My Year in Jewish Books: 2023 Edition

Once again, I’m taking a quick look back at my Jewish reading for the past year.

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Reviewing all of 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 a lot of 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 at the end.

  • Second Person Singular by Sayed Kashua, trans. Mitch Ginsburg (Grove Press, 2012). Had been meaning to read this novel for literally a decade—every time I checked it out from the library I had to return it before I’d read it. Gave it five stars, even if my Jewish-Zionist self winced and cringed at times when reading. (My writer self wondered how Kashua managed the intricate plotting—an outline?)
  • The Discarded Life: Poems by Adam Kirsch (Red Hen Press, 2022). Check out my atypically lengthy comments about this book, which I highly recommend, on Goodreads.
  • Glikl Memoirs 1691-1719 presented by Chava Turniansky, trans. Sara Friedman (Brandeis University Press, 2019). This one had been on my mental tbr list since I was introduced to it in Adam Kirsch’s The People and the Books.
  • Old New Land by Theodor Herzl, trans. Lotta Levensohn (Markus Wiener Publishers, 1997). As with Glikl, I read this one to fill a gap in my historical Jewish reading. A fascinating text.
  • Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel by Francine Klagsbrun (Schocken Books, 2017). It took me about a month to read this book all the way through (I did have to shelve it for brief periods on occasion, but still—an undertaking). Utterly worth the time/effort. Detailed, readable history of both the topics referenced in the subtitle: Golda Meir (1898-1978) and the nation of Israel, at least from the time of the Yishuv to the Egypt-Israel peace agreement. Highly recommend.
  • Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. by Judy Blume (Dell, 1970). This one was a re-read for me. I was prompted to pick up my (very tattered) copy ahead of the spring 2023 premiere of the film version. (Also, a friend and I had chatted briefly about possibly writing something together; that didn’t happen, but I did ultimately write a flash essay inspired by my trip to the theater for the movie; I am still trying to place that essay!) Regardless–what a trip down Memory Lane to read this again after 40-something years. I was also prompted to check out one of the newest editions because I was curious to see what had been revised (and what had not) in the interim.
  • I Share My Name by Esther Levy Chehebar with illustrations by Luisa Galstyan (Xist Publishing, 2022). A short, sweet, simply illustrated tale that spotlights Sephardic Jewish baby-naming customs. (I was directed its way by a piece in Tablet magazine.)
  • In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me by Courtney Sender (West Virginia University Press, 2023). An impressive debut collection about love, loss, and legacies that linger, with a mix of styles (realist, speculative, midrashic). Grateful for my complimentary advance review copy.
  • The Jewish Quarterly Number 251 (February 2023). Standout work in this issue includes the cover feature (by Vladislav Davidzon) on “The Jews of Ukraine” and David Herman’s “The Jewish Quarterly at Seventy.”
  • The Promise of a Normal Life by Rebecca Kaiser Gibson (Arcade, 2023). A novel that reads in many ways like a journal or memoir.
  • The Lives of Jessie Sampter: Queer, Disabled, Zionist by Sarah Imhoff  (Duke University Press, 2022). A scholarly biography of the fascinating Sampter (1883-1938).
  • Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself by Judy Blume (Yearling, 1977). Another re-read, many decades later. What a delight.
  • My Last Innocent Year by Daisy Alpert Florin (Henry Holt and Co., 2023). Set mainly on a New Hampshire college campus in the spring of 1998, this novel focuses on budding writer Isabel Rosen; the dominant plotline involves her affair with her married creative-writing professor. It seems to me a good book-club choice (which may be why it was the focus of a New York Times Book Review “Group Text” feature).
  • Enduring Questions: Using Jewish Children’s Literature in Classrooms by David Bloome et al. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022). Particularly relevant for primary-school-level educators, including teachers and librarians.
  • The House of Love and Prayer and Other Stories by Tova Reich (Seven Stories Press, 2023). You can find my full review over on the Moment magazine website. Complimentary review copy.
  • A Persian Passover by Etan Basseri with illustrations by Rashin Kheiriyeh (Kalaniot Books, 2022). A sweet, charming picture book set in the middle of the 20th century featuring customs of Iranian Jews.
  • Natalie and the Nazi Soldiers: The Story of a Hidden Child in France During the Holocaust by Annette Gendler with illustrations by Ste Johnson (Nana’s Books, 2023). A poignant account that is also a tribute to Gendler’s late mother-in-law, whose experiences inspired the story.
  • How This Night Is Different: Stories by Elisa Albert (Free Press, 2006). I have been meaning to read this book for years; finally, during what is both #ShortStoryMonth and #JewishAmericanHeritageMonth, I did. Bold, edgy–all those adjectives apply. My favorite piece has to be the one that closes the collection, which you can find over on Longreads.
  • Loss of Memory Is Only Temporary: Stories by Johanna Kaplan (Ecco, 2022). This one didn’t land with me quite as powerfully as Kaplan’s novel O My America! did. Complimentary review copy.
  • To Be a Man: Stories by Nicole Krauss (Harper, 2020). This one waited on my Kindle for too long. Complimentary review copy.
  • Collateral Damange: 48 Stories by Nancy Ludmerer (Snake Nation Press, 2022). Stellar, memorable work of mostly flash/micro fiction.
  • From the Jewish Provinces: Selected Stories by Fradl Shtok, trans. Jordan D. Franklin and Allison Schachter (Northwestern University Press, 2022). Good introduction to Shtok and her work, and I mean that quite literally: The book’s Introduction is outstanding; I found myself more riveted by the background and biographical details about Shtok than I did in a number of the stories.
  • Frankly Feminist: Short Stories by Jewish Women from Lilith Magazine edited by Susan Weidman Schneider and Yona Zeldis McDonough (Brandeis University Press, 2022). The best part of reading this anthology was reading (or, in a number of cases, re-reading) the work of so many talented friends!
  • Luis de Torres Sails to Freedom by Tami Lehman-Wilzig with illustrations by Oliver Averill (Kar-Ben, 2023). A fictionalized account focusing on particular aspects of Christopher Columbus’s historical expedition that departed Spain in 1492. Plenty of well-chosen details about the Inquisition, the Tisha B’Av commemoration, and more. Beautifully illustrated.
  • Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict by Oren Kessler (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023). Extremely informative. Complimentary review copy.
  • Doll’s Eye by Leah Kaminsky (Random House Australia, 2023; please note that I was offered an advance copy for review and possible endorsement). In Doll’s Eye, the latest novel by acclaimed Australian author Leah Kaminsky, even those readers who think they’ve encountered nearly everything set within the shadows of World War II and the Holocaust are likely to discover something new. Most notably, Kaminsky places her European protagonists—one a German woman escaping a secret, stunning past; the other a prominent male Yiddishist from Warsaw—within the remote Australian town of Birdum, rendered with lush and vivid descriptions. Infused with history both familiar and less so, Doll’s Eye draws the reader in and sustains suspense throughout. A most satisfying read.
  • On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash, trans. Ellen Cassedy (Northern Illinois University Press, 2018). Read this as I planned my Fall 2023 course for undergraduates on Contemporary Jewish Short Stories. I was seeking readings to help present the very contemporary focus on reviving the work of Yiddish women writers, particularly through newly available translations. Ended up assigning work from this collection, which held my attention throughout.
  • Queering Anti-Zionism: Academic Freedom, LGBTQ Intellectuals, and Israel/Palestine Campus Activism by Corinne E. Blackmer (Wayne State University Press, 2022). An important, courageous work of scholarship, framed from the outset by the author’s personal experience, rendered in a more memoiristic style. Complimentary review copy.
  • We Need to Talk About Antisemitism by Rabbi Diana Fersko (Seal Press, 2023). A clear, informative primer covering recent antisemitic developments and discourse in the United States that, toward its conclusion, proposes ways for each of us to deal with them. Complimentary review copy.
  • Portraits of Jewish-American Heroes by Malka Drucker with illustrations by Elizabeth Rosen (Dutton’s Children’s Books, 2008). I picked this one up because I was curious to find out which people it covered. (I was pleased to find Bella Abzug included—but surprised to read that Abzug was “the first Jewish congresswoman”—a title that belongs to Florence Prag Kahn.) Appreciated the bright, vivid illustrations.
  • Jewish Futures: Stories from the World’s Oldest Diaspora edited by Michael A. Burstein (Fantastic Books, 2023). Grateful for what is serving as a kind of introduction to the possibilities of Jewish sci-fi.
  • Nothing Could Stop Her: The Courageous Life of Ruth Gruber by Rona Arato with illustrations by Isabel Muñoz (Kar-Ben 2023). A wonderful book for middle-grade readers. I can’t help wishing that it covered the full span of Gruber’s amazing life (it ends in 1945). But there’s a substantial author’s note plus a timeline to provide further glimpses into Gruber’s many accomplishments and contributions.
  • Sarahland: Stories by Sam Cohen (Grand Central Publishing, 2021). Vividly-voiced stories. For me, the standout here is “The First Sarah,” a retelling of the story of Sarah/Abraham/Hagar.
  • How to Welcome an Alien by Rebecca Klempner with illustrations by Shirley Waisman (Kalaniot Books, 2023). A sweet and charming picture-book tale grounded in Jewish teachings about welcoming the stranger. Vivid illustrations throughout and worthwhile author’s note at the end. Complimentary review copy.
  • We Should All Be Zionists: Essays on the Jewish State and the Path to Peace by Einat Wilf, edited by Samuel Hyde (2022). A collection of published essays and other pieces that offer cogent, clarifying takes. Some of the material repeats, but in a sense, that’s a benefit; much of what’s here really can’t be overstated.
  • The Family Morfawitz by Daniel H. Turtel (Blackstone Publishing, 2023). I wish could remember how/where I first learned about this novel, and what piqued my original interest. The author’s literary talent is clear—it’s the writing’s style that kept me reading even when the characters (of which there are many) and plotlines (ditto) turned me off. I’ll look forward to finding out what comes next for the author. But about the Morfawitzes, alas, I care little!
  • The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride (Riverhead, 2023). This novel deserves every rave review and bit of enthusiastic buzz it has received.
  • Out and About: A Tale of Giving by Liza Wiemer with illustrations by Margeaux Lucas (Kalaniot Books, 2023). Time for a confession: Once upon a time, I was musing about the possibilities for a picture book rooted in Maimonides’s teachings on the levels of tzedakah. And while I realize that there can be multiple stories on a similar theme, I think this book has this one quite adequately covered! Complimentary review copy.
  • Counting on Naamah: A Mathematical Tale on Noah’s Ark by Erica Lyons with illustrations by Mary Reaves Uhles (Intergalactic Afikoman, 2023). What might be even better than a feminist midrash for kids? Feminist midrash for kids with a STEM focus! Loved this tale of Naamah (aka “Mrs. Noah”) and the way her mathematical skills made such a difference to everyone (human and otherwise) aboard the biblical ark. Complimentary review copy.
  • The Controversialist: Arguments with Everyone, Left Right and Center by Martin Peretz (Wicked Son, 2023). This one one came to my attention through an excerpt published on Tablet. The behind-the-scenes glimpses of Harvard and The New Republic are likely to interest those with connections to/familiarity with those institutions.
  • Two Tribes by Emily Bowen Cohen with colors by Lark Pien (Heartdrum, 2023). Terrific graphic novel about a young woman of Native American and Jewish descent, navigating family and (inter)cultural dynamics.
  • My Life as a Jew by Michael Gawenda (Scribe, 2023). A sobering set of reflections from a prominent Australian journalist/editor/author.
  • Brother’s Keeper: Just a Story from a War by Arnon Z. Shorr with art and letters by Joshua M. Edelglass and colors by Aljosa Tomic (OxRock Productions, 2023). A brief illustrated account of Shorr’s grandfather’s experience in Israel’s war for independence, accompanied by poignant notes from the author and the illustrator.

This year, I don’t have too many concluding thoughts to impart. The most important one, I think, is that I couldn’t have anticipated how timely so much of the reading would turn out to be. Yes, I should have read some of these—the Golda Meir biography and the translation of Theodor Herzl’s novel—much earlier. But when I read newer titles—such as Kessler’s, Blackmer’s, Fersko’s, and Wilf’s—I couldn’t have known how quickly I’d have reason to refer back to what I learned within each. And closing out the year with Gawenda’s memoir and the exquisite creation from Shorr/Edelglass/Tomic in the post-October 7 era was both painful and important.

A final note: If memory serves, 2023 is the first year that I “failed” to meet my Goodreads challenge. That’s because it took me two months to finish the book (a wonderful short-story collection that isn’t on this list because it isn’t “Jewish”) that I was in the middle of reading October 6. Maybe I’ll set a less ambitious challenge for 2024. As I prepare this post, I haven’t thought much about that. This much I do know: I will continue to read plenty of Jewish books, in various genres. And through them, I’ll deepen both my Jewish education/identity and my connection with other Jews in Israel and throughout the Diaspora.

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6 thoughts on “My Year in Jewish Books: 2023 Edition

  1. Marie says:

    Doll’s Eye sounds great. I loved Second Person Singular.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      I still don’t know how he managed to keep everything clear in his head while he wrote it!

  2. Marie says:

    it really is a master class in plotting!

  3. It’s a terrific list — and I am honored to be on it with “Collateral Damage: 48 Stories.” Thank you so much.

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