Pho­to by Nina Subin

Mag­ic, death, sex. These are the mark­ers of great lit­er­a­ture, or at least the kind of great lit­er­a­ture that draws in read­ers by the bushel.

I didn’t come up with this tri­fec­ta. I learned it from a bril­liant nov­el­ist who hap­pens to be a great friend. She is greater than great, greater than best, a friend with­out whose con­stan­cy of gen­eros­i­ty and warmth I would, in all prob­a­bil­i­ty, die. I am keen­ly aware of all that she does for me, nev­er not grate­ful, and yet I still take her for grant­ed. How could I not?

Like the friend­ships that buoy us in real life, the ones that appear in lit­er­a­ture have a way of being brushed to the side­lines. Romances burn, mar­riages fal­ter, fam­i­lies squab­ble, for­tunes van­ish, careers implode—these are the dra­mas that steal the sto­ry line. And so often friends remain sec­ondary char­ac­ters, wait­ing in the periph­ery, or drift­ing out from our watch altogether.

Maybe that’s why friend­ship remains such a mys­tery, still absent a ded­i­cat­ed rule­book after all of these cen­turies. Love your neigh­bor,” the Torah teach­es us, yet it can be quite chal­leng­ing when your neigh­bor deals in micro-aggres­sions, or would rather hang out with anoth­er neigh­bor who lives in a town­house on the oth­er end of the block.

A friend­ship tri­an­gle is at the heart of my nov­el, How Could She, and none of the cen­tral char­ac­ters is a paragon of pla­ton­ic behav­ior. The women, each com­pli­cat­ed and won­der­ful in her own flawed way, take notes and take stock, mea­sur­ing them­selves up against one another’s fail­ures and suc­cess­es. I like to think they’re sim­ply still fig­ur­ing things out, much like their author who gives her­self a C‑plus in friendship.

Which is no doubt why I’m obsessed with it. Sure, I’ll take the death and sex, but it’s the pla­ton­ic bonds, and all their inher­ent plea­sures and pains, that have me in their grip. The sto­ries con­tained in every sin­gle friend­ship are myr­i­ad, each rela­tion­ship a fun­house mir­ror of dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the par­tic­i­pants as they see both them­selves and each oth­er. Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture, with its par­tic­u­lar tra­di­tion of humor and sen­si­tiv­i­ty to feel­ings of yearn­ing and exclu­sion, offers a diverse and deeply sat­is­fy­ing range of takes on the still under-served top­ic. Here­with, five Jew­ish authors’ depic­tions that are as delight­ful — and some­times as frus­trat­ing — as friend­ship itself.

For me, it all start­ed with Grace Paley, whose sur­prise appear­ance in the library of my Brook­lyn high school set in motion my own dreams of becom­ing a writer. I remem­ber sit­ting next to the win­dow and star­ing at this white-haired woman whose unaf­fect­ed speak­ing voice per­fect­ly matched her plain, some­times can­tan­ker­ous, prose. Near­ly two decades lat­er, I would read a poem of hers, about an elder­ly cou­ple shar­ing a park bench, at my wed­ding. Now in mid­dle age, I main­tain that every book­shelf, no mat­ter how small, should con­tain her Col­lect­ed Sto­ries. Friends,” orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 1975 in The New York­er, is a gut­ting piece about three mid­dle-aged women who vis­it their friend who is in bed, dying of can­cer. Paley spares no punch­es: There are no mirac­u­lous recov­er­ies here, only sullen teenagers and midlife aches and pains. Yet she infus­es the piece with a sar­don­ic hue that reminds us how our friend­ships can help make the worst chal­lenges clos­er to some­thing tolerable.

The fun­da­men­tal chal­lenge in the tit­u­lar friend­ship in A Friend From Eng­land, by the Eng­lish (and sur­pris­ing­ly, to me, Jew­ish) writer Ani­ta Brookn­er, is the dis­tance between Rachel and Heather. These two young women are thrown togeth­er by cir­cum­stance, as orphaned Rachel is close with Heather’s par­ents who hope that Rachel can serve as some­thing of a role mod­el. The pair spend count­less hours in each oth­ers’ com­pa­ny, yet nev­er man­age to close the chasm. It’s a poignant, unset­tling work that reminds us of the chem­istry that is so essen­tial to inti­ma­cy. Some bonds are sim­ply not meant to form. For a more slip­pery slant, try Meg Wolitzer’s com­pul­sive­ly read­able The Female Per­sua­sion. It charts the tricky rela­tion­ship between two women who start out as stu­dent and men­tor and embark on a decade-plus long jour­ney marked by ever-shift­ing pow­er dynamics.

It is often said that the work of Ital­ian writer Natalia Ginzburg, whose Jew­ish fam­i­ly was deeply entrenched in anti-Fas­cist cir­cles, resem­bles Paley’s. They both wrote with a spare, wry style and it is impos­si­ble to read the prose of either woman and not feel as though she is serv­ing wis­dom by the tall glass. This is espe­cial­ly the case in Ginzburg’s decep­tive­ly slim non­fic­tion col­lec­tion The Lit­tle Virtues, which is so frank and cer­tain in its opin­ions that it reads as an essen­tial guide­book to being alive. Por­trait of a Friend” is more mon­u­ment than essay. In her melan­cholic rumi­na­tion on the loss of anoth­er Turin-born writer, Cesare Pavese, she boils the mem­o­ry of a bril­liant and lone­ly man down to an ever­last­ing essence, and expos­es a side of him that is like­ly unfa­mil­iar to schol­ars of his work. He treat­ed us, who were his friends, in a brusque way, and he did not over­look any of our faults; but if we were upset or ill he imme­di­ate­ly became as solic­i­tous as a moth­er,” she writes. Cap­tur­ing every­thing from his few-fin­gered hand­shake to his habit of mis­tak­ing gar­ish peo­ple he met at din­ner par­ties for ele­gant crea­tures that might inspire future char­ac­ters, she uses words per­form a resurrection.

A total­ly dif­fer­ent kind of vital­i­ty runs through the work of Tel Aviv-based writer Etgar Keret, who is a mas­ter of the kind of humor that is equal parts absurd and poignant. Book after book, his short sto­ries delight with their off-the-charts zani­ness and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly tap into deep reser­voirs of human pathos. This could not be truer in the case of Todd,” a sto­ry in Keret’s newest col­lec­tion Fly Already. It’s all there in the open­ing sen­tence: My friend Todd wants me to write him a sto­ry that will help him get girls into bed.” Over the fol­low­ing pages, Keret describes a friend who is des­per­ate­ly lone­ly and needy in a way that will be famil­iar to any­body who has had an annoy­ing friend. But Todd is also loy­al, the kind of guy who you know won’t jump into a lifeboat and leave you behind.” Todd looks up to his writer friend, and believes that his friend’s suc­cess and charm can be trans­ferred as sim­ply as a pay­check. The writer nar­ra­tor gets to do his vent­ing, to hilar­i­ous effect. And Todd gets his sto­ry, the one that will amuse and seduce. That both aims are achieved in sev­en pages is a reminder of one of the most mys­ti­fy­ing and, come to think of it, mag­i­cal facets of friend­ship: There’s nev­er just one story.

Lau­ren Mech­ling is the author of sev­er­al nov­els and a Senior Edi­tor at The Guardian. Her work has appeared in Vogue, The New York­er, Van­i­ty Fair, The Wall Street Jour­nal, and The New York Times among oth­er publications.