Feature Stories

SUMMER READING

Summer is the perfect time to take a break and lose yourself in a good book. What to read? We checked out the Jewish Book Council at www.jewishbookcouncil.org – and came away with an enticing list of books with Jewish content or Jewish themes – both fiction and nonfiction – that were published in 2021/2022. Read on!

All the Shining People

By Kathy Friedman

Twelve exquisitely written stories depicting the search for human connection and the attempt to fit in far from home.

All the Shining People explores migration, diaspora, and belonging within Toronto’s Jewish South African community, as individuals come to terms with the oppressive hierarchies that separate, and the connections that bind. Seeking a place to belong, the book’s characters ― including a life-drawing model searching the streets for her lover; a woman confronting secrets from her past in the new South Africa; and a man grappling with the legacy of his father, a former political prisoner ― crave authentic relationships that replicate the lost feeling of home. With its focus on family, culture, and identity, All the Shining People captures the experiences of immigrants and outsiders with honesty, subtlety, and deep sympathy. 

People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present

By Dara Horn

Winner of the 2021 National Jewish Book Award for Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice. Finalist for the 2021 Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction

Renowned and beloved as a prizewinning novelist, Dara Horn has also been publishing penetrating essays since she was a teenager. Often asked by major publications to write on subjects related to Jewish culture—and increasingly in response to a recent wave of deadly antisemitic attacks—Horn was troubled to realize what all of these assignments had in common: she was being asked to write about dead Jews, never about living ones. In these essays, Horn reflects on subjects as far-flung as the international veneration of Anne Frank, the mythology that Jewish family names were changed at Ellis Island, the blockbuster traveling exhibition Auschwitz, the marketing of the Jewish history of Harbin, China, and the little-known life of the “righteous Gentile” Varian Fry. Throughout, she challenges us to confront the reasons why there might be so much fascination with Jewish deaths, and so little respect for Jewish lives unfolding in the present.

Horn draws upon her travels, her research, and also her own family life—trying to explain Shakespeare’s Shylock to a curious 10-year-old, her anger when swastikas are drawn on desks in her children’s school, the profound perspective offered by traditional religious practice and study—to assert the vitality, complexity, and depth of Jewish life against an antisemitism that, far from being disarmed by the mantra of “Never forget,” is on the rise. As Horn explores the (not so) shocking attacks on the American Jewish community in recent years, she reveals the subtler dehumanization built into the public piety that surrounds the Jewish past—making the radical argument that the benign reverence we give to past horrors is itself a profound affront to human dignity.

Bene Appétit: The Cuisine of Indian Jews

By Esther David

Winner of the 2021 National Jewish Book Award 

The Jewish community in India comprises a tiny but important part of the population. There are around five thousand Jews and five Jewish communities in India, but they are fast diminishing in number. Intrigued by the common thread that binds the Indian Jews as a whole despite their living in different parts of the country, Esther David explores the lifestyle and cuisine of the Jews in every region, from the Bene Israelis of western India to the Bene Menashes of the Northeast, the Bene Ephraims of Andhra Pradesh, the Baghdadi Jews of Kolkata and the Kochi Jews. She discovers that while they all follow the strict Jewish dietary laws, they have also adapted to the local cuisine. Some have even turned vegetarian! Extensively researched, with heartwarming anecdotes and mouthwatering recipes, Bene Appetit offers a holistic portrait of a little-known community.

He Gets That From Me: A Novel

By Jacqueline Friesland

A young Jewish woman serves as a surrogate mother only to find out, ten years later, that she gave away her own biological child.
Maggie Fisher’s job as a cashier doesn’t afford her much financial flexibility. She dreams of going to college and becoming a teacher, options she squandered when she fled her family home as a teenager. When Maggie sees an ad offering thousands of dollars to women who are willing to gestate other people’s babies, she finds the concept laughable. Before long, however, she’s seduced by all the ways the money could improve her life. It’s only a matter of months before she’s chosen as a gestational carrier by Chip and Donovan Rigsdale, a married couple from New York.
After delivering twins and handing them off to the Rigsdales, Maggie gets her life on a positive trajectory: earning her degree, landing a great job, and building a family of her own. She can’t fathom why, ten years after the fact, the fertility clinic is calling to ask for a follow-up DNA test.

Our Country Friends

By Gary Shteyngart

In the rolling hills of upstate New York, a group of friends and friends-of-friends gathers in a country house to wait out the pandemic. Over the next six months, new friendships and romances will take hold, while old betrayals will emerge, forcing each character to reevaluate whom they love and what matters most. The unlikely cast of characters includes a Russian-born novelist; his Russian-born psychiatrist wife; their precocious child obsessed with K-pop; a struggling Indian American writer; a wildly successful Korean American app developer; a global dandy with three passports; a Southern flamethrower of an essayist; and a movie star, the Actor, whose arrival upsets the equilibrium of this chosen family.

Both elegiac and very, very funny, Our Country Friends is the most ambitious book yet by the author of the beloved bestseller Super Sad True Love Story.

The Matzah Ball

By Jean Meltzer

Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt is a nice Jewish girl with a shameful secret: she loves Christmas. For a decade she’s hidden her career as a Christmas romance novelist from her family. Her talent has made her a bestseller even as her chronic illness has always kept the kind of love she writes about out of reach.
But when her diversity-conscious publisher insists she write a Hanukkah romance, her well of inspiration suddenly runs dry. Hanukkah’s not magical. It’s not merry. It’s not Christmas. Desperate not to lose her contract, Rachel’s determined to find her muse at the Matzah Ball, a Jewish music celebration on the last night of Hanukkah, even if it means working with her summer camp archenemy-Jacob Greenberg.
Though Rachel and Jacob haven’t seen each other since they were kids, their grudge still glows brighter than a menorah. But as they spend more time together, Rachel finds herself drawn to Hanukkah-and Jacob-in a way she never expected. Maybe this holiday of lights will be the spark she needed to set her heart ablaze. 

Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (as Told to Me) Story

By Bess Kalb

Even after she left home for Hollywood, Emmy-nominated TV writer Bess Kalb saved every voicemail her grandmother Bobby Bell ever left her. Bobby was a force—irrepressible, glamorous, unapologetically opinionated. Bobby doted on Bess; Bess adored Bobby. Then, at ninety, Bobby died. But in this debut memoir, Bobby is speaking to Bess once more, in a voice as passionate as it ever was in life.

Recounting both family lore and family secrets, Bobby brings us four generations of indomitable women and the men who loved them. There’s Bobby’s mother, who traveled solo from Belarus to America in the 1880s to escape the pogroms, and Bess’s mother, a 1970s rebel who always fought against convention. But it was Bobby and Bess who always had the most powerful bond: Bobby her granddaughter’s fiercest supporter, giving Bess unequivocal love, even if sometimes of the toughest kind. Nobody Will Tell You This But Me marks the creation of a totally new, virtuosic form of memoir: a reconstruction of a beloved grandmother’s words and wisdom to tell her family’s story with equal parts poignancy and hilarity.

Mox Nox

By Simon Adaf; Philip Simpson, trans.

Shimon Adaf is one of Israel’s most innovative and highly acclaimed young writers, and Mox Nox shows him at the top of his form.

The unnamed narrator of the novel describes the events of one summer when, as a 16-year-old from a small Israeli town, he worked at a kibbutz factory. He recalls his dealings with two other boys working there, and with the factory’s secretary — a lonely woman who he suspects has romantic intentions toward his father. The narrator initially views his acquaintanceship with the secretary as an unwelcome imposition. But soon her profound interest in poetry and language prove to be the means by which he can free himself from the tedium of his life; ultimately, it will determine the course of his career.

In a parallel, present-day storyline, the narrator — now an established writer leading literary workshops for socialites — is drawn into a love affair with an older woman who undermines his certainties about the world and forces him to reexamine the events of his past. In the midst of all this, ghosts emerge from the fissures of everyday life, ghosts that he must confront in order to fulfill society’s expectations of a son, brother, and lover — while also surviving as a creative person contending with unintelligible traditions and the divine.

One Hundred Saturdays is selected the Spring 2022 Natan Notable Book

Natan and the Jewish Book Council are thrilled to announce the Spring 2022 Natan Notable Book: Michael Frank’s One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World (Avid Reader Press/ Simon & Schuster, September 2022).

Twice a year, Natan Notable Books recognizes recently published or about-to-be-published non-fiction books that promise to catalyze conversations aligned with the themes of Natan’s grant-making: reinventing Jewish life and community for the 21st century, shifting notions of individual and collective Jewish identity, the history and future of Israel, understanding and confronting contemporary forms of antisemitism, and the evolving relationship between Israel and world Jewry.

In One Hundred Saturdays, Michael Frank unearths and reveals – week by week, Saturday after Saturday — the lives, culture and history of the Jewish community of Rhodes. Through the stories and memories of one of its members, Stella Levi, the vibrancy of the Juderia — the Jewish neighborhood in Rhodes that had existed for half a millennium until the Nazis deported the entire community to Auschwitz — and of Stella herself jump off the page. Stella shines as a storyteller and as a character, as she relates her life in Rhodes, her community and its history, bringing the reader into a Jewish world that few have knowledge of today.

As Tali Rosenblatt-Cohen, a co-chair of the Natan Notable Books committee, observed, “One Hundred Saturdays recounts in stunning detail the Jewish customs, folklore and habits of the Jewish community in Rhodes who had lived in near isolation since the Spanish Inquisition. In bringing this world to life, and in conveying the brutal swiftness with which it was destroyed, Frank and Levi remind us of all that we will never know about our histories — both personal and collective. Natan is eager to highlight that in addition to this being the story of one woman’s tenacity in the face of the Holocaust, the book is also an urgent reminder of the rich and varied worlds that were lost to us in the 20th century.”

The author will receive a $5,000 cash prize, as well as customized support for promoting the book and its ideas, drawing on Natan’s and Jewish Book Council’s extensive networks throughout the Jewish philanthropic and communal worlds.

The deadline for submission for Fall 2022 Natan Notable Books is Oct. 1, 2022, for non-fiction titles published for the first time between April 1, 2022 and March 31, 2023.

FOR YOUNG READERS

The Light of Days Young Readers’ Edition: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos

By Judy Battalion

This edition of The Light of Days tells the remarkable story, largely forgotten until now, of the young Jewish women who became resistance fighters against the Nazis during World War II. It has already been optioned by Steven Spielberg for a major motion picture.

As their communities were being destroyed, groups of Jewish women and teenage girls across Poland began transforming Jewish youth groups into resistance factions. These “ghetto girls” helped build systems of underground bunkers, paid off the Gestapo, and bombed German train lines. At the center of the book is 18-year-old Renia Kukielka, who traveled across her war-torn country as a weapons smuggler and messenger. Other women who joined the cause served as armed fighters, spies, and saboteurs, all risking their lives for their missions.

Never before chronicled in full, this is the incredible account of the strong Jewish women who fought back against the seemingly unstoppable Nazi regime. It follows the women through arrests, internment, and for a lucky few, into the late 20th century and beyond.

It also includes a section of black-and-white photos, so that readers can see firsthand the extraordinary women who bravely fought for their freedom in the face of overwhelming odds.

Linked

By Gordon Korman

Winner of the 2021 National Jewish Book Award.

Powerhouse middle-grade writer Gordon Korman turns his attention to the troubling issue of antisemitism, which has been appearing more and more frequently in the daily news. It is a subject that middle school readers currently need to address by reading about as well as by discussing the issue with their parents and teachers. This book may help initiate such discussions.

Protagonist Linc, his friends, and his family live in a quiet, mostly serene town, the claim to fame of which has been the discovery of prehistoric dinosaur tracks, until now. Now everyone is in shock to find that someone has vandalized the local school with a huge painted swastika. Members of the community, both adults and children, are quick both to suspect and defend one another. They decide to take action.

The principal initiates a “tolerance education” program, and the student council, inspired by the famous “Six Million Paper Clips” project in Tennessee, decides to begin a project of its own: construction of a huge paper chain made of six million links to hang on the walls of the school building. Linc becomes involved in this endeavor and also befriends Dana, the daughter of the only Jewish family in town.

Being a part of an enthusiastic school initiative, getting to know Dana, and finding out some previously unknown information about his own family background cause Linc to change, grow, and confront interesting and ugly truths about himself and the world around him. He learns about family and world history, as well as personal responsibility, and he struggles to figure out where he fits into the larger picture of the many truths he begins to absorb. He also begins to understand some of the uses, and especially the abuses, of media, a particularly important issue for young readers to examine and explore.

Interesting, provocative, and worth reading, the story may have been even more powerful had the original swastika been drawn by an antisemitic townsperson. The town’s Ku Klux Klan’s history, previously only rumored, is exposed. There is much to learn and discuss here, and the story ends on a note of positive action and emotional growth. An author’s note explains more about the renowned Tennessee paper clip project and provides some useful internet links, which will help readers learn more about racism and the Holocaust.

Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

The Seventh Handmaiden

By Judith Pransky

Darya does not remember how she came to be a slave or who she was before she was bought by an army captain for his motherless daughter in the ancient Persian city of Susa. Protected and nurtured by the housekeeper and her daughter, Darya has as good a life as a slave can have, even acquiring the rare skill of reading and writing, which she learns alongside her young mistress. When the captain dies and the household is broken up, this skill proves to be her lifeline. She becomes the seventh handmaiden to the mysterious Esther, who is being housed at the Royal Palace while in contention to be King Xerxes’ new Queen.

However, life in Ancient Persia is precarious for women and outsiders, wherever they are in the hierarchy. When the king appoints a new prime minister called Haman, Darya and Esther are drawn into his murderous conflict with the Judean community and Mordechai, their leader, who lives just outside the palace gates.

In a world of discord and uprising, Darya seeks to fix the world around her and protect her friends, while also trying to unravel the mysteries surrounding who she is and how she became a slave. As she grows from childhood to womanhood she grapples with her own identity, her aspirations and desires and begins to understand the true meaning of both slavery and freedom.

This highly recommended story includes author’s notes that provide historical context and explain which characters are wholly fictional.

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