By Marcelo Rodríguez and Avery Vinson
It’s Jewish Book Month! And if you have never heard about this before. No worries! We’ve got you covered.
Jewish Book Month is celebrated annually primarily here in the United States to promote and highlight Jewish writers and stories. The events take place across bookstores, book fairs, libraries, universities, community centers and synagogues a month or so leading up to Hanukkah. It feels like now more than ever, we need the light and joy of Hanukkah to illuminate our days in the midst of antisemitism and hate coming from different angles. The Festival of Lights is the perfect occasion to share our stories with Jews and non-Jews alike, and to hope for better days.
In this post, each co-author will share their top 5 Jewish books and why they highly recommend them with everyone. This post aims to be more of the beginning of a conversation than an exhaustive list. Therefore, please feel free to email the authors with your own book recommendations or add them in the comments section below.
Happy Reading and Happy Hanukkah Everyone!
Top 5 by Avery Vinson:
1. One More Year by Sana Krasikov
Sana Krasikov’s stories chronicle the Soviet émigré experience. Krasikov herself was born in Ukraine before moving to the Republic of Georgia, where she spent the first 8 years of her life. Her debut book, One More Year, is not only my favorite but is also the recipient of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Through a series of fictional short stories, One More Year skillfully analyzes the journeys (some physical, some spiritual) of its characters – primarily women. Some of Krasikov’s characters are new immigrants to America, some reside in the former Soviet Union, but all feel the reverberating effects that immigration and assimilation have – not just on the self, but on all of the interpersonal relationships of the characters. You can also find Sana Krasikov’s short stories in The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Krasikov recently read her short story, “The Muddle” on The New Yorker podcast, The Writer’s Voice. “The Muddle” is extremely pertinent to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. You can listen to Krasikov read “The Muddle” here. You can also listen to Krasikov’s podcast, Rough Translation, here.
2. People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present by Dara Horn
Evident from the title of her latest nonfiction book, People Love Dead Jews, Dara Horn is not afraid to say what others won’t. Maybe it is a macabre title, but isn’t that the point? Horn argues that people are downright fascinated with dead Jews, while failing to advocate for and protect the living Jews who may reside right down the street. In one chapter of her book, Horn points out the dark irony of the world’s reverence of Anne Frank, all while the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam refused to allow a Jewish employee to wear his kippah at work. Horn suggests that “the Jews” have become an abstract symbol appropriated by non-Jewish others to fit into whatever narrative the others wish to promote. With the striking spike in antisemitism recently, this book is extremely relevant in combatting misinformation about Jewish history. Horn’s research is intricate, informative, and pushes against the centuries-old antisemitic canards. Don’t assume this is a dry read, though; Horn intersperses the seriousness of the subject with her wry wit and observations. You can listen to Dara Horn’s companion podcast, Adventures with Dead Jews on Tablet’s website. She also is featured on The Tikvah Podcast here and the Identity/Crisis podcast here.
3. Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors from My Israeli Kitchen by Adeena Sussman
I would be remiss if I did not include at least one cookbook on my list. What better way to learn about a culture than through its food? And what better way to spend your time than by eating? I have personally cooked at least half of these recipes, so you can hear it directly from the horse’s (stuffed) mouth that you must read this cookbook if you care about food even in the most marginal sense. Pair the pargiyot (shawarma chicken thighs) with pickled onions, feta, the cabbage apple slaw, homemade hummus and homemade pitas and thank Adeena later. Trust me. Sababa showcases the influence of identities and backgrounds on Israeli cuisine; the food is as multi-layered as the Mizrahi, Sephardic, Ashkenazic, and Ethiopian Jewish identities which created/adapted the cuisine in the first place. You can see some of Adeena’s recipes featured on her Instagram: @adeenasussman.
4. A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York by Liana Finck
“A Bintel Brief” originated as an advice column in the Daily Forward (a widely popular Yiddish newspaper) for the newly arrived and often bemused Eastern European Jewish immigrants to New York City in the early 1900s. The advice column featured letters written by these immigrants, capturing the readers’ experiences with assimilation, loneliness, love, heartbreak, Jewish-identity, and the everyday humors of living in the big city. Liana Finck takes these letters and brings them to life through her delicate and poignant illustrations. The graphic novel itself serves as a love letter to the New York Jewish community. Liana Finck is a recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, and a Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists. A Bintel Brief is her first book, but she has since released three others. You can find her work in The New Yorker and you can also sign up for her weekly newsletter here or purchase one of her illustrations here.
5. The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret
The Seven Good Years is a nonfiction memoir by Etgar Keret, an Israeli author. Keret’s collection of short stories is organized chronologically over the span of seven (good) years, beginning with the birth of Keret’s son and culminating with the death of Keret’s father. What makes the seven years “good”? Were these good years for Israel? Golden years for Keret himself? Both? Keret deftly leaves this for the reader to decide as he ruminates on the irony of human existence. He observes the contradiction unfolding before him at the hospital during his child’s birth – as his son is entering this world, two souls severely injured in a terrorist attack are desperately fighting against death in the ER. In another story, Keret’s friend tells him that Iran is planning to drop a nuclear bomb on Israel. Later in the day, Keret’s wife asks him to call a plumber to check a wet spot on the ceiling, but Keret responds that there’s no use in wasting time and money over a wet spot when the apartment won’t be standing in two months’ time. This exchange leads Keret and his wife into a comedic series of procrastinated chores: no more mopping, doing the dishes, or garbage removal. Keret’s wife remarks, “There’s nothing more frustrating that getting nuked while you’re putting soap in the dishwasher.” Keret cleverly juxtaposes the monotony of life with the constant reminder of mortality – this omnipresent paradox felt by all Israelis.Etgar Keret is a prolific writer with many other stories, graphic novels, and screenwriting credits. Many of his nonfiction stories center his father, a Holocaust survivor. You can listen to Keret retell a story about his father, called “Dreams from My Father, on This American Life.
Top 5 by Marcelo Rodríguez:
1. Novia Que Te Vea by Rosa Nissán (translated from Spanish as “Like A Bride, Like A Mother”)
Do not let the over 500 pages deter you. This is a novel that you don’t want to pass. Personally, I think it vividly portrays the full diversity of the Jewish experience by featuring two characters growing up in Mexico City in the 1960s or so. The author’s movie-like storytelling allows the characters to come to life and to make all readers (Jews and non-Jews, Mexicans and non-Mexicans alike) to relate to the two young women. The cultural differences between the characters (Sephardic/Ashkenazi, Ladino/Yiddish, Left/Right, Mexicans/Foreigners, Socio-Economic Classes, etc.) feels like an educational opportunity and a stepping stone into larger themes: alienation/integration, nationalism/multiculturalism, community/individuals. As far as I know, it’s also one of the rare movies widely portraying Ladino, a near-extinct language spoken by the Jewish communities in Medieval Spain and their descendants. FYI, “Novia que te vea” is actually the saying that the Sephardic women in the novel constantly say to their daughters, wishing they’re still alive and well to see their daughters get married. And the book was also made into a movie in the early 1990s.
2. El Boxeador Polaco by Eduardo Halfón (translated from Spanish as “The Polish Boxer”)
Originally from Guatemala, Halfon has managed to produce a rich literature exploring identity, displacement and geography. The Polish Boxer is his debut novel transporting the reader to far flung places and distant memories, and making connections to the way we (mis)construct our identities. The loosely connected short stories feel more like a continuous series of vignettes aiming to connect something or someone. Halfon has been hailed as one of the best contemporary Latin American writers and he continues to be prolific with several other books talking about similar themes. Personally, I think Halfon marries magical realism and Jewish stories into a perfect union.
3. Pomegranate Seeds by Nadia Grosser Nagarajan
You can already tell by my third recommendation that I have a theme going on here: Latin American Jewry. Personally, no other book comes close to encapsulating in one volume the richness and diversity of everyone in the community. Another special feature of this book is its focus on oral traditions and stories that have not yet been given the importance they deserve and had not been previously translated into English. Grosser Nagarajan also does a fantastic job at adding annotations at the end of each story which give the readers a good path to follow if they particularly enjoyed a writer and would like to know or read further. Stories feature writers from Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, the Caribbean and more.
4. Perto do Coração Selvagem by Clarice Lispector (translated from Portuguese as “Near The Wild Heart”)
I can’t recommend anything by Lispector enough. Suffice it to say that I think she’s one of the best writers ever. So, if you haven’t read her, just do yourself a favor and change that ASAP. Born in the horrific reality of pogroms in her native Ukraine, Lispector migrated with all her family to Brazil in the early 1920s. Her early childhood memories and later international life forced her to experience traumatic and visceral events which are reflected in her literature. Lispector mastered the stream of consciousness element allowing her to bring to surface thoughts and emotions frowned upon by the misogynist, antisemitic and racist Brazilian military junta in power at the time. New Directions has done a terrific job at translating most of her books with additional notes for a new audience still discovering her. Lispector is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Brazilian Jewish writers. K by Bernardo Kucinski and Max and The Cats by Moacyr Scliar are among my favorites too.
5. El Infierno Musical by Alejandra Pizarnik (translated from Spanish as “A Musical Hell”)
Pizarnik does not need much explanation. That’s not just me trying to be difficult. Pizarnik’s writing reflects most of the chaotic and traumatic life she endured. And that’s an acquired taste: either you like it or not. I think this particular book is probably her most accessible one. Pizarnik is permanently and unequivocally in her world and you, as a reader, are “casually” invited to witness it through her writing. Personally, I invite people to read her more than once, and preferably not consecutively. You need time to let her the beauty of her words haunt you as much as they haunted her.
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.