What Makes Us

What Makes Us

by Rafi Mittlefehldt


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780763697501
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication date: 10/15/2019
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 758,519
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)
Lexile: HL720L (what's this?)
Age Range: 14 - 17 Years

About the Author

Rafi Mittlefehldt is a writer who has worked as a newspaper reporter, freelance theater critic, and children’s author. His debut novel was It Looks Like This. Rafi Mittlefehldt lives with his husband in New York City.

Read an Excerpt


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 off 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.”
I stare.
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.

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