My Year in Jewish Books: 2021 Edition
Is it possible that I failed to write up one of these posts for 2020? The most recent edition I can find covers my reading for 2019. Alas!
In any case, I’m back on the job now!
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.
With all of that in place, I’m happy to present the list, complete with brief annotations that in some cases I’ve updated slightly since they appeared on my page of “brief book reviews” for the year (which are typically replicated on Goodreads). I’ll add some concluding thoughts and statistics at the end.
- RBG’s Brave & Brilliant Women: 33 Jewish Women to Inspire Everyone by Nadine Epstein with introduction and selection by Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Delacorte Press, 2021). Terrific children’s book that taught this adult a few things, too!
- All the Shining People: Stories by Kathy Friedman (House of Anansi, 2022). Appreciated the preview copy of this one, which features an impressive array of narrative voices and choices—lots of variety. The promotional copy led me to expect more about South African Jews’ emigration experiences than I found within. In many cases here, characters’ immigrant status seems incidental.
- Diary of a Lonely Girl, or the Battle Against Free Love by Miriam Karpilove, translated and with an introduction by Jessica Kirzane (Syracuse University Press, 2020). A terrific act of literary reclamation by Kirzane, who has translated Karpilove’s (originally serialized Yiddish) work. Read this one in anticipation of a spring-semester 2022 course that I’ll be teaching.
- Valiant Scribe Literary Journal Issue Two: Vultures and Doves: Social Issues of Our Time. Goodreads lists this as a book, so I will, too! I received a complimentary e-copy of this one since my poem “Fighting Words” appears within.
- The Passover Guest by Susan Kusel, illustrated by Sean Rubin (Neal Porter Books/Holiday House, 2021). A lovely, beautifully illustrated Passover story set in Depression-era Washington, DC, that draws inspiration from earlier works by Uri Shulevitz and I.L. Peretz.
- You Are Not What We Expected by Sidura Ludwig (House of Anansi, 2020). Mostly interconnected short stories set in the Toronto area. Several stories focus on members of Elaine Levine’s family, including her troubled adult daughter; the two grandchildren Elaine raises after her daughter abandons them; and the brother who returns to Canada from Los Angeles to help out on Elaine’s request. I found the book’s final story, which wraps up a great deal of the Levine family history, to be painful but powerful reading. Complimentary review copy.
- Can We Talk About Israel? A Guide for the Curious, Confused, and Conflicted by Daniel Sokatch, illustrated by Christopher Noxon (Bloombury, 2021). A well-meaning but decidedly imperfect book. I almost couldn’t believe it when a spotlighted section on the Goldstone Report (pp. 202-204) failed to even mention Goldstone’s own ultimate disavowal of a key element of that report (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinio…). A similar lack of comprehensiveness occurs in the author’s multiple allusions to the Iran nuclear deal (which, contrary to the indication in the book’s index, is not explicated on pp. 147-48).
- Jews Don’t Count by David Baddiel (TLS Books, 2021). Reflections from the UK, with resonance elsewhere.
- Pumpkin Pie for Sigd: A Holiday Tale by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod, illustrated by Denise Damanti (Apples & Honey Press, 2021). Sigd is an Ethiopian Jewish holiday that takes place 50 days after Yom Kippur—often quite close to American Thanksgiving. In this picture book, a new immigrant to Israel, an American-born child named Maddie, experiences homesickness as Thanksgiving approaches. A new, Ethiopian-born friend (Orly) invites Maddie to join in her family’s Sigd celebration. Maddie’s quest to bring something approximating a pumpkin pie to the party requires assistance from many of her new neighbors, including people who hail Ukraine, India, and Mexico. The celebration itself introduces Maddie to food, language, and other customs from Orly’s native country. It’s a lovely introduction both to the Sigd holiday and to Israel’s “ingathering of the exiles” from diverse corners of the Jewish Diaspora. A note explains how the author’s own experience as an immigrant to Israel connects with the story.
- The Upside-Down Boy and the Israeli Prime Minister by Sherri Mandell, illustrated by Robert Dunn (Kar-Ben, 2021). A short, sweet picture book that leads up to an introduction to (a famous photo of) David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. I wonder if kids–particularly American kids–will have a grasp of what a prime minister is/does; I can’t help wondering what kind of back matter might have been added here. Still, a cute and clever book.
- A Snake, a Flood, a Hidden Baby: Bible Stories for Children by Meir Shalev, illustrated by Emanuele Luzzati, translated by Ilana Kurshan (Kalaniot Books, 2021). Requested and received a complimentary e-copy of this one. Among the several pleasures of reading this book is thinking back to how I was introduced to these stories as a child through two other books. This one is beautifully illustrated with modern language (Sarah worries about Abraham’s sunburn, for instance). And of course, it’s never too early for children to learn the name of Israeli author Meir Shalev.
- I Am Hava: A Song’s Story of Love, Hope, and Joy by Freda Lewkowicz, illustrated by Siona Benjamin (Intergalactic Afikoman, 2021). Requested and received a complimentary e-copy of this one. Beautiful art and a creative introduction to the history of the “Hava Nagilah” song—I would have loved even more info in the back matter, but evidently there will be a timeline (and more) posted on the publisher’s site, presumably closer to the publication date.
- Sunday with Savta by Wiley Blevins, illustrated by Eliahou Eric Bokobza (Reycraft, 2021). The art throughout this picture book is simply gorgeous—it’s also my introduction to Bokobza’s work. The art accompanies a sweet story about an American boy whose Israeli grandmother (Savta) comes to visit him in New York and a memorable day they spend together. (No spoilers, but I teared up at the end.) One discordant note: At one point, Savta mentions that unlike the child’s great-aunt (presumably Savta’s sister), who opted to move to America she, Savta, moved to Israel. Later, there’s a fairly important mention of Savta’s parents taking her, as a child, to plant a tree in Jerusalem. So I was confused about when, exactly, Savta’s life in Israel began. Also: Much as I appreciated all of the information provided about Jewish holidays and rituals, particularly in the back matter, it’s not true for ALL Jewish girls that Bat Mitzvah “occurs on the girl’s 12th birthday.” In some denominations, girls, too, reach that milestone at 13. (I’m one such girl!)
- Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket: Stories by Hilma Wolitzer (Bloomsbury, 2021). A chance to revisit some of Wolitzer’s past work—with a devastating new story at the end.
- Beni’s War by Tammar Stein (Kar-Ben, 2020). YA novel set in Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Extremely well done.
- My Israel and Me by Alice Blumenthal McGinty, illustrated by Rotem Teplow (Kalaniot Books, 2021). Grateful for the access to an electronic review copy. There don’t seem to be very many children’s books about Israel, and for that reason alone, this book seems important. I’m intrigued by the mix of verse juxtaposed with blocks of supplementary nonfiction text, and I love the bright illustrations. Kudos to the author, illustrator, and publisher for daring to create and share this.
- Here Is the World: A Year of Jewish Holidays by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Susan Gal (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014). This is a lovely book, narrated in rhyme, with beautiful illustrations. I had hoped that the use of “Here Is the World” might signal attention to the ways Jewish holidays are celebrated around the world, but that’s not what the book is about. Instead, it presents a year-in-holidays (and seasons, in the mold of the northern parts of North America) to a new baby.
- Fault Lines: Exploring the Complicated Place of Progressive American Jewish Zionism edited by Rabbi Menachem Creditor and Amanda Berman (2021). I’d encountered a number of the essays reprinted here when they first appeared. It was heartening to see them again, and together in this volume.
- People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present by Dara Horn (W.W. Norton, 2021). My thanks to Moment magazine for inviting me to write about this one.
- Jerusalem Beach: Stories by Iddo Gefen, trans. Daniella Zamir (Astra House, 2021). Extraordinarily inventive stories in this exceedingly impressive debut collection. Some of the stories are far more speculative than I usually enjoy (I’m not usually engaged by stories set in outer-space, for instance). Here, though, the specifically Israeli connections kept me continually immersed. I’ve noted that there’s a novel coming—I’ll be waiting for it!
- A Queen to the Rescue: The Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg (Creston Books, 2021). Another new picture-book biography from Nancy Churnin (and another one I was lucky to be given access to preview ahead of publication), and it’s also stellar.
- Dear Mr. Dickens by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe (Albert Whitman, 2021). Even without the full effect (as happy as I was to be granted access to a digital ARC, that really isn’t the best format for experiencing the pleasures of reading a picture book), I loved this book. I was already well-acquainted with this author’s narrative gifts. But this is story is not just terrifically told—it is truly so timely and conveys such important messages about speaking up and speaking out. I hope that it reaches a wide, wide audience. (I’ve written more about this book in a piece published by JTA.)
- The Slaughterman’s Daughter: A Novel by Yaniv Iczkovits, trans. Orr Scharf (Schocken, 2020). I’d heard a lot of enthusiasm for this one, and there’s definitely something special brewing—think along the lines of a classic Russian novel—but it’s a demanding read, too (I’m not sure how it would go over with a book club, for instance).
- The Singer and the Scientist by Lisa Rose, illustrated by Isabel Muñoz (Kar-Ben, 2021). This picture book offers a beautiful rendering of the evidently true story of the friendship between Marian Anderson and Albert Einstein. (And an important—if painful—reminder that even in the 20th century, segregation was not limited to the southern states.)
- The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family by Joshua Cohen (New York Review Books, 2021). I have a weakness for campus novels, and an interest in Jewish history and literature; this novel packs a powerful combination.
- Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir by Tyler Feder (Dial, 2020). Picked this one up after catching the author’s presentation at the most recent Association of Jewish Libraries conference. I’ll quote here from the press release announcing the book’s selection as winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Young Adult category: “This debut memoir in graphic form is a funny, sad, confidently illustrated meditation on grief. It’s both a tribute to Tyler’s wonderful mom, who died of breast cancer at the age of 47, and a guide to Jewish mourning practices. A singular achievement.”
- Wolf Lamb Bomb: Poems by Aviya Kushner (Orison Books, 2021). Gorgeous poems that are sending me to the book of Isaiah to appreciate further (but you don’t need to be an Isaiah expert to fall in love with them!).
- The Jewish Quarterly (May 2021). The revived periodical meets its readers with an issue themed “The Return of History: New Populism, Old Hatreds.” I took up a subscription to this revamped publication as soon as I could, and I’m so glad that I did. Every piece in this issue is worth reading.
- 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium edited by Matthew E. Silverman and Nancy Naomi Carlson (Ashland Poetry Press, 2021). Appreciated the chance to read through this volume, which includes one of my poems.
- Always an Olivia: A Remarkable Family History by Carolivia Herron, illustrated by Jeremy Tugeau (Kar-Ben, 2007). The jacket copy describes this as an “historical fiction picture book” telling the author’s remarkable family story.” The story is framed as a grandmother telling her young granddaughter about their family history, stretching back to Jews’ expulsion from Spain.
- Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt (Schocken Books, 2019). Solid, accessible treatment of a difficult subject.
- Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth by Noa Tishby (Free Press, 2021). I wish that everyone would read this book.
- Paris in the Present Tense: A Novel by Mark Helprin (Harry N. Abrams, 2017). Very engaging novel given to me as a gift by another Francophile who knew that I’d appreciate it.
- A Scrap of Time and Other Stories by Ida Fink (trans. Madeline Levine and Francine Prose; Northwestern University Press, 1983). I wish that I’d encountered this book earlier and am grateful to Sara R. Horowitz’s overview of Fink and her work over on the website of the Jewish Women’s Archive. One of several Holocaust-related books that I read in the course of teaching a class on Holocaust literature.
- Osnat and Her Dove: The True Story of the World’s First Female Rabbi by Sigal Samuel, illustrated by Vali Mintzi (Levine Querido, 2021). An utterly beautiful book. Literally beautiful–the art is stunning. But the story also shines so brightly because it’s so untold. After catching one of the author’s online appearances, I have much that I’d love to discuss with her: writing picture-books after publishing for grown-ups; #kidlit genre conventions; telling “untold” (or less-frequently-told) stories; the challenges of writing about a true-life character who may have left little/no recorded dialogue. (I’d also like to talk with her more about mentor texts, a topic that came up in Q&A this evening.) But for now, I just wish her hearty congratulations on this achievement. I foresee many awards for this book!
- City of A Thousand Gates: A Novel by Rebecca Sacks (HarperCollins, 2021). A complicated book (not least because of the multiplicity of characters and plotlines). A book club discussion helped me clarify my own reactions to it.
- The Blessing & the Curse: The Jewish People and Their Books in the Twentieth Century by Adam Kirsch (Norton, 2020). At first, I dipped in and out of this collection of sage commentaries with a focus (for teaching purposes) on the first section emphasizing European Jewish writers.
- Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (volumes I and II) by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon, 1986 and 1991). I read both of these ground-breaking volumes back when they were much “newer,” but I reread them in January 2021 ahead of spring-semester teaching.
- Survival in Auschwitz: A Memoir by Primo Levi, translated by Stuart Woolf from the 1958 Italian edition (Touchstone, 1996). Although I’d read excerpts, I hadn’t yet read the full memoir.
- The Man Who Loved His Wife by Jennifer Anne Moses (Mayapple Press, 2021). An excellent book of short stories. Complimentary review copy.
A few of observations about this collection of 40 titles (again, these are only books that I read this past year that I recorded as “Jewish books”).
- Sixteen of the 40 titles listed here (40 percent!) fall within the kidlit category, which makes sense since I’ve been trying to learn the art and craft of (Jewish) kidlit myself. I’m pleased that I was able to write about several of these books in this article for Jewish Journal.
- I remain so grateful to translators, who made it possible for me to read several memorable titles on the list, from multiple languages (Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, Italian—only a fractional reminder of the global-historical diversity of “Jewish books”).
- I haven’t checked against past posts, but I suspect that I’m reading a lot less poetry than I have in previous years, which may have something to do, again, with my shift in focus from poetry-writing to kidlit.
- I read a lot for teaching purposes, which is as it should be—and is one of the best things about teaching.