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In time for Chanukah, the best Jewish books of the season

By Victor Wishna

(JTA) — Really, every season is book season — but autumn brings a blend of offerings just right for warming up with as the weather cools down. To help you select the best one(s) to keep you cozy on the couch, or to find that perfect Chanukah present for the avid readers in your life, check out our selection of notable new reads, all with a Jewish twist. Whether you’re interested in fiction, non-fiction, memoir or graphic novels, we’ve got you covered.

 

The Devil in Jerusalem 
by Naomi Ragen

The tenth novel by best-selling American-born Israeli author Ragen is a crime thriller based on real events from a well-known Jerusalem court case. When two young brothers are brought to Hadassah Hospital with horrific injuries, an Israeli detective finds herself navigating her way through the Old City streets and parsing kabbalistic texts and cult rituals in pursuit of answers. Although Ragen has often written about the haredi realm, she has said in an interview with the Jewish Book Council that this novel “is about psychopaths who happen to be a part of the Jewish world.”

 

The Mystics of Mile End 
by Sigal Samuel

The half-Chasidic, half-hipster Mile End section of Montreal, where this beautifully written debut novel is set, allows Samuel to explore a range of interlocking and conflicting themes: religion, science, chaos, order, love, grief — and, of course, the many pathways to find meaning in life. The lives of David, a professor of Jewish mysticism, and his two teenage children, are all set on divergent trajectories by the tragic death of their wife and mother.

 

Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli 
by Ted Merwin

Merwin’s tasty exploration of deli cuisine and culture also tracks larger shifts in the American Jewish experience, particularly in the post-World War II period when delis upstaged shuls as Jewish gathering places. The book explores how delis faced a period of decline, alongside urban Jewish populations — only to rise again in recent years as an iconic cultural symbol.

 

Falafel Nation: Cuisine and the Making of a National Identity in Israel 
by Yael Raviv

An exploration of the role food has played in the evolution of Zionism and the State of Israel, Falafel Nation delves into the power struggles, moral dilemmas and the religious, ideological and ethnic affiliations that shape the character of modern Israelis — and how that all relates to the region’s diverse cuisine. Raviv, who runs New York’s biannual Umami Food and Art Festival, gives us quite a bit of intellectual fare to digest.

 

Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking
by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook

Speaking of Israeli food… Like a traditional Israeli meal – which is all about generosity and sharing – Zahav offers an abundance of recipes reflecting a melting pot of influences and an earthy assortment of dishes. Watch for an interview with the celebrated Chef Michael Solomonov in the Dec. 4 issue of the Jewish Ledger.

 

The Pawnbroker 
by Edward Lewis Wallant

Originally published in 1961 — and made into an acclaimed film in 1964 — this novel about a former Polish university professor and concentration camp survivor in East Harlem was one of the first American works of fiction to deal with the trauma of the Holocaust from the perspective of a character who lived through it. This reissued edition, with a new foreword by novelist Dara Horn, reveals that the tale’s depictions of the Shoah’s traumatic aftereffects and its examination of the sometimes troubled relationships between Jews and other American minority groups — remain just as powerful today.

 

Schmuck 
by Seth Kushner, with art by multiple contributors

The Kickstarter campaign that, well, kick-started this wonderfully enjoyable work promoted it as “a semi-autobiographic novel anthology about one schmuck’s quest for love and the meaning of life in New York City.” Fair enough, though the description doesn’t begin to capture the hilarity and poignancy that emerges when this collection of 22 comics — all short stories by Kushner, each with a different, talented illustrator — is taken as a whole. In a heartbreaking twist, Kushner, a respected freelance photographer as well as writer, passed away earlier this year and wasn’t able to see his fine book in print.

 

The Sea Beach Line 
by Ben Nadler

Izzy Edel, the protagonist of Nadler’s second novel, is the best kind of hero: interesting and deeply flawed. Having been booted from Oberlin for drug use, the 20-something drifter returns to New York City, where he attempts to track down his estranged father, who is missing and possibly dead. In the process of seeking answers, he takes over his father’s outdoor bookselling business and delves into his world of hustlers, gangsters and religious characters. Oh, yes — he also meets the girl of his dreams. Rife with references to Jewish folktales and the Talmud, Nadler’s tale is part mystery, part love story and part tribute to Jewish customs and curiosities.

 

Then Comes Marriage: United States v. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA 
by Roberta Kaplan, with Lisa Dickey

Prominent litigator Kaplan — the architect of the 2013 Supreme Court case that brought down the Defense of Marriage Act and compelled the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages — weaves legal drama with personal narrative for a behind-the-scenes look that is both inspiring and genuine. Beyond the account of the Jewish couple at the center of the case, Kaplan delves into her own story, from her fears that coming out as a gay woman would distance her from her Jewish community to creating a loving, Jewish family with her wife, Rachel.

 

5 new Chanukah books for children
By Penny Schwartz

Hanukkah is Coming!
Tracy Newman, illustrated by Vivian Garofoli
For ages 1-4

A delightful, rhyming story that follows a family as it celebrates the holiday. A perfect read-aloud for young kids, this is the second entry in a series that launched with Shabbat is Coming! by Tracy Newman; two new titles for Passover and Rosh Hashanah are due out next year.

 

Oskar and the Eight Blessings
Richard Simon and Tanya Simon, illustrated by Mark Siegel
For ages 4-8

This book transports readers back in time to the sights and sounds of New York City’s streets in 1938. Oskar, a young Jewish refugee arrives on his own by ship, sent on the journey from Germany by his parents following the frightening events of Kristallnacht. Oskar has only the photograph and address of his Aunt Esther, who lives uptown. As he makes his way up the length of the island on the seventh night of Chanukah, Oskar crosses paths with strangers who share blessings – a piece of bread, a Superman comic book, a whistle from Count Basie and a kind encounter with Eleanor Roosevelt.

 

Hanukkah Cookies with Sprinkles
David Adler, illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler
For ages 4-7

Sara, an inquisitive girl with a heart of gold, looks out her apartment window and notices a man juggling and eating a bruised apple. As she comes to understand that the man is hungry, Sara leaves small bits of food for him. When she spots him at her synagogue, her family invites him to a Chanukah dinner, leading to a budding friendship. Sara also represents the multitudes of nontraditional families within the Jewish community; she lives with her mom and grandmother, with no father.

 

Farmer Kobi’s Hanukkah Match
Karen Rostoker-Gruber and Rabbi Ron Isaacs, illustrated by CB Decker
For ages 4-8

This lighthearted, hilarious story opens on the second night of Chanukah at a moshav, an Israeli collective farm – and is filled with a slew of animals who sing Chanukah songs and play dreidel. The offbeat, lively story is filled with playful language: “You look flap-ulous,” a goose honks. There are fun nods to Israeli and Jewish traditions, all explained in a glossary at the end.

 

Sammy Spider’s First Taste of Hanukkah, a Cookbook
Sylvia A. Rouss and Genene Levy Turndorf; illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn
For ages 5-9

Welcome back, Sammy Spider. In this 15th book of the wildly popular series, the friendly arthropod joins Josh and the Shapiro family in the kitchen just in time for Chanukah.  The colorfully illustrated book includes 18 easy-to-follow recipes for Chanukah meals and treats including “Maccabee Munch” — a sweet, Chex-mix type treat — applesauce and “Chocolate Fun-due.” A fourth chapter features Chanukah craft projects.

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