Migration, rabbis, Hasidic communities, arranged marriages, intermarriage, assimilation, pogroms, and the Holocaust are some of the events, settings and themes found in these fiction and non-fiction books. But in each narrative the protectiveness and resourcefulness that carries Jewish families through challenging circumstances also create heart-wrenching obstacles for certain individuals. There are more books and blogs celebrating Jewish American Heritage here.
Nancy Green grows up in a secularized Jewish household on New York’s Upper Eastside. Her parents were World War II refugees, but they tell her very little about those days. As she searches for an identity that fits her, she has relationships with three complicated and very different men, including a Hasidic Jew who wants to be a monk; a Catholic college student; and a Jewish doctor from London.
Disenchanted with congregational work, Rabbi Rebecca Nachman now serves as a therapist to students, and provides the Jewish perspective to colleagues at a Vermont college. When she obtains a Torah scroll that had been in a Polish community decimated by the Nazis, she begins hearing voices and receiving visits from those tormented by evil in the world.
With his father already sent to a labor camp, and more and more friends and neighbors taken away each day, eleven-year-old Hugo pays close attention to his mother's instructions as she places him in the care of her childhood classmate, Mariana. Told not to ask questions, Hugo is shielded from the fact that night after night, in the room outside the closet where he stays, Mariana works as a prostitute for Nazi soldiers.
Though both of Yaas' Iranian parents are Jewish, her father's upper class family is contemptuous of her mother, who comes from an impoverished community of South Tehran. But the real challenge to her parents' marriage is her father's love for his beautiful Muslim mistress. Hoping to spare her daughter the misery she endures, Yaas' mother expects her daughter to excel academically, but something prevents Yaas from grasping the basics of learning.
Four young women, Tedi, Leonie, Shayndel and Zorah were subjected to unspeakable horrors, in their respective European countries, during the Holocaust. They arrive in Palestine, the sole survivors of their families, but as “illegal” immigrants they are detained by the British military in the Atlit internment camp north of Haifa.
To distance herself from a family tragedy she believes she caused, Eva Frank gives up her pampered existence in 1865 Berlin to marry a man who takes her to live in a dirt-floored adobe house in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Of all the rigors she encounters, her husband’s unscrupulous business practices are the worst.
If nine-year-old Gittel tells anyone what she has seen, not only will she be deemed unfit for marriage, but so will her siblings. In her contemporary Borough Park, New York Chasidic community, the prohibition against lashon hara (gossiping or speaking negatively about someone) is so ironclad that abuse goes unreported and Gittel lives with years of torment and regret. Even the author of Hush has found it necessary to write under a pseudonym.
After her parents are slain in Transylvania in 1944, five-year-old Mila Heller is adopted by a Hasidic rabbi's family that soon moves to Paris. The family sends Mila and their other daughter, Atara, to a seminary that provides women with a proper religious education. Mila embraces the Hasidic way of life and marries and settles in the Satmar community in Brooklyn, while Atara, much to her parents' chagrin, opts out of this way of life. One of these women will serve a pivotal role for the other decades later.
In this mixture of fiction and family memoir, the narrator sorts through her late aunt’s vast collection of notebooks, diaries, letters, clippings, and other documents that portray the lives of her family of rural Russian Jews who moved to Moscow and somehow endured through many decades of persecution and repression.
As a budding artist in Jerusalem during the early 1900s, twelve-year-old Esther Kaminsky strives to use her artistic talent only in ways that are congruent with the precepts of her family’s devout Haredi practices. As the years progress, every time she believes she has found a loophole that allows her to paint, a catastrophe befalls someone close to her.
The author imagines a tiny Jewish town in modern-day Poland called Kreskol that somehow got cut off from the outside world and survived the Holocaust unscathed, with its customs and traditions intact. When the shtetl sends Yankel, a hapless, functionally illiterate young man, to ask for the government’s help in locating a missing couple, he is soon confined to a mental hospital while the powers-that-be try to determine if he’s a madman.
At the rehearsal dinner in New York for his grandson’s wedding, eighty-five-year-old Josef recognizes the grandmother of the bride as Lenka, the woman he married sixty-one years ago in Prague just as the Nazis were about to invade their country. Josef was told by the Red Cross that Lenka had been gassed in Auschwitz. Lenka had read in the newspaper that everyone in Josef’s family perished when their ship bound for Canada was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland.
With her father in a vegetative state due to an accident, Cressida’s Jewish family is taken in by a wealthy gentile neighbor in post-World War II South Africa. The neighbor, whose face is horribly disfigured by his war injuries, taps into Cressida’s nightmarish thoughts about the Nazis while at the same time offering her intellectual stimulation that her mother and sister cannot provide.
A Jewish family gathers with numerous relatives and friends at their residence in New York’s Hudson Valley for the wedding of daughter Clem to her college girlfriend, Diggs. The event is viewed from the perspectives of dozens of wedding guests, who have wildly varying opinions about the ceremony and about many other issues, including the recent influx of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the small town.
In 1939 with the reluctant blessing of her Philadelphia Negro family, classical singer Delia Daley marries David Strom, a German Jewish émigré, who teaches physics at Columbia University. Delia masterfully transmits her musical gifts to their three children, but the seething racial hatred of the era constricts and jeopardizes their lives to such a degree that the family’s Jewishness becomes totally eclipsed.
In 1939, after their high school graduation, Elaine Greenstein's fraternal twin sister, Barbara, ran away from their Boyle Heights home and was never heard from again. Over sixty years later, while sorting through her own belongings as she prepares to move to a retirement community, Elaine comes across information that may enable her to locate her missing sister.
While conducting research for her doctoral thesis, Hella Winston spoke with members of the Satmar Hasidic sect in New York and found herself drawn to individuals who struggle with this way of life. Some stay within the community and bend the rules. One attempted to leave altogether but found he was too poorly educated to gain employment. Another created a support network for those not sure where they belong.
Abandoned at a young age by her mother, and with a father who is mentally incapable, Deborah Feldman is raised by her grandparents in their Satmar Hasidic community in Brooklyn. Though she breaks rules by reading secular library books and religious texts that are for males only, Feldman otherwise fits in remarkably well despite her unusual family background. After her own marriage and the birth of her son, however, she realizes that the Hasidic way of life is not for her.
Three American Jews are in Israel for unrelated reasons. Yona Stern is seeking her older sister’s forgiveness. Mark Greenglass, a Talmud teacher, finds that his religious fervor has left him. Aaron Blinder, who is a failure in his father’s eyes, allies himself with a radical he hopes to impress. Why would their paths cross?