The month of June is gifting us with a wide variety of Jewish stories, from a reissue of an antifascist novel published in 1938 to a heartwarming YA romance featuring a young Jewish harpist to two books by Bay Area authors (Elizabeth Gonzalez James and Helene Wecker).
“Mona at Sea”
I opened the first chapter of Elizabeth Gonzalez James’ new book to see it titled “Sad Millennial,” and knew that this was a book for me and fellow, sad Jewish millennials/zillennials. “I’m unemployed, I’ve never had a boyfriend, I live with my parents in the most boring town on the planet, and I hate myself.”
Gonzalez James lives in Oakland, and her debut novel follows the titular Mona, a Latina millennial who is supposed to work at an investment bank upon graduation.
But when she graduates at the height of the 2008 economic crisis, the bank files for bankruptcy. Mona has to deal with unemployment as she moves back in with her parents and navigates the new “adult” world she feels unprepared for. Mona is described as “the sort who says exactly the right thing at absolutely the wrong moments, seeing the world through a cynic’s eyes.”
And a quick mazels to Elizabeth, the newest Jewish author on this list. Her publicist told me she officially became a Jew a few weeks ago.
“The Hidden Palace: A Novel of the Golem and the Jinni”
Pleasanton resident Helene Wecker has written a highly anticipated sequel to her successful 2013 debut novel, “The Golem and the Jinni,” and it’s just as magical.
Chava is a golem, a woman made of clay, who can hear the thoughts and longings of those around her and feels compelled by her nature to help them. Ahmad is a jinni, a restless creature of fire, once free to roam the desert but now imprisoned in the shape of a man. Chava and Ahmad both try to pass as human in 1900s Manhattan, but they impact the actual humans around them.
This book includes two new characters — an heiress, Sophia, who searches for a cure to her mysterious illness and travels to the Middle East and meets a jinni, and Kreindel, a young Jewish girl on the Lower East Side who builds a golem, Yossele, with her rabbi father.
Jewish folklore, romance and a golem make this book a great read.
“The Summer of Lost Letters”
In 30-something author Hannah Reynolds’ new YA romantic comedy, Abby Schoenberg is 17 and she’s just broken up with her boyfriend. It’s the summer before senior year and she has no clue what she’s doing — until her recently deceased grandmother’s possessions show up, including love letters from a man named Edward.
Abby didn’t know much about her grandmother’s past, except that she fled Germany at age 5, escaping the Holocaust. So she sets off to Nantucket, where Edward sent the letters from, to understand her grandma better. There, she meets Edward’s grandson, Noah, who doesn’t want her to look into his family’s past. (He’s good-looking, too, obvs.) Jewish author Hannah Reynolds has crafted a wonderful story of teenage love and family secrets — one that will stick with you long after you put it down.
“All of who I am lies on a continuum. My identity cannot be encompassed by a single term,” writes Chella Man, a 22-year-old Jewish Chinese actor, artist, activist and YouTuber. “My ethnicity. I am biracial. I am both Jewish and Chinese. My gender. I am genderqueer, existing outside of the binary of ‘boy’ and ‘girl.’ My disability. I am Deaf with access to some sound through two cochlear implants. My sexuality. I am pansexual, loving beyond ‘straight’ or ‘gay.’”
Chella Man beautifully writes of his experiences within his deaf, transgender, genderqueer, Jewish and Chinese identities. This 64-page “essay,” labeled YA by the publisher, is part of the “small books” series from Penguin Random House called the Pocket Change Collective.
This novel by Katherine Kressmann Taylor is a reissue of a book initially published in 1938 (and the title of a 1944 movie on the same topic). But there’s a new introduction, so let’s call it new.
Originally published in Story magazine in 1938, “Address Unknown” is “credited with exposing the dangers of Nazism to American readers early on, it is also a scathing indictment of fascist movements around the world and a harrowing exposé of the power of the pen as a weapon.”
The story is a series of 1932 letters between Max, a Jewish art dealer living in San Francisco, and Martin, his former business partner in Berlin. As Martin turns on Max, you realize how quickly antisemitism and fascism can take hold. A powerful, ever-relevant read.
“Life on the Line: Young Doctors Come of Age in a Pandemic”
I wasn’t sure if I was ready to read about the pandemic, but boy am I glad I started with this book by Emma Goldberg, a reporter at the New York Times.
Her book is the eye-opening story of six young doctors who were on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic in New York City, all of whom graduated early from med school to go work.
Goldberg expertly tells the story of the six new doctors — Sam, Gabriela, Iris, Elana, Jay and Ben — after having spent extensive time with them, their families and loved ones. What results is an emotional portrait of what working as a new doctor during the pandemic felt like, and it’s hard to put down.
Two of the doctors are Jewish, and their stories were particularly powerful as a Jewish reader. Sam, a gay Jewish man, is shaped by the legacy of AIDS — he met his partner, Jeremy, marching in a New York City AIDS walk for their synagogue, Beit Simchat Torah, a queer congregation.
And Elana is moved by the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh (saving a life). Her first Friday working in a Covid ward, she realizes she would not make it home before sundown. “As the sky outside the hospital darkened, Elana had to keep repeating to herself: Saving a life trumps the Sabbath,” Goldberg writes.
Each of the stories of the six doctors she follows are heartbreaking and powerful and inspiring, and Goldberg also works in the history of the American medical system and the homogeneity of America’s doctors (and what that means for patients).
Hanna Halperin’s debut novel is the story of sisters Tanya and Nessa Bloom, who return to their childhood home in the Boston suburbs to help their mother move out. As they do, they realize their mother is in an abusive relationship with their stepfather, and Tanya tries to urge her to get a restraining order.
However, Nessa’s response to the abuse brings back a traumatic moment in the Bloom sisters’ childhood and the wide-ranging impact it had on them in the present.
The Blooms are an interfaith Catholic Jewish family, and Tanya, who married a Jewish man, is struggling with her Jewish identity.
I just love how this book is described in one blurb I saw online: “A magnetic, unflinching portrait of the bond between sisters, as well as a psychologically acute exploration of the legacy of divorce, the ways trauma reverberates over generations, and how it might be possible to overcome the past.”
I say it’s a powerful, heartbreaking story, packed with Jewish angles, that you won’t be able to put down.
“We Can’t Keep Meeting Like This”
This new YA book by Rachel Lynn Solomon features a romance between a Jewish wedding harpist, Quinn Berkowitz, and a cater-waiter, Tarek Mansour.
Quinn and Tarek’s families have been in the wedding business together for years, and last summer, Quinn confessed her crush on Tarek — and then he left for college and didn’t respond.
But now it’s a new wedding season, they’re forced to work together and Quinn can’t deny her feelings. As Quinn struggles to figure out what she really wants to do with her life, the thought of joining her family’s wedding business fills her with a sense of dread.
This book is effortlessly Jewish, as there are details about mezuzahs and BBYO and messy, complicated Jewish families. And Quinn and Tarek’s love story is really a freakin’ delight.
A host of other Jewish books of note are arriving this month, so here’s a quick rundown.
“The Netanyahus,” by Jewish novelist Joshua Cohen, is the story of one disastrous night 60 years ago when Benzion Netanyahu, a historian and the father of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, interviews for a teaching position at a fictional college in upstate New York. The book is subtitled “An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family.”
“SPIN: A Novel Based on a (Mostly) True Story” is the tale of Annie Londonderry, the Jewish woman who became the first woman to cycle around the world. It’s written by Jewish author Peter Zheutlin, a descendant of Annie.
“Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism” is a fascinating look at cults by Jewish linguist Amanda Montell. It doesn’t dive into any Jewish cults, but Montell dives into the spectrum of cults, from Jonestown to Instagram influencers.
“Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch” is a historical fiction novel from Jewish author Rivka Galchen. It’s about Katharina Kepler, the mother of astronomer Johannes Kepler.
“The Child in the Electric Chair” is a posthumous book by Jewish professor Eli Faber. Subtitled “The Execution of George Junius Stinney Jr. and the Making of a Tragedy in the American South,” it tells the tale of a Black 14-year-old boy executed in South Carolina after a trial that only lasted a few hours.
“Bodies Are Cool” is a delightful children’s book about bodies by Jewish illustrator Tyler Feder.
“Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy” is the story of the Jewish woman who was convicted as a spy and executed in 1953. It’s written by Anne Sebba.
“The Vixen” uses the Rosenbergs’ execution as a jumping off point to tell the story of a young Jewish editor dealing with editing a terrible anti-communist novel that sensationalizes their exploits in the U.S. It’s written by Francine Prose.
“The Storm is Upon Us” is Jewish author Mike Rothschild’s deep dive into QAnon, including how QAnon is a deeply antisemitic movement. The book is subtitled “How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything.”
“Wolf Lamb Bomb” is a debut poetry collection from Jewish writer Aviya Kushner. The collection reimagines the Book of Isaiah in an intimate conversation between woman and prophet.
“The Engagement” by Sasha Issenberg is subtitled “America’s Quarter-Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage.” It chronicles the 25 years leading up to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage.