Many Jewish children grow up with a distinct awareness of the darkness that exists in the world, but well-known works of Jewish American children’s literature limit their depictions of existential dangers to historical settings. Eric A. Kimmel’s Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins and Lois Lowry’s Numbers the Stars allude to genocide, while Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books are about early 20th-century immigrants.
Aviva vs. the Dybbuk is one of the first middle grade novels to portray a modern-day Orthodox Jewish child. It’s the story of Aviva, who has been haunted—literally—for years by the loss of her father. There’s an empty seat at the kitchen table where her Abba should sit, and in his place, Aviva has a dybbuk, a mischievous spirit who’s always causing trouble.
Aviva lives with her mother and the dybbuk above a mikvah, a ritual bath used by Orthodox Jewish women. Although Aviva’s mother manages the mikvah, she otherwise rarely leaves their home, and she and Aviva have gradually drifted away from their friends and community, set apart by grief and the actions of the meddlesome dybbuk.
This year, everyone at school is looking forward to the Bas Mitzvah Bash, but when the principal asks Aviva and her former best friend, Kayla, to work together on the preparations, Aviva’s life becomes even more complicated. And then someone draws a pinwheel shape that Aviva’s never seen before in the wet cement of the sidewalk outside the mikvah, and everyone is suddenly very frightened . . .
Debut author Mari Lowe expertly captures the environment in which Orthodox children are raised while offering a glimpse into one family’s way forward after a tragic loss. Despite what she’s been through, Aviva still wants to play with her friends and be liked by her teachers. She feels cooped up at home, aches for an absent family member, misses her friends and begins to worry about her safety in the face of escalating threats to her community; these concerns ground the character and make her relatable. An early scene in Aviva vs. the Dybbuk highlights the key role that finding meaning in language plays in the Jewish experience, so Lowe’s inclusion of a racial slur later in the novel is notable, though some readers may feel that the scene in which it’s spoken would be impactful enough without it.
Aviva vs. the Dybbuk is deeply rooted in the specifics of Aviva’s Orthodox Jewish community, but its representation of loss, grief and healing will resonate with any reader who, like Aviva, has lost someone close to them and feels tangled up in grief.