Monday, May 5, 2014

The World Outside by Eva Wiseman

Wiseman has crafted yet another compact novel that informs and engages young readers about a forgotten event, in this case, the Crown Heights riots of 1991.

Seventeen year old Chanie Altman belongs to the Lubavitcher Hasidic community in Crown Heights, New York. She lives in a huge home with her Babba, her mother and father, her twin brother Moishe and her older brother Yossi. Chanie spends much time caring for her twin brother who was disabled during a difficult birth.

Chanie's family along with others in the Crown Heights Hasidic community follow the teachings of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.  Hasidic Jews live by strict rules; boys and girls do not mingle, there is no television and they do not go to movies, they only listen to Jewish music, and they never read non-religious books. The boys do not continue secular schooling after grade five while the girls attend seminary and then marry.

Chanie and her friends, Deborah Leah and Faygie Kauffman are in grade twelve at Bais Rivkah, a Lubavitcher high school in Crown Heights.Chanie is different from her friends, she loves music and especially wants to sing, which is forbidden to Lubavitcher girls. She also is beginning to question all of her beliefs.

One Sunday in March, Chanie, Deborah and Faygie, go to the mall to hand out candles and prayer leaflets to Jews.During this outreach, Chanie meets David Goldberg, a handsome young man with beautiful blue eyes. Although Daniel is of Jewish background, he is not religious.Chanie feels instantly attracted to him, something she terms the "Evil Inclination" which she tries to resist.

Shortly after this David begins coming to her home to study the Torah with Yossi. Chanie is shocked to see him at her house. Soon afterwards, she and David begin to secretly meet one another. At first Chanie plans to tell David she cannot meet him again as it is forbidden. When David overhears her singing to Moishe, he is impressed by her beautiful voice. Believing her to be very gifted, David encourages Chanie to apply to Julliard, despite that fact that singing is forbidden.

Meanwhile Chanie meets a black girl, Jade, who is from Boston and is staying in Crown Heights with her Aunt Rita Mae. Jade has taken the semester off from her studies at Vassar to decide what she wants to do with her life. Chanie is warned by her mother not to mix with the blacks who do not trust their Jewish neighbours but Chanie has other ideas. Soon she and Jade are meeting at Yoni's Yummi Pizza Parlour where Jade encourages Chanie to discover what she wants from life. Chanie explains to Jade that members of the Lubavitch Sect believe they must do what the Rebbe tells them to.

Unknown to her parents, Chanie continues to see both Jade and David, developing a strong friendship with Jade and following through on David's suggestion to apply to Julliard. Events come to a climax when a black boy in Crown Heights is struck and killed by one of the cars in Rabbi Schneerson's entourage. Set against the riots against Jews in Crown Heights, Chanie must decide her path in life and determine what matters most to her. Will she follow her dreams or will she remain true to her beliefs?


Chanie is a character filled with conflict over the beliefs her Hasidic sect hold dear and her desire to see some of the outside world. Chanie's choice might dismay some readers, but the truth is that for the type of sect that Chanie belongs to, her beliefs are deeply ingrained and the ties to her large family are deeply held. Wiseman does a wonderful job of portraying the internal conflict Chanie struggles against. Readers will suspect that Chanie's difficult and uncompromising mother has likely faced similar choices in her past.

Many of the other characters in the novel are well developed and interesting; Chanie's strict and forceful mother, Jade who is open and welcoming with her friendship, and David who falls in love with Chanie and who demonstrates his love for her by his care for her family.

Taken from
It was interesting reading about the beliefs of this Jewish sect and also about life in the Crown Height suburb, where mutual distrust between two marginalized ethnic groups eventually led to tension and conflict. The Crown Heights riots occurred over a three day period in August of 1991. Black residents and Orthodox Jewish residents of Brooklyn, New York who were already distrustful of one another, fought each other in the streets. The riots were instigated when Menachem Mendel Schneerson's motorcade accidently struck two black children, killing one and seriously injuring the other. The black residents believing police favoured the Jewish residents began rioting. On August 20 an Australian Jewish student was stabbed and beaten to death.

Chanie's application to Julliard was unrealistic especially given that Chanie had no formal music training and could not read music. Julliard auditions are rigorous and likely included submitting a prescreening audio recording even back in 1991.

Overall though, this book will be of interest to readers who enjoy historical fiction or fiction about little known contemporary events. Themes of rebellion, reconciliation, love, hatred, and coming of age can be found throughout the novel.

Book Details:
The World Outside by Eva Wiseman
Toronto: Tundra Books    2014
232 pp.

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