A contemporary upper middle-grade novel (with touches of magical realism) about identity and faith.
As a baby, Gabby Moskowitz was adopted by a Jewish family and converted to Judaism. Fourteen years later, she feels deeply connected to her faith but still struggles to fit into her community. Her shy brother Simon, on the other hand—just three months younger and the biological son of their parents—would rather be studying rare wildlife in the neighborhood woods than praying in a synagogue.
When Gabby’s estranged friend Danielle suddenly loses her mother, Gabby and Simon find themselves thrown back into Danielle’s life. But as the seven-day mourning period called shiva progresses and Gabby tries to mend their broken friendship, Danielle’s grief catalyzes Simon’s own rejection of Judaism, and suddenly, Gabby feels her own links to faith, family, friends, and community all beginning to fray.
In a desperate move, she turns for help to Elijah, the eccentric Jewish nursing-home runaway secretly camping in the neighborhood woods. Elijah claims to be able to communicate with wild animals, and Gabby senses an opportunity to prove the existence of supernatural powers to her skeptical brother and win him back over to Judaism.
But Elijah has an unspoken agenda of his own. And the more time Gabby spends with him, the more she realizes she may be placing herself, Simon, Danielle, and her entire neighborhood into grave danger.
Echo of Light is a lyrical story of faith and science, identity and heritage, and many types of loss. It’s about discovering how you fit into the world.
Read Chapters 1 and 2 below.
Chapter 1: Baskets and Boats
Everyone has a lagoon.
That’s what Gail Alter told me one Shabbat morning when I was nine, five years before she died. Don’t picture palm trees and glittering sand. Don’t picture any purple postcard sunset. That’s not what she meant.
We were standing in the kitchen of our synagogue, Congregation B’nai Chorin. My brother Simon and I had snuck down there to help Gail set up the food for the after-service kiddush. Gail was my then-best-friend Danielle’s mom and she was funny and fun and completely safe, and that was what I needed right then. When we found her, she was bustling around in her gigantic apron, snapping her fingers and moving her shoulders and singing snippets of the Beatles as she stirred ginger ale into the punch bowl. If it wasn’t for her huge, prehistoric square glasses, you would never have guessed she spent weekdays in a government lab researching quantum physics.
I had just escaped the little-kid service in tears. Simon had run out with me, of course, in silent solidarity. We’d been learning about Moses getting adopted, and it made me so proud to have a special connection with Moses that I’d raised my hand and announced, “I’m adopted too.” Some of the other kids didn’t get it, though. The rabbi’s son, completely confused, was like, “Then how come you sing the prayers so loud if you aren’t even Jewish?”
I told Gail all about it as she showed us how to put three cherry tomatoes on a sprig of parsley in the egg salad. How to arrange the cookies in a spiral pattern on the platter, like a galaxy.
“Chefs!” she kept saying. “Born chefs!”
We felt so important.
But it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to be the best kiddush setter-upper ever.
So when Gail asked me to carry the giant punch bowl out into the social hall, I grabbed the overflowing bread-basket of challah slices too, balancing it on top. But the whole tower in my hands was so tall that I couldn’t see where I was going, and I walked right into a table, and the basket tipped just enough to spill half the challah into the punch bowl with a splash.
Simon, who wasn’t supposed to be better than me at this, giggled and said, “Gabby drowned the challah!”
Gail tilted her head, looked at me through her big glasses, then turned to Simon and said, “And she did a perfect job, didn’t she? Exactly what I need for my special challah punch balls.” Then she wadded up pea-sized chunks of the sopping yellow challah, rolled them in powdered sugar so they looked like mini donuts, and set them on the lemon slices floating across the punch—tiny passengers on tiny boats—as if she’d planned it all along.
Later, when Simon left, Gail put her hands on my shoulders and smiled at me until I wiped my face and looked up.
“Gabriella,” she said—pronouncing my full name like no one ever pronounced it, with a lilt and a sparkle like a stream going up and over a rock—“Gabriella. My dear aunt once told me, every person on this earth has one place, one environment where they feel most themselves. Where your boat finds its own, perfect waves. That’s your lagoon.”
I didn’t know back then that she’d been raised by her aunt, that she was adopted too.
“One day, you’ll find it,” she went on, “and you’ll know when you do. But until then, don’t let anyone tell you where your lagoon should or shouldn’t be.”
I wanted to tell her, It’s here, you know, it’s CBC, I know it. The songs and the murmurs and the rustling of pages in the sanctuary always wrapped me in this warmth I felt nowhere else. But a little burst of embarrassment stopped me. Look at you, said a voice in my head. Overreaching again. Like taking the bread basket when I’d already been given the punch bowl. How could I, Gabby Moskowitz, dare to think CBC was my lagoon?
“Not even yourself,” Gail added in a whisper.
Then she pulled me against her in a long, quiet hug, like a mother.
Chapter 2: Mandel Bread and Lemon Surface-Cleaner
The call woke me up early Saturday morning, breaking the quiet of Shabbat. Mom answered on the first ring, her voice sharp.
There was too long of a silence. My mind leapt to Gail. She’d had this mysterious infection for two weeks. All night, fluid from her spine had been running in some brand-new bacterial-DNA search-engine thing, but the results weren’t supposed to come in for twenty-four hours.
“No, no, no,” Mom said.
I threw back the covers and jumped out of bed. It was June 21st, the first day of summer after the end of eighth grade, but I was shivering. In the hall I almost bumped into Simon as he ran out of his room. He was fumbling to put on his watch. He had always felt helpless without it.
Simon got to our parents’ room first and shoved open the door. Mom was sitting up in bed, one hand on her forehead pushing up her graying blond hair, the other hand clutching the phone to her ear. Dad, already dressed, was perched on the edge of his side of the bed, tying his shoe. A sliver of gold light sliced diagonally across the sheets, right between my parents, from where the little trash can was holding back one of the blinds, and a thought shot through me: If I had to choose one parent to die, who would it be?
“Oh, Danielle,” Mom said, her voice crumpling. “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
I jumped onto the bed next to Mom. She found my hand and gripped it. Simon just dropped to the carpet and lay on his back.
I could hear Danielle’s voice through the phone now, weirdly deep and measured. She sounded confident, somehow. So different from how she used to be, back when we were close. But for two weeks now she had practiced being the new parent to her two younger brothers. Their dad, Jeff, was this really nice guy who couldn’t cook a frozen pizza. He was legendary for the time he’d ruined half their clothes by pouring liquid bleach into the washing machine like gravy over mashed potatoes.
“I’ll let the rabbi know,” my dad said, straightening up. He wasn’t in shul clothes; he had probably just been getting up to water the tomatoes. But it was Shabbat, and no one in CBC’s Funeral Practices Committee—except for my mom—used the phone on Shabbat. That was why Danielle had called us. For the news to be announced during shul services this morning, someone would have to tell Rabbi Klein in person.
Mom nodded. Danielle was still talking. I could picture her pacing around the kitchen in her favorite Magic School Bus pajamas that had been way too big at our sleepovers years ago—she’d bought them like that on purpose, so she’d have them forever. Her mom used to bake chocolate-chip mandel bread and bring in the tray while the two of us sat on the floor making bead bracelets, and announce with a bow in a loud, dramatic voice, “Some nourishment for the noble artisan sisters.”
Mom squeezed my hand as she whispered into the phone, “Okay, honey. Bye.”
For a moment it was quiet. Then I heard the hum of the garage door closing behind Dad. And then Simon was jumping up and standing over us, yelling, “But I don’t get it, it doesn’t make sense, they said she could last till the results came in, they were gonna figure out what antibiotic to give her!”
And all Mom said was, “I know, I know, I don’t know, she didn’t make it,” and then, “Get dressed, we’re going over there.”
The Alters’ house is only a fifteen-minute walk from ours, in the next development over, but that morning we drove. Our neighborhood, Willowbridge Hill, was quiet except for a couple automatic sprinklers whispering as they sprayed the yellowing yards. It hadn’t rained in weeks.
I tried to think what in the world I would say to Danielle. Mom had made me call her twice, just to check in, after Gail’s name appeared on the refuah shleimah list in the CBC newsletter, and we’d dropped off some food at their house a few times when no one was home. But I hadn’t seen Danielle in over six months, and we hadn’t been friends, really friends, for three years. I missed her sometimes. But now I was afraid of seeing her, afraid of not knowing how to behave.
Mom said gently to Simon, “You’re going to have to say something too, okay?”
Simon just looked out the window. We’re talking about Simon who at the age of fourteen would rather escape to the Fisher-Price playground after Shabbat services than hang around in the social hall and have to talk to “random people” over kiddush. Simon who basically couldn’t talk to any girl besides me.
We found Danielle and her brothers in her room, surrounded by wall-to-wall shelves of sci-fi books. She was lying at a weird angle on the bed, surrounded by stuffed robots and space ships. Her brothers, Mikey and Al, were curled up on the floor petting Zev, a one-year-old golden retriever whose name means “wolf” in Hebrew. Zev leapt up and started sniffing my legs as soon as we walked in. Years before, I used to sleep in that bed under the glow-in-the-dark ceiling stars a couple times a month, but of course, Zev didn’t know that.
“Hi Gabby,” Danielle said, rolling over and standing up. “Hey Simon.”
Her voice was totally flat. I rushed over and hugged her hard. “I’m sorry,” I whispered lamely in her ear. “I just…”
“I like your shampoo,” she said.
What do you say to that? We stepped apart. Her thin brown hair hung straight down like blinds, but there was a new pink streak on the right side. It didn’t work for her, in my opinion. Somehow I would never have expected Danielle to dye her hair.
She still had bangs, though—maybe always would. They partially hid the thin inch of bleached pinkish skin above and to the right of her right eye. That was from this one Friday night at CBC when she was two. With everyone standing, silently praying (according to the story), she had waddled up the stairs onto the bima, right up to this antique silver Shabbat candelabra with its three gigantic olive-oil flames. All she did was climb onto a chair and lean over the candelabra to look a bit too closely. Even her eyelashes on that side had grown back pale, almost white, which the doctors considered a mystery. She thought it was hideous, but it wasn’t. I was always jealous of it. I would have loved to be marked forever by a Shabbat candle.
“Hey Gabby,” said Al, who was seven, “did you know Zev can do tricks?”
“Really?” I felt so stupid. Simon was hugging Mikey, who was crying and hugging Simon back. It’s actually safe to say Mikey gave “bear hug” a whole new meaning. He was a year younger than us, but he had just had a massive growth spurt. Now he was a head taller than Simon and much more buff. He even had the beginnings of a beard, although luckily, just before his Bar Mitzvah, he had finally cut the awful red thicket on his head down to a normal, handsome level. He’d always gotten along with Simon, who was actually interested in Mikey’s bizarre short stories about made-up fantasy creatures and helped him give them evolutionary histories and believable anatomy. Mikey wanted to be an author when he grew up. He mentioned that all the time.
“Yeah, just watch this,” said Al, jumping up. He had a goofy smile on his face and a dark circle on the top of his dinosaur pajamas that might have been drool or tears. He was the son of two physicists; he was named for Albert Einstein.
“Up!” said Al. Zev sprang onto his hind legs, his front legs outstretched like he was praying.
“Shake!” Al said, and shook one of Zev’s paws.
Zev jumped around a bit more, then fell down on all fours and let out a happy bark. Al sat back down and grinned at me. “Pretty cool, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said. I felt sick. Last night around midnight, Danielle had sent a group text to all the people who’d been checking in. I was lying on my bed staring at the big poster of the Sonoran Desert on my ceiling when my phone buzzed. Gail had made it through the spinal tap, which was apparently super dangerous for patients with swelling in the brain, and the doctor who’d flown in from Harvard was confident he would figure out the infection, and so Danielle wrote “now we can be hopeful,” and it was like I’d been emptied, I felt so light. I had never cried from relief before. I flipped open my Bat Mitzvah siddur and whispered in Hebrew, “We thank you for your wonders and gifts,” shoving each word past the knot in my throat, “which are with us at every moment.”
“Dad’s at the hospital,” said Danielle now, abruptly. “I’m supposed to stay near the phone in case someone calls.”
I nodded, but wasn’t sure why she was telling us this.
“See, what happened was, she was in an induced coma,” Danielle went on. “Which means they drugged her to bring down the blood pressure and swelling in her brain. Did I tell you this?”
I nodded again.
Danielle slid to the floor and propped herself up against the bookcase. I sat opposite her, my back against the side of the bed. “And so they kept saying they had to get rid of all the swelling before they could wake her up, right?” she said. “But it was just stupid, it was like a complete miscalculation, because she didn’t make it anyway and this way we didn’t even get to say goodbye. Not that I would’ve known what to say, but—”
And then it just kept going. We sat there on the carpet and she told us how all week her mom would smile with her eyes closed when they played Beatles songs for her, and how some woman with a movie-star English accent called this morning from the hospital to say Gail had suffered a ruptured aneurysm overnight, and how offended the Harvard doctor sounded over the phone a little later, and how all the food in the hospital cafeteria smelled like lemon surface-cleaner, and how on Thursday night she’d overheard a young couple on the Metro going on and on about the phenomenal French restaurant they’d just eaten at and how they were both in a total food coma. I’d never heard her say that many words in a row.
Simon blurted out, “We all thought your mom was awesome.”
It felt like a miracle—which I do believe in, by the way. Simon probably hadn’t said a single word to Danielle in three years.
She just nodded slowly and said, “Yup.”
“Do you guys have plans for the summer?” Mikey asked after a long time. His voice had changed as fast as the rest of him. “Are you going on vacation?”
“No,” I said. I didn’t even have a job. Two weeks before, I had walked into this butterfly greenhouse and applied to be a guide. My idea was that Simon would do it too, since he could identify literally thirty-something butterfly species, and the job would force him to talk to people. But he refused, so I went by myself to the interview, said a bunch of stuff I don’t remember because I was too mesmerized by all the wings flapping against the glass, and then got rejected in a one-sentence email because I “just didn’t stand out.”
“No,” I said again, “we’ll be here.”
Mikey nodded, then sat still. I tilted my head back onto the bed and found myself staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars, dull grey and flat in daylight. Then I looked down at everyone, frozen on the floor like dolls, and realized that right here was exactly where we’d be.