The Prophetess by Evonne Marzouk (Bancroft Press 2019)
Reviewed by Rebecca Klempner
Given the dearth of YA fantasy novels in Jewish literature, I was excited to learn of the upcoming publication of The Prophetess, by Evonne Marzouk. This new novel—more magic realism than fantasy, really—hits all the right YA notes while remaining entrenched in a Jewish worldview.
The Prophetess centers on Rachel, a 17-year-old girl living in contemporary Baltimore. After her grandfather’s death, she develops crippling migraines accompanied flashes of light. It soon becomes apparent to Rachel and to us that these are more than headaches. While under their sway, she catches glimpses of other people, experiencing events in their lives as if she were them.
Zaide’s death brings another change to Rachel’s life: While her grandfather and uncles remained firmly Orthodox, Rachel’s mother left the world of Torah and mitzvos before her marriage. The family keeps kosher in order to please Zaide and make him feel welcome. They attend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at Zaide’s Orthodox shul. However, that’s pretty much the extent of the family’s religious practice. Rachel attends public school, goes to parties with boys, and has a crush on a non-Jewish classmate.
Following Zaide’s death, the family must choose whether to keep their kitchen kosher and whether they will continue to attend Zaide’s synagogue. Rachel and her mother find themselves at odds with her father and her sister, Beth. Rachel begins praying regularly from the children’s prayerbook that Zaide had given her, inscribed with the message, “May she grow into all of her gifts.”
When Rachel and her mother end up at the shul on Yom Kippur, Rachel spots a strange visitor—a visitor who can explain Rachel’s mysterious headaches and visions. Under his tutelage, Rachel unlocks the key to the gifts Zaide always told her she possessed. What follows is a fantastic journey to the Holy Land and back—and then again to the Holy Land.
The world of Jewish publishing has a poor track record with YA novels in general, largely because many of the frum book world’s gatekeepers are concerned with some of the genre’s conventions. YA books often center on teens’ emerging interest in the opposite sex and their questioning of adult role models and social values. Jewish books with teen protagonists tend to be “aged up” and slid into the adult section, minus many traditional YA internal struggles, or “aged down” into gentler middle-grade or tween fare. This is to the detriment of Jewish teens—as teens often use YA’s on-page psychological struggles to sort out their real-life ones.
Fantasy novels do a little better in Jewish publishing. While references to avodah zarah, necromancy, and divination are largely avoided, portal magic and other sub-genres are acceptable—yet hey have yet to be fully embraced, forcing frum fans of fantasy books to turn to secular books.
While I hesitate to recommend The Prophetess for the small subset of frum readers who do not read any books referring to dating outside the shidduch system, romantic feelings, and so on, I do heartily suggest it to those teens who are already reading YA novels with such content and to adult readers who enjoy YA books. The book is never prurient, contains no foul language (twice, a questionable word is abbreviated to an inoffensive form), and the messages are overall wholesome. My suspicion is that most Jewish YA readers will embrace The Prophetess as a reflection of their heritage and a fun read. It’s scheduled for release in October but is available for pre-order on Amazon right now.