Travel Through Jewish Fiction: Celebrate Jewish Book Month with These Titles and Read-Alikes

With this sampling of just-released 2016 and backlisted 2015 titles, from stories about biblical Israel to literary takes on modern Israeli life, from historical novels to Yiddish short stories, from Yemen, Turkey, and Jerusalem to the Galápagos Islands and Brooklyn, there’s something for every reader to enjoy during Jewish Book Month.

The success of Anita Diamant’s best-selling The Red Tent (1997) popularized the genre of biblical fiction, particularly focusing on the stories of women. Now, a body of literature has emerged, thanks to the efforts of contemporary writers reclaiming characters relegated mostly to sermons, if not forgotten entirely.

gameofqueens-jpg111416Edghill, India. Game of Queens: A Novel of Vashti and Esther. St. Martin’s. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9780312338930. $26.95; Picador. Sept. 2016. pap. ISBN 978250097057. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781466883666. F

Reference librarian Edghill (Wisdom’s Daughter; Delilah) reimagines the life of Vashti, one of the most beautiful women in the Persian empire, who lost her crown when she defied her husband, King Ahasuerus. Vashti was also instrumental in choosing her successor, Esther. (LJ 6/1/15)

Read-Alikes Rebecca Kanner’s Esther and Rebecca Kohn’s The Gilded ­Chamber.

Lemberger, Michal. After Abel and Other Stories. Prospect Park. 2015. 288p. ISBN 9781938849473. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781938849473. F

A 2015 National Jewish Book Award finalist and Sophie Brody Award honorable mention, these nine fabulous tales give voice to Eve, Lot’s Wife, Miriam, Hagar, Zeresh, and other noted biblical women. Lemberger, who has taught the Hebrew Bible as literature at UCLA and the American Jewish University, asks and answers the question: What would these women say if we gave them a chance to speak?

Read-Alikes Marek Halter’s Sarah and Zipporah, Rebecca Kohn’s Seven Days to the Sea, and Simone Selitch’s Moses in Sinai.

This year saw the release of works by established Israeli authors: Amos Oz’s Judas (LJ 10/15/16), Meir Shalev’s Two She-Bears (LJ 8/16), and A.B. Yehoshua’s The Extra (LJ 4/15/16). Coming in 2017 are David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar (LJ 9/15/16) and Aharon Appelfeld’s The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping (Prepub Alert, 7/25/16.). Increasingly, less-well-known Israeli writers are becoming available to North American readers in English.

Atir, Yiftach Reicher. The English Teacher. Penguin. Aug. 2016. 288p. tr. from Hebrew by Philip Simpson. ISBN 9780143129189. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780143129196. F

After attending her father’s funeral in London, Rachel Goldschmitt, a former spy for the Israeli intelligence service, disappears. Her former handler is brought out of retirement to find her in this page-turning thriller by a retired brigadier general. The book spent months with the Israeli civilian and military censorship committees, and numerous changes and omissions were made before it was approved for publication in Israel in 2013. It is the third of Atir’s four novels but the first to be translated into English. (LJ Xpress Reviews, 8/12/16)

Read-Alikes Duet in Beirut and Forbidden Love in St. Petersburg by Mishka Ben-David, Hesh Kestin’s The Lie, Edeet Ravel’s “Tel Aviv Trilogy” (Ten Thousand Lovers; Look for Me; A Wall of Light), and Daniel Silva’s “Gabriel Allon” series.

Brandes, Yochi. The Secret Book of Kings. St. Martin’s. Aug. 2016. 416p. tr. from Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan. ISBN 9781250076984. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466888890. F

Filled with intrigue, romance, and rebellion, this biblical epic recounts the story of Michal, daughter of King Saul and discarded wife of King David. Brandes, a biblical scholar, is a best-selling and award-winning Israeli novelist and essayist. This is her first book to be translated into English.

Read-Alikes Geraldine Brooks’s The Secret Chord, India Edghill’s Queenmaker: A Novel of King David’s Queen, and Joseph Heller’s God Knows.

Yishai-Levi, Sarit. The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. St. Martin’s. Apr. 2016. 384p. tr. from Hebrew by Anthony Berris. ISBN 9781250078162. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466890503. F

This international best seller and Israeli award winner presents a sweeping family saga that follows four generations of Ladino-speaking Sephardic women in Jerusalem who all fear that the family curse—that the husbands don’t love their wives—will continue with future descendants. This novel is currently being adapted into a feature film in Israel.

Read-Alikes Talia Carner’s Jerusalem Maiden, Nomi Eve’s The Family Orchard, Linda Grant’s When I Lived in Modern Times, and A.B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani.

We’re also seeing more English-language novels set in Israel.

Bletter, Dianna. A Remarkable Kindness. Morrow. 2015. 416p. ISBN 9780062382443. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062382443. F

remarkablekindness-jpg11416Told from the alternating perspectives of four American women who made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) and became volunteers in the burial society in their small town in northern Israel, Bletter’s debut novel offers insights into love, grief, and friendship, as well as an intriguing look at life in modern Israel from the point of view of American immigrants.

Read-Alikes Jessamyn Hope’s Safekeeping, Joan Leegant’s Wherever You Go, and Risa Miller’s Welcome to Heavenly Heights.

O’Nan, Stewart. City of Secrets. Viking. Apr. 2016. 208p. ISBN 9780670785964. $22; ebk. ISBN 9781101608401. F

Setting his latest novel in post–World War II Jerusalem, master storyteller O’Nan (West of Sunset) focuses on the Jewish underground movement during Israel’s fight for independence. Yossi Brand, a Holocaust survivor from Latvia, joins the Haganah and works as a taxi driver, transporting members to increasingly dangerous secret meetings and missions—until he realizes he is in over his head.

Read-Alikes Anita Diamant’s Day After Night, Martin Fletcher’s The List, and Simone Zelitch’s Louisa.

Tsabari, Ayelet. The Best Place on Earth: Stories. Random. Mar. 2016. 272p. ISBN 9780812988932. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780812988932. short stories

The Sami Rohr Award encourages and promotes outstanding writing of Jewish interest by awarding a $100,000 prize to an emerging writer. Tsabari won in 2015 for this captivating collection that focuses on characters of Mizrachi background—Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent. The Israeli novelist of Yemeni descent, who moved to Canada in 1998, uses her stories to explore growing up amid conflict and how it shapes identity and one’s search for home.

Read-Alikes Danit Brown’s Ask for a Convertible: Stories, Nomi Eve’s Henna House, Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, and Shelly Oria’s New York 1, Tel Aviv 0: Stories.

These three recent historical novels take readers on a journey to faraway places and lesser-known time periods in Jewish history.

Amend, Allison. Enchanted Islands. Nan A. Talese: Doubleday. May 2016. 320p. ISBN 9780385539067. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385539074. F

Drawing on the memoir of Frances Conway, this fascinating and well-written fictionalized account follows the daughter of Jewish immigrants as she runs away as a teenager from Minnesota to Chicago and then on to Nebraska and San Francisco where she eventually lands a secretarial job working for Navy intelligence. There she marries an undercover officer and accompanies him on a secret mission to the Galápagos Islands to spy on the Germans at the brink of World War II. Readers will be tempted to read Conway’s actual memoir to learn more about this intriguing couple, the enchanted setting, and extraordinary time.

Read-Alikes Jillian Cantor’s The Hours Count, Andrew Gross’s The One Man, and Joseph Kanon’s Leaving Berlin.

Dweck, Nicole. The Debt of Tamar. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. 2015. 304p. ISBN 978125006568. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781466872691. F

A rare self-publishing success, Dweck’s debut won the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Award in 2013. The novel’s first half chronicles a Jewish family’s flight from Iberia during the 16th-­century Inquisition to Istanbul. The second part is set in 2002, when a young man descended from the Ottoman sultans meets the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Of course, the reader knows that these separate story lines will intersect, but the result is a compelling and enjoyable read.

Read-Alikes Jessica Jiji’s Sweet Dates in Basra, Gina B. Nahai’s The Luminous Heart of Jonah S., Jacqueline Park’s The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi, Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, and Janice Weizeman’s The Wayward Moon.

Loigman, Lynda Cohen. The Two-Family House. St. Martin’s. Mar. 2016. 304p. ISBN 9781250076922. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466888883. F

twofamilyhouse-jpg111416In the middle of a snowstorm in 1950s Brooklyn, two sisters-in-law go into labor at the same time. Their husbands are both stuck in the city on business. Two babies are born, a girl and a boy, and a fateful decision is made that will change the course of both families forever. Beginning in 1947 and ending in 1970, the narrative alternates between the two brothers, Mort and Abe, their wives, Rose and Helen, and two of their daughters, Judith and Natalie.

Read-Alikes Jennifer Gilmore’s Golden Country, Binnie Kirshenbaum’s Almost Perfect Moment, and Naomi Ragen’s The Sisters Weiss.

The Wallant Award is presented annually to an American writer who has published fiction considered to have significance for the American Jew. The award was established shortly after the untimely death in 1962 of Edward Lewis Wallant, the gifted author of The Human Season and The Pawnbroker (which was recently reissued by Fig Tree Books).

The New Diaspora: The Changing Landscape of American Jewish Fiction. Wayne State Univ. 2015. 592p. ed. by Victoria Aarons & others. ISBN 9780814340554. pap. $35.39; ebk. ISBN 9780814340561. short stories

Edited by current and previous judges for the Wallant Award, this hefty collection of 36 stories include 19 by previous winners such as Melvin Jules Bukiet, Dara Horn, Julie Orringer, and Edith Pearlman. The other selections are from contemporary writers such as David Bezmozgis, Nathan Englander, Joseph Epstein, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Peter Orner. A finalist for the 2015 National Jewish Book Award for Anthologies & Collections.

Have I Got a Story for You: More Than a Century of Fiction from the Forward. Norton. Nov. 2016. 464p. ed. by Ezra Glinter. ISBN 9780393062700. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393254853. short stories

Starting in 1897 in New York City, the Forward is the most renowned Yiddish-language newspaper in the world. While Yiddish writers such as Isaac Bashevis Singer have been translated into English, many of the contributors remained untranslated and unknown. The 42 stories collected here, including ten tales by women writers, have all been translated for the first time and are organized by themes such as immigration, modern times, war, and Eastern European life. With an introduction by novelist Dara Horn, this groundbreaking anthology is an important contribution to the understanding of the Jewish immigrant experience in America.

Jewish Book Month, November 24–December 24, provides the perfect opportunity to explore the varied themes presented here. Begun in 1925 when Fanny Goldstein, a librarian at Boston Public Library’s West End Branch, 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 kit, go to jewishbookcouncil.org.

Rachel Kamin, MLIS, has been a Judaica librarian for over 19 years and is Director of the Cultural & Learning Center, North Suburban Synagogue Beth El, Highland Park, IL. She facilitates book clubs at four local synagogues

This article was published in Library Journal's November 15, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Share

Comments

  1. Rivkah says:

    Thank you! Always looking for Jewish themed books. 😄

  2. Rivkah says:

    Thank you, always looking for Jewish themed books.

  3. I am honored that my novel, A Remarkable Kindness, is on this list with so many wonderful books. Thank you. What an inspiration!

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  4. Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media, per our Terms of Use.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind

*