A traumatized soldier’s troubled homecoming and its impact on his Israeli-American family are at the heart of “The Things a Brother Knows,” local author Dana Reinhardt’s new book exploring the complexity of teenagers within the context of war and cultural identity.
When Boaz Katznelson, a handsome, popular, college-bound teenager, unexpectedly joins the Marines, it tears apart his Boston family. Younger brother Levi can’t understand Boaz’s decision to leave home or why he has returned so changed and emotionally scarred. The story is told through Levi’s eyes as he desperately tries to reconnect with Boaz, whose strange behavior frightens him.
The book recently won the prestigious Sydney Taylor Award from the American Jewish Library Association for excellence in young adult literature with Jewish themes. It also was named one of the year’s best books for teens by Kirkus Reviews and NPR and made the American Library Association’s top-10 list of best teen fiction.
Reinhardt, 39, lives in San Francisco with her two young daughters and husband of 11 years, Daniel Sokatch.
She graduated from NYU law school but never practiced law, dabbling in several professions before publishing her first novel in 2006. “A Brief Chapter In My Impossible Life” features a high school girl who connects with her birth mother, Rivka, a self-exiled Chassidic Jew, and learns about her Jewish heritage. Kirkus called the book a “fabulous debut” and School Library Journal deemed it “superbly crafted.”
Reinhardt’s interest in coming-of-age books is what drew her to write for teenagers. “Young adults are wonderfully rich terrain to spend time in and explore,” she said. “There is this opportunity to look at identity questions and find out who you are … the times and moments when you discover something for the first time and try to understand it.”
Reinhardt grew up in Los Angeles with atheist parents and a strong Jewish identity, though it was not connected to religion or ritual. Her grandfather was Max Goldman, a theater director famous in Germany and Austria; he changed the family name to Reinhardt before immigrating to the United States in 1937 and continuing his directing career on Broadway and later in Hollywood.
Reinhardt began re-examining her Judaism when she married Sokatch, whose career is devoted to Jewish life: He’s CEO of the New Israel Fund, former CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and co-founder of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. “I came to exploring Judaism late in the game … and what it meant for me and for raising my children,” Reinhardt said. She’s been to Israel many times to visit her husband’s extended family on their kibbutz.
In “The Things a Brother Knows,” the characters’ Jewish identity is not the focus of their lives. “A lot of books about Jewish characters are about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism,” Reinhardt said. “For kids growing up today, their Judaism is one piece of a teen’s very complicated, multifaceted identity.”
Despite the book’s Israeli characters and use of some Hebrew, she said, “The Things a Brother Knows” is an American story.
“This is a book about a kid from the suburbs of Boston who, like all of us, has parents or grandparents from somewhere else [Boaz’s father and grandfather are Israeli]. I don’t think that it’s a book about the current political situation in Israel, but the complexity of American life.” She chose to portray an Israeli family because she believed it was unlikely that a young man from this background would join the Marines. Boaz “explores what it means to go to war for your country.”
“The Things a Brother Knows” is Reinhardt’s fourth novel. Her fifth, “The Summer I Learned to Fly,” is slated to be published in July by Random House.
“The Things a Brother Knows” by Dana Reinhardt (256 pages, Wendy Lamb Books, $16.99)