May is Jewish American Heritage Month, when we celebrate Jewish contributions to American culture, history, and society. People like Deborah Lipstadt (a historian confirmed as the State Department’s Special Envoy to Combat Antisemitism), Joan Rivers, Daveed Diggs, photographer Diane Arbus, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are just some of the notable Jewish Americans we can celebrate this month. When you think of Jewish Americans, many people tend to assume we’re a monolith: white and Ashkenazi (of European descent) — when the reality is, we are so much more. Our histories, our ethnicities, and our cultures are varied, and recognizing this is important — and I say this to my fellow Jews as well, as there is racism and lack of inclusion within our community, too.
Jewish American Heritage Month is a great time to read something new that touches on a topic or history we didn’t know about before. I’ve put together a list (which could have been much, much longer!) of picture books, middle grade and YA, and adult books to enjoy this month — or any time, really. The books showcase Jewish Americans, highlight our diversity, explore aspects of our culture, or are just snapshots of Jewish life in America. There are so many great Jewish authors that I could have included on this list that I’d recommend, too: Dahlia Adler (her forthcoming one is Home Field Advantage), Victoria Lee, Hannah Moskowitz, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, LC Rosen, and much more. In the meantime, here’s a short list to get you started!
Tia Fortuna’s New Home: A Jewish Cuban Journey by Ruth Behar & Devon Holzwarth
When Estrella’s Tía Fortuna has to move from her Miami home to an assisted living community, she spends the day with her aunt helping her. She learns about her Cuban and Jewish cultures through objects Tía Fortuna has and figures out how to say goodbye to one place while looking forward to new beginnings. It’s a beautiful story with vibrant art, showcasing Sephardic heritage and the bonds of family, with a helpful glossary and informative author’s note in the back.
My First Book of Famous Jews by Julie Merberg & Julie Wilson
This board book isn’t just for babies! (I’m a big fan of board books for preschoolers and kindergartners these days — lots of great ones out there!). It’s a fun, informative book showcasing Jewish individuals like Tiffany Haddish, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, Jonas Salk, and much more. It’s a great introduction for kids to a variety of people, and even for older kids, it would be a good kickoff to looking up more information.
Gitty and Kvetch by Caroline Kusin Pritchard & Ariel Landy
As someone who misses the Yiddish that my grandparents used to sprinkle into conversation, I thoroughly enjoy this book each time I read it with my son. Gitty and her bird-friend, Kvetch, are complete opposites: Gitty is always positive and Kvetch…is always kvetching (complaining) about something. One day they go on an adventure together and something happens that turns the tables and now it’s Gitty who’s kvetching. Will Kvetch be able to save the day and make Gitty happy again?
Middle Grade and YA Books
The Unfinished Corner by Dani Colman, Rebecca Taylor, Rachel Petrovicz, Whitney Cogar, Jim Campbell
This immersive graphic novel was such a delight to read. Miriam doesn’t know much about Jewish mythology — at this point, she’s even pretty ambivalent about being Jewish. There’s a myth that when the universe was being created, one corner was left unfinished. The reasons why are still being debated, but legend says that that corner is full of demons. When an angel tells Miriam and some of her classmates that they’re going on an adventure with the mission of finishing that corner…well…let’s just say it’s not what anyone expects.
Turtle Boy by M. Evan Wolkenstein
Will Levine is in 7th grade, and things aren’t going well. He’s bullied for his funny-looking chin, and then for his mitzvah project for his bar mitzvah, he has to visit a boy named RJ, who has an incurable disease. Will doesn’t like RJ, but after RJ shares his bucket list with him, they get to know each other better and even become friends. As RJ gets worse, Will decides to try and tackle his bucket list before it’s too late.
The Whole Story of Half a Girl by Veera Hiranandani
Sonia Nadhamuni is half Indian, half Jewish American. When her dad loses his job, she leaves her private school for public school, and for the first time, is faced with other kids asking questions about who she is. While she’s adjusting to a new school and navigating friendships and things like popularity, her family is also adjusting to having only one working parent. When her dad disappears, she has to wonder if he is who she thought he was. Can she find answers about her father and about how to bring together all parts of her heritage?
Color Me In by Natasha Díaz
Neveah’s grown up in an affluent NYC suburb, never really thinking about her Black and Jewish roots. But when her parents split and she moves with her mom to Harlem, she’s forced to look at her heritage. Passing as white, her cousin thinks Neveah can’t relate to the racism she faces, and her dad wants her to have a belated Bat Mitzvah instead of a Sweet Sixteen party. Throughout all of this, she stays silent, as usual. But when she finds a secret about her mom’s past and starts to see the prejudice her family faces, she needs to make a decision about whether she’ll speak up — and along the way, she may just find out who she is.
If the title makes you uncomfortable, that’s the point. Dara Horn’s nonfiction debut (she’s written multiple novels) is nothing less than a must-read. After being tapped for a long time to write essays about Jewish culture, she came to realize that they all had a theme: they were usually all about dead Jews. What was this fascination (fetishization, even) with dead Jews, while increasingly, no one cared about Jewish lives in the here and now? The result of this line of thought is this essay collection of stunning and thought-provoking essays.
Black, White & Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self by Rebecca Walker
Rebecca Walker, daughter of Alice Walker and Mel Leventhal, writes about her life, growing up between two worlds that seemed to get further apart as she got older. She spends two years at a time with each parent — in NY and in San Francisco — leaving her uncertain and conflicted about where she fits in. This is an interesting look at not only Walker’s life with two very different parents, but also how she forged ahead despite neither of them being very involved (or seemingly interested in parenting).
The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty
Twitty, a culinary historian, explores Southern food and food culture in this book, along with his Black ancestry. He is Black, Jewish, and gay, and in this hybrid memoir/history exploration, he delves into the past, and the intersections of history and food. He looks at the food his enslaved ancestors prepared and ate, looks through historical documents and recipes, and collects stories, illustrating the politics around Southern food and at the same time, the power food can have to bring people together. (His forthcoming book, Koshersoul, looks just as amazing!)
Last Summer at the Golden Hotel by Elyssa Friedland
The Catskills are part of Jewish American history, especially for those of us on the East Coast. For many Jewish families, places like Grossinger’s resort in the Catskills gave them a place to vacation when they were discriminated against at other places. This novel takes readers back to the Catskills, to the fictional Golden Hotel. Owned by two families who used to be best friends, the Goldmans and the Weingolds, the resort is falling apart. When an offer to buy it comes in, will the families be able to come together to make a decision about what they want to do? This is a funny, nostalgic look at the culture of the Catskills and intergenerational family dynamics.
The Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl by Marra B. Gad
Gad, who is biracial, was adopted by a white family at 3 days old. Growing up, she found that she didn’t quite fit into Black spaces as a Jew or didn’t feel “Black enough,” and in Jewish spaces, she ran into racism. People in her own family were racist, and her parents cut those people out of her life, including her great-aunt Nette. More than a decade later, Nette is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and Gad can help her. What she finds is that the disease has changed Nette and allowed her to accept Gad, and so she lets her into her life, allowing a new relationship to take root and blossom.
Meant To Be Mine by Hannah Orenstein (June 7th)
You might be wondering why this book is on the list. It’s not overtly Jewish, although there is a distinctly Jewish feel to the characters, with some Yiddish occasionally sprinkled in. Jewish books don’t always have to scream Judaism, and I think it’s important to read a wide variety of Jewish stories. In Orenstein’s latest, Edie’s grandmother, Gloria, has accurately predicted the date every family member has met their match. So when Edie’s date arrives, she meets a guy on a plane…except she has a feeling that maybe this isn’t it. What follows will force her to wonder if we have more agency than she originally thought.