Who Is in Control?

Aviva vs. the Dybbuk – written by Mari Lowe
Levine Querido, 2022

In Jewish folklore, a dybbuk is a supernatural creature, the soul of a deceased person who has taken possession of an unfortunate human being.  There are many works of art and literature which explore this imaginatively rich premise.  In Mari Lowe’s new middle-grade novel, set in the Orthodox Jewish community, the ambiguous nature of one particular dybbuk becomes a vehicle for discussion grief and psychological vulnerability.  The novel is unusual for several reasons, offering a compelling look into the mind of a young girl, and her relationships with her mother, friends, and teachers. Lowe also looks at the dybbuk figure from a multidimensional perspective, suggesting how the interaction of an individual and her culture produce a specific emotional response to tragedy.

After the loss of her father, Aviva and her mother move to the small apartment at their synagogue. Her mother, formerly a teacher in a girls’ yeshiva, is suffering from depression and has given up her job. Instead, she now works as the mikvah (ritual bath) attendant for her community.  Lowe is unsparing in her portrait of the ravages of long-lasting grief.  Aviva’s mother is a loving, protective parent who is no longer able to be the person she once was.  Aviva’s peers have also become complicit, seeming to shut her out of their lives as she and her mother appear to have chosen, in some sense, their marginalized and lonely existence.  Adults at Aviva’s school try to help, but are unable to reach Aviva and her mother in their isolation.  Aviva is particularly hurt by her former best friend Kayla, who has turned her own frustration into the nasty behaviors for which preteen girls can sometimes be famous.  Yet Lowe does not need to redeem anyone here; her explanations for their choices evolve naturally out of the narrative.

Who is the dybbuk who is determined to disrupt lives in this small Jewish community? Readers will hypothesize before the novel’s conclusion. This is not a mystery, but there are facts, metaphors, and surprises in dialogue throughout Aviva’s story.  Lowe has created a fully realized world, one which will be completely familiar to some readers and strange to others. She does not offer a tutorial about an Orthodox subculture, with explanations of ritual and religious beliefs. Instead, these components are presented straightforwardly, making sense within the context of the novel. If there are gaps, readers who are curious may be motivated to learn more, but, even if they don’t, Aviva’s struggle to survive both grief and the attacks of a supernatural being hold together.  The antisemitism which forms an integral part of the plot should not be a surprise to anyone. If it is, then Lowe has also revealed a truth about Jewish life which is urgently needed.  

Although there is no explicitly feminist discussion of the Jewish laws of ritual purity for women, or of education segregated by sex, all the female characters are nuanced, believable, and in charge of their lives.  Lowe writes from within Orthodoxy, but at the same time, she expresses the perspective of an outsider.  Aviva and her mother are both deeply rooted in their community, and, at least temporarily, forced by circumstances to live on its periphery. Aviva vs. the Dybbuk opens the door to a part of the Jewish world often invisible in mainstream children’s fiction.  Like the dybbuk himself, Lowe’s novel may disrupt some assumptions and turn readers’ ideas in a new direction.

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