One of the first Jewish authors I fell in love with was Chaim Potok. He was an author and a rabbi who wrote the classic history The chosen (1967), about the friendship between a young Orthodox man and the son of a Hasidic rabbi. It will then be turned into a film of the same name, which I admittedly saw first. I remember immersing myself in Potok’s works and being fascinated by his depiction of Jewish life in Brooklyn, NY, in the middle of the century.
Looking back, I think part of the reason I fell for his work so much was that I didn’t have many Jewish authors to read – well, whose works weren’t immediately related to the Holocaust. (I went through a phase of reading all the Holocaust books I could get my hands on).
Later, I would find my way to short stories by Sholem Aleichem whose name may be vaguely familiar as his short stories were the basis of the hit musical and film, fiddler on the roof. Although there are fewer songs in the stories, they do provide insight into Jewish shtetl life in Eastern Europe with its joys and sorrows, and plenty of talking with God.
Now there are even more books written by various Jewish voices, and it’s an exciting time. August saw the publication of the phenomenal Michael W. Twitty kosher soul and there are plenty of exciting books on the horizon that deal with Jewish life. To celebrate Jewish literature, I’ve put together a list of recently published works of fiction about Jewish life. This list includes novels as well as poetry, YA, and graphic novels.
Thistle-foot by Genna Rose Nethercott
Published in September, Thistle-foot is one of my favorite books of the year. The Yaga siblings receive an unexpected inheritance from a distant relative: a house with chicken legs.
Bellatine wants to live in the house full time while her brother Isaac sees it as an opportunity to earn money. So they make a deal: they’ll tour the family’s puppet show to earn money, and then Isaac will give up his claim to the house for Bellatine.
But things are never that simple. A sinister character finds his way to American shores with a mission to destroy the house and everyone associated with it. Plus, the puppet show reveals Bellatine’s dark secret that she’s been trying to hide all her life. Thistle-foot is a story of stories, family ties, generational trauma and many beautiful puppets.
A coin for the end of the world by Jai Chakrabarti
When Jaryk Smith’s friend Misha dies in India trying to put on a play, Smith feels compelled to collect his friend’s remains. He does not know that his lover, Lucy, is pregnant with his child. Arrived in India, he is confronted with the memories of the Warsaw ghetto and finds himself embroiled in the protests against the government. Through his work in rural India, can Smith find a way to come to terms with his past and move on? Or is he putting everything on the line – his life, his lover and his unborn child?
Nullities by Alanna Schubach
While people say close siblings or friends are two peas in a pod, this novel goes even further. Everyone knows that Jess and Nina are best friends, but only they know how far this goes. When they touch their foreheads, they switch bodies and can experience life from a different point of view. Both find what they lack themselves; Nina grows bolder while Jess gets a quiet respite from her rowdy household. The stories go back and forth from Jess and Nina’s childhood to the present day, when Jess reappears in Nina’s life after a long hiatus. But how far will they go to get the life they want in someone else’s body? Where does Jess start and where does Nina end? It’s a fascinating look at friendship, betrayal and identity.
Tia Fortuna’s New Home: A Cuban Jewish Journey by Ruth Behar
Ruth Behar has written several children’s books on Cuban Jewish culture and this is her most recent. Estrella visits her grandmother before moving into a nursing home. But during the visit, Tía Fortuna talks about the life she has built thanks to the possessions of her house. It’s a delightful look at Sephardic and Cuban culture through beautiful illustrations.
When the angels left the old land by Sacha Lamb
This could be a good one for Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett fans good omens. An angel and a demon have watched over this shetl for centuries, watching mankind. But now many locals have moved to the United States for a better life. So they decide to make the switch on their own and end up reuniting with Rose Cohen and Malke Shulman, two lonely lost souls trying to break through to the United States. Will they find their way? Can spiritual beings help them?
The red door by Shawn C. Harris
It starts with a funeral. What a wonderful way to start a collection of haunting poetry. In this fictional memoir of poems, a woman travels metaphorically and literally across the world in the face of grief and loss. The poem is structured around the Torah and other Jewish texts and weaves Jewish prayers and sayings into evocative poems seamlessly as the narrator journeys to find the light.
Ethel’s Song: The Life of Ethel Rosenberg in Poems by Barbara Krasner
I had never heard of Ethel Rosenberg until I came across a Cuban poster commemorating Ethel and her husband Julian. They had been tried and executed for espionage. But most people believe that their fate was predetermined before the trial, as were the charges leveled against the Soviet Union and its enemies. Additionally, many believe that Ethel was innocent of the betrayal but was caught up in the fervor of anti-communism. Krasner’s book aims to tell the story of Ethel’s life through poems aimed at a teenage audience, bringing this often misunderstood and maligned character to life.
The Lost Ryu by Emi Watanabe Cohen
Dragons are part of the legend. Recent legend. Large dragons, known as ryū, were common in Japan until World War II. Now only the little dragons remain. But Kohei wants to find a great ryū to give joy to his grandfather who is very sick. So he teams up with Isolde, a half-Japanese and half-Jewish friend, and their little dragons, to find a big ryū. Can they find these legendary mythical beasts in time?
That’s all for now, but I look forward to reading more delightful titles in contemporary Jewish fiction from even more diverse voices. For people who want more folk tales, here is my list on Jewish folk tales. If you’re looking for Jewish stories for high holy days and other fall holidays, check out this article by Jaime Herndon.