first? How much of a special friendship does the Torah think we should sacrifice in order to include someone we don’t personally like so much, but who we sense needs friendship? The answers are not simple and I appreciated Simmy’s attempts to navigate.

This is a lively, young adult adventure story mystery that can be read stand-alone or as the latest of a popular series.

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Jessie Fischbein is a Tanach teacher, popular lecturer, and author of the book Infertility in the Bible. She homeschools her children in Far Rockaway, NY.