With the Atlantic Ocean between us, I tend to leave New York for my childhood home in northern England for Jewish holidays — Rosh Hashanah or Passover, sometimes Sukkot. Such occasions hold the highest likelihood of catching all my family — siblings and cousins now scattered around the world — in one place.
As soon as I step through the door, I regress back to childhood. I alternate between clinging to my mother like a limpet and fighting the urge to snap at her; I moan when asked to help with household tasks I perform daily in my adult life; I inevitably shun whatever “grown-up” reading material I’ve packed for bedroom shelves filled with books of my youth. Because the holidays involve a lot of slumping in armchairs after big meals, there’s ample time to revisit my dog-eared old favorites, and I indulge in the nostalgia or returning to St. Clare’s, Hogwarts, or Judy Blume’s American suburbia. In that way, rereading Judy Blume books has become my own little High Holiday tradition.
My Blume collection rivals even my Blyton one; while I remember my parents presenting me with their old copies of The Magic Faraway Tree and Mallory Towers, I don’t know who handed me my first Blume — the public library, perhaps, on one of my weekly visits.
I read them all, starting with the Fudge series, moving onto Blubber, graduating to Tiger Eyes and, eventually, the holy grail of teenage thrills: Forever. One of my clearest memories takes place in a bookstore, aged 10 or so, with my best friend at the time. Her mom had said we could pick one book each and we dutifully scanned the shelves with unwavering focus. Spotting a familiar name, I pulled out Forever and, safe in the knowledge that any Blume book was one I would enjoy, presented it as my pick. I don’t think I did much more than quickly scan the blurb, but as my friend’s mother inspected it, her eyebrows furrowed. “I think this is a little too grown up,” she said, placing it back on the shelf. It would be years before I was brave enough to approach it again.
The best thing about revisiting Blume’s works as an adult is that they take no more than an afternoon to read, AKA the length of a post-brisket rest. They’re as engaging and charming on the 10th read as they were on the first. The characters, by now, are old friends; somewhere in the depths of my mind, alongside lyrics to Britney’s first album and Pokemon trivia, I’ve stored their voices and stories, which come flooding back to me as I read the opening lines.
Having lived in New York for the past couple of years, their all-American lives are less foreign to me than they were all those years ago, when I whispered strange words like “hunk” and “leash” aloud to see how they felt on my tongue. Or when I asked my parents if we would celebrate “Ground Hog Day” that year and what, exactly, it entailed. Or when I mused if the grape juice her characters drank straight out of the fridge was the same horrible stuff my dad used for kiddush? Weird.
But while Blume’s books served as a window to a faraway world, it wasn’t entirely foreign. There were rifts among best friends, silent competition over developing teenage bodies, excruciating encounters with handsome boys, and power struggles with parents imposing unwanted boundaries. The teen experience, it seemed, was pretty similar across the Atlantic.
The most welcome surprise were the ample references to Judaism, particularly in Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Though the terminology was novel — hadn’t the Temple been destroyed thousands of years ago? If so, how were there so many in the U.S.? — the notion of a well-known author casually referring to such a central part of my identity was hugely validating. It spurred me to be brave when presenting my differences to non-Jewish classmates, and hold my head a little higher when I was the only one to leave class early on Friday afternoon so I could get home before Shabbat began.
If like me, you’re not quite ready to leave the past behind, to succumb to the drudgery of 9-5 or the seemingly mandatory pragmatism of adulthood, I urge you to go back to your Blumes this Jewish holiday season — ideally after a bowl of your mom’s matzah ball soup. Ride the hormonal rollercoaster of adolescence; bask in the naivety of a sixth grader; relive your first kiss, period, love, sexual encounter.
We may be getting old but Blume’s work, amazingly, is not.