We appreciate when our members and sisterhoods reach out to us. So, when our own Women’s League Reads members recently recommended these books, we had to share them. Mainly, but not exclusively, the authors shown here are Jewish women. Featured Books/Authors that were featured selections for WL Reads are not included, but you can learn more about WL Reads and hear our interviews with those authors on our WL Reads page.
Keep checking this page for the latest updated recommendations! If you have a book to recommend to our group, please write to VLeber@wlcj.org . Or, if you are a WL Reads member, you may share your recommendation directly with the group. Another good source for more award-winning book titles is https://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/awards/.
RECENT NON-FICTION: 2017- 2018
Thresholds: How to Thrive through Life’s Transitions to Live Fearlessly and Regret-Free, by Rabbi Sherre Hirsch. 2018. Rabbi Hirsch is a spirituality expert dedicated to empowering individuals to be their own most trusted spiritual guides. WL READS, in collaboration with the programs Study with Scholars and Personal Conversations, held a stimulating discussion on September 5, 2018, with Rabbi Hirsch (it was not recorded).
Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, A Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer, by Margarlit Fox, 2018. A wealthy Glasgow woman is murdered and a German Jewish gambler is wrongly convicted for the crime. Conan Doyle is the detective determined to pursue justice and find the real killer.
Soul of a Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective, by Joy Ladin, 2018. “These creative, evocative readings transform our understanding of the Torah’s portrayals of God, humanity, and relationships between them. (Goodreads review).” Joy Ladin was also featured in Women’s League New Outlook.
The Cape House, A Memoir, by Rea Bochner, 2017. Bochner describes her mother’s fatal cancer prognosis, her caregiver role in the final months, and the family parents-sibling dynamics. It’s poignant and sometimes funny, with complex people. The author also explores the pain of her past food addiction.
Light From Within The Shadows: An Artist’s Memoir, by Pnina Granirer. 2018. This memoir spans the author’s 80 years, beginning with a vivid description of Jewish families’ precarious lives in Romania. We see her arrive in Israel in 1950, develop as an artist, marry and and later settle with her family in Vancouver. Her artwork has been in galleries around the world, and her Holocaust painting, Out of the Flames, is in the permanent collection at Yad Vashem. The book also explores how an artist, beyond making art, must market herself.
The Librarian of Auschwitz, the story of Dita Kraus, by Antonio Iturbe, 2017. recommended for teens and adults. Semi-fictional, based on interviews with survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen camps. Explores the role of luck and heroes among the doomed inmates who used guile to save the youngest prisoners.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari, PhD, 2018. His prior book, Sapiens, was also a best-seller. Israeli historian Harari “invites us to consider values, meaning, and personal engagement in a world full of noise and uncertainty. When we are deluged with irrelevant information, clarity is power. Presenting complex contemporary challenges clearly and accessibly” (Amazon review).
This Narrow Space: A Pediatric Oncologist, His Jewish, Muslim and Christian Patients, and a Hospital in Jerusalem, by Elisha Waldman. 2018. A memoir of an American doctor who makes Aliyah to save lives at Hadassah Hospital. Also tells of the Bernie Madoff scheme’s devastating repercussions on Hadassah.
Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul, by Naomi Levy, 2017. “A bestselling author and rabbi’s profoundly affecting exploration of the meaning and purpose of the soul, inspired by the famous correspondence between Albert Einstein and a grieving rabbi” (Amazon synopsis).
Dirty Wars and Polished Silver, memoir, by Lynda Schuster, 2018. As a former foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, the author describes how she covered wars in the Middle East and Central America at personal peril, and fell in love and married, twice. Her first husband, a fellow-journalist, was killed. The “polished silver” refers to her posts with her second husband, an ambassador. The story begins and ends in Israel and is compelling, witty and revealing.
Lioness: Golda Meir and The Nation of Israel, by Francine Klagsburn, 2017. An 800-page biography of Golda Meir. Using recently declassified American, British and Israeli materials, “Klagsbrun has constructed an extraordinary biography…It is well-researched, well-written, and well-edited…sometimes critical but always respectful” (review by Bettina Burch, JBC).
Hedy Lamarr: An Incredible Life, by William Roy; Sylvain Dorange, illus., 2018. The 30’s and 40’s movie star and a Jewish refugee from Austria, considered to be the world’s greatest beauty, was also a genius inventor who didn’t get her due in her day. Or see the recent film biopic.
Jumping Over Shadows, a Memoir by Annette Gendler, 2017. A drama of World War II and the tale of an ill-fated marriage between a Jewish man and his Christian wife. Interwoven is the contemporary love story of the author—a Christian and that woman’s great-niece—her German Jewish boyfriend and eventual husband, and her conversion to Judaism (paraphrased from JBC review).
Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, Yossi Klein Halevy, 2018. Ten letters are addressed to an unseen neighbor with whom he yearns to have a respectful dialogue. He writes “with a fully nuanced understanding of modern Israel’s evolution and challenges… with human consideration for ‘the other’” (Jewish Book Council review).
Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press, by Eddy Portnoy, 2017. The author is a Senior Researcher and Director at the YIVO Institute. He writes the true but untold stories about the underbelly of the Lower East Side, those immigrants who were troubled and/or criminal.
The Lost Family, by Jenna Blum, 2018. A Holocaust refugee finds fame and love in New York but is haunted for the next three-decades by the ghosts of his first murdered family, His new wife and daughter are the mystified victims. At times funny and charming, it is “a bittersweet study of loss and love,” according to one review.
We Were the Lucky Ones, by Georgia Hunter, 2017. When Hunter was age 15 and a Christian she learned that she came from a family of Holocaust survivors, a history that her grandfather who had lost his first family suppressed. So she wrote the history of three real Kurc siblings who had clawed their way to miraculous survival against all odds, to make new roots on three continents. With bare threads of the facts, and two generations removed, she fictionalized the stories of their escapes.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris, 2018. Based on a true love story of two Slovakian Jews at Auschwitz. Jewish Book Council’s reviewer says, “Morris is not a historian, and her attempts to mesh history and fiction are not always successful. Still, the powerful story she tells differs sharply from other stories of Auschwitz survivors, not least due to her decision to present morally compromised victims as heroes.” A NYTimes #1 Bestseller.
The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, by Michael David Lukas, 2018. This novel is rooted in a history of Jews paying a single Muslim family through the centuries to care for their synagogue and its treasures in Mediterranean cities. The story starts with the 11th century watchman, forwards to the Cairo Geniza with Dr. Solomon Schechter’s appearance, and ends with a present day part-Jewish, part-Muslim American transplant.
Not Our Kind, a novel, by Kitty Zeldis, 2018. Explores the post-World War II period of overt sexism and anti-Semitism as reflected in the main characters, two women, a working class Jewish woman and a privileged WASP with a polio-stricken daughter, whose lives become entangled.
Forest Dark: A Novel, by Nicole Krauss. 2018. The acclaimed author challenges the reader to discern reality from hallucination, through two characters, one seemingly the author’s alter-ego, a blocked writer with a failing marriage, the other an aging “big Macher” who tires of his wealth and life. Both escape from New York to Israel (Tel Aviv’s Hilton Hotel) and have mystical experiences. She explores the possibility of having an out of body experience and puzzles out the purpose of life. View the author’s book talk with the JTS Library here.
The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shatluck. 2017. The author’s need to understand “how could decent people—my own people—become Nazis?” sparked the story, told in flashbacks of pre- and post- WWII years, revealing the lives of three women and their children who became interdependent.
A Ruined House, by Ruby Namdar, transl. by Hillel Halkin. 2017. The reader travels inside the head of a New York intellectual whose life is coming apart, who now experiences visions from the time of The Second Temple reaching its fiery end. “Namdar’s excellent writing (for which Halkin must also be recognized), acute observational commentary, and fluency in Jewish religious texts make this novel a towering achievement of contemporary Jewish literature” (The Jewish Book Council review).
The Terrorist, by Anastasia Goodman, 2018. The latest mystery about NYPD detective Sasha Perlov, a Russian-born Jew, who interrogates a Muslim woman being held by the CIA in Eastern Europe. The novel asks whether CIA use of enhanced interrogation is warranted and asks about Jewish repatriation to Central Europe.
Sisters of the Winter Wood, by Rena Rossner, 2018. Author Rossner, American-born who made Aliyah, was always enthralled by fairy tales and myths, so she created a story set in a remote Ukrainian village about 100 years ago, where two sisters nearing adulthood learn their magical and dangerous family secret and face the dangers of the woods—real ones, and ones representing unleashed desires and danger from “the other.” The author credits the influence of Christina Rossetti’s poem, Goblin Market.
ALL GENRES: Pre-2017 and Earlier
My Russian Grandmother and her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir, by Meir Shalev, translated from Hebrew 2011. “A charming tale of family ties, over-the-top housekeeping, and the sport of storytelling in Nahalal, the village of Meir Shalev’s birth. Here we meet Shalev’s amazing Grandma Tonia, who arrived in Palestine by boat from Russia in 1923 and lived in a constant state of battle with what she viewed as the family’s biggest enemy in their new land: dirt” (Goodreads synopsis).
The Yid, a novel by Paul Goldberg, 2016. A dark novel with hints of the absurd, set in Stalin’s Russia, 1953, where Jews are the target of a genocidal plan but a few Jews hatch a counter-plot of their own.
Hungry Hearts, by Anzia Yezierska, short stories, 1920. Draws heavily on the author’s life on the Lower East Side. She authentically portrays the immigrant’s struggle to become a “real” American.
The Bread Givers, by Anzia Yezierska, first published in 1925, new edition 2003. A novel about the struggles of young Jewish immigrant women on the Lower East Side and their efforts to adapt to the freedom of American life.
Kaaterskill Falls, by Allegra Goodman, 1999. About Orthodox women’s lives, and the pros and cons of being inside a tight-knit community. (Similar: The Ladies’ Auxiliary, by Tova Mirvis, 2000.)
E.M. (Esther M.) Broner’s Weave of Women, 1978 and 1985. About women’s role in Judaism before the Conservative Movement was egalitarian. Lyrically portrays 15 different women who come together in Jerusalem’s a male-dominated culture, in 1972.
The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg, by Nicholas Dawidoff, 1995. Moe Berg was a catcher who played on several major league baseball teams through 1939. Educated at Princeton and the Sorbonne, he was multi-lingual and went on to become a spy for the CIA and the Allies in Europe during World War II, in a story that is both a historical and psychological thriller.
The Beautiful Possible, debut novel by Amy Gottlieb, 2016. Spanning 70 years, the story follows a postwar love triangle between an American rabbi, his wife, and a German-Jewish refugee.
One Night, Markovitch, by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, 2013. In this first novel, the Israeli psychologist-author tells seductive stories that reveal the truth inside characters’ minds. WL Reads featured her next novel, Waking Lions, in 2018.
Questioning Return: A Novel, by Beth Kissileff, 2016. The story of Wendy Goldberg, awarded a Fulbright scholarship to write her dissertation about ba’alei tshuvah – the newly religious – who makes Aliyah. The novel describes her witness to “the intense pull that the State of Israel and the Jewish religion can have on some people and not on others.”
Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot, first published in 1876. Set in the contemporary Victorian society of her day, was her final novel. “The work’s mixture of social satire and moral searching, along with its sympathetic rendering of Jewish proto-Zionist ideas, has made it the controversial final statement of one of the most renowned of Victorian novelists” (Goodreads review). Widely available.
I Am Forbidden, A Novel, 2013, Deckle Edge. “A family is torn apart by fierce belief and private longing in this unprecedented journey deep inside the most insular Hasidic sect, the Satmar…a beautifully crafted, emotionally gripping story of what happens when unwavering love, unyielding law, and centuries of tradition collide” (Amazon synopsis and review).
Found Treasures, Stories by Yiddish Women Writers, edited by Frieda Forman, first printing 1994, in English translation. Yiddish women writers from the 1870s to 1970s. The preface says, “Feminism teaches that to struggle forward we need to understand the women who brought us here.”
All the Light we Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, 2014. Pulitzer Prize winner and bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of post-World War II. Not specifically a Jewish story.
The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker, 2013. A woman golem meets her Muslim male counterpart. “The Golem and the Jinni is a carefully constructed modern fable written as seriously as any historical literary fiction. The main characters, two creatures right out of Jewish and Arabic myth, blend perfectly into this novel of early 20th century New York” (Goodreads review).
The Archive Thief, by Dr. Lisa Leff follows the true story of a Jewish refugee and French Legionnaire who saved the archives of European Jews and sold them to libraries like that of JTS. Did he save the documents or did he steal them? Winner of 2017 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish writing.
David and the Philistine Woman by Paul Boorstin, 2017. A fictional account of David’s youth up until his clash with Goliath, the novel imagines details of David’s strained relationships with his father and brothers, encounters with the unstable King Saul, his romance with Michal, and friendship with Jonathan. His mother, who isn’t mentioned in the Bible, has a large role here. (Paraphrased from Jewish Book Council review)
Lincoln and The Jews: A History, Jonathan D. Sarna, 2015. The story of Lincoln’s deep relationships with Jews is told for the first time. Jewish immigration from Central Europe brought nearly 150,000 Jews to America in the mid-19th century, alarming some factions. But Lincoln respected and appointed Jews to public positions and sought them as advisers. He even altered his speeches to be inclusive, from saying “this Christian nation,” to “this nation under God.”
The Gilded Cage, Queen Esther’s Untold Story, by Sorele Brownstein, 2016. Retelling of the story of Esther from viewpoint of her being a more proactive heroine than as depicted in the Megillah.
No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, by Ruth R. Wisse, 2013 and 2015. An academic searches the world and history for Jewish humor (mostly male) and explores the role of humor in life.
Fair Labor Lawyer: The Remarkable Life of Bessie Margolin, by Marlene Trestman, 2016. “From the New Orleans Jewish orphanage to (arguing before) the United States Supreme Court, Margolin had an inspiring journey as an unsung Jewish legal trailblazer who worked tirelessly to protect American workers and their rights” (Jewish Book Council review).