Life & Culture

Reading list: Our pick of the best Jewish books over the last year

The new year is upon us but have you read the best of 5783?


Diverse group of friends discussing a book in library.

The new year is upon us and with it, no doubt, a slew of new Jewish content. Personally, I’m looking forward to The Future by Naomi Alderman, one of my favourite living authors, as well as The Golem of Brooklyn by Adam Mansbach, who cracked me up in my early parenting days with Go the F**k to Sleep.

Oh, and Jessica Kirzane is coming out with another translation of Miriam Karpilove’s writing; if the narrator of A Provincial Newspaperis half as witty as that of Diary of a Lonely Girl, count me in!

But as we shift into 5784, have you read the best of 5783?

Like most Jewish years, there were some fantastic showings. I laughed as I listened to an audiobook version of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Romantic Comedy about a Jew-ish sketch artist and pop star crush; cried reading French writer Ann Berest’s Holocaust-driven autofiction, The Postcard; and am excited to start Shastri Akella’s The Sea Elephants, a queer coming-of-age story set in India and featuring a Judeo-Malayalam-speaking love interest. What I adore most about Jewish fiction is that I can start with the familiar (a Shabbat dinner, perhaps, or some old-fashioned intergenerational trauma) and explore the whole world.

Here are some you might have missed, exploring the lives of the Jewish and Jew-ish folk from around the globe:

1. The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, by James McBride

Since the release of his memoir, The Color of Water (1995), telling of his mother’s Jewish upbringing and the fallout after her marriage to his Black father, McBride has been exploring Black-Jewish relations. His latest novel is no different.

The story is set in motion in 1972, on Chicken Hill in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where the “Blacks, Jews and immigrant whites who couldn’t afford any better” had settled, when police officers show up at the house of an old Jew after discovering a skeleton wearing a mezuzah pendant.

The narrative then rewinds forty-seven years to show us Chicken Hill through the decades: how Jewish experiences and Black experiences, Jewish values and Black values, Jewish lives and Black lives intersected and found common ground. The point of view shifts back and forth across this sprawling novel to give us an intimate rendering of both the Black and Jewish residents.

2. Black Foam, by Haji Jabir, Trans. Sawad Hussain and Marcia Lynx Qualey

Five years after being released in Arabic and long-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Black Foam, by Eritrean novelist Haji Jabir, tells the story of a son of war, an Eritrean, who makes his way into Gondar in Ethiopia, and then, via Operation Wings of the Dove, into Israel.

The man, who is alternately called Adal, Dawoud, Dawit, and David, and passes as Muslim, Christian, and Jewish, is not always a sympathetic character. He lies to everyone and commits immoral acts.

Yet, his desire for a better life, and one in which he’s not subject to constant discrimination, has a very universal feel to it. Black Foam proceeds in a non-linear fashion, and the different places and names can be confusing, but the stories the chameleon-like character tell reveal, if not always truths about himself, the experiences of the people of Beta Israel and of (non-Jewish) African refugees.

3. The Marriage Box, by Corie Adjmi

“The night started out like every Syrian Jewish wedding,” begins Adjmi’s riveting novel—but if you’ve never been to a Syrian Jewish wedding, you’ve got a lot to learn. I know I did! And so did Casey, the eighteen-year-old bride, standing among her eight hundred guests (standard, apparently), all the women in expensive skin-tight size 2 dresses and stilettos.

Raised in casual, secular New Orleans in the 1970s, where her mother, inspired by the Women’s Movement, cut her hair short and got a job at the mall, and her father watched porn, wore a red Speedo, and flirted with women, Caseyfinds the move to Brooklyn’s Orthodox Syrian community at the age of sixteen a shock to her system.

Although her family has Syrian roots, Casey needs to be initiated into their ways—of religiosity, sexual modesty, strict gender divisions, and endless glamour—in order to attract her “naseeb,” or “God-given intended.”

4. Kantika, by Elizabeth Graver

When we first meet Graver’s protagonist, Rebecca, she is singing to herself, which is appropriate, as the whole novel feels like the embodiment of the title, “kantika”—Ladino for song. At the outset, Graver lyrically establishes the multilingual, multireligious, cosmopolitan, and yet concretely local and specific nature of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1907. We learn about Rebecca but more generally about life in the Ottoman empire, the water-based geography, open-air culture of buying and selling, neighbouring communities.

We travel with Rebecca from Constantinople to Barcelona, Barcelona to Havana, Havana to New York. Rebecca’s life is not easy, but she is headstrong and independent; you can’t help but root for her. Though fiction, the novel is based on stories from and interviews with family members, particularly Graver’s grandmother Rebecca Cohen Baruch Levy, in whose memory the book is written. Real photographs of the author’s family front each chapter.

5. Undesirables: A Holocaust Journey to North Africa, by Aomar Boum, Illustrated by Nadjib Berber

Called a graphic “novel,” this illustrated history offers a new angle on our collective trauma. In the hands of Boum, an anthropology professor and a Muslim originally from Morocco, and Berber, an artist from Algeria who passed away earlier this year, the horrors and depravations of Vichy internment and labour camps in North Africa come to light.

The fictional character of Hans Frank, son of a Spanish Sephardic mother and Ashkenazi German father, acts as a composite of people who lived through the rise of the Nazis in Germany, the Civil War in Spain, and the Saharan camps.

Using black-and-white panels of varying sizes, Berber draws detailed pictures of the diverse landscapes well as historical figures like Adolf Hitler, Rosa Luxemburg, Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Youssef, and Marshal Pétain. The book brings together the fates of Jews, Muslims, Spanish Republicans, and other “undesirables” and at moments reads as an ode to Jewish-Muslim camaraderie.

6. One Day We’re All Going to Die, by Elise Esther Hearst

If you like Sally Rooney but not her politics, check out this Melbourne-based millennial. One Day We’re All Going to Die (great title!) is the debut novel for Hearst, though she’s already an accomplished playwright, with such adaptations as A Very Jewish Christmas Carol (a version of the Dickens classic) and Yentl under her belt. In One Day, twenty-seven-year-old Naomi works at Australia’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.

Jewish and single, she juggles the expectations of her family, has bad sex, and allows herself to passively float through life, unsure what she wants. But she is tender with her grandmother, Cookie, a Holocaust survivor, who lost her parents and sisters in Chełmno, but never, it seems, her sense of humour. And Naomi does come into her own—so be patient with her. It’s hard to be young!

Throughout, Hearst is insightful and funny and does an excellent job of exploring the idea of intergenerational trauma, to which the title alludes.

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