Here are five of my favorites! (listed chronologically, summaries are mine)
1. As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg. 2nd Century CE, including the Bar Kochba revolt from 132-135; the land of Israel (called Judea).
Expands the story of the Talmudic figure Elisha ben Abuya, who famously becomes a heretic when he sees a child die while fulfilling a commandment. Steinberg creates a beautiful character who struggles all his life between religious observance and atheism/apostasy, drawn to the pagan culture of the Roman Empire and questioning the traditions and values of his forefathers. I owe it a reread.
2. Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon. 950 CE; the Caucasus region.
A ridiculous yet poignant adventure novel featuring neurotic, melodramatic Zelikman, a blonde Frankish Jew, and the sarcastic, conscientous Amram, a black Abyssinian Jew. They roam from town to town, conning the local villagers, acting as mercenaries for hire, and occasionally stealing. When they meet Filaq, a bedraggled and defiant teenager who claims he is an exiled prince of the Khazar Empire, Amram convinces Zelikman to take up the boy’s cause. (longer review here)
3. The Cross By Day, The Mezuzah By Night by Deborah Spector Siegal 1492, Spain.
(Young Adult) During the height of the Spanish Inquisition, thirteen-year-old Isabel Caruso de Carvallo discovers that her Catholic family is hiding a dangerous secret — they are Jews who were forcibly converted a few generations ago, and they are next on Torquemada’s lists. As they plan their escape, Isabel discovers more about the religion that her family has continued to practice quietly and what it means that her name is “really” Ruth de Cojano. Might be out of print.
4. All Other Nights by Dara Horn. 1862-1865 , United States of America.
Jacob Rappaport, loyal Union Army soldier, is sent below the Mason-Dixon line to spy on his own relatives in the Jewish community of New Orleans, where an assasination attempt on Lincoln is reportedly being plotted. His second assignment is to spy on the four beautiful daughters of the Levy family of Virginia, successful and beguiling agents of the Confederacy. Jacob is such a nebbish-y unsympathetic protagonist that I really disliked this novel at first, but there is such a wealth of historical detail and vivid imagery that I’ve grown to appreciate it a lot. Dara Horn is one of the greats, and the conclusion really makes me catch my breath. Jeannie Levy is amazing, even if she’s on the wrong side of justice.
5. Dave at Night by Gail Carson Levine. 1920s, United States of America
(Young Adult) When Sephardi New Yorker Dave Caros’s father dies, he is sent to an oppressive orphanage, the Hebrew Home for the Boys, run by the greedy and cruel Mr. Bloom. Dave starts sneaking out at night and meets the musician Solomon Gruber, who introduces him to some of the most famous figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Both the Jewish community of the Lower East Side and the black community of Harlem are lovingly depicted. Delightful, and loosely based on the life of the author’s father.
Yeah! This is a thing I see a lot in media with Jewish characters. I feel partially it’s that the characters tend to be culturally Jewish but maybe not necessarily observant, or they’re observant in a way that isn’t as directly visible as having, say, a frum character who wears a kippah and brings his own lunches instead of buying food in the precinct cafeteria. So we’ll get a reference to a bar mitzvah, but not a reference to the tallit someone got from their father there. It’s also a lot easier for writers to just use the cultural shorthand in place (wry jokes about circumcision, Jewish mothers, bagels) than to dig for something else, which would require work and might very well confuse viewers.
I don’t think I’ve seen much Jewish religious observance in fiction apart from the occasional ‘Chanuka special’ thing, where, e.g., Marvel will get someone to draw a standalone picture of all their Jewish characters lighting a chanukiah as a parallel to the Christmas-tree-decorating illustrations. I believe that in Babylon 5 one character says the mourner’s Kaddish for her father, but apart from that most of the examples that come to mind are from fiction written by and for a Jewish audience.
It’s tough because there are plenty of real Jews who do the bar mitzvah joke bit but not the kippah bit, and all of the different kinds of us have a need to see ourselves reflected in fiction. I’m glad for every Jewish character, even the lazily written ones, even the well-written ones who don’t observe like I do, but I also wish there were more characters who did observe like me, you know?#discussion #whitetightsmember