Modern Lessons from a Cold-War Era PJ Our Way Book

Posted April 01, 2020  | Written by PJ Our Way Team

This is Just a Test

By Carla Naumburg

This is Just a Test by Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Wan-Long Shang may cause a surge of nostalgia for some parents. But while the book is set in 1984, many of the storylines and struggles are surprisingly relevant to kids right now.
David Da-Wei Horowitz is Chinese and Jewish and American, and he’s still not sure what that all means. His struggles around his identity come to the forefront as he gets ready for his bar mitzvah. David’s bubbe suggests he sponsor a bar mitzvah twin, a 13-year-old boy in the USSR who can’t publicly celebrate this important milestone (remember the Cold War?). Initially, David is quite unhappy about sharing half of his bar mitzvah money with some kid he’s never met, but by the end of the book, he’s come to see the value in this act of tzedakah.
Meanwhile, life goes on for David, in both large and small ways. He’s torn between his friendships with cool kid Scott and his decidedly uncool best friend Hector and wondering how to get cute Kelli Ann to pay attention to him. Oh, and he’s trying to figure out just how much to worry about the possibility of nuclear war and precisely how big a homemade bunker needs to be in order to keep him safe.
This book is a PJ Our Way selection for April 2020 just as families throughout the world are confined to their homes in the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak and Jewish families are preparing for Passover. It’s a scary time with an unclear outcome. While there are many differences between this current crisis and David’s experience during the Cold War, there are some useful conversations that can emerge from This is Just a Test.
In every generation. In the Haggadah, we are reminded that in every generation we should tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt as if we ourselves were the ones who were enslaved and then liberated. In addition, it can be helpful to remember that every generation faces significant cultural crises. Since the end of the Second World War, Americans have lived through the Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Cold War and threat of nuclear attack, the AIDS epidemic, 9/11, and more. Just as each of these tragedies vary in detail and scope, so do the lessons we learn and the strengths we gain from them.
Welcoming the stranger. Just as we were strangers in Egypt, we are told to welcome strangers to our Seder tables. David has a hard time understanding why he has to give half of his bar mitzvah money to a boy he doesn’t know from the other side of the world. As I write this, countries are closing borders in an effort to stem the spread of the Coronavirus. Yet, as David learns through his letters to Alexi and many of us continue to experience through social media, connecting with strangers can be a powerful source of meaning in difficult times.
Acknowledging both the routine and extraordinary. David’s daily life alternates between the seemingly mundane activities of tween life (his grandmothers bickering, his preparation for a trivia competition at school) and the extraordinary details of that moment in time (becoming a bar mitzvah, worrying about nuclear war). The balance isn’t easy, but it’s one that everyone faces at some point and perhaps there are lessons to be learned, such as the power of crises to help us appreciate the beauty of a typical day and the blessings of routine to prepare us to manage crises.
The book ends with David’s bar mitzvah, in which he becomes an adult in the eyes of the Jewish community. David notes, “For a long time I wasn’t sure what that means. But now I have a better idea. It doesn’t mean solving every problem in the world. But it means you have to try.”
In every generation, we face problems that we cannot solve, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try. Remembering that communal crises are part of the human condition, and that this is a powerful moment to connect with both loved ones and strangers can help us feel less alone. Finally, by accepting that even in times of crisis we must attend to the banalities of daily life, from bickering children to overdue bills to sore shoulders, we may begin to find a little balance in our lives.
You can learn more about This is Just a Test by Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Wan-Long Shang on the PJ Our Way website
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