What to read next? Ask the Matzah Ball book club

A social media book group is spreading Jewish joy. Lizzie Kapren meets the women picking the must-reads every month to share with its members


As book fans on TikTok have pushed unknown authors into literary legends, in the Jewish world, Matzah Book Soup is bringing Jewish literature to the forefront.

Run by Instagrammers Amanda Spivack, 30, and Lilli Leight, 27, the book club focuses on Jewish joy. Once a month, the group discusses its latest pick; between its Instagram, Bookclubs page and Facebook group there are more than 3,000 readers involved. Each novel differs from the last in genre, age target and types of Judaism depicted to prevent the club from becoming stale.

“What we get out of meeting with a fantasy author is different from what we get with a romance writer,” Spivack says. “When you come to meetings, it’s never going to be the same thing. You’ll hear an entirely new perspective on Jewish characters in literature.”

However, one thing is guaranteed: the books are going to reflect on Jewish joy and pride.

While researching for her master’s degree dissertation on Jewish and Muslim representation in young adult literature, Boston-based Leight realised what a large percentage of Jewish storylines have to do with the Holocaust.

Looking for a space to celebrate Jewish joy, Leight put out a call for another book lover to begin a Jewish book club. Spivack, from Cold Spring, New York quickly answered and the rest is history. The duo recently celebrated the third anniversary of Matzah Book Soup.

Members have found comfort in joining a book club dedicated to Jewish representation, especially as antisemitism skyrockets worldwide.

“Matzah Book Soup is for the girls who didn’t see themselves reflected in books but still loved reading,” Leight says.

While some people feel that Zoom events can be isolating, members of Matzah Book Soup have enjoyed meeting people from across North America and beyond.

Stacey Sacks Freedman, a 54-year-old children’s librarian from Maryland, was looking for a space to express her culture with other readers when she came across Matzah Book Soup.

As one of the few Jews in her community, she has become more vocal about her Judaism amid the spike in antisemitism. Matzah Book Soup became a highlight in Sacks Freedman’s month.

“I love the whole idea of a book club based on Jewish representation. I grew up in an area that was pretty Jewish, but now, I am very much a minority,” she says.

“I felt less alone to see that others were in the same boat and we could find and discuss Jewish representation in books together.”

Stephanie Clabby, a 37-year-old from New Jersey, emphasises that narratives of Jewish life are integral to dispelling beliefs that the Jewish experience is synonymous with the Holocaust.

The book that she feels exemplifies this most is December 2021’s pick, murder mystery The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros, which emphasises that antisemitism is a centuries-old problem that continues today.

“Giving the Jewish experience a platform to show how multifaceted our lives and history are couldn’t be more needed,” Clabby says. “Shedding light on Jewish joy, the Jewish experience outside the Holocaust… and the beauty of different Jewish practices will help people better understand our lives and hopefully give a better perspective on who we are as a people.”

The criteria for a book to be considered “Jewish” by Matzah Book Soup is for it to be written by a Jewish author and have Jewish characters.

However, Spivack and Leight believe that Matzah Book Soup is for everyone to enjoy, especially since reading is an accessible way to engage with a culture.

“We’re a Jewish ‘own voiced’ book club for all because if someone isn’t Jewish but loved a Jean Meltzer book, they should feel empowered to come to our meeting and be a member of our community,” Spivack says.

Since the second meeting of Matzah Book Soup, the author of the month’s book has been present to speak to the club about the novel and their experiences as a Jewish author.

The conversation always begins by asking the author: “What is your relationship to Judaism?” and “Why was it important to include Jewish representation in their book?” Leight and Spivack have been told by authors how much they appreciate the opportunity to speak to a Jewish audience since the cultural elements can be discussed more in depth.

“For Jewish authors, there’s a reason why they made sure characters in their books are Jewish. There’s always a purpose there and yet, authors are often not asked about it,” Leight says.

Aleah Gornbein, a book publicist from New York City who runs her own book instagram celebrating Jewish young adult literature, @jewishyabooks, finds the virtual meetings “cozy and intimate” and says it’s refreshing to be authentically Jewish online.

“It’s so important to have a space where we can just breathe and talk about the books that we love so much without any fear of antisemitism,” she says.

For Gornbein the highlight of Matzah Book Soup has been speaking to authors directly about their work since it adds a new dimension to reading. Her favourite has been Planning Perfect by Haley Neil since it felt like a Jewish version of TV comedy Gilmore Girls.

“I love that Amanda and Lilli are able to get the authors to join the book club meetings. I have learned so much more about the books and the author’s inspirations this way,” she says.

As the number of Jewish books rise, Spivack and Leight have seen a growth in the types of Jewish characters they can see. During a club meeting, author Dahlia Adler commented that as Jewish literature grows, the level of perfection expected for these characters has declined. There’s a space for Jewish villains and flawed protagonists, and Matzah Book Soup is the place to celebrate that.

The abundance of new releases means it’s become increasingly more difficult to narrow the choice down to the top 12 books of the year – May’s pick is rom-com Flirty Little Secret by Jessica Lepe, and the book for April was Blank by Zibby Owens.

Spivack and Leight often can’t find a slot for books they’re excited about due to the sheer volume of potential picks.

The pair are planning to rectify this by including livestreams with authors between meetings to cover more ground.

“We’re lucky to live in a time where there are so many books coming out and this will be just a really great way to support authors in a different, new way for us,” Spivack says.

Still, it’s not all roses in the Jewish literary world. Many publishers are reluctant to champion Jewish titles or want characters that are Jewish in name only. A recent report claimed that half of British publishers “won’t take books by Jewish authors”.

Some of authors have lamented over their agents wanting them to tone down the overt Jewishness in their books. Jewish authors can also be “review bombed,” meaning they are spammed with one-star reviews from fake accounts.

Spivack says Matzah Book Soup has a responsibility to promote quality Jewish literature, especially when many books are not marketed by their publisher as Jewish. “Getting to use our voices to label something as a Jewish book exposes authors to another audience and allows Jewish readers to better pinpoint what they want to read,” she says.

Clabby appreciates the exposure to new titles, as it has expanded the types of books that she is reading and her understanding of what Jewish literature looks like. “It is because of this book club that I have discovered some of my favourite books, authors, and have expanded my idea of what Jewish representation can look like,” she says.

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