May is Jewish American Heritage Month! To help celebrate, UVA librarian for English, Sherri Brown, reached out to a few people in the UVA community for recommended reading with a focus on fiction and memoirs written by Jewish American women. We hope you find a book or two to pique your interest!
Recommended by Sherri Brown, Research Librarian for English and Digital Humanities
“Antiquities” by Cynthia Ozick (Knopf, 2021)
Cynthia Ozick provides the reader with much to ponder in this compact novel. Readers get a glimpse into the thoughts of Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie through the guise of his attempt at writing a memoir. In some ways, Petrie’s attitude and escapades as he attempts to record a moment from his childhood at the Temple Academy for Boys in New York calls to mind a character befitting Donald Petrie’s 1993 film “Grumpy Old Men” or John Madden’s “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2011). However, Lloyd Petrie is not a loveable character but an anti-Semite who fluctuates between his own self-aggrandizement and self-doubt. The novel questions the authenticity of memory, the significance of memoir, and the adoration of objects, all while Petrie reflects on a secret infatuation with an outcast among outcasts. One reading only scratches the surface of the treasure embedded in these pages.
“Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self” by Rebecca Walker (Riverhead Books, 2001)
Rebecca Walker is the daughter of famed novelist Alice Walker and civil rights lawyer Melvyn R. Leventhal. Her memoir captures the searingly harsh adolescent experience of growing up in the U.S., her childhood made particularly challenging by her multiracial heritage. Walker shares her struggle with finding her identity while feeling ever the outsider. A book that highlights both pain and resilience, this account delves into feelings of not being Black enough, not being white enough, and not being Jewish enough. While this was written more than twenty years ago, it still reflects the state of a nation that is uncomfortable with race and religion and the children who must learn to live with that discord.
“The History of Love” by Nicole Krauss (WW Norton, 2005)
I first read this book more than ten years ago and gave it three stars out of five on Goodreads. But I picked it up again this past winter, and wow, it really spoke to me this time around! This novel is written in several narrative voices. The chapters narrated by Jewish Polish American immigrant Leo Gursky alone make the book a must read. Leo is nearing the end of his life (or so he believes), and the way he sees the world and relates to it is alternately shocking, funny, sad, and touching. His loneliness is palpable — “All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen.” This is a book to be read slowly and contemplated to be truly enjoyed. I’m glad I came back to it.
Recommended by Ashley Hosbach, Education and Social Science Research Librarian
“Burning Girls and Other Stories” by Veronica Schanoes (Tordotcom, 2021)
“When we came to America, we brought anger and socialism and hunger. We also brought our demons.”
“Burning Girls” reclaims the fairy tale genre, viewed here through a Jewish feminist lens that subverts the Grimm brothers’ anti-Semitic tropes. Gripping and dark, Veronica Schanoes’ collection of short stories explores witchcraft, demons, and vengeance, a narrative driven by the fears and hopes of immigrants fleeing their home countries for a better life. However, Schanoes ultimately reveals that the true horrors are not the creatures lurking in the shadows, but instead are the sins of capitalism, the false promise of the “American Dream,” anti-Semitism, and the overwhelming cruelty of humanity.
Recommended by Eyal Handelsman Katz, English Ph.D. candidate at UVA
Handelsman Katz’s dissertation explores parental figures and their ties to feminist and ethnic movements and discourses in 20th and 21st century multiethnic American prose. In collaboration with the UVA Religion, Race & Democracy Lab, he recently produced a short documentary, Słabe Jajko, about his grandmother’s memories of the Holocaust.
“Bread Givers” by Anzia Yezierska (Doubleday, Page & Company, 1925)
When Anzia Yezierska’s family emigrated to the United States from the Polish part of Russia in the 1880s, they Americanized their name, calling themselves the Mayers, with Anzia becoming Hattie Mayer. Yezierska would become a celebrated author in the early 20th century, penning among other novels “Bread Givers” (1925), her most famous work. The novel is a coming-of-age story that follows Sara Smolinsky as she struggles against her caricature of a father and sets out to succeed on her own terms. While the narrative bears the expected tropes of early 20th century feminist writing that often links female independence with whiteness and Americanization, there is more to Yezierska and the novel than meets the eye. How do we reconcile Sara’s attempt to Americanize herself with the author’s resolve to market herself as an ethnic writer under her birth name? Modern readers will also appreciate some of the ways in which the novel predates familiar tropes in rom-coms of the 1990s. Yezierska herself found brief success in Hollywood before becoming ultimately frustrated by its shallowness and alienation.
“The Promised Land” by Mary Antin (Houghton Mifflin, 1912)
Mary Antin, like Anzia Yezierska, was a Russian Jewish immigrant who moved to the Lower East Side and contributed to a wave of early feminist Jewish writing. “The Promised Land” (1912) was a celebrated and controversial memoir in which she traced her experiences as an immigrant and her embrace of U.S. culture. Antin’s text serves as a key to understanding contemporary issues in Jewish culture: Her vision of Jewish heritage in racial (rather than strictly religious) terms. How do Jews identify themselves, or should they? The question provoked widespread debate in Jewish communities throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which is clear in Antin’s memoir. Crucially, as with Yezierska, Antin offers an intersectional answer: she asks not just what does it mean to be Jewish American, but what does it mean to be a Jewish American woman?
“The Collected Stories” by Grace Paley (Farrar Staus Giroux, 1994)
Grace Paley’s “The Collected Stories” includes three of her excellent story collections: “The Little Disturbances of Man” (1959), “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” (1974), and “Later in the Same Day” (1985). In reading these stories, we see the evolution of one of the 20th century’s most talented prose writers. From the youthful energy of her early work (particularly “The Loudest Voice,” wherein a young Jewish girl is given the starring role in her school’s nativity play) to the charmingly adolescent and poignantly existential second collection (including “The Long Distance Runner,” in which a young mother hides herself in her old family home, adopted by its new inhabitants) to her more political later work (such as “Listening,” where she offers a form of activism based on the power of small gestures we can do for each other), one cannot help but be seduced by Paley’s verve, gentleness, and humor.
“The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick (1980). Printed in book format by Knopf, 1989.
Theodor Adorno famously stated that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” How can one write anything that aims to represent such atrocities? In other words, can or should the Holocaust be represented? Many authors have taken various approaches to writing about the Holocaust, from the purely factual to the comic and beyond. Cynthia Ozick’s famous short story, “The Shawl,” seeks to represent the Shoah not through fact, but through feeling. A deeply visceral story, “The Shawl” follows Rosa, a mother trying against all odds to survive the concentration camps, with Ozick’s magical realism serving as a way to navigate a reality so awful and tragic that it seems as if it could only be unreal (an approach not without detractors). Please check out Ozick’s sequel “Rosa,” which follows some of the characters as they attempt to live on in the aftermath of unshakeable trauma.
“Days of Awe” by Achy Obejas (Ballantine Books, 2001)
When someone told Achy Obejas that her surname suggested that she had Jewish ancestry, she was motivated to dig deep into her family history. Her discoveries led her to write “Days of Awe” (2001), which, while not autobiographical, allowed her to reflect on the history of what are known as “crypto-Jews” (Jews who secretly adhere to Judaism while outwardly professing another faith, especially Sephardic Jews who faced forced conversion in Spain). “Days of Awe” follows Alejandra, a Cuban American woman who, in her travels back to Cuba, uncovers her father’s secret Jewish heritage. Through Alejandra’s plight as a lesbian woman navigating what it means to be a Jewish Cuban immigrant in the United States, Obejas offers us a complex commentary on the very notion of ethnicity.
Recommended by Hannah Jane LeDuff, UVA alum
Hannah Jane LeDuff earned her Master’s degree in English with a concentration in World Religion and World Literature in 2021. She is currently an editor for a committee of the Mississippi Legislature.
“The Book of Separation: A Memoir” by Tova Mirvis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018)
Tova Mirvis’s memoir details her own journey of leaving her Orthodox Jewish marriage and community to explore the unmapped terrain of a world outside of the religion and tradition in which she was raised. This memoir inspires readers to live their lives true to themselves without the fetters of the expectations of others.
Also recommended by Hannah Jane:
- “A Letter to Harvey Milk: Short Stories” by Lesléa Newman (University of Wisconsin Press, Terrace Books, 2004)
- “The Ladies Auxiliary” by Tova Mirvis (WW Norton, 1999)
- And for children: “Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail” by Lesléa Newman (Charlesbridge, 2020)
Researchers can direct queries about Jewish American literature to Sherri Brown and research questions regarding Jewish Studies to Miguel Valladares-Llata, Librarian for Romance Languages and Latin American Studies, whose subject specialties include French, German, Jewish Studies, Latin American Studies, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.