WHAT MAKES US
A viral video reveals a teen’s dark family history, leaving him to reckon with his heritage, legacy, and identity in this fiery, conversation-starting novel.
Eran Sharon knows nothing of his father except that he left when Eran was a baby. Now a senior in high school and living with his protective but tight-lipped mother, Eran is a passionate young man deeply interested in social justice and equality. When he learns that the Houston police have launched a program to increase traffic stops, Eran organizes a peaceful protest. But a heated moment at the protest goes viral,
A viral video reveals a teen’s dark family history, leaving him to reckon with his heritage, legacy, and identity in this fiery, conversation-starting novel.
Eran Sharon knows nothing of his father except that he left when Eran was a baby. Now a senior in high school and living with his protective but tight-lipped mother, Eran is a passionate young man deeply interested in social justice and equality. When he learns that the Houston police have launched a program to increase traffic stops, Eran organizes a peaceful protest. But a heated moment at the protest goes viral, and a reporter connects the Sharon family to a tragedy fifteen years earlier — and asks if Eran is anything like his father, a supposed terrorist. Soon enough, Eran is wondering the same thing, especially when the people he’s gone to school and temple with for years start to look at him differently. Timely, powerful, and full of nuance, Rafi Mittlefehldt’s sophomore novel confronts the prejudices, fears, and strengths of family and community, striking right to the heart of what makes us who we are.
- October 2019
- 352 Pages
“What Makes Us is a heart-stopping, heartbreaking read — a book full of heart. Mittlefehldt’s thoughtful, nuanced exploration of identity pulled me in from the very first page, and I could barely put it down. Eran’s story takes a universal coming-of-age theme — finding out your parents aren’t who you thought they were — to a tightly wound and thrilling extreme. Most important, this book provides satisfying, much-needed representation of a contemporary, complex Jewish teen and his family.” —Lisa Rosinsky, author of Inevitable and Only
“This coming-of-age story has heft—and much relevance. Strong medicine for readers interested in how society accepts or rejects those who are different. An excellent choice for mature audiences.” —School Library Journal
“There are layers of deep meaning in this taut novel that feel like it came directly from the headlines with all the frenzy of social media. The well-drawn characters and believable dialogue are sure to inspire critical thinking and impassioned debate, for students will see themselves clearly in both the character of Eran and the maelstrom of current events that will be all too relevant to them.” —School Library Connection
1. Describe Eema’s personality and the relationship between Eran and Eema early in the book. How does their relationship change over the course of the novel? Explain why Eema didn’t tell Eran about his father and their past. Why do people believe that Eema must have known what Dani was planning?
2. After Eema takes him from the demonstration, Eran describes his feelings, including “Anger, of course, always anger” (page 47). Discuss the role of anger in his life and his relationship with his mother. Why does he believe anger can be useful, “that it gets stuff done” (page 283)?
3. Eema tells Eran that his father often quoted from the Talmud, referring to a passage that says “if someone has power to prevent injustice but does not, then he is responsible for this injustice” (page 154). Do you agree with that idea?
4. The topic of Eran’s anger and how it relates to his father’s anger comes up when he, Jade, and Declan are in the concrete pipe. Discuss Jade’s observation that anger can be a virtue and her two questions: “Isn’t that what makes us, anyway? What we decide, rather than what we’re born into?” (page 284). Relate her comment to the book’s title and to her own circumstances. Why will Jade “think about this moment years later”?
5. What is the effect of having some chapters focus on Jade? What aspects of her story parallel Eran’s? What aspects contrast with his? Why are the chapters about Jade written in third person and those about Eran in first person?
6. What role has the synagogue played in Eran’s and Eema’s lives? Discuss some of the reactions at the synagogue when Eran and Eema go there in chapter twelve. Why does Zack say, “Jews don’t get to speak without thinking, Eran” (page 219)? Describe the attack on the synagogue and the responses of various people, including Eran, his mother, and his friends.
7. What are some of the ways that journalists are portrayed in this novel? Why does Benson Domani write the story connecting Eema, Eran, and Dani? How does he justify writing it? Why does Eran’s mother think they shouldn’t speak with reporters? What are the consequences when Eran does speak with them? Discuss the scene at the gas station and the role of the reporters there.
There are no more words. She has said all the ones she wrote down.
She touches the space where more would be, as if searching for them, as if willing them to appear. The paper crinkles under fingers chapped from days of dry air. She smooths it against the fake wood of the podium, fat, light, cheap. She does not know why she lingers, when she wanted this to be over before it began.
She looks up for the first time, at the people standing before her. In those eyes she reads so much: anger, pity, grief, anticipation, disdain. Suspicion.
Her heart aches. There are so many who will still believe what they believe, she knows. In the new silence, now that she’s able to measure the completeness of her words together, they feel inadequate, useless, impotent. In desperation, she searches for others, something, anything to communicate what she feels unable to get across, and says the next five that come to her mind.
“This is not our fight.”
My dad only exists in a memory.
I’m so young, barely old enough to stand by myself. Can I walk yet? I’d probably make it a couple steps, stumble, fall back on my ass like Declan’s little cousin in the video from New Year’s. Maybe the shock would make me laugh like she did; probably I would’ve cried.
There’s light everywhere in this memory: pouring through the windows, from the bulbs overhead, from his smile. He’s so much taller than me. I have to crane my head way back to look at him. My neck aches from the strain, but it doesn’t bother me enough to stop. I don’t know what room I’m in — kitchen? living room? — but it’s not the house I live in now or the apartment from when I was little. This is someplace different, a home I only ever see in this memory.
He swoops down and picks me up, lifts me high, and now I’m taller than him. Over his head I can see my mom, and I feel the grin bursting on my face. He spins me around in one great circle, and I laugh and close my eyes, watching the light change through the inside of my eyelids. He kisses me hard on one cheek, on the other, sets me down. He says goodbye as the warmth of those kisses spreads to the rest of my face.
I told my mom about this once, when I was younger. Maybe six or seven. We were eating dinner, and she was reading some old magazine. She didn’t look up, just kept picking at her salad. I watched her eyes scanning back and forth across the lines of gray text, and just when I decided she hadn’t heard me, she said, “This did not happen.”
You ever think about how lonely your oldest memory is? The only one from its time, nothing else to back it up. Those faint images that have been with you the longest at the mercy of your own self- doubt and mistrust.
This memory is hazy now, corrupted by the time that’s gone by. I can’t tell anymore if it’s something that actually happened or what I imagined that something to be.
Or even less, the memory of a dream.
My mom’s hair is all curls. They wiggle when she shakes her head, even a bit. It’s a big, bushy mass, jet black, a bird’s nest. I’d have to get close to see the roots, the tiniest bit of brown, probably not even a quarter inch. Eema will dye it again tonight. She won’t let more than a couple weeks go by.
“Why do you do that?” I asked her once. I’d watched her as she unwrapped her towel turban, quick but careful, practiced but vigilant, a ritual I’d seen millions of times but never thought about.
When I finally did, it occurred to me how weird it was. Eema’s not one to care about appearances more than is absolutely necessary. She’s not sloppy, not untidy; she just has no interest in cosmetics. If it’s not practical, it’s not worth doing. I’ve never seen her wear lipstick.
She paused in the middle of toweling of her hair, as if she had never considered the question. “I prefer black,” she said. That was that.
I watch her now as she reads the Chronicle, curls shaking in tiny eruptions. The actual print version, so quaint. I look for the steam above her coffee and don’t see it. She almost never finishes her coffee, lets it cool half- full, but still complains about how expensive chicory is.
“Bye, Eema,” I say. “Study hard,” she responds, not looking up. I mouth it with her, something I do every time. She never sees.
Declan climbs in, clicks his seat belt in place carefully. I stare at him as he does, at the mismatched three- piece suit he’s wearing under a giant overcoat.
He settles in, smoothing down his coat, then notices the stillness. He looks over, sighs.
“Okay. I know. But I wanted to wear my new pants for the first Friday of the school year,” he says, pushing his giant overcoat aside so I can see them. “But then my only belt broke, so I needed this vest to cover the waistband, and then I needed a tie if I was wearing a vest, right? But then the back of the vest is kind of messed up, so I thought my jacket could cover it.” Declan twists around, displaying for me all the things wrong with the pieces of his outfit. “And then my jacket sleeves are frayed, since it’s really Don’s old jacket he had in ninth grade, I think? So I needed the overcoat to cover that.”
I wait for him to stop.
“It’s ninety- five degrees,” I say.
“We’ll be inside.”
And when I have stared long enough, I shift into reverse.
I drive Eema’s old Ford Fiesta from the nineties. It has an ancient, musty smell and no air-conditioning, but I’m seventeen and without a better choice. Declan still asks for a ride, even though he has other friends with newer, less shitty cars. I don’t mind. Why would I?
“Deck Lehn?” Eema asked when she first met him, trying out the sound of his Irish name on her Israeli tongue.
“Yes, Miss Sharon,” Declan said, and I winced.
Eema frowned and shook her hair. “No, no. Shah- ROHN,” she corrected, as if expecting flawless Hebrew from this kid. “I am not rich Connecticut housewife.”
This was in eighth grade.
Declan’s looking at his schedule card now, scanning the misaligned print he memorized a month before school even started. We have three classes and lunch together this year, not bad.
We’ve turned a corner past sunrise, and it’s golden out for the last stretch of road before school, that fire directly ahead, low against the ground, light pouring into the car. In a few minutes it’ll be blinding, but now it’s a warm, thick light, honey colored, sweet. No one ever talks about sunrise, no one my age, but I don’t know why.
“Donovan says no one’s gonna come tomorrow,” Declan says out of nowhere, in a tone I know means he’s been thinking about it for a while, has been deciding whether to bring it up. He rubs his schedule card absently between his thumb and forefinger. The ink’s smudging.
For a moment, I imagine Avery Park bathed in the light I see now, brilliant and rich and intense as the sound of a thousand voices in our protest. My protest.
“Who cares what Don says? Don is an idiot. Don is maybe the least insightful person on the planet.” I drum my fingers on the gearshift. “Are you having second thoughts?” I ask this because I already know the answer.
“No!” he says, a little too quickly.
“It’s okay if you are, Declan. Really! That’s normal.” I try to make my voice sound easy, light. “Plus I know this doesn’t sound like the biggest deal to most people, at least at first glance. I mean, we’re just talking about speeding tickets here. But it’s really about more than just that, and people get it. This is going to take off.”
“Yeah,” Declan says. “Just, Don said there are more important things to worry about.”
“There are.” I breathe out, fighting a wave of sudden irritation. “But this is ours, and it’s still important.”
There’s more, much more, that I want to say, now that I’ve gotten myself worked up. But the conversation has taken us to the school grounds without either of us noticing. I drive past the main student parking lot, not even bothering. The overflow lot is unpaved, and we listen to the crunch of gravel under the tires and the pebbles ricocheting of the underside pipes. I think about the time in ninth grade when we set up a row of cans in the woods near Declan’s house and tried to hit them with his BB gun from farther and farther away.
Then I ease into a space, kill the engine, and sigh into the sudden stillness, stifling now with no wind. The heat pulls a drop of sweat from my forehead before the breath is even out of me. “Well,” I say.
“Here we fucking go.”
When Declan isn’t looking, I practice. Drum my fingers on my backpack strap while we walk.
I don’t know if it ever calms me down. But it’s gotta be worth a try.
I study Mr. Riskin. He’s short, a little on the heavier side, bald with a light brown beard. He wears small glasses set over piercing eyes. Pale yellow button- down, sleeves rolled up, narrow tie, black pants. He looks like an accountant or computer engineer. He looks more serious than he is.
Riskin’s still using the roll sheet, reading the names he hasn’t yet learned. Most people mispronounce my name the first time they see it written, making the first and last names rhyme like I’m a cartoon character. But Riskin guessed right the first day, the first teacher ever to do it.
This year I have World Affairs and Social Issues first period. It’s a pretty cool class, actually, even if Riskin is a little of. Mr. Berkler, a wiry guy who looks like an intern but is my counselor, suggested it last May when I was picking courses.
“You need an elective.” He looked up, eyebrows raised.
“I dunno,” I said.
Berkler looked back at the screen. “Anything in the arts? Choir?”
“How about Home Management?” he asked.
“Is this what you thought you’d be doing with your life?”
I got a laugh out of him for that, smiled to myself in triumph. He leaned back in his chair. “Well, what are you interested in? Any hobbies or clubs?”
I hesitated a moment. “I mean . . . there’s Social Justice Club,” I said slowly.
“Huh,” he said, and I bristled for a second at the surprise. “Which issues in particular are you concerned with?”
“Homophobia, transphobia, racism, misogyny, reproductive rights,” I said. “Global warming, Big Oil, rich one- percenters, uh . . . police brutality, death penalty . . . gun control.”
“Well, that’s quite a —”
“And immigrant rights.”
Berkler waited three beats, clicked around on his ancient computer, turned the monitor around to face me. “This is a new one we’re offering next year for juniors and seniors. Could be your thing.”
My eyes went straight to the short paragraph in the middle of the page:
This course will explore current and historical events through the lens of social movements, cultural evolution, and political shifts. Students will learn how issues enter and exit the public consciousness, identify which social changes endure, and discuss the differing roles the media has played in the last sixty years. Semester course. Prerequisites: none.
Above that: “World Affairs and Social Issues. Fall Only.”
I glanced back up at Berkler. He was looking at me expectantly, waiting for the answer he already knew was coming.
“I mean, of course,” I said.
Riskin’s eyes dart around the room. I watch them dance, never resting, landing on one kid only long enough to bounce to the next. I wonder if this is what it’s like to look at me.
“What do people mean when they talk about ‘acceptable’ forms of protest?” he asks us.
He talks to us about violence and nonviolence, and I imagine them as a duality, as one man with two personalities. Like Jekyll and Hyde, like Bruce Banner and the Hulk.
I raise my hand.
“Eran?” “Why do we —” I stop. Click my tongue. Start over. “Why should people who are fighting for something let other people tell them how to fight for it?” It comes out in a rush, fast but controlled, just the way I like it.
“In what way?” “Well, like . . .” I try to find the words. “Like if I’m holding a protest.” A girl who knows about tomorrow giggles a bit, but I ignore her, already deep in. “Okay, so I’m at a protest, right? And then people on the other side of the issue tell me, you know, my protest is too angry or whatever. Too, uh. Too ‘inciteful.’ Is that a word?” I look away, distracted suddenly. “Inciteful. Inciting? They say my protest incites violence. Why should I listen to them? They’re not against the way I’m protesting, really, they’re against the protest to begin with, so they want to undermine it, so they attack the way it’s being done instead of the actual message. I mean, even when students protest actual violence! The people against them always say they’re protesting the wrong way. What’s the right way, though? There’s not. It’s a distraction. They’re trying to win on a technicality or something, so that they don’t have to have a real debate about the actual issue to begin with. So.” I let out a quick breath. “Shouldn’t I just protest the way I think is right?”
My knee is bouncing. I wonder when it started.
“What if they are being genuine?” Riskin asks. “What if they truly want to avoid violence and really do believe your protest will cause it?”
I think for a second, only a second. “Sure, but isn’t violence okay sometimes? I mean, aren’t we cool with it when it’s for a good reason? Like when peaceful protests don’t work?” Each sentence leads me to another, one thought playing of the next, the words coming more rapidly. “Isn’t that basically how the Revolution happened?”
“There have been events upon which history looks favorably, yes,” Riskin says slowly. “But who makes that determination in the moment? Is, say, violence by Palestinians toward Israelis justified, if they feel they have no other option?”
This has happened before, lots of times. Because I’m Israeli. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s cool to murder people who are just trying to survive under a tyrannical, oppressive, imperialist government run by a political party that, by the way, is basically just like the crazies we have here.
“I think . . . it can be, yeah.” I lean forward in my seat a little, tapping my pen lightly against my notebook. I know right away what he’s trying to do. “I mean, if they’ve tried everything else, but they’re still being killed indiscriminately? What else are they supposed to do? How can they possibly be expected to sit around and try the same thing that hasn’t worked for decades, especially when doing the same thing forever is in Israel’s best interests but not their own? And anyway, there are way more deaths among Palestinians than Israelis, so why don’t we ever ask about whether that violence is justified? Doesn’t that show that it’s not really violence in general we care about, only violence toward certain people?”
People are usually surprised to hear that I’d be critical of Israel. Then I ask them if they’re never critical of the U.S. government, since they’re American. That’s when they get it.
It’s funny how everyone understands and assumes so much nuance with their own country but not with others.
I watch Riskin closely, trying to gauge his reaction, see if he was expecting this. There are some whispers from other kids in the class, but, disappointingly, he seems unfazed.
“Let’s take it further.” Riskin’s voice quickens, like he’s getting more into this conversation, and I lean forward a little, folding my arms on my desktop and resting my weight on them. Maybe his discussion style is invigorating; maybe it’s a little intimidating; maybe I don’t care either way. “What about people who bomb abortion clinics? To them, their motivations are morally sound, and their options as they see them are limited. Is that enough to say those actions are acceptable, or do you consider these people terrorists?”
I blink a couple times. “Which brings us back to the original question: Who gets to decide which violence is legitimate and which isn’t? Where’s the line between justified violence and terrorism?”
For a couple seconds, the only sound is the tap-tap-tap of my pen against my notebook, the nervous soundtrack to a light smile spreading on Riskin’s lips.
The bell rings, as if out of pity. That smile widens abruptly, and I stiffen before realizing there’s no derision behind it.
“Fascinating discussion, Mr. Sharon, and excellent questions. We’ll take it up again next week. Homework!” He gives a sharp wave at the surprised murmurs of the class. “I want you all to go to the Constant Vigilance protest Eran was unsubtly plugging just now. Tomorrow at noon, Avery Park. We’ll discuss it Monday.”
My pen stops in mid- tap as the murmurs grow immediately louder. I can pick out the individual tones in them: resentment, incredulity, indignation.
“Some of us have plans tomorrow, Mr. Riskin,” Marcos says, and those tones shift to agreement, maybe a dash of naive hope.
“We’ll discuss it Monday,” Riskin says again. He looks tickled by all this. “I’ll know if you skip, so don’t try it.”
Declan tries to speak urgently through a mouthful of tofu burger.
“There’s one.” He gestures with his chin.
I pass a glance over Jade first, then follow Declan’s chin and chance a look. The kid is two or three years younger, lanky and awkward in his oversize backpack. I scan his clothes and movements for the clue that tipped Declan of. My eyes pause at his swoop haircut, but I decide it doesn’t stand out enough.
He finds himself accidentally keeping pace with a couple girls nearby, both fidgeting self- consciously. He makes discreet side glances at them when he thinks it’s safe, then realizes he should speed up to avoid walking too close.
“He was checking those girls out,” I say after they pass by, but already I’m doubting myself.
Bonnie shakes her head, making her sherbet- dyed hair sway. “Amateur.”
Declan snorts into his food. “You know how many —” he manages, then gives up. He swallows, wincing, and takes a moment to compose himself and clear his throat. “Girls I looked at before I knew?”
I catch Jade’s eyes on the way back. She looks down at her lasagna, but the contact lasts a fraction of a second too long.
“You guys excited about tomorrow?” This from Delia, sitting next to Jade. I’ve known her since fifth grade, long enough to know she’s trying to bring everyone into the conversation. That is her instinct: to want everyone else to be heard as much as she wants it for herself. I wish I had that.
“Does that mean you’re coming?” I ask slyly.
Delia’s expression is somewhere between sheepish and amused, a resigned smirk. “You don’t really take no for an answer,” she says, but there’s no reproach there.
“I know,” I say. I don’t mean it glibly. “So that just leaves you, Jade.”
She holds my eyes for a couple seconds, considering me while I consider her. Tall with curly hair, light brown highlights to match her eyes, dark brown skin. She speaks like she moves: careful and controlled, elegant and precise. Of everyone, she’s the one I know the least. The only one I haven’t known for years, really. We’ve had classes together in the past but never really talked. She’s more Delia’s friend, brought into our group through Social Justice Club.
But I see a spark of a chance in her hesitation.
“Aren’t there bigger things we should be doing in SJC?” she asks finally, almost apologetically.
The words are out as quickly as they cross my mind. “Yes, but doing this doesn’t mean we lose out on the chance to do something else. It just means we get to do more. Look,” I say, shifting gears. “Think of it this way: You know how everyone cares about the really big elections? The national ones. Everyone talks about the president. But really, it’s the local stuff that affects everyone’s lives the most.”
“We can’t vote,” Bonnie says through a mouthful of rice.
“I mean local issues.” I am unfazed, building speed and rhythm. “We can’t vote, but we can protest. We can draw attention to stuff that still affects us, to put pressure on others. Take this Constant Vigilance thing. Sure, I mean, at the end of the day who cares about thirty bucks more for a speeding ticket? Who cares about them pulling people over more? But the point is that the city’s just taking for granted that they can do this.” I’m leaning forward, balancing my chair on the front two legs and barely noticing. “No one’s asking them why, what the money’s for, why we should give them more power, what the alternatives are, how we got here, none of that. They’re just looking for easy money, and they assume they have the right to grab it whenever they want and through a police force at that. It’s sketchy at best and sleazy at worst, and we should just let them know, that’s all.”
Jade’s eyes never leave mine, so mine don’t leave hers. My peripheral vision clouds from disuse, and it’s like looking into a tunnel, a deep corridor whose walls are made of words, and at the other end is a pair of light brown eyes, cool, unwavering, resolute.
“What are we doing for signs?” she asks after a moment.
© Rafi Mittlefehldt 2019