November is Jewish Book Month, which started back in the 1940s, when our friends at the Jewish Book Council moved what once was Shavuot-related book sales, to the month prior to Hanukkah. Many JCCs continue to host their annual cultural arts and book festivals at this time of year. There’s a reason we’re called the People of the Book, so a call out to JCC Association staff for recommendations for Jewish books—that is, books that has either a Jewish author, subject matter, or includes a Jewish value (or any combo of the three!)—yielded this rich list to keep you busy throughout November and beyond.
Senior Vice President Program Development | Director of JCCs of North America Biennial Convention
Do the KIND Thing is written by Daniel Lubetzky, the founder and CEO of KIND. The subtitle, “Think Boundlessly, Work Purposefully, Live Passionately,” really sums up the books appeal to me. It’s an aspirational mix of how the company aims to work in the world, but how Lubetzky’s personal values inform his brand. A great one for anyone in a JCC marketing department!
Vice President, Health and Wellness Services
I just started Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer. I am a big fan of his first two novels Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, so I was really looking forward to this one, his first novel in 11 years. It’s supposed to have all the irreverence and inventive language of the first book, while grappling with some pretty weighty, existential questions.
Communications Manager, Editor, JCC Circle and JCC Circle Monthly
I just finished The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel, by Louis Grumet, a fascinating look at separation of church and state, following the setup of a special school district in the Satmar village of Kiryas Joel. The Supreme Court ruled the district unconstitutional in a suit the author brought, and yet it still exists today. A fast, informative read.
City of Secrets, by Stewart O’Nan, is a moody, atmospheric thriller set in Mandatory Palestine as the momentum for forming a Jewish state increases. It’s cloaked in the fear and sadness of the Holocaust, and the factional fighting of Jewish groups seeking independence.
It’s hard to categorize The Beautiful Possible by Amy Gottleib, but it was one of those books that I’d almost finished before I figured out what a gem I was reading. The story of Walter, a refugee from Germany, and his best friends, Rosalie and Sol, who he meets at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, combines Jewish and Eastern philosophy, love, loss and betrayal, in a heady mix as these three struggle to find themselves and meaning.
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean grow up to be a hero and a scholar? No, wait, that’s the Lin-Manuel Miranda take on Alexander Hamilton. But you’ll find out all this and more in Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow’s behemoth on the Founding Father who didn’t become president—in the book that started it all.
Randy Ellen Lutterman
Vice President, Arts & Culture | Director, JCC Maccabi®
Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate by Letty Pogrebin is the book that prompted the most unsolicited conversation on the NYC subway. Title and premise notwithstanding (story of Zach Levy, the left-leaning son of Holocaust survivors who promises his mother on her deathbed that he will marry within the tribe and raise Jewish children), this engaging novel manages to delve deeply into the question of what it means to be Jewish, and what our obligations are to support Jewish peoplehood—the JCC Maccabi Midot value of Amiut Yehudit. From post-war to present day, the novel takes us through the changing landscape of New York City, and involves us in the conversation about identity, connection, family, and the ties that bind us all together.
The Alaskan Laundry by Brendan Jones made me ask the question, “Are there Jews in Alaska?” This novel chronicles the (actual) journey of a young woman to Alaska, and then back to herself. While not a Jewish book per se, The Alaskan Laundry is a beautiful study of self-discovery and self-resilience, and the importance of Rena/Joy, another JCC Maccabi Midot value. Tara Marconi’s new life in Alaska allows her to deal with her mother’s death and her estranged father, all within this majestic harsh world. As Tara finds herself through the hard work of fishing and the stubborn love of real friendship, she shows us that “going home” is about telling the truth about who you are, and making choices about who you want to be.
New Resource Communications Manager
I just started The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A. J. Jacobs. The book may resonate with a contemporary audience who doesn’t know that much about the Bible, but may want to a peak inside it for the first time.
In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov (Shivhei ha-Besht): The Earliest Collection of Legends about the Founder of Hasidism is a fascinating history of the birth of the Hasidic movement from the first book ever published about its founder, where you can see the man with his virtues and flaws. This is also a great read for anyone looking for his or her “ancestral lands.”
Lara Vapnyar’s beautiful collection of short stories, There Are Jews in My House was published in 2003 and it still rings very true. The stories are very moving, both touching and fraught, as she probes Jewish-gentile relationships in Russia and Brooklyn.
What can I say about A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales by Dr. Ruth Calderon? Totally amazing! This contemporary midrash is written by the only female member of Israel’s Knesset to ever give a public Talmud lecture there.
Director of financial Resource Development
The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman was a hoot! It tells Malka Treynovsky’s rags-to-riches story from the Lower East Side to become the reigning queen of the ice cream industry as Lillian Dunkle. She’s quite a character and her brassy voice shines through on every page of this story that’s as American as the confection Lillian is selling.
Summer camp is the perfect setting for a multi-generational novel: a daughter connects with her late mother through names etched in the bleachers, murals in the dining hall, and a mysterious stranger. Rachel Mann brings it all to life in On Blackberry Hill. As a former camper and a summer camp staffer this book reminded me so much of summers past! The book is appropriate for teens and adults, and is a must for anyone who spent the summer at camp—or works in a JCC camp department!