In his 1977 introduction to Jewish American Stories, Irving Howe (1920–93), the prominent literary and social critic, wrote about the bleak future of American Jewish literature, predicting that the genre had passed its “peak of achievement and influence” with the writings of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick, Henry Roth, Tillie Olsen, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and others. He doubted that a new generation of writers would appear that would “contribute to American literature a distinctive sensibility and style derived from the Jewish experience in this country.” Fortunately, as this sampling of just released 2015 and recently backlisted 2014 titles shows, a fresh crop of Jewish writers has most certainly proved Howe wrong.
While the previous generation focused on pogroms, the Holocaust, and the Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish experience, today’s authors are increasingly exploring the history and culture of Sephardic Jews from Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East.
Eve, Nomi. Henna House. Scribner. 2014. 320p. ISBN 9781476740270. $26; pap. ISBN 9781476740287. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781476740300. F
In 1920s Yemen a Jewish child could be “confiscated” by local Muslim leaders when her father died, even if her mother was still living. The only way for Jewish parents to prevent this was to betroth their daughter at a young age. Eve (The Family Orchard) tells the story of Adela Damari and in the process sheds light on the rich traditions and history of the Yemenite Jews. This dramatic family saga will entrance readers who like to travel to faraway places and times and enthrall those who enjoy examining women’s varying relationships with their mothers, sisters, cousins, friends, husbands, and lovers. (LJ 5/15/14)
READ-ALIKES Maggie Anton’s “Rashi’s Daughters” trilogy, Alice Hoffman’s The Marriage of Opposites, and Jessica Jiji’s Sweet Dates in Basra.
Liss, David. The Day of Atonement. Random. 2014. 384p. ISBN 9781400068975. $28; pap. ISBN 9780345520197. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781588369635. F
In a spin-off from his Benjamin Weaver novels, Liss’s historical thriller introduces Sebastian Foxx, one of Weaver’s young protégés, who returns to 18th–century Portugal to avenge the deaths of his parents, who had been forced to convert to Christianity, at the hands of the Inquisition. Revenge, murder, love, lust, betrayal, and atonement all combine to make an intriguing read set in Lisbon before and during the earthquake of 1755. (LJ 9/15/14)
Read-alikes Laurel Corona’s The Mapmaker’s Daughter, Jeanne Kalogridis’s The Inquisitor’s Wife, and Mitchell James Kaplan’s By Fire, by Water.
Other new novels shed light on the Iranian Jews who settled primarily in Los Angeles in the late 1970s.
Nahai, Gina B. The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. Akashic. 2014. 380p. ISBN 9781617753213. $29.95; pap. ISBN 9781617753206. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781617753299. F
When Nahai published her first novel, Cry of the Peacock, in 1992, she told, for the first time in any Western language, the 3,000–year story of the Jewish people of Iran. Subsequent works (Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith; Caspian Rain) were set in the Jewish ghetto of Tehran and in Los Angeles, the new epicenter of the Persian Jewish community in America. Part murder mystery and part family saga, her latest novel, a fiction finalist for the 2014 National Jewish Book Award, features a wealthy Iranian Jewish family, plagued by a shady Los Angeles businessman who has long claimed to be the heir to the family’s fortune. When he is found murdered and then his body disappears, there is a long list of possible suspects. (LJ 11/1/14)
Read-alikes Dora Levy Mossanen’s Scent of Butterflies, Parnaz Foroutan’s The Girl from the Garden, and Dalia Sofer’s The Septembers of Shiraz.
The number of books about the Soviet Jewish experience, mostly from the perspective of children who emigrated with their parents in the 1970s and 1980s to the United States, Canada, and Israel, has steadily risen.
Bezmozgis, David. The Betrayers. Little, Brown. 2014. 240p. ISBN 9780316284332. $26; pap. ISBN 9780316284356. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780316284363. F
When Baruch Kolter’s illicit affair is exposed, the disgraced Israeli politician flees with his young mistress to a Crimean resort town. When he runs into the former friend who denounced him to the KGB 40 years earlier, he must reconcile with his betrayer, his wife, his son, and his own poor choices. While Bezmozgis wrote about Soviet Jewish immigrants in North America in previous works (Natasha; The Free World), this novel, the 2014 National Jewish Book Award winner for fiction, explores the influence that this community has had in Israel. (LJ 8/14)
Rojstaczerj, Stuart. The Mathematician’s Shiva. Penguin. 2014. 384p. ISBN 9780143126317. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780698152205. F
Following the death of Rachela Karnokovitch, a famous Polish émigré mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin, a group of ragtag mathematicians from all over the world descends on Madison in the middle of winter to crash the family’s small, private shiva. They hope to discover the solution to the million-dollar Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize Problem, which Rachela was rumored to have solved and taken to her grave. This 2014 National Jewish Book Award winner for outstanding debut fiction also received a 2015 Sophie Brody Award “Honorable Mention.” (LJ 9/15/15)
Read-alikes for both titles Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s Panic in a Suitcase, Boris Fishman’s A Replacement Life, Talia Carner’s Hotel Moscow, and Ellen Litman’s Mannequin Girl.
Novelists are also inserting notable Jewish figures and significant historical events into their fiction.
Cantor, Jillian. The Hours Count. Riverhead. 2015. 368p. ISBN 9781594633188. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698162334. F
The author of Margot, a reimagining of the life of Anne Frank’s older sister, this time focuses on Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the only Americans put to death for espionage during the Cold War. Narrating the couple’s story from the perspective of Ethel’s friend and neighbor who takes in the two Rosenberg sons after their parents’ arrest in 1950, Cantor combines mystery, romance, drama, and espionage into a spellbinding and fascinating page-turner that also gives readers insight into this chapter of American history. (LJ 8/15)
Read-alikes Caroline Leavitt’s Is This Tomorrow and Jennifer Gilmore’s Something Red.
Goldreich, Gloria. The Bridal Chair. Sourcebooks: Landmark. 2015. 496p. ISBN 9781492603269. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9781492603276. F
Goldreich (Leah’s Journey) fictionalizes the life of Marc Chagall, one of the masters of modern art, by centering her evocative and compelling novel on Ida, his only daughter. Although he disapproves of Ida’s relationship with the son of middle-class Russian Jewish shopkeepers, he still forces her to marry the boy after encouraging her to have an abortion. Chagall paints an empty wedding chair and presents it to his daughter as a wedding gift. Goldreich examines how that painting, The Bridal Chair, symbolized the complex relationship between father and daughter. (Xpress Reviews, 3/6/15)
Read-alikes Susan Vreeland’s Lisette’s List and Dara Horn’s The World To Come.
Shapiro, B.A. The Muralist. Algonquin. Nov. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9781616203573. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616205409. F
Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Charles Lindbergh, and other remarkable personages of 20th–century history all make appearances in this novel about a fictional Works Progress Administration muralist, Alizée Benoit, who mysteriously disappears in New York City while trying to obtain visas for her Jewish family trapped in Europe during World War II. The narrative alternates between the 1930s and 1940s and the present as Alizée’s great-niece tries to find out what happened to her aunt and her art. As with the The Art Forger, Shapiro weaves her research and art history expertise into an enjoyable and highly readable novel. [A November LibraryReads pick.—Ed.]
Read-alike Lisa Barr’s Fugitive Colors.
The Hebrew Bible remains a rich source of inspiration for Jewish writers.
Brooks, Geraldine. The Secret Chord. Viking, 2015. 320p. ISBN 9780670025770. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698411487. F
The Pulitzer Prize–winning author (People of the Book) retells the story of the biblical giant slayer King David through the eyes of those around him: the prophet Natan, David’s wives, and Solomon, his son. Brooks takes her title from the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah” (“Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord”) and skillfully reimagines this well-known tale. (LJ 8/15)
Kanner, Rebecca. Esther. Howard. 2015. 400p. ISBN 9781501108662. $22.99; ebk. ISBN 9781501108679. F
In her reinterpretation of the biblical story of Esther, who saved the Jewish people from extermination when she became Queen of Persia, Kanner offers through one courageous woman’s perspective an insider’s view of the captivating but politically dangerous world of King Xerxes’s harem. Like her debut novel, Sinners and the Sea, which offered a female point of view on the story of Noah’s Ark, the author reinvigorates a familiar tale. (LJ 11/1/15)
Read-alikes for both titles Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent; Eva Etzioni-Halevy’s The Garden of Ruth, The Song of Hannah, and The Triumph of Deborah; Rebecca Kohn’s Seven Days to the Sea and The Gilded Chamber
There’s also a new genre of literature focusing on Jews who have strayed from the accepted path of their tight-knit religious communities to explore the secular world. The many memoirs, and a handful of novels (for both teens and adults), are now being labeled “Off the Path” stories.
Brafman, Michelle. Washing the Dead. Prospect Park. 2015. 344p. ISBN 9781938849510. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781938849527. F
Having grown up in the Orthodox Jewish community in Milwaukee in the 1970s, Barbara is traumatically exiled as a teenager after her mother has an affair with a “Shabbos goy” (a non-Jew who performs certain types of work). Barbara finds peace, forgiveness, and closure through the act of performing tahara, the ritual washing of the dead. A fast-paced and compelling debut novel, the book’s narrative shifts between the 1970s and the early 2000s.
Read-alikes Robyn Bavati’s Dancing in the Dark, Eishes Chayil’s Hush, Eve Harris’s The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, and Anouk Markovits’s I Am Forbidden.
Jewish Book Month, November 6–December 6, provides the perfect opportunity to explore the varied themes presented here. Begun in 1925 when Fanny Goldstein, a librarian at the West End Branch of the Boston Public Library, set up a display of Jewish-themed books, Jewish Book Week was soon adopted by communities across the country. In 1943, Jewish Book Week was extended into a monthlong celebration observed each year during the month preceding Hanukkah. For more information and to order a Jewish Book Month poster and kits, go to jewishbookcouncil.org.