It is time for the 3rd Edition of the Jewish Literature series! This time (and the next) I’ve decided to lower the reading levels and take a look at some young adult fiction and then Juvenile fiction works. I tend to read both in the Young Adult and Adult sections, and I’ve got kids who will eventually be transitioning into the Juvenile reading level (though we’ve still got some time). I know several folks who do have children in that age level who are interested, so I figured I would deviate and look to see what is out there.
For the Young Adult selections-I stayed away from the Holocaust leaning books. I spoke about this several times, why I’m trying to not read Holocaust literature for this (though I will be several times over I’m sure) in my blog post introducing this series HERE. I’ve gone for two books- one a collection of short stories centered around Hanukkah and another a Historical Fiction that I found to be so relevant on so many different levels that I just had to talk about it in depth.
It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories by Edited by Katherine Locke, Laura Silverman
This is a collection of short stories that all revolve in some way around the minor Jewish Holiday of Hanukkah. I read this book actually a couple years back and loved it so much. I included it in my recommendation list and still do to this day. I don’t have too much to say on this one as, being a short story collection there aren’t a lot of themes that I can touch on that push throughout the entire collection (beyond Judaism). When I originally read it, it was at a time where I was starting to share more and more of my own Jewishness online and I hadn’t really read anything like this before. These types of books didn’t exist when I was younger, going through the same ages as these characters, and I think it’s great that they are around now.
I will say, something I really appreciate about this particular collection is that there is a wide wide variety of levels of faith, practice, and ethnicity. You have everything from Orthodox to agnostic, and almost all the stories, while centered around some aspect of Jewish life, also talk to other issues as well- whether that’s LGBTQIA+, political landscapes, able vs not, and more. I love when we can tie our Jewishness with other issues and conversations as well. Where we can see those through lines in these issues it helps universalize the problems everyone faces.
I think overall, I think this is a great collection to pick up for teens! It does a great job at intertwining various issues and discussing them, while also keeping the reader engaged. I found that the representation of a wide cross section of Jewish life (that is the various levels of practice and life) to be very well done and representative of Jews in general.
My Fine Fellow by Jennieke Cohen
Ok to start with- I highly recommend this, to any age level. It’s one of those books that I feel like can really work for anyone. A quick rundown, we’ve got Elijah, a street vendor, Helena a high society culinary student, and Penelope, a culinary student with a non-European background, all three of whom come together in a Pygmalion reimagining (think gender swapped food centered My Fair Lady). But what is at the heart of this book is the conversation around the rights, the lives, and the history of those who are not considered “white” or “Anglo”. In this we have two viewpoints represented – a Filipina and a Jew.
The way this book effortlessly highlights the microaggressions and the assumptions and the really subtle way that Jew Hatred pervades our everyday is incredible. There are small moments where a character says side comments “Jewish Hawkers” or “those people”, the use of the word “Jew” as something vulgar, degrading, subtle digs at the othering of a group of people that occur even today, but we don’t always pick up on, to the more overt tones of being called a “dirty Jew”. We can really see the range of how being Jewish not only affects businesses- but Jews were also not allowed in the business district, were mostly stuck to selling oranges (thus anyone knowing their oranges was assumed to be a “dirty Jew”), to the history of Elijah’s family, changing their name to try and not “proclaim their religion and heritage to the world”.
There were a lot of moments in this book that truly applied to our present day, though this was supposed to take place in the 1830’s- which I think just speaks to the unending hatred that the Jewish people face. There is also an element that speaks to the dual edged sword of Jew Hatred- there is hatred when the Jews do well- “the pursuit of wealth”, the greed and money hoarding- but also when they do not “the poor Jews of the street who eked out a living as peddlers and old-clothes men a blight on society”. So often this hatred is this double-edged sword, which is what makes it so long standing and dangerous.
It’s important to note that this book not only speaks to Jew Hatred, but also to the othering of Penelope who is Filipina and that is something that both her and Elijah bond over. This shared feeling of otherness, the shared almost segregation of self due to experiences and community and life beyond their control. It’s amazing, as a Jewish person, to see a shared experience. As Jews we are often told that we cannot be subject ot discrimination for simply being a Jew because we don’t “appear different”. So, to read this…shared experience of these characters meant so much.
In terms of the actual religious representation, there wasn’t a lot- mostly as Elijah is trying incredibly hard to be himself and not draw extra attention to any differences. He actually talks about this in the book, after his Jewish-ness is exposed as he doesn’t want to break a rule of Kashrut (Kosher eating). A lot of the Jewish history of this time period and this group of people is just about surviving, about not standing out, about holding on to the candle sticks, or the keys, or the mezuzah, but not practicing, not putting anything out that would easily identify who you are. And that is real, that is honest to how the Jewish People were for a long time. They either practiced under concealment or not at all.
I highly highly recommend this one- great for all ages!