One of the first Jewish authors that I fell in love with was Chaim Potok. He was an author and rabbi who wrote the classic story The Chosen (1967), about the friendship between an Orthodox young man and the son of a Hasidic rabbi. It would later be made into a film by the same name, which I admittedly saw first. I remember diving into Potok’s works and being fascinated by his depiction of Jewish life in Brooklyn, NY in the mid century.
Looking back on it, I think part of the reason I fell so hard for his work was that I didn’t have many Jewish authors to read — well, whose works weren’t immediately connected to the Holocaust. (I did go through a phase of reading all the Holocaust books I could get my hands on).
Later on I’d find my way to Sholem Aleichem’s short stories whose name may be vaguely familiar because his short stories were the foundation for the hit musical and film, Fiddler on the Roof. While there’s less singing in the stories, they provide a look at Jewish life in the shtetl in Eastern Europe with its joys and sorrows, and lots of talking to God.
Now there are even more books written by diverse Jewish voices, and it’s an exciting time. August saw the publication of Michael W. Twitty’s phenomenal Kosher Soul and there are lots of exciting books on the horizon looking at Jewish life. To celebrate Jewish literature, I’ve put together a list of recently published works of fiction focusing on Jewish life. This list includes novels as well as poetry, YA, and graphic novels.
Thistlefoot by GennaRose Nethercott
Published in September, Thistlefoot is one of my favorite books of the year. The Yaga siblings receive an unexpected inheritance from a distant relative: a living house with chicken legs.
Bellatine wants to live in the house full time while her brother Isaac sees it as an opportunity to make money. So they strike up a deal: they will tour the family’s puppet show to make money and then Isaac will relinquish his claim over the house for Bellatine.
But things are never that simple. A sinister figure finds its ways to U.S. shores with a mission to destroy the house and anyone associated with it. Plus the puppet show brings up Bellatine’s dark secret that she has tried to hide from her entire life. Thistlefoot is a story about stories, family ties, generational trauma, and lots of beautiful puppets.
A Play for the End of the World by Jai Chakrabarti
When Jaryk Smith’s friend Misha dies in India while trying to put on a play, Smith feels compelled to get his friend’s remains. Little does he know that his lover, Lucy, is pregnant with his child. When he gets to India, he’s confronted with memories of the Warsaw Ghetto, and finds himself embroiled with the protests against the government. Through his work in rural India, can Smith find a way to make peace with his past and move forward? Or is he putting everything on the line — his life, his lover, and his unborn child?
The Nobodies by Alanna Schubach
While people say that close siblings or friends are two peas in a pod, this novel takes it a step further. Everyone knows that Jess and Nina are the best of friends, but only they know how far it goes. When they touch their foreheads, they switch bodies and are able to experience life from a different point of view. Both find what they themselves lack; Nina becomes bolder while Jess gets a calm respite from her tumultuous household. The narratives weave back and forth from Jess and Nina’s childhood to the present day when Jess reappears in Nina’s life after a long break. But how far will they go to get the lives they want in someone else’s body? Where does Jess begin and Nina end? It’s a fascinating look at friendship, betrayal, and identity.
Tia Fortuna’s New Home: a Jewish Cuban Journey by Ruth Behar
Ruth Behar has written several children’s books looking at Jewish Cuban culture and this is her newest one. Estrella is visiting her grandmother before she moves into a retirement home. But during the visit, Tía Fortuna talks about the life she built through the possessions in her home. It’s a delightful look at Sephardic and Cuban culture through beautiful illustrations.
When Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb
This might be a good one for fans of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens. An angel and demon have watched over this shetl for centuries, observing humanity. But now many inhabitants have left for the U.S. for a better life. So they decide to make the passage for themselves and end up finding Rose Cohen and Malke Shulman, two lonely lost souls trying to make it in the U.S. Will they find their way? Can spiritual beings help them?
The Red Door by Shawn C. Harris
It starts with a funeral. What a marvelous way to start a haunting collection of poetry. In this fictitious memoir of poems, a woman travels metaphorically and literally through the world dealing with grief and loss. The poem is structured around the Torah and other Jewish texts and interweaves Jewish prayers and sayings into evocative poems seamlessly as the narrator journeys to find the light.
Ethel’s Song: Ethel Rosenberg’s Life In Poems by Barbara Krasner
I had never heard of Ethel Rosenberg until I came across a Cuban poster memorializing Ethel and her husband Julius. They had been tried and executed for espionage. But most people think that their fate was predetermined before the trial, much like the accusations hurled against the Soviet Union and its enemies. Plus, many believe that Ethel was innocent of the treason but was caught up in the fervor of anti-communism. Krasner’s book aims to tell the story of Ethel’s life through poems for teenage audiences, bringing this often misunderstood and maligned character to life.
The Lost Ryū by Emi Watanabe Cohen
Dragons are a thing of legend. Recent legend. Large dragons, known as ryū, were common in Japan until World War II. Now only small dragons remain. But Kohei wants to find a large 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 large ryū. Can they find these mythical beasts of legend in time?
That’s it for now, but I can’t wait to read more delightful titles in Jewish contemporary fiction from even more diverse voices. For folks who want more folk tales, here’s my list on Jewish folk tales. If you’re looking for Jewish stories for the High Holy Days and other Fall Holidays, check out this article by Jaime Herndon.