The Top 5 Jewish Children’s Books
The books read to you when you are a young child stay with you forever. These days there are an overwhelming number of Jewish picture books, and it can take some dexterity to avoid the vast swamps of kitsch, treacle or outmoded role modeling. But there are some gems that should be read, kept, hoarded if out of print and set aside for the next generation. Here are five reliable favorites that will enliven storytime at home or in school.—Amy E. Schwartz
Sarah Somebody (1969)
by Florence Slobodkin
illustrated by Louis Slobodkin
This practically forgotten book is a shtetl tale with the very modern theme of female empowerment. Sarah, living in a Polish village with her large family, longs to be “somebody” and is presented with a rare opportunity for her, a girl, to learn to read and write. Her wise grandmother, with whom she spends her days, is wistful; she never learned to write her own name. When she asks Sarah to write it for her, the two share a piercing realization: Sarah has never actually heard her grandmother’s name, since everybody calls her Grandma. This beautiful book deserves to be reissued and rediscovered.
The Carp in the Bathtub (1972)
by Barbara Cohen
illustrated by Joan Halpern
The Carp in the Bathtub is a crowd-pleaser that recounts the story of a brother and sister on the Lower East Side who try to save the Passover carp from its inevitable fate. Reissued for its 30th anniversary, it is still in print today. Adults remember it with pleasure, but the ending may be too much for some children. After all, we live in an era when even the wolf in “Peter and the Wolf” productions for children is generally rescued at the end. If you have junior vegans in your household, or would like to avoid inspiring any, proceed with caution.
The Always Prayer Shawl (1993)
by Sheldon Oberman
illustrated by Ted Lewin
Children love this story of a grandfather, a grandson and a prayer shawl, which is told in incantatory, Yiddish-inflected prose, with the repetition small children love. Adam grows up in a shtetl, comes to America, moves to the suburbs and grows old in a changing world. But he keeps his grandfather’s tallit, which wears out and is replaced piecemeal in the manner of that other classic tale, Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. Late in the book, Adam tells his grandson that the prayer shawl “has changed many times…It is just like me. I have changed and changed and changed. But I am still Adam.” The book is a lyrical evocation of Jewish continuity.
Matzah Ball (1994)
by Mindy Avra Portnoy
illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn
Far from tales of the shtetl, Passover asks for a more contemporary treatment—though there’s still a sly miracle at the end of this story. Kids who like sports love this tale of Aaron, who is invited to an Orioles game during Passover and struggles with the prohibition on ballpark treats. He meets an old man who shares his bag-lunch matzah, helps Aaron catch a miraculous fly ball and then disappears. “And come to think of it,” Aaron asks, “how did he know my name?”
Hanukkah at Valley Forge (2006)
by Stephen Krensky
illustrated by Greg Harlin
Two years into the American Revolution, on a cold, snowy night, General George Washington is walking the camp at Valley Forge when he spots a young Jewish soldier, a Polish émigré, lighting Hanukkah candles in his tent. He questions him and is deeply moved by the story of a long-ago revolution and a people’s struggle to be free to worship in their own way. The story is based on an anecdote that Washington himself recounted to a Jewish family; they were describing their Hanukkah customs to him over lunch and were surprised that he already knew of them. For older children, especially for those starting to put American and Jewish identity together, this is a captivating and affirming tale.
The Top 5 Banned Jewish Books
German journalist Heinrich Heine famously wrote, “Where books are burned, in the end, people will also be burned.” This may seem like history, but today there is still tension between the belief that the free and creative expression of ideas is important and the anxiety that ideas are threatening and potentially harmful. At its extreme, this results in books being banned and writers persecuted. Sometimes books written by Jews have been banned by non-Jews; in other cases, Jews have censored and repressed the words of other Jews. Read the following books and then judge for yourself whether they should have been banned.—Marilyn Cooper
Ethics (1677) and Theologico-Political Treatise (1670)
by Baruch Spinoza
Spinoza’s brilliant Ethics and Theologico-Political Treatise were banned for labeling common Jewish beliefs and practices as superstitious and ignorant and for denying the existence of the biblical God and the divinity of Torah. He was put under herem or excommunication and, at age 23, expelled from the Amsterdam Portuguese Jewish community for his unorthodox opinions. Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion asked the Chief Rabbi of the Portuguese community to posthumously pardon Spinoza, but the request was denied.
Life Goes On (1933)
by Hans Keilson
Keilson’s semi-autobiographical Life Goes On was the last novel by a Jewish writer to be published in Germany before Hitler’s anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws came into effect. It was banned by the Nazis the following year, and in 1936, Keilson fled to the Netherlands, where he joined the resistance movement after the Nazi invasion. A few years before his death in 2011 at age 101, Keilson’s novels were translated into English; novelist Francine Prose describes him as “one of the world’s greatest writers.”
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (1947 in Dutch, 1952 in English)
by Anne Frank
Frank kept the diaries that were later compiled into a book between 1942 and 1944 while in hiding from the Nazis in occupied Amsterdam. Although it is one of the most famous recountings of the Holocaust, the book has been banned in some American public school systems for being “anti-Christian” and because of Frank’s explicit discussion of her emerging sexuality. The definitive later edition of the diary, which has drawn most of the recent objections, contains sections that were edited out of the original by Frank’s father, such as, “There are little folds of skin all over the place, you can hardly find it. The little hole underneath is so terribly small that I simply can’t imagine how a man can get in there, let alone how a whole baby can get out!”
by Allen Ginsberg
An iconic poem of the 1950s Beat Generation, “Howl,” from Ginsberg’s 1956 collection Howl and Other Poems, was considered obscene for its raw imagery, openly sexual content and pronouncements of a cultural revolution. Lines such as, “who blew and were blown by those human seraphim” caused 520 copies of the poem to be seized in March 1957, and Ginsberg was accused of trying to flood the U.S. with filth and dirt. The book’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was arrested and brought to trial on obscenity charges. Ferlinghetti was acquitted, and the trial turned the poem into an international sensation.
Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History (2014)
by Joseph Telushkin
In 2014, Gershon Elisha Schochet, a Chabad rabbi in Toronto, banned Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s book for its “heretical content.” Schochet deemed Telushkin untrustworthy because he allowed a woman to be a cantor in his synagogue and had a Reform rabbi as his assistant. Schochet called on his American colleagues to ban the book as well. Although some Chabad rabbis in the United States heeded his call, Schochet’s request was widely ignored.
The Top 5 Jewish Romances
Romance novel fans will be delighted to discover that their favorite genre includes many Jewish offerings. After all, Jewish romance is vibrant and varied, and conveniently complicated by Jewish laws and values. These novels, which come wrapped in the form of science fiction, historical fiction and even whodunits, demonstrate the creativity and breadth of the Jewish imagination.—Lara Moehlman
The Ritual Bath (1986)
by Faye Kellerman
When a woman is raped while returning from the mikvah in an Orthodox enclave of Los Angeles, Rina Lazarus is a witness to the crime—and the only person in the community willing to work with detective Peter Decker. The Baptist cop depends on Lazarus to help him navigate the Jewish community’s stringent religious laws—and in the process, the two characters from radically different walks of life start to develop feelings for each other. This is the first of the ongoing Peter Decker-Rina Lazarus series.
He, She and It (1991)
by Marge Piercy
The winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction, He, She and It is a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk romance between a woman and a robot—more specifically, a Jewish robot. In the year 2059, Shira Shipman returns to Tikva, the Jewish town where she grew up, and encounters Yod, an android built by the townsfolk to protect the community from corporate raiders. The rest is history—or, more accurately, the future.
Rashi’s Daughters (2005)
by Maggie Anton
In her award-winning historical trilogy, Anton interweaves Talmudic scholarship with budding sexuality to follow the lives of the three daughters of 11th-century French scholar Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi). Defying the gender norms of the time, the women study in their father’s yeshiva. Each book finds the three daughters in a difficult position, forced to choose between their romantic lives and their commitment to studying Talmud.
Think of England (2014)
by KJ Charles
In 1904 England, former military captain Archie Curtis dedicates himself to discovering whether a military accident he was involved in was, in fact, an accident. When his quest brings him to a country house party, Curtis encounters the Jewish poet Daniel da Silva. Against a backdrop of murder and blackmail, Curtis and da Silva start to fall in love. This is one of the few gay Jewish romance novels out today.
Promised Land (2017)
by Rose Lerner
For readers who still can’t score Hamilton tickets, Lerner offers a romance novella set during the 1781 Battle of Yorktown. This contribution to the multi-author trilogy Hamilton’s Battalion follows Rachel, a Jewish woman who disguises herself as Corporal Ezra Jacobs and joins the Continental Army. One of Rachel’s main motivations is the desire for future generations to know that Jews played their part in the revolution. Things take an even more complicated turn when she arrests Nathan Mendelson—the husband she ran away from—for being a Loyalist spy.
The Top 5 Jewish Characters by non-Jews
For better or worse, Jews don’t own the rights to write about themselves. If they did, life—and literature—might be far more boring. In fact, some of the most famous literary characters of all time have been Jews written about by non-Jews. These include famous ones such as Shylock and Leopold Bloom, along with a few you are much less likely to know.—Eileen Lavine
The Merchant of Venice (1596-1598)
by William Shakespeare
Almost everyone knows the plot: Shylock lends money to Antonio, setting a pound of flesh as security and demanding it as payment when Antonio defaults. Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, falls in love with Antonio’s friend Lorenzo and converts to Christianity, stealing riches from her father, whose death sentence is halted when he agrees to convert and bequeath his wealth to Lorenzo and Jessica. The play was also known as The Jew of Venice, a title more in tune with the anti-Semitism of the time, although some modern analysts see it as a plea for tolerance, noting Shylock’s famous speech: “Hath not a Jew eyes?…If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
by Sir Walter Scott
In this chivalric romance, set in 12th-century England, Ivanhoe has two love interests: Lady Rowena, whom he eventually marries, and Rebecca, daughter of Isaac of York, who heals Ivanhoe when he is injured in a tournament. Rebecca, kindhearted and eloquent, is said to be based on Rebecca Gratz of Philadelphia, after Washington Irving wrote an intriguing description of her to Scott. Thackeray once called Rebecca “the sweetest character in the whole range of fiction.” (Fun fact: Elizabeth Taylor, a convert to Judaism, played Rebecca in the 1952 film adaptation.)
by James Joyce
The book that everybody knows—but few have actually read—features Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s 20th-century Ulysses, over the course of one day in Dublin. Jewish objects and imagery fill the novel, including Bloom’s father “with his hagadah book,” the future of a Jewish colony in Palestine and “Kol Nidre” playing at a funeral. Books, articles and even doctoral theses have described the many aspects of Judaism that appear throughout the book.
The Lazarus Project (2008)
by Aleksandar Hemon
This novel by an immigrant from Bosnia tells the story of Vladimir Brik, a young Eastern European writer in Chicago who is researching the story of 19-year-old Lazarus Averbuch. Averbuch survived the 1903 Kishinev pogrom only to be shot and killed by the Chicago police in 1908 after being accused of attempting to assassinate the city’s police chief. With dark humor and deep sadness, the book moves back and forth between the stories of two men who have lost their homeland and their identity. Ultimately, Brik identifies with the dead man—and with the biblical Lazarus.
The Jewish Neighbor (2014)
by A.M. Khalifa
More of a novella, this story tells of Umayma, who escapes from war-torn Damascus via an arranged marriage to a Syrian exile in London. There she is shackled and treated like a slave by all except Felix, her kind Jewish neighbor. Sadly, the prejudice against Jews inculcated in her since childhood prevents her from accepting his friendship. This is a cautionary tale of what happens when intolerance overpowers love.
The Top 5 to Understand Trends in American Judaism
Today’s American Judaism seems worlds away from that of the not-so-distant past. This can be attributed to five trends first seen decades ago but that are now are in full flower: changes in how Jews form families, the secularization and politicization of Jewish culture, the growing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews, the shift away from organizations toward the individual and the search for spiritual meaning. With articles and journals on these topics constantly updating, the best sources for understanding these trends are not necessarily found in any book, but with this caveat in mind, the following works are worth your time.—George E. Johnson
My People’s Prayer Book (1997-2007)
edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman
This ten-volume series, subtitled “Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” encapsulates the recent shift in Reform Judaism, still the largest denominational expression of American Judaism, toward serious engagement with traditional Judaism, Hebrew and spirituality. The book is formatted like a page of Talmud, with the text surrounded by commentaries and reflections on the prayers’ historical development as well as the text’s alternative meanings. It also includes descriptions of how liberal Jews have wrestled with aspects of the text they found problematic.
by Sylvia Barack Fishman
Fishman, a highly regarded researcher in the field of the Jewish family, takes a balanced approach to one of the most charged and written-about issues in contemporary Jewish life: intermarriage. She draws from her study based on interviews with 250 intermarried couples as well as focus-group discussions with their teenage children. She also places real-life mixed marriages in their literary and cultural American contexts, examining depictions of intermarriage in films, books and popular culture.
Orthodox Jews in America (2009)
by Jeffrey S. Gurock
by Adam S. Ferziger
For most non-Orthodox Jews, resurgent Orthodox Judaism in America is a “black box,” no pun intended. Few outside the Orthodox world appreciate how various strands of Orthodox Judaism differ—or how much contention exists between these groups. These two works delve into the development and inner dynamics of this world. Gurock’s book focuses on the historical and contemporary challenges that American Orthodoxy has faced, and how various groups compete for new recruits from the non-Orthodox world. Ferziger devotes more attention to conflict with Orthodox “modernizers”—particularly regarding the role of women as rabbinic leaders and innovations such as “partnership minyans.”
A Portrait of Jewish Americans (2013)
The Pew Research Center
This is a survey, not a book, but it is probably the most influential work on understanding American Judaism today. Among the important findings: The majority of Jewish Americans, even synagogue goers, are secular and eschew key tenets of Jewish belief; the earlier trend of declining Orthodox affiliation has dramatically reversed; and Orthodoxy is increasingly defining American Judaism. At the same time, a growing majority of Jews intermarry, but a large minority in these marriages seek identification with Judaism. Finally, the fastest growing—and soon perhaps the largest—group of Jews are “Jews of no religion.”
Hasidism: A New History (2017)
by David Biale et al.
This nearly 900-page book examines Hasidism past and present, and its pivotal role in the search for spiritual meaning that drives much of the Jewish religious expression in America today. There is no shortage of discussion regarding contemporary rabbinic figures such as composer Shlomo Carlebach, Jewish Renewal movement founder Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Chabad-Lubavitch movement leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson and Jewish mysticism scholar Arthur Green.
The Top 5 for Understanding anti-Semitism
Anti-Semitism is a constantly evolving phenomenon that takes on different forms in different countries. There’s no easy way to eradicate it; just when you think it’s out of fashion, it reappears with a vengeance. There are many serious tomes written on the topic, most long and detailed—and perhaps not good beach reads. Turn to them, however, and you will discover the complexity of this pernicious prejudice.—Ira N. Forman
Those Who Forget the Past (2004)
edited by Ron Rosenbaum
In this sharply written essay collection, authors from a range of political and ideological views, such as Ruth Wisse and Edward Said, weigh in. Most of the essays hone in on the anti-Semitism of the left and the debates surrounding the nature of criticism of Israel in the early 21st century. It is particularly interesting to see that many of the debates over the “new” anti-Semitism of 15 years ago are still with us today.
The Changing Face of Antisemitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day (2006)
by Walter Laqueur
In 200 pages, Laqueur—who was born in Prussia and escaped to Palestine—manages to survey the history of anti-Semitism from ancient Egypt to Christian Europe to the racial anti-Semitism of the 19th and 20th centuries. He also critiques 21st-century anti-Semitism in Europe and the Islamic world, zeroing in on the role of Israel in anti-Semitic thought and the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
by Anthony Julius
Julius, the British lawyer who successfully represented American author Deborah Lipstadt in the libel suit brought against her by Holocaust denier David Irving, presents an 800-page history of English anti-Semitism. He revisits the violent medieval anti-Semitism of the 12th and 13th centuries, anti-Semitic literary stereotypes and the genteel anti-Semitism that characterized English culture from the late 17th century through the late 20th century. He also offers insight into the contemporary anti-Zionist anti-Semitism rampant in England.
by Robert Wistrich
Wistrich was, until his recent death, one of the premier scholars of anti-Semitism, which he considered the “oldest and darkest of ideological obsessions.” Despite the title, this monumental book is largely about contemporary anti-Semitism, and no one is better at documenting the modern form of Israel-bashing anti-Semitism than Wistrich—although his writing here is sometimes more polemical than analytical. Still, those who read it will be rewarded by his thorough knowledge of his subject.
by David Nirenberg
One of the most popular books on anti-Semitism is University of Chicago historian Nirenberg’s penetrating 600-page investigation into what diverse Western societies thought about Jews and Judaism. Nirenberg demonstrates how each society and period, from the ancient, pre-Christian world to early Islam to Nazi Germany, employed different anti-Jewish concepts to define themselves and their eras—and how these concepts contributed to the centrality of anti-Judaism in Western civilization.
The Top 5 Graphic Memoirs
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, in which Art Spiegelman tells his father’s Holocaust survival story, is the most famous Jewish graphic memoir, though it was certainly not the first. Serialized from 1980 to 1991, it became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. Since then, many more Jewish cartoonists have tried out the genre, using the unique medium that marries words and pictures to explore Jewish experience and identity.—Molly Cooke
To the Heart of the Storm (1991)
by Will Eisner
Eisner, one of the most legendary names in comics, revisits his childhood up until World War II, tackling everything from the harsh realities of his parents’ marriage to the hardships of assimilating in a culture where anti-Semitism was pervasive: His uncle, for example, pretended not to be Jewish in order to avoid quotas in medical school admissions. To the Heart of the Storm is a masterful exploration of what it meant to be a Jewish American in the early 20th century.
The Quitter (2005)
by Harvey Pekar
The son of Jewish immigrants, Pekar traces feelings of inadequacy throughout his life, from dropping out of college to struggling to hold down a job. His personal story, illustrated in a noir style by his frequent collaborator Dean Haspiel, provides a broader commentary on the pressures of Jewish life in the American Midwest, from ethnic tensions to cultural preoccupations.
We Are On Our Own (2006)
by Miriam Katin
Like Maus, We Are On Our Own is a parent-child Holocaust story, but unlike Spiegelman, who was born in 1948 after his parents had survived Auschwitz, Katin was two years old when she and her mother fled on foot from the Nazi occupation of Budapest. In her 60s, Katin attempts to reconcile her lifelong questions of faith that persist in the present day, depicted in full color, by revisiting this early childhood trauma, contrasted in black and white.
by Sarah Glidden
Originally self-published as mini-comics, Glidden’s breakout graphic memoir documents her Birthright trip to the Holy Land. Glidden is initially skeptical about the Jewish state, but after meeting and talking with its inhabitants, she realizes everything isn’t as black and white as she once thought. Glidden’s beautiful watercolor depictions of Israel’s landmarks and scenery provide the perfect backdrop for complex yet accessible discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
by Amy Kurzweil
This memoir is an intergenerational exploration of Jewish womanhood. Kurzweil, her psychologist mother and her bubbe, who survived the Holocaust, all have unique experiences and perspectives regarding femininity and Judaism, which play out both hilariously and painfully in their family stories. Flying Couch is one of the first graphic memoirs from the third-generation descendants of Holocaust survivors.
The Top 5 on Jewish Mindfulness
Mindfulness means slowing down and paying attention. It’s about appreciating the beauty of the world and cultivating compassion for yourself and those around you. And as Rabbi Jill Zimmerman, founder of the Jewish Mindfulness Network, has said, “Judaism, at its very core, is all about mindfulness.” Meditation, the central tool of mindfulness, has deep roots in Judaism: The Talmud tells of Jewish sages meditating for an hour every morning before prayer. Modern Jewish mindfulness has its own flavor—and its own canon of books.—Marilyn Cooper
by Sylvia Boorstein
Although this book is written in the language of Buddhism, Boorstein is also a practicing Jew. She had Jewish middot, or tools for character development, in mind when writing it. Boorstein includes thoughtful meditation exercises alongside meaningful Buddhist and Jewish stories. The book provides great advice about how to effectively practice mindfulness in the turbulence of day-to-day life.
by Diane Bloomfield
Jewish yogini Bloomfield’s book introduces an innovative approach to yoga and Torah that combines traditional yoga asanas (poses) with mystical Jewish wisdom. She offers guidance for experiencing Torah through body movement. The book is a fun exploration of Jewish mindfulness through a physical practice, which yogis and neophytes alike will enjoy.
by Alan Lew
Lew beautifully blends ancient Jewish traditions and texts with the meditative practices of Zen Buddhism. Lew cofounded the Makor Or Jewish meditation center in San Francisco, the first such institution connected to a mainstream Jewish synagogue. His book offers thoughtful ways to incorporate traditional Jewish practice into everyday life.
by Jay Michaelson
Michaelson’s groundbreaking book, the first to comprehensively address treatment of the body in Jewish spiritual practice, offers meditation practices, physical exercises, visualizations and samples of sacred texts. It’s a perfect book for gaining practical tools for a Jewish mindfulness practice.
Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar (2007)
by Alan Morinis
Morinis’s book is the classic guide to understanding Mussar, a Jewish spiritual practice that developed in the 19th century and includes contemplative practices and exercises. Morinis, who founded the Mussar Institute in Vancouver, British Columbia, has played a key role in the contemporary revival of the Mussar movement. If you are interested in learning about a historic Jewish mindfulness practice, this is the book for you.
The Top 5 on Jews and American sports
There’s an old stereotype that Jews and sports don’t mix, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The evidence can be found in a compelling cast of characters—from boxer Max Baer to baseball stars Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg to Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman—and the fans who are fascinated by them. The following books delve deep, demonstrating how Jewish athletes and sportswriters have left their mark on American history.—Lara Moehlman
Bang the Drum Slowly (1956)
by Mark Harris
In this novel, the second in a series of four, Mark Harris—born Finkelstein—documents the career of baseball player Henry W. Wiggen. As a star pitcher for the fictional New York Mammoths, Wiggen grapples with the news of a teammate’s terminal disease and the pages are filled with meditations on friendship, forgiveness and death. Sports Illustrated named the novel one of the top 100 sports books of all time, and the adapted 1973 film starring Robert De Niro is considered one of the best sports movies.
The Game They Played (1977)
by Stanley Cohen
Cohen’s book covers the 1949-1950 NCAA basketball season, which saw an unranked City College team—with three Jewish players in the starting lineup—win both the NCAA championship and the National Invitation Tournament. The team’s glory was brief; a year later, authorities uncovered a massive point-shaving scandal that resulted in the arrest of 32 players across the country, including three from City College. Among those taken into custody were Jewish players Alvin Roth and Ed Roman.
by Hank Greenberg and Ira Berkow
Greenberg, known as “the Hebrew Hammer,” was one of the greatest sluggers in history and twice chosen as the American League’s Most Valuable Player. Written in collaboration with renowned Jewish sportswriter Ira Berkow, the book covers the life of one of the most famous Jewish athletes of all time, who played alongside Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth and stood up to the anti-Jewish anger prevalent in the 1930s.
by Allen Bodner
Between 1910 and 1940, 26 world boxing champions were Jewish, and Jews accounted for over 30 percent of professional fighters. Through a series of interviews and firsthand accounts, Bodner—whose father was a boxer in the 1920s—explores the early 20th-century Jewish experience through the lens of Jewish boxers.
by Aly Raisman
At 24, Aly Raisman is the second most-decorated American Olympic gymnast. She won one of her 2012 Olympic gold medals for a floor routine set to the tune of “Hava Nagila,” which she dedicated to the 11 Israeli Olympians murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich games. Her recent book recounts her story, including the sexual assault she endured from the age of 15 by Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics physician now serving time in prison.
The Top 5 with International Jewish Detectives
The detective genre has not always been kind to Jews. Agatha Christie made reference to “yellow faced financiers,” Josephine Tey called a Jewish character “ill-educated, emotional, and ruthless, like so many of his race,” and Dorothy Sayers’s novels are bursting with unsavory Jews. The 20th century, however, has seen a flowering of Jewish detectives, including Sara Paretsky’s hard-nosed investigator V.I. Warshawski and even a rabbi in the highly successful Rabbi Small mysteries. In Israel, there’s Batya Gur’s Michael Ohayon series and D.A. Mishani’s complex Mizrachi protagonist, Inspector Avraham Avraham. The most interesting Jewish detectives, however, come from parts of the diaspora where their religion makes them feel like outsiders—a boon for their detective skills, if not their happiness.—Sarah Breger
Do or Die (2000)
by Barbara Fradkin
The first of ten Inspector Green mysteries, Do or Die introduces readers to Ottawa homicide detective Michael Green. As the son of two Holocaust survivors, Green views himself as a “Nate’s Delicatessen-type Jew,” more concerned with what people think about the size of his nose than with getting home in time to light Shabbat candles with his wife. Green acknowledges that his job cost him his first marriage—and is likely to cost him his second. As a colleague, husband and parent, Green leaves much to be desired; but as a policeman, there is no one you would rather have on the case.
The Last Darkness (2002)
by Campbell Armstrong
Lou Perlman refers to himself as a “Jew living in Egypt,” which is the name of the rundown Glasgow neighborhood he calls home, but also an allusion to his self-imposed exile from the Scottish Jewish community he grew up in. The Last Darkness is one of a quartet of novels featuring Perlman, a detective sergeant with a tendency to antagonize his superiors and ignore protocol. Wet, cold and gloomy Glasgow sets the mood for this novel, in which the city’s seedy underbelly is exposed in a series of escalating murders.
Hotel Bosphorus (2011)
by Esmahan Aykol
translated by Ruth Whitehouse
Kati Hirschel runs the only mystery bookstore in Istanbul. Born in Turkey to Germans who fled there during World War II and returned afterward, Hirschel views herself as stuck between two worlds. In Turkey, she is seen as a foreigner despite her fluency in the language and culture; in Germany, despite her passport and citizenship, she is viewed as a Jew. When an old friend becomes the main suspect in a murder, Hirschel uses the knowledge she has amassed from a lifetime reading detective fiction to solve the case.
Nights of Awe (2012)
by Harri Nykänen
translated by Kristian London
Scandinavian noir takes on a Jewish twist in Harri Nykänen’s detective series featuring Ariel Kafka, one of two Jews on Finland’s police force. As a police inspector in Helsinki’s Violent Crime Unit, Kafka views himself as a police officer first, a Finn second and a Jew third. But in Nights of Awe, the title a reference to the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, multiple murders lead Kafka back to his local synagogue.
Arab Jazz (2015)
by Karim Miské
translated by Sam Gordon
In the multicultural 19th arrondissement of Paris, Lieutenant Rachel Kupferstein, a self-proclaimed atheist and Ashkenazi Jew, returns to her childhood turf to investigate a murder. The prime suspect—and the book’s real protagonist—is Ahmed, a young secular Arab and crime fiction fanatic who lives in the apartment underneath the murder victim and begins investigating the case to clear his name. An Armenian anarchist, a Hasidic Rastafarian and a Salafist gangster are just a few of the quirky neighborhood characters readers are introduced to in this compelling novel that elevates itself from genre writing to great literary fiction.