by Cindy Rizzo
A deeply polarized and ungovernable United States of America has separated into two nations—the God Fearing States (GFS) and the United Progressive Regions (UPR).
Judith Braverman, a teenager living in an Orthodox Jewish community in the GFS, is not only a talented artist accomplished in the ancient craft of papercutting, she also has the gift of seeing into peoples’ souls—and can tell instantly if someone is good or evil.
Jeffrey Schwartz has no love for religion or conformity and yearns to escape to the freedom of the UPR. When he’s accepted into an experimental pen pal program and paired with Dani Fine, an openly queer girl in the UPR, he hopes that he can finally find a way out.
As danger mounts and their alarm grows, Judith embeds a secret code in her papercuts so that she and Jeffrey can tell Dani what’s happening to Jews in the GFS without raising suspicions from the government. When the three arrange a quick, clandestine meeting, Jeffrey is finally faced with the choice to flee or to stay and resist. And Judith is reeling from a pull toward Dani that is unlike anything she has ever felt before.
Content note: the book contains one brief memory of sexual assault of a male teen by another male teen.
Book 1 of The Split Series.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Have you ever wondered what life would be like if the United States split into two countries? I mean, polarization is real and getting realer all the time. Recent polls show that the only thing that Democrats and Republicans agree on is that just about the worst thing their children could do is marry someone from the other party. So yeah, The Split, as I call it, is conceivable.
This is the thought experiment behind my new book, The Papercutter, part one of a trilogy in which the former USA has split into the God Fearing States (GFS) and the United Progressive Regions (UPR). In this new world, what would be the fate of LGBTQ people, people of color, American Muslims, Evangelical Christians, and Orthodox Jews? The story is narrated by three Jewish teens, one of whom is openly queer, one deep in the closet and the third completely clueless about her romantic interests. Dani, in the UPR, is paired with Jeffrey in the GFS in an experimental, cross-national pen pal program for Jewish teens. Judith, an artist who excels in the craft of papercutting and who can see the souls of people reveal themselves as good or evil, finds herself in a country beset by growing antisemitism and violence. And if that isn't enough, her whole world is turned on its head the minute she meets Dani.
Written to appeal to both teens and adults, I hope The Papercutter will spark a lively discussion about our current conditions and the role of diverse young people in this moment."
The Papercutter is exciting, unsettling and hopeful, totally absorbing and so, so smart. Cindy Rizzo weaves futuristic fantasy, romantic adventure, and Jewish religious thought into a compulsive page turner. (And if this is a Young Adult novel, then sign me up as an honorary Young Adult, because I could not put it down.) I adore—adore! —the Queer and savvy teenage protagonists Cindy creates and I confess to feeling a little angry at first that she situated these beautiful young people in such a dangerous world. However, every risk or tragedy her heroes face is totally recognizable from the America we inhabit in 2021 and from the forces that have threatened Jews in every generation. Read The Papercutter for fun, for an adrenalin rush, and for a stern warning about what lies ahead. Read it to deepen your knowledge of Jewish history and identity, and read it to make a handful of new friends whose strength, humor, and integrity will reassure you that there’s hope for the world yet.—Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum-Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) in New York City
Absolutely riveting. I could not put this book down and fell in love with its compelling characters. The Papercutter is fundamentally hopeful and brave. A story of resistance, survival, and love that will resonate for Jews, queer folks, and every person who has ever fought for what's right or struggled to figure out how.—Idit Klein President & CEO of Keshet: For LGBTQ equality in Jewish life
There’s so much more here, secret codes, clandestine agencies, dangerous meetups, and mysticism. But it’s the characters that make you care and maybe at the back of your mind, grow a seed of concern if you live here in the USA. The last third of the book absolutely flew and all I could think of was, when is book 2 coming out?
Cincinnati, South Ohio, God Fearing States
We don’t see them until we turn the corner and then it’s too late. Hannah grabs my hand and pulls me into a run. I turn my head and see three red hats emblazoned with GFB gaining on us.
We crouch down behind the hedges at the back of our school. The sound of heavy footfalls in pursuit suddenly stops and we know they are nearby looking for us.
“Little Jew girls,” one of them calls out in a singsong voice. “Come out so you can see our new decoration on the wall of your Jew school.”
There’s laughter and then a second voice calls out, “C’mon, they’re not worth us getting caught. Probably smell bad anyway.”
“Who’s gonna catch us? The cops hate them as much as we do.”
Now their laughter sounds farther away, which means they might be leaving. Hannah slowly stands to peer over the hedge and I tug her down, afraid they’ll turn and discover us.
“They’re going,” she whispers in my ear. We wait a little longer and then walk slowly in the opposite direction, back toward the side entrance of our school where we’d first seen them.
“Look, there!” I exclaim, pointing to the white brick wall of our school’s side entrance. The graffiti is scrawled in black paint, the letters dripping in a way that makes me think of ads I’ve seen for horror movies. Jew Scum Out of GFS! I clutch the sleeve of Hannah’s blouse.
“It’ll be gone by lunchtime,” she says, annoyance clear in her voice. “I’m surprised they aren’t out here already with their magic paint remover pretending this never happened.”
This is the third one we’ve seen in the last week, though it’s the first time we actually caught the GFB, the so-called God Fearing Boys, in the act. Not that we actually caught them since we were the ones running for our lives.
And while I hate everything they stand for, they’re right about one thing. The police likely know who they are but will not do anything to stop them.
There seems to be more graffiti showing up in our neighborhood as GFS Independence Day approaches. Who knows how much has been cleaned up so fast that we’ve never gotten to see it?
Hannah snaps a photo with her device. “Well at least now no one can say that this never happened.”
She’s amassed a collection of hateful graffiti, all of it threatening our community if we don’t leave the country. When she showed some of them to her father, he just shrugged. “This is what our people have endured for centuries, and yet we’re still here. Don’t worry, little Hannahla. Just be good in school and listen to your mother. The best thing you can do to help our people survive is to marry a nice boy and bring many Jewish children into the world.”
Despite similar responses from my father, neither Hannah nor I have been able to turn our backs and pretend we haven’t seen what we’re seeing. The problem is, we have no idea what to do about it. Maybe our fathers are right and there is nothing we can do. After all, we’re just two seventeen-year-old girls trying to survive our meaningless time in high school. Still, it feels like it’s getting worse and I can’t help but worry.
We continue walking toward the side entrance of our school. We know from experience it isn’t a good idea to spend too much time looking at the graffiti. A few weeks ago, Manny the janitor caught us and screamed that we had no business being there. Then he marched us into Mrs. Feldman’s office. It happened so fast, all we could do was stare at the floor and mumble an apology to the principal who seems to think that looking at the graffiti is more of a crime than actually spraying the stuff on the wall.
I stop when we reach the concrete steps in front of the entrance. “Hannah, do you think it’s safe to keep those pictures on your device? It wouldn’t be too difficult for somebody to figure out what you’re doing.”
She steps sideways to get closer to me and speaks softly into my ear. “I’ve been uploading them to one of those little memory dots and hiding it someplace safe.”
I shake my head. “But why save them when nobody thinks they’re a big deal?”
I feel her breath on the side of my face as she lets out a sigh. “I don’t know, Judith. I guess I need to hold on to something to prove to myself that I’m not going crazy.”
* * *
I sit confined in the hardwood classroom desk: an uncomfortable chair attached to a writing surface. Mrs. Kastenbaum is droning on about the history of the God Fearing States. When I stare directly at her, trying to get a fix on her soul, it neither shows up as shimmering with goodness nor hollowed out with malevolence. Unfortunately, not everyone shows their true soul to me. Mine is an imperfect gift from Hashem, the Hebrew word for God we use outside the synagogue. It’s a gift that enables me to see the soul, the neshamah, of some but not others. Maybe Hashem thinks there’s no reason for me to see Mrs. Kastenbaum’s soul.
I nudge my notebook to the side and stare at the grain in the wood of my desk. Its horizontal lines vary with each slat of honey-colored wood. I count six along the smooth surface and a seventh at the top with two long indents for pens and pencils. Frustrated by the random nature of the grain, I turn my attention to the design for a papercut I’d started thinking about for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, our celebration of the annual harvest season. There has to be an image I could use that’s more creative than the standard ones of fruits and vegetables or dining in a sukkah, the little booths outside where we eat our meals for a week. But what?
“Hannah Goldwyn, the Second Constitutional Convention took place where?” I snap to attention at the mention of my best friend’s name.
“Um, Charleston, North Carolina?”
Okay, Hannah is safe.
Eleventh grade marks a decade during which we’ve had to sit through some form of this lecture. Because tomorrow is GFS Independence Day, all schools—even the religious ones like Kushner Academy for Girls—are required by the government to teach a lesson about the establishment of the country.
When we were younger, they gave us the easy stuff. One year we had to color in the map of the GSF and UPR, red for us and blue for them. I remember thinking I felt bad for the other country because they were separated into two sections. That whole part on the left side, which I later learned is their western region, sits by itself, separated from its blue brothers by a big part of our country. Of course our own state of Alaska is separated, but that is only one state. All the other GFS states form one big red piece from the shore of North Carolina to the border with Mexico, and up to a piece of the border with Canada. Ours is the bigger country.
Mrs. Kastenbaum walks right by my desk, her booming voice shaking me into a state of alert. “And what great doctrine was adopted at the Charleston convention? Yetta?”
Oy, Yetta Freundlich, the insufferable smart aleck who never lets you forget that she knows everything. I’d long ago seen her neshamah and since then have kept my distance from that hollowed out soul.
Yetta speaks as if she is the one teaching the class, loud and confident, carefully enunciating each word. “The United States of America adopted the Texas Plan which prohibited the former USA federal government from overturning state laws.”
“Correct.” Mrs. Kastenbaum pushes out a smile that disappears in a split second. “And what happened in the wake of the assassinations that followed?”
Yetta’s hand shoots up, her body straining to catapult out of her seat. I glance over at Hannah who rolls her eyes.
“Oy, okay, Yetta again,” says Mrs. Kastenbaum, her voice weary.
“The government canceled the presidential election, and instead the Third Constitutional Convention was held so that the former United States of America could be divided into two new countries.” She holds her head erect, looks straight ahead into the distance and continues, her voice even more arrogant than usual. “Our God Fearing States which stand for faith and freedom, and the other one, which stands for atheistic anarchy.”
I stop listening and return to planning my papercut, twirling a finger through my dark curly hair. I wonder if I can improve on the design I created last June for Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates when God gave us the Torah. It was the typical image of Moses at the top of Mount Sinai speaking to Hashem. Could a human really stand before God and have an actual conversation? I know it’s a death sentence to look Him in the face. But a conversation?
“Judith Braverman, are you with us? Judith!”
Mrs. Kastenbaum’s stern voice pulls me off Mount Sinai and back into the classroom. Since I have no idea what I’ve been asked there is only one thing to do. My body tenses as I take a deep breath.
“Could you please repeat the question?”
Mrs. Kastenbaum sighs, one of those dramatic ones that broadcasts exasperation. “Judith, I won’t have inattentiveness in my classroom. Do I make myself clear?”
I nod but am still faced with a steely glare and quickly realize why. I haven’t appropriately expressed the right amount of remorse. “Yes, Mrs. Kastenbaum. It won’t happen again.”
“See that it doesn’t or there’ll be a demerit and detention.”
The glare is gone, replaced by Mrs. Kastenbaum gazing up at the ceiling in thought, her hands behind her back. “Oh yes, now I recall.” She looks at me, not quite so steely this time. “What was the Great Migration?”
I exhale with relief because I know the acceptable answer. But I also know about the book that Hannah found hidden in the public library when she was trying to find information for a paper on Jewish immigration to the USA during the early part of the last century. She told me the book she found was wedged against the back of the bookcase, its binding facing the wall. She saw it when she’d pulled out a few books she thought she’d need for her paper and tugged on it until it was free of the bookcase. When she saw that the title mentioned The Great Migration, she thought it had been shelved incorrectly until she took a closer look.
It turned out the book wasn’t at all about the two years after The Split when people resettled into the GFS and UPR. It was a book about the migration of Black people from the southern part of the USA to the north during the nineteen hundreds. There was no bar code or sticker from the library on the spine so Hannah wouldn’t be able to check it out. It made us wonder if someone had left it there hidden away.
When Hannah snuck the book out of the library and showed it to me later, I first marveled at the beauty of the title, The Warmth of Other Suns. But then I suddenly understood the real message of the book.
“So there was another Great Migration before the one after The Split?” I asked.
“Seems so, and it’s not too hard to figure out why they never told us about that one.”
I nodded, struck by the realization of how little we knew about the people who’d lived in the USA and who had left their homes a second time for the warmth of other suns.
“I’ve never met anyone Black,” I said to Hannah, “have you?”
She shook her head, her long wavy brown hair shifting from left to right and back again. “And we’ve been told nothing about them or their history.”
I fanned the pages of the book listening to the tick-tick-tick of the sounds they made. “I guess we should read this then, right?”
Hannah breathed out her response, “Yeah.” She reached over and gently took the book from me. “Makes you wonder what else they’re not telling us.”
None of what I now know about the original Great Migration can be repeated to Mrs. Kastenbaum if I want to pass her class. Instead, I need to tell her exactly what she wants to hear.
“The Great Migration took place after The Split when people made the decision to settle in either the God Fearing States or the United Progressive Regions.”
“And which populations moved where?” she snaps back at me.
“Uh…” I think for a few seconds, deciding it might be best to say something that would get me back into her good graces. “After our country’s military put an end to riots and uprisings, they were able to oversee the orderly resettlement of the two new countries. Once it was safe, Orthodox and Hasidic Jews living in parts of the UPR moved to the GFS for religious liberty, as did Evangelical Christians. Then Blacks, Hispanics, and Moslems living in our country moved or were moved to the UPR along with leftists and atheists.”
Kastenbaum nods. “You got lucky this time, Miss Braverman. I would suggest you not let your artistic daydreams get the better of you.”
My nod is punctuated by the bell jolting everyone into action. Fortunately, tomorrow is a holiday, a welcome reprieve from this torture. Smiling to myself, I slide books and pens into my bag, grateful for the end of the school day.
“Hey,” says Hannah as she waits for me to finish. “Holiday tomorrow.” She nudges my shoulder.
I stand and lean closer so nobody else can hear. “Now that’s what I call religious liberty,” I whisper.