My Year in Jewish Books (2019 edition)

For a number of years, I have found it useful (and kind of fun) to look back on “my year in Jewish books.” Here’s my attempt to do something similar for 2019.

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Reviewing my reading for the past year, I can see that, again, I do not and would not ever limit my reading to “Jewish books” exclusively. (By the way, in case you haven’t heard me say this before, I define “Jewish books” in the simplest terms as books with substantive Jewish content. In my view, non-Jewish authors can write “Jewish books.” And Jewish authors can write books that don’t strike me as overtly Jewish. Occasionally, something may pop up that doesn’t seem to fit this description. I can be flexible.)

But this year, as usual, I did read quite a few books that fall within the “Jewish book” category. And, as an advocate for Jewish literature, I’m proud of that.

What you won’t find here: My own book (Birthright: Poems), which you can be sure I read this year! Nor will you find all the works that I reread in preparation for the course on 21st-Century Jewish Literature that I taught at Baruch College this past fall.

With all of that in place, I’m happy to present the list, complete with annotations that I’ve updated slightly since first writing them as “brief book reviews” immediately after finishing each book:

  • The Illusion of Return by Samir El Youssef (Melville House, 2008). After the death of Israeli author Amos Oz at the end of December 2018, I spent a lot of time reading tributes and returning to Oz’s interviews. His remarkable spirit made me wonder, “Who is the Palestinian Amos Oz?” Who is a writer/activist both idealistic and realistic, concerned for both his “own” people’s well-being and the welfare of “the other side”? Who might make as great an impact on Palestinian readers as Oz has among Israeli Jews (and other Jews)? I asked around a bit (quietly). A friend recommended this author/novel (officially, a novella). And I’m grateful.
  • Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi: A Novel by MaNishtana (Multikosheral Press, 2018). This book, which marketing copy describes as an “imaginative, semi-autobiographical novel…the most dazzling debut of an Orthodox black Jew born on a Sunday at 2:24AM in a Brooklyn hospital in 1982 that you will ever have the privilege of reading,” waited on my Kindle for months. When it was named a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award I moved it ahead in the queue, and I’m so glad that I did. Anyone who’s ever sought a “new” voice or story in Jewish literature will find it here. Yes, there are moments that may make many readers uncomfortable (it’s not always pleasant to look in the communal mirror). But throughout, there is so much that is instructive. My only significant “gripe” is that I found myself distracted by some of the narrative choices and stylistic techniques—especially the intermittent use of a first-person narrator. Still, the story transcends such frustrations. I look forward to the author’s next book.
  • What the Light Reveals by Rachel Heimowitz [Rachel Neve Midbar] (Tebot Bach, 2014). A simply beautiful poetry chapbook that the poet, a friend, sent me as a gift. And what a gift. These 19 poems, most of which appear to draw inspiration from the years that the poet has spent living in Israel, will, I suspect, draw me back again and again.
  • Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019). Gorgeous writing. Stunning story. Read it in a day (late into the evening—I even skipped a favorite TV program to keep reading!).
  • Paper Brigade (2019). The latest edition of the annual literary publication from the Jewish Book Council. An outstanding compilation of prose and poetry, interviews and profiles, excerpts, art, and more. Named, as indicated within for “the original ‘paper brigade,’ a group of writers and intellectuals in the Vilna Ghetto, [who] risked their lives to rescue thousands of books and documents from Nazi hands.”
  • We Have Been Lucky in the Midst of Misfortune: Poems by Sarah Stern (Kelsay Books, 2018). Here’s some solid advice: Before you invest in submitting your manuscript to a press that charges a reading fee, be sure that you get to know the work of that press. (Yes, this may involve actually purchasing one of its books.) When I was considering submitting my own poetry manuscript to Kelsay Books’s Aldrich Press imprint, I went ahead and ordered this poetry collection. It is lovely (the poetry is lovely, and the cover and other production elements are also beautifully done). So many of the poems here resonated with me, particularly the ones connected with the poet’s German-Jewish lineage, and those that seem, to me, embedded in experience of a psychoanalytic/psycho-therapeutic dyad. A keeper volume, for sure. (Update: I went ahead and submitted my manuscript. The rest is history.)
  • It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman. Foreword by Mayim Bialik (Knopf, 2019). I’ve been eager to read this anthology of short stories aimed for YA readers since I discovered that it was in the works, and I quickly snagged a copy when given the opportunity at a recent “galley grab.” Mayim Bialik’s foreword situates the book beautifully. I’m far beyond the target audience age for this book, and I can’t say that I didn’t feel my age at times when reading it. I will be most eager to learn what the teen readers for whom it’s intended take away from their reading experiences. In the meantime, I’m simply grateful that this book exists.
  • In the Spirit of the Holidays: Readings to Enrich Every Jewish Holiday by Janet Ruth Falon (Sticky Earth Books, 2018). I was provided a copy of this book by the author, who came to me for a publicity consultation. It truly was a pleasure for me to read this book, which takes the reader through the Jewish holiday calendar via direct, meaningful poems pegged to each occasion. Helpful context and translations/definitions are provided to orient readers new to the subjects treated. I have not read another of the author’s books, The Jewish Journaling Book: How to Use Jewish Tradition to Write Your Life & Explore Your Soul, but I suspect that the pair of titles would be quite complementary and of particular interest to Jewish educators and event organizers (for schools, libraries, congregations, JCCs, etc.).
  • We Love Anderson Cooper: Short Stories by R.L. Maizes (Celadon, 2019). I placed this book on my “Jewish Lit” shelf on Goodreads although not all of the 11 stories fit that label. (This book has many strengths, and the diversity—religious and other—of its characters is one of them.) I can’t claim to be completely unbiased, since the author is a friend. But on its own terms, the book offers a varied set of situations and stories, all infused with lively intelligence and crafted expertly.
  • Sadness Is a White Bird: A Novel by Moriel Rothman-Zecher (Atria, 2018). I’ll admit it: I stayed away from this one based on some of what I’d heard/read about it. (Life is short, and there’s already more than enough to upset me on a day-to-day basis.) But people whose views I value encouraged me to give it a try. I’m glad that I did, even if I may still have reservations about the way the book and author have been/continue to be presented.
  • America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today by Pamela S. Nadell (W.W. Norton, 2019). Nice addition for my continuing education/self-study program in Jewish studies. (My thanks to Norton for the complimentary copy.)
  • The Siege of Tel Aviv by Hesh Kestin (2019). There’s a lot to say about this novel. Since I haven’t managed to write up my own reaction, I’ll point you to some thoughts from Mark Horowitz.
  • Some Unimaginable Animal by David Ebenbach (Orison Books, 2019). Ebenbach is such a versatile writer, and it’s always a pleasure to see what he’s come up with most recently. He dedicates this poetry collection to his father, “who taught me that sometimes the best way to feed the soul is with actual food,” and a number of the poems here feature culinary themes/imagery. A number of them engage with Jewishness and Judaism, including Jewish holidays—although I’m still puzzling over whether we’re intended to infer that the Sukkot holiday evoked in “Sukkot” actually overlaps with that poem’s setting of the National Book Festival, when in recent years, at least, I think the latter has preceded the former by a few weeks. But maybe I’m overthinking–maybe the poem’s purpose is to apply Sukkot concepts/motifs to the National Book Festival without suggesting that the two are happening simultaneously. Would be curious to know what others who read the poem may think.
  • The Comics of Rutu Modan: War, Love, and Secrets by Kevin Haworth (University of Mississippi Press, 2019). An excellent overview of Modan’s work, along with an introduction to the history of comics in Israel.
  • Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi (paperback edition with new epilogue, Harper Perennial, 2019). Yes, I already own the hardcover. Yes, I’ve already read (and written about) the book. So why did I buy the paperback edition, and why am I taking the time to comment about the book again? Because the book remains essential reading, and because the new edition includes equally must-read responses from actual Palestinian (and some other Arab) readers.
  • The Book of Jeremiah by Julie Zuckerman (Press 53, 2019). Nicely constructed debut book featuring stories about Jeremiah Gerstler and his family. We meet Jeremiah as a child in Connecticut in the 1930s and conclude with him as an elderly widower in Western Massachusetts in 2009. I’m especially grateful to the author for making the story “The Dutiful Daughter” available to my students.
  • Do Not Return by Julia Knobloch (Broadstone Books, 2019). I’ve been looking forward to this volume since I first became acquainted with Julia Knobloch’s magnificent poetry (and I pre-ordered the book as soon as I found out that I could). How lucky we all are to have this debut collection to read and consider. Highly recommended.
  • A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas by Maxim D. Shrayer (Academic Studies Press/Cherry Orchard Books, 2019). These novellas—”Bohemian Spring,” “Brotherly Love,” and “Borscht Belt”—introduce us to Simon Reznikov, who shares with Shrayer some basic biography: Moscow-born son of refusenik parents; ultimately permitted to leave the then-Soviet Union in the 1980s; a talented American graduate student in the 1990s. Is it a spoile to say that the conclusion of “Brotherly Love” broke my heart? Or that “Bohemian Spring” is likely to resonate especially (but by no means only) with anyone who has ever conducted dissertation research in a library/archive—and those of us who remember the emergence of Prague in the immediate aftermath of the Velvet Revolution. (Complimentary review copy.)
  • On Division: A Novel by Goldie Goldbloom (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019). The marketing copy summarizes this book as follows: “Through one woman’s life at a moment of surprising change, the award-winning author Goldie Goldbloom tells a deeply affecting, morally insightful story and offers a rare look inside Brooklyn’s Chasidic community.” All true, and I’m grateful to have been provided an early pre-publication version. This version included placeholder pages for family trees, which I suspect would be helpful (unless I missed the mentions, I don’t believe that we are introduced by name in-text to all of 10 of the protagonist’s children—the story features only a few of them). The pacing also perplexed me a bit; like some of the other characters, I found myself becoming impatient with the protagonist’s refusal to divulge key information to her husband.
  • A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales by Ruth Calderon (trans. Ilana Kurshan; The Jewish Publication Society, 2014). Valuable for me as a reader lacking real background in Talmud study; equally important as a resource for me as a teacher planning a Jewish-literature course that featured a unit of newer literary explorations of traditional texts.
  • Once @ 9:53am: A Fotonovela by Ilan Stavans and Marcelo Brodsky (Penn State University Press, 2016). I’d intended to read this book for a long time. Maybe it’s fate that led me to obtain a copy, and read it, during the 25th-anniversary week of the event at its heart. Beyond providing an unusual lens into the terrorist attack that occurred at 9:53 am on July 19, 1994, in Buenos Aires, the book provides at its conclusion an important, informative narrative of Latin American/Argentinian Jewish history.
  • Make It Concrete by Miryam Sivan (Cuidono Press, 2019). In the world of Holocaust-related fiction, a few things make this novel—featuring an American protagonist who is living in Israel and working as a ghostwriter for Holocaust survivors—stand out. First, the protagonist, Isabel Toledo, is of partial Sephardic descent, and Sephardic history—from the Inquisition to the founding of Shearith Israel in New York—plays a significant role in this book. Also, some of the Holocaust-era material here focuses on what occurred in Greece, which is less well-known than many other aspects of Holocaust history. (Complimentary e-galley.)
  • A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz (trans. Nicholas de Lange; Mariner Books, 2002). Utterly exquisite.
  • Emma Lazarus by Esther Schor (Schocken, 2006 [I read the 2017 edition with a new introduction by Schor]). I learned so much more from this book about Emma Lazarus—as a writer, as an American Jew, as an early Zionist—than I knew before.
  • The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer (Knopf, 2019). For this one, check out my not-so-brief review over on Reading Jewish Fiction. (Complimentary galley.)
  • How to Fight Anti-Semitism by Bari Weiss (Crown, 2019). It’s not that there was so much in this book that was new to me (well, I didn’t know about the Basel Massacre of 1349). But this author has a way of giving voice to concerns that I wish I could express half so well. (On the other hand, I can’t say that I’d be up for the public vilification that she so often receives in return.)
  • Eve and All the Wrong Men by Aviya Kushner (Dancing Girl Press, 2019). A lovely little chapbook of poems. Can’t wait for the author’s first full-length collection
  • A Sand Book by Ariana Reines (Tin House Books, 2019). Was prompted to pick up this one via an article from the Poetry Foundation.
  • The World of Aufbau: Hitler’s Refugees in America by Peter Schrag (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2019). A meaningful read for me, grounded in the Aufbau, a newspaper I recall seeing so many times in my grandparents’ home.
  • The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything in Between by Stephanie Butnick, Liel Leibovitz, and Mark Oppenheimer (Artisan, 2019). Funny, fact-filled, and absolutely fabulous. My go-to Hanukkah gift this year.
  • The Seventh Heaven: Travels Through Jewish Latin America by Ilan Stavans (University of Pittsburgh Press). If anyone is an expert on Jewish Latin America, it’s Ilan Stavans. And as I try to fill this gap in my Jewish knowledge/literacy I’m grateful for his many contributions, of which this is just one of the very latest (especially given this article of mine, I’m also looking forward to reading his new volume on The Return of Carvajal).  
  • Sing This at My Funeral: A Memoir of Fathers and Sons by David Slucki (Wayne State University Press, 2019). The grandfather: a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust by fleeing into the Soviet Union (his first wife and sons were murdered at Chelmno). The father: “conceived in Poland, born in Paris”—and an honored drama teacher in Australia, where he spent most of his life before his sudden death in December 2015. The son: an Australian author and historian and now the father of a young son himself. Linking the generations: the Jewish Labor Bund and yiddishkayt. Lots to think about in this one.  
  • How to Bless the New Moon: The Priestess Paths Cycle and Other Poems for Queens by Rachel Kann (Ben Yehuda Press). Do not skip the two forewords here which help explain the “priestess” element of this book. 
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4 thoughts on “My Year in Jewish Books (2019 edition)

  1. Judy Kessler says:

    A great list! I would add these (my favorite Jewish reads in 2019–don’t know if they were on your list in prior years):
    The New Order – short stories by Karen E. Bender http://karenebender.com/books/the-new-order/ (2018 National Book Award Finalist)
    Waking Lions – gripping novel by Ayelet Gondar-Goshen, English translation 2017

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Thanks, Judy. These aren’t necessarily my “favorites”–they’re more of a reading log. As it happens, I’ve just read THE NEW ORDER (my first entry in my 2020 list).

  2. Nina says:

    An amazing list! So many books I would never have known about.

  3. Nancy Levine says:

    A great list!

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