In honor of Women’s History Month, we asked seven Jewish women writers with books of their own coming out this spring to each recommend two favorite titles. The picks are wide-ranging, from classic short story collections and recent novels, to soul-searching autobiographies and provocative graphic memoirs. Taken together, the books make a great introduction to contemporary Jewish women’s writing. Keep reading for selections from Julie Orringer, Mandy Berman, and more.
Leah Cohen, author of Strangers and Cousins (May 14)
After Abel and Other Stories by Michal Lemberger
It could so easily have felt like a gimmick: retell Bible stories from the point of view of their barely-mentioned female characters. But as Lemberger inhabits these women — from the well-known to those so obscure they remain unnamed — each comes vividly alive. Their voices ring true. More than that, their voices ring out. In prose that is unsentimental, direct, and deeply moving, Lemberger grants these characters their fully complex humanity, rendering their stories newly intriguing and relevant.
Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg
The liveliness of Torah radiates from this exploration of the book we know so boringly in English as Numbers. In Hebrew it’s Bamidbar, or “In the Wilderness,” which is precisely where the author fearlessly plunges us: into kaleidoscopic wilds of interpretation. A Torah scholar, Zornberg is as comfortable reading through the prisms of art, psychoanalysis, poetry, and philosophy as she is citing the ancient sages. Learned without being pedantic, wise without sacrificing playfulness, she is a quietly thrilling guide.
Sarah Lightman, author of The Book of Sarah (May 23)
Toward a Hot Jew: Graphic Essays by Miriam Libicki
These extraordinary graphic essays explore Jewish identity, Zionism, Israeli politics, angst, ambivalence, and attachment through the most exquisite and apt pencil work, bright inks, and rich blurring washes of watercolor. Libicki’s engagement with the personal and the political is as rich, dynamic and layered as her materials: from the Israeli soldier that her younger self lusted over who is now an “adorable oppressor,” to the anxious in-law in Canada who she disobeys (“Promise me you won’t go to Haifa”), to the digital petition she signs against the deportation of African refugees from Israel while at home with her Canadian baby.
Glitz-2-Go Diane Noomin Collected Comics by Diane Noomin
Comics pioneer Diane Noomin, in the introduction to this remarkable collection, tries to characterize her relationship with DiDi Glitz — her “id or alter ego,” or “non-personal persona.” DiDi is amorous, bouffant, busty, fabulous, and fated as she shares her wisdom and life experiences. But perhaps DiDi is best understood in “I was a Red Diaper Baby,” in which Noomin uses photos and postcards to uncover what was hidden in her own childhood in Hempstead, Long Island: her parent’s secret lives in the Communist underground, revealed by the mimeograph hidden in the attic.
Lori Gottlieb, author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (April 2)
Inheritance by Dani Shapiro
This is a surprising book because even though the ostensible mystery at the heart of Dani’s story — who her biological father really is — is solved at the beginning of the memoir, the book reads like a suspenseful existential thriller as she unravels the big questions of identity that are both specific to her and universal to the human condition. How much of our essence is determined by genetics? By environment? By who loved us or didn’t love us the way we wanted to be loved? How do even the best-kept secrets seep into our lives anyway? And how do we make sense of our heritage when it wasn’t all that it seemed?
Einstein and the Rabbi by Naomi Levy
While this is a fascinating story about a letter that Einstein sent to comfort a rabbi, it’s also Rabbi Naomi Levy’s story, which is no less riveting. It’s hard to categorize this book — it’s not self-help but does offer useful guidance; it’s not pure memoir, though Levy delights us with experiences from her own life, ranging from hilarious to poignant; and while Jewish texts are explored, the wisdom applies to people of any faith. The result is both soothing and thought-provoking, asking us to ask ourselves to take a closer look at our souls, because we might just be pleasantly surprised by what we find.
Jennifer Acker, author of The Limits of the World (April 16)
The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol
An immediate sensation when it was released five years ago, Antopol’s debut collection of stories of love, ambition, and politicized worldviews burrows deep inside Jewish families — largely dissidents, artists, and intellectuals — from Los Angeles to Prague to Jerusalem over the course of the twentieth century. Each tale is both swift and thoughtful, and the endings are a marvel — satisfying readers’ narrative cravings while making us hunger for the next savory and meticulously concocted course.
When We Argued All Night by Alice Mattison
Disagreements are a staple of good fiction, but Alice Mattison raises them to high art. This vibrant and eventful novel charting the interconnected political and familial lives of two Jewish New Yorkers, Harold and Artie, opens in 1936 and carries us rip-roaring through the twentieth century. Come for the friendship, stay for the arguments; laugh, cry, and learn along the way.
Mandy Berman, author of The Learning Curve (May 28)
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti
Heti is the daughter of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, and her fictionalized memoir grapples, among other things, with the struggles of her ancestors. As Heti herself said in a New York Times interview, “The characters in my book are wandering; they’re aiming for the Promised Land, but, like the Jews of the Bible, are fated not to enter it.” The autobiographical narrator’s Jewishness is integral to the novel, as is the questioning she does of her heritage and of herself.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Otessa Moshfegh
Reva, the Jewish best friend of this novel’s self-involved narrator, is everything the narrator is not: generous, loyal, and deeply feeling. Reva is also plagued with an eating disorder and a dying mother, and my heart broke for her more than it has for a fictional character in a long time. She’s the emotional core of this novel, an empath serving as a contrast to its often unfeeling antihero.
Rachel Barenbaum, author of A Bend in the Stars (May 14)
If All The Seas Were Ink by Ilana Kurshan
In this passionate memoir the uber-brave Kurshan opens her heart and takes us through her searing, personal journey. From a devastating divorce and the loneliness of living in Israel as a newly single olah chadashah (immigrant), through the painstaking steps of building herself back up, Kurshan leans on the power of books, humor, and daf yomi (daily page of Talmud), and blazes a trail — revealing that heartbreak can lead to even greater love and that romance is not dead.
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
This luminous, forbidden love story set in the Jewish community that straddled St. Thomas and Paris in the 1800s follows the extraordinary life of Rachel, the mother of the painter Camille Pissarro, as she’s forced into a loveless marriage and then jumps into a defiant, passionate affair. The magic of island life bleeds into every line of this astonishing novel.
Julie Orringer, author of The Flight Portfolio (May 7)
Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg
The amazing Myla Goldberg returns with a finely wrought novel in the form of notes from a photography exhibition catalogue — written not by a dispassionate critic, but by the photographer’s daughter. Lillian Preston, the photographer, earned notoriety for her nude photos of her child; in an assemblage of letters, journal excerpts, and descriptions of the work itself, her daughter blows aside the clouds of public opprobrium to reveal a brilliant and complicated artist — and a loving, if imperfect, mother.
The Collected Stories by Grace Paley
Rarely do we find more truth in fiction than in Grace Paley’s stories, where life in New York meets motherhood, artisthood, hoods, progressive politics, existential philosophy, and self-aware second-wave feminism. In drawing from her home idiom — a Russian- and Yiddish-tinged English — as well as from the New York English of the street — she creates a language, a dialogue, that feels like its own new music, yet is as familiar and true as our own grandmothers’ voices. Her cast of characters quickly becomes beloved family, and her stories are our stories, now and forever.
Natalie Aflalo is the former digital content manager at the Jewish Book Council.