5 Jewish Books I Read in 2023
From Nazi resistance to a rather unorthodox addiction, here are the Jewish books of my year.
Shalom from Copenhagen! (Bet you don’t hear that often, but more on that next year…).
I recently read Hadassah Magazine’s article What Makes a Book Jewish? by Nora Gold, where eight famous Jewish writers like Anita Diamant and Dara Horn share their answers to this juicy question.
Aside from the predicted “dealing with Jewish experiences,” there were more insightful answers like Dara Horn’s unresolved endings mimicking real life, Helene Wecker’s outsider view of never quite fitting in, and Ruth Knafo Setton’s inclusion of diverse Jewish voices. When paired with Jewish scenarios and characters, these themes culminate to create a final product that’s educational, relatable, or downright intriguing.
Whatever you think makes a book Jewish, here were the Jewish books I read this year!
Heroes of the Holocaust and their legacies are often forgotten. Mostly we are taught of the Righteous Gentiles, non-Jews who saved Jews during the war. What about Jews who not only saved other Jews, but fought Nazis in the name of resistance? I present: The Avengers, the true account of a group of Jewish partisans from Lithuania’s Vilna Ghetto, and one of the best books I read this year. Imagine sneaking out of a city through its sewage tunnels, scheming in the frigid Baltic forest, and blowing up Nazi trains. Of course this book was tough to get through, but so necessary, because the story of this band of rebels led by Abba Kovner, Vitka Kempner, Ruzka Korczak is one of courage and dedication.
I learned about how Vilnius was once the “Jerusalem of Europe,” how these three real characters not only shared a bed but a dream of winning the war and moving to Palestine to live a life of freedom, and how they refused to cower and be “led like sheep to the slaughter.” The book doesn’t just tackle issues of revenge, but also makes you think about Zionism and the “new Jew” versus the “European Jew” of the Holocaust (David Ben-Gurion had some… interesting thoughts on this), and whether it’s better to build life anew, or run back toward danger to try to save as many of your people as possible. Plus, if you listen to the audio book like I did, it’s narrated by Larry King (z”l) so the whole story feels like breaking news! Hopefully it doesn’t have to be again…
Switching gears here… this novel with its fabulously suggestive hamantasch on the cover was my first Goodreads win (yes, their giveaways are real!). A friend recommended this by saying, “You would LOVE this book! Well actually, I don’t know if you would…” So naturally, I was intrigued, mainly about my friend’s judgment of my taste.
Raizl lives in Brooklyn with her ultra-Orthodox family. While in school, she gets her hands on a laptop, which becomes the gateway to her porn addiction. Like Unorthodox, this is a story of wanting to break free and explore life beyond the Book and what the world has to offer. Parts of it were over the top and unbelievable, which is why I’m guessing my friend thought I might not like it, but the writing was stunning and you really got inside Raizl’s conflicted head. I expected it to be a fun book, but it was much more introspective and at times sad.
Trigger warning: sexual assault and violence. If you don’t want to read about that, skip this book.
More Nazi resistance! Can you tell I had a theme this year? This book was similar to and even overlapped in characters with The Avengers, but focused more on Polish women in the resistance.
A great deal of research went into the writing of this book. I learned about how some of the fighters who looked more Polish and less Jewish walked around town disguised as Polish women, an acting job that meant life or death, and how some flirted with Nazis to get what they needed like a job or money. I learned about the high rates of sexual assault against women not only by Nazis but by Polish partisans, men they were fighting with. I learned how some female prisoners were forced to have sex with dogs. A rather gruesome read, much like The Avengers, but important nonetheless. Similar to The Avengers, it too ends in Palestine after the war. It was a little confusing to keep track of all the characters at times. I just found out this book is optioned by Steven Spielberg for a major motion picture, which would be an even greater way to get this important story out into the world!
People love this book as much as they love dead Jews, but I just wasn’t on that bandwagon. In short, this book is a collection of essays on antisemitism with a provocative title. Using specific examples in history, literature, and Jewish life, Horn makes the point that the obsession with Jewish suffering outweighs respect for Jewish life, memorializing them in ways that prevent us from understanding the reality of their suffering. Take Holocaust fiction, for example. People rely on a “feel-good” Holocaust story, like The Tattooist of Auschwitz or The Pianist, to teach them about humanity rather than learning directly about the evils of humanity. Or how when traveling abroad, people seek out “Jewish heritage sites” that should really be called "Property Seized from Dead or Expelled Jews.”
I learned a lot from this book, like about the Chinese city of Harbin whose thriving Jewish community dissolved just as quickly as it was built, and the myth that last names were changed by immigration officers at Ellis Island. I just think a more accurate title should be People Don’t Care That Much About Jews. Horn’s caustic tone annoyed me at times, as well.
Pirates, adventure, and Jewish pride. What more could you ask for?! I wrote about this graphic novel in “🦸 The Marvels of Jewish Comics” when I bought it at the Jewish Comics Experience. I almost didn’t buy it because it looked like it was geared towards kids, but I was so intrigued by the story, I had to read it!
José Alfaro of Santo Domingo is a rambunctious teen with a secret…he’s Jewish. When he becomes a stowaway on a pirate ship, he discovers he’s not the only one. Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, this exciting story with colorful illustrations will capture your heart and make you proud to be Jewish, and effectively, different. It also made me want to do a deep dive on Jewish pirates, perhaps for a future Drop?!
I read other Jewish books this year, like Jewish Meditation by Aryeh Kaplan and Here All Along by Sarah Hurwitz, but they’re deserving of their own Drops.
The Shabbat Drop Book Club is recommencing! I originally scheduled it for last October, but had to postpone due to… well, you know. I figured new Christian year, new Jewish discussion!
Let’s gather virtually on Sunday, January 28th at 5pm ET to discuss Sarah Hurwitz’s book Here All Along. I’m trying to make these meetings in person in NYC, so if you’re in the city you may want to hold out to discuss the book in the flesh. But if you really love this book or are lonely, join us on Zoom! RSVP. Link to come.
What Jewish books have you read this year? Let me know in the comments.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year,