6 short books to read this Yom Kippur

J.’s coverage of books is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund

Everyone observes Yom Kippur differently. In my family, we read — and we always keep a light on in one room, so that even at night we can all gather to do so.

As we all read something different, we are each enmeshed in our own private universe. Yet at the same time, the act of reading together connects us. The occasional gasp or giggle, the sound of a stomach rumbling (already?!) or the brush of my mom’s calf against mine punctuates the paragraphs of whichever book I’ve chosen to read that Yom Kippur.

If you, like me, find that literature helps you transcend earthly desires, here are six books by Jewish authors that you can start and finish within 25 hours. After all, some of the best books are those that pack wisdom into small packages and give the reader space to absorb that wisdom.

“Home Is a Stranger” by Parnaz Foroutan (224 pages)

Cover of “Home is a Stranger” by Parnaz ForoutanA California Jew, Foroutan left Iran when she was 7 years old. Eighteen years later, after her father died, she returned to the country of her birth, hoping to find… well, it’s complicated. Foroutan’s travelogue doubles as a woman’s coming-of-age story as her unstoppable lust for life puts her at odds with the country’s theocratic regime. Readers may appreciate the thoughtful way Foroutan portrays traumatic experiences and the realities of living in a repressive society.

Quotable: “I said, ‘No. I can do it.’ Pouya knelt down, looked me in the eyes, and said, ‘Sometimes, you have to give others the opportunity to do good, too.’”

“A Walker in the City” by Alfred Kazin (192 pages)

Kazin’s memoir is light on plot but full of rich, evocative descriptions. It traces the ways the author’s largely Jewish neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn, has changed since he lived there as a child. In the end, the book is not only a love letter to the city he calls home, but also an exploration of time itself.

Quotable: “Everything seems so small here now, old, mashed-in, more rundown even than I remember it, but with a heartbreaking familiarity at each door that makes me wonder if I can take in anything new, so strongly do I feel in Brownsville that I am walking in my sleep.”

“Lucy” by Jamaica Kincaid (176 pages)

Cover of “Lucy” by Jamaica KincaidWhen 19-year-old Lucy ventures from the Caribbean to the United States to live and work for a white host family, she is surprised to learn that it can be cold outside even when the sun is shining. Many surprises follow, as the strongly opinionated young woman navigates romance, racism and the challenge of finding her place in Black American life as an immigrant. But even as she explores this new world, Lucy grapples with troubling memories of her origin country and a complicated relationship with her mother, to whom she ultimately sends a rebellious letter.

Quotable: “I reminded her that my whole upbringing had been devoted to preventing me from becoming a slut; I then gave a brief description of my personal life, offering each detail as evidence that my upbringing had been a failure and that, in fact, life as a slut was quite enjoyable, thank you very much.”

“Kaddish and Other Poems” by Allen Ginsberg (130 pages)

Five years after U.S. Customs agents confiscated copies of Ginsberg’s book “Howl and Other Poems” on grounds that it was obscene, the Beat poet published his second collection. In a style that mirrors the chaos of the mid-twentieth century, the autobiographical poems here explore mourning, confronting mortality and the traumatic psychological impact of the Holocaust on American Jews who learned about it in the news.

Quotable: “Is it only the sun that shines once for the mind, only the flash of existence, than none ever was?”

“Seven Stories” by Gina Berriault (176 pages)

Cover of “Seven Stories” by Gina BerriaultMore than two decades after Berriault’s death, Penguin Random House recently reissued some of the late Jewish author’s short fiction. The stories in this collection explore encounters between flawed adults and children who are sometimes theirs and sometimes not. Though they take place mostly in San Francisco, the stories are imbued with a sense of enchantment that positions them outside time and space.

Quotable: “She felt that she was a hundred years old, at last discovering that the person in her memory who affected her the most was not the one she had loved the most but the one she had understood the least.”

“Seedfolks” by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Judy Pedersen (112 pages)

For younger readers (and older ones too — why not?) this tale of an urban garden in a diverse immigrant community is sure to charm. Thirteen different voices come together to tell the story of the garden, a powerful and much-needed symbol of hope, in its first year in existence.

Quotable: “You can’t see Canada across Lake Erie, but you know it’s there. It’s the same with spring. You have to have faith, especially in Cleveland. Snow in April always breaks your heart.”

Lauren Hakimi
Lauren Hakimi

Lauren Hakimi is a writer with bylines in the Forward, Alma, Lilith, Bon Appétit, CNN and more. She is also associate editor of New Voices Magazine.