5 Books That Highlight the Jewish-American Experience

published May 19, 2022
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Credit: Lauren Kolyn

May is Jewish-American Heritage Month, and in recognition (and celebration!) of that, I rounded up five books that chronicle modern Jewish life alongside age-old discussions of faith and tradition. 

Author Dani Shapiro’s Jewish identity was shaped by her Orthodox parents — though she always wondered why her blond, blue-eyed appearance was so starkly different from their darker features. At 54, Shapiro takes an at-home genealogy test that reveals her father was not her biological father — in fact, her biological father was not Jewish at all. She takes on the role of an investigator and memoirist to learn more about where she came from, and how her new identity will shape her faith, her family, and her future. 

When Ari Eden moves from his ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood to a glamorous Miami suburb, he encounters a completely different world of Judaism, spirituality, and what it means to test the rules. His new school, a Jewish academy, is a world of wealth and indulgence, and Ari is immediately drawn to golden boy Noah. As Ari is drawn into Noah’s group of exclusive friends, all of whom have a special relationship with the academy’s enigmatic rabbi, he continues to test his faith and the rituals and rules he used to follow without question. 

“Shmutz” is a belated coming-of-age novel for Raizl, an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic woman who discovers a previously-forbidden world outside of her sheltered Brooklyn community. To help support her family, Raizl is allowed to attend college and work as a bookkeeper in New York’s diamond district, which is where she gets access to a laptop with internet (usually not allowed or limited in her community). This is a portal to another lifestyle — a porn addiction, for one — that pushes against the life her parents want for her. Berliner’s debut navigates the tension of family, faith, and freedom with heart and humor.

Leopold Gursky is an older Polish man living in New York, pining for his long-lost love Alma, who married someone else after World War II. Alma Singer is navigating life without her father while trying to cure her mother’s heartbreak. Gursky wrote a book for Alma that was lost in the war. Singer’s mother receives a request to translate one of her favorite books, “The History of Love”, which is the origin of Alma’s name. This is just one beautiful, magical way that these lives intersect, as each ruminates on the past (Alma on her father; Leo on his childhood in Slonim and life before the Nazi invasion). How do they come together in the present? You’ll have to read to find out!

Hanna Heath, a Sydney book curator and restorer, is tasked with rebinding and restoring a 500-year-old Haggadah (a book of prayers for Passover) ahead of a museum reopening. And it’s worth noting: The Sarajevo Haggadah is not fiction, though Brooks takes liberties with its history in the novel. Hanna sets off to rebuild the manuscript by “retracing” its steps and learning its history, through trips to Bosnia, Hungary, Italy, or Spain. And while the book itself is a fascinating subject, Hanna is more captivated by — you guessed it! — the people who made the book, protected the book, and passed it down through centuries.