When my dad attended college, there were still Jewish quotas, meaning that only so many Jewish students would be admitted to a particular college in any given year. When my big sister was in middle school, a foulmouthed classmate called her kike. I couldn’t have been more than 9, but I already understood that the posh country club in town, dubbed “exclusive,” simply meant “no Jews or Blacks allowed.”
Two weeks into my freshman year at college, another student crudely remarked, “Look, there go the Jew and the Chocolate,” pointing at me and my African American theater classmate. I heard giggles in the background. Ten years later, my husband and I moved to the Midwest for a career opportunity. I inquired about renting in a rather charming area, but our recruiter advised against it. “You wouldn’t be welcomed there,” is all she said. (I assumed it was that “exclusive” thing, again.)
None of these incidents were brutal experiences. No pogroms. No concentration camps. No lynchings. But they did keep me on guard. I hoped that by the time my daughter was in high school, her experiences would be different. Sadly, among high school kids, anti-Semitic slurs and racial jokes were still commonplace.
That’s when I decided to write “The Violin Players,” about a savvy 15-year-old New Yorker named Melissa Jensen who suddenly finds herself living in a small Midwestern town. Melissa was supposed to be the lead in her school play, captain of the debate team, and first violinist in her New York school orchestra. Instead, she must forfeit her junior year glory to venture out to an obscure town “in the middle of nowhere.”
However, her arrival in Henryville is filled with many pleasant surprises. First, there’s the handsome captain of the football team. Then, she meets her drama teacher, a former Broadway actor. And who would have guessed that her new school orchestra would be every bit as good or maybe even better than in New York. Most exciting of all … there’s Daniel Goodman, the remarkable boy (with those dreamy eyes) who shares Melissa’s passion for playing baseball and the violin. Oh, and let’s not forget that the coolest kids in town treat her like a celebrity, simply for having grown up in the “Big Apple.”
Everything seems too good to be true, until Melissa confronts anti-Semitism. Sure, bigotry of all sorts exists in New York, too. Stories are on the news, all the time, but back home, Melissa never “personally” had to deal with it. No one in Henryville suspects that Melissa is Jewish.
However, Daniel, the only Jewish boy in the school, is harassed by the school bully, who also happens to be the school’s most revered athlete. Melissa must make a choice. She knows what is right. Her decision should be clear-cut. But life is never that simple.
“The Violin Players” is my third young adult novel published by the Jewish Publication Society. The first two were historical fiction. This book, however, is a contemporary teen romance, examining bigotry and bullying in high school. When it first was published in 1998, I received many invitations to speak at schools, libraries, and various organizations around the country. I even penned a stage adaption for a couple of teen theater groups, but honestly, I never considered recording an audiobook.
With the rise of violent anti-Semitic acts worldwide and hate language proliferating on the internet, my daughter (now a mother herself) suggested I “dust off” the pages of “The Violin Players” and tell Melissa Jensen’s story to a new generation.
Interestingly enough, the audiobook has triggered some gut-wrenching reactions. Adult listeners have readily shared their own experiences with me, praising the story for making them re-examine their own silence when a colleague’s bigoted remarks went unchallenged. Other listeners were eager to share their own heartbreaking stories of religious discrimination, while others were quick to share it with educators and librarians in their communities.
I have no illusions. My romance novel will not eradicate bigotry, but just maybe, it will serve as a reminder to speak out against it.
Emmy award-winner Eileen Bluestone Sherman is a writer and producer. Her young adult novel “Monday in Odessa” won the National Jewish Book Award; her novel “Independence Avenue” won the International Reading Association Teachers’ Choice Award. Sherman also writes musical theater with her sister, Gail C. Bluestone. Songs from their show recordings, “Perfect Picture” and “The Odd Potato: The Broadway Album” have been concert highlights at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and can be heard on radio worldwide. Together with her producing partner, Grant Maloy Smith, she co-founded The Indie Collaborative. Their concerts, starring multi-award- winning independent artists, foster musical collaborations that cross genres and continents.
“The Violin Players,” Sherman’s first audiobook, is now streaming on major platforms, including Audible, Apple Books, Libro.fm, AuthorsDirect, Chirp, and Google Play. The paperback version of “The Violin Players,” published by the Jewish Publication Society (an imprint of University of Nebraska Press), will be released in December and is available for preorder at barnesandnoble.com. To read reviews and preview the audiobook, visit ebsoriginals.bookmark.com.