Getting lost in a good book has always been one of my favorite ways to escape from the stress of the real world. Frankly, it seems like there is a lot that I want to escape from these days. That, and the fact that it is Jewish Book Month, seems like a perfect excuse to share some of my favorite books by Jewish authors. Some are new releases; some are tried-and-true escapist favorites. There is something for everyone.
One of the hottest new releases is Nina Simon’s “Mother Daughter Murder Night,” a delightful whodunnit that follows three generations of Jewish women who have to find a way to work together when one of their own is suspected of murder. One of the many things I love about this book is that the three main characters — a grandmother and her adult daughter and teenage granddaughter — are all Jewish, but the plot isn’t necessarily about their Jewishness. That they are just regular characters who happen to be Jewish feels like a good moment for representation.
If you want more in the murder-mystery department, I highly recommend Michael Chabon’s modern classic “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.“ Chabon creates a fascinating world in which Jews displaced by the Holocaust have been allowed to temporarily settle in rural Alaska. When a mysterious chess prodigy is murdered at the same time that Jews’ right to the land is ending, an exciting plot is set in motion. The vivid, quirky, secretive community Chabon creates will stay with you long after you’ve finished the book.
Mystery recommendations wouldn’t be complete without a hat tip to National Book Award winner James McBride’s newest book, “The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store.“ Set in Pottstown and Chicken Hill, Pennsylvania (real places with interesting Jewish history!), the novel begins with the discovery of a body and works backwards, detailing the strains and bonds between the Jews, Black Americans and poor immigrants who live in the area. As thought-provoking as it is funny, readers will quickly see why Barnes and Noble just selected it as their 2023 book of the year.
Readers interested in learning about the lives of other Jews are in luck — the last few years have seen a wave of fantastic (and fantastically diverse!) Jewish memoirs. Michael Twitty’s bestselling “Koshersoul,” a sort of hybrid memoir/cookbook, includes so many thoughtful insights into his experience as a Black queer Jew.
Another staple in the memoir genre is “Beautiful Country,“ in which Chinese-American Jew Qian Julie Wang narrates her childhood as an undocumented immigrant in New York. Both Twitty and Wang write movingly, and their books are a testament to the wonderful diversity of the Jewish experience.
If heartfelt novels are more your speed, check out Claire Stanford’s novel “Happy for You,” a coming-of-age novel (of sorts) that tells the story of Evelyn Kominsky Kumamoto, a 30-year-old philosophy student who feels that she doesn’t fit in with either side of her Japanese/Jewish identity. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll probably feel a sense of connection with the protagonist.
You also can’t go wrong with any of Jean Meltzer’s contemporary romance novels, like her newest “Kissing Kosher.” It has all the heartwarming feels of a Hallmark holiday movie that is also, you know, Jewish. And good. Romance novels are experiencing something of a mainstream renaissance, and Meltzer’s books are a lifeline for Jewish readers who want to see themselves represented.
One potential silver lining of all the chaos and tragedy in the world right now is the way so many Jews are feeling inspired to (re)connect with Jewish traditions. Luckily, there are plenty of great books out there to help seekers on their Jewish journeys (and I’m pretty sure I’ve read most of them). The late Rabbi Alan Lew’s works are, as far as I’m concerned, required reading. His “Be Still and Get Going” combines Jewish thought with Eastern meditation practices to help readers find a spiritual practice that is meaningful and personal.
Ellen Frankl’s classic “The Five Books of Miriam” is great for those who want to dive into Torah study. Frankl weaves a magical narrative in which women from the Torah — like Miriam, Lilith and Rachel — are in conversation with Jewish women past and present about the weekly Torah portions. It ignited a wave of female-focused Torah study when it was first published in 1996, and it remains a staple that will make readers feel challenged and seen.
As a people, Jews have seen more than our fair share of tragedy, but the Jewish experience is so much more than war and heartbreak. These books that I hold dear to my heart showcase many experiences and feelings, and — I hope — can inspire a little bit of joy in dark times.