Living at the intersection of gay and Jewish can be lonely. We’re about ten percent of less than two percent of the population in the United States, which is technically enough for a minyan, but sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. For teens, especially teens with limited resources, it’s even harder to find your people. Luckily, we have always had books, and now we have more books than ever — Jewish books, gay books, and even a few of the greatest treasure of all: gay Jewish books.
As a reader and writer of young adult fiction, I’ve been excited over the past couple of years to see Jewish characters appearing in stories about gay teens. There are still big gaps on my bookshelf — most Jewish teens in YA fiction, particularly in the LGB romances I have been able to find, identify as secular, and so far I have found only one transgender character who expresses a sense of Jewish identity, J in Cris Beam’s I am J. As far as I know, the only book so far which features Jewishness as centrally as romance is Sarah L. Young’s independently published Nice Jewish Boys.
I would like to fill the gaps on my shelf, but while I wait, I am grateful for the books that do exist. In the spirit of making Valentine’s Day more sweet and less lonely, I’ve gathered a short list of young adult Valentine’s reads for gay Jews. There is at least one gay or bisexual Jewish character in each of these books, and all of them get happy endings, even though the way to happiness is tough at times. Whether you’re alone on February 14th or you’re looking for something to read aloud to a partner, these books will bring a little more love into your life.
For those who like their romance with a bit of a darker turn, Amy Rose Capetta’s Echo After Echo tackles an issue that’s been front and center over the last few months, with a plot about a theater director who gets away with abuse because he is so admired for his art. It also offers a passionate romance between a young actress and an apprentice lighting designer. Zara is Jewish and Eli is Latina, and their romance is painted in the beautiful brushstrokes of Capetta’s prose. This is the perfect read for a girl who likes girls and theater and murder mysteries, and a little bit of menace, but still wants a happy, romantic ending.
Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert was one of my favorite new releases last year. Suzette, the protagonist, is dealing with a lot of things: she’s one of the only black girls at her New England boarding school, her brother Lionel is struggling with bipolar disorder, which Suzette doesn’t know how to respond to, and at the same time she’s developed a crush on the same girl Lionel likes! The romantic plot is great, but what really sold this book for me is the portrait of a close, complicated, loving Jewish family.
The Art of Starving, by Sam J. Miller, features another gay Jewish teen, and another struggle with mental illness. Matt is the one gay kid in his small town, his sister is a runaway, and the only thing that makes him feel powerful is controlling how he eats. Eating disorders are incredibly common among LGBT youth, and Miller’s portrayal is raw and real and necessary. Of all the gay, Jewish YA I’ve read, this is perhaps the most difficult to read, but at the same time the most powerfully cathartic. By the end of the book, Matt is on the road to recovery and he’s no longer so alone: this book will certainly break your heart, but then it will glue you back together better than ever before.
To bring it back to a lighter, sweeter, chocolatier tone, the wonderful Becky Albertalli has given us not one, but two books with significant Jewish characters and significant same-gender relationships. Next month, the film Love, Simon will bring one of those relationships to the big screen, in a huge moment for teen romantic comedies. Although the main character of the original book, Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda, isn’t Jewish himself, he’s one of those Gentiles whose friends are all Jewish — and no spoilers, but the mysterious figure behind the email address of “Blue,” Simon’s online crush, is Jewish too. Albertalli’s second book, The Upside of Unrequited, stars the Jewish cousin of one of Simon’s best friends. Molly herself is straight, but Jewishness plays into her love story, and she is surrounded by women who love other women: her moms, her sister, and her sister’s friends and girlfriend.
Albertalli’s world isn’t free of the scourges of bullying and body image issues that plague real teenagers, but it’s a world full of sincere and loving people, and a world where being gay, or bi, or Jewish, or, yes, LGB AND Jewish, feels entirely expected and natural. Baruch HaShem! I look forward to more of the same warmth from her upcoming title, Leah on the Offbeat, following one of Simon’s best friends as she comes to the realization that she is bisexual.
G‑d gave us the whole rainbow — I hope I can soon have the whole rainbow on my bookshelf. Until then, I’m going to reread the books that already exist, and maybe some fanfiction, too. Or is that midrash?
Happy Valentine’s Day, and happy reading! <3
Sacha Lamb is the author of Avi Cantor Has Six Months to Live (Book Smugglers, 2017), a Jewish fairytale with a trans boy protagonist. A 2018 Lambda Literary Fellow, Sacha has also published with Foreshadow YA (“Epistolary”, 2019) and is currently working on a novel. Sacha can be found @mosslamb on Twitter.