Many schools assign students a summer break reading list to complete for the fall. Beyond the assigned list, some students may also want an enriching reading experience during their free time. JNS.org suggests 14 Jewish-themed classic, eccentric, and fun books for the 2014 summer break. While some selections are well-known and already included on most official reading lists, others showcase the versatility of the Jewish experience—spanning geography, language, time, and the imagination.
This novel by Grossman, a renowned Israeli writer, is about both a lost yellow labrador and a love story between a shy adolescent and a teenage street singer. In between, the story also touches on crime and drug addiction. The book is grittily realistic and bound to touch teen readers’ hearts.
“The Coffee Trader,” by David Liss
“The Coffee Trader” is set in 17th-century Amsterdam among the merchants of the city’s Portuguese Jewish community. In addition to learning about the Sephardic Jews who took refuge in Amsterdam from the Spanish Inquisition, the book chronicles how a new and exciting product transformed European trade. If you haven’t guessed what it is from the title, here’s a hint: coffee lovers will delight!
Another historical novel by the author of the more well-known “The Other Boleyn Girl.” “The Queen’s Fool” is the story of 14-year-old Spanish-Jewish girl Hannah Green, who flees the Inquisition with her father to England. In England, Hannah gets swept into the royal court, where she becomes a “holy fool” for Queen Mary and eventually Queen Elizabeth. All the while, as heretics are persecuted around her, Hannah must hide the fact that she is Jewish.
“Exodus,” by Leon Uris
Uris’s famed novel was immortalized on the big screen by the 1960 film of the same name, starring Paul Newman. It is a story of the aftermath of the Holocaust and the birth of the state of Israel, through the eyes of an American nurse and an Israeli freedom fighter.
“Night” by Eli Wiesel (mature content)
Holocaust survivor and human rights activist Wiesel recounts his life in a ghetto and several Nazi concentration camps as a teenager. The book is narrated by Eliezer, a Hungarian-Jewish teenager who stands in for Wiesel. Eliezer and his father fight to survive first in a ghetto and later in the Auschwitz concentration camp, on a 50-mile death march, in a crammed cattle-car ride, and finally in the Buchenwald concentration camp.
This 19th-century classic novel is on the list for its exploration of the British-Jewish community and the Zionist movement of its era. As the central character navigates through upper-class British society, he discovers his own true origins and begins to identify more with the Jewish community, an insular group that is largely excluded from the mainstream British society of the time.
A young American man travels to Europe to find the woman who may have rescued his grandfather during the Holocaust. During this quest, he is accompanied by an elderly man guarding traumatic memories from the war, a dog named Sammy Davis, Jr., Jr., and a Ukranian translator who speaks broken English and imitates outdated American culture. The tale was made into a film starring Elijah Wood in 2005.
This autobiographical novel by Israeli author Oz chronicles the history of his family in Europe, the British mandate of Palestine, and the early years of the Jewish state. The book’s official summary calls it “the story of a boy who grows up in war-torn Jerusalem, in a small apartment crowded with books in 12 languages and relatives speaking nearly as many.” Natalie Portman is directing and starring in a movie based on the book, currently being filmed in Jerusalem.
“The Reader,” by Bernhard Schlink (mature content)
Although not Jewish-themed, “The Reader” is on this list for the way it touches on the aftermath of the Holocaust from the perspective of the Germans. This book may be inappropriate for younger readers: The book’s central character, 15-year-old German teenager Michael Berg, enters into a sexual relationship with a woman twice his age. In the process, the woman’s Nazi past comes back to the surface. The book was also adapted into a film starring Kate Winslet, for which she won an Academy Award in 2009.
In 1978, the Jewish Krasnansky family escapes the Soviet Union and finds itself stuck in Italy while waiting to secure visas for a new life in the U.S. The eclectic characters are in limbo. The New York Times writes in its review, “The temporary Italian setting has been appropriately chosen, for it represents a passage between two worlds, much like the state of the Krasnanskys themselves, who have left their status as outsiders in one land to become outsiders in another.”
This book wryly reimagines Edith Warton’s classic novel “The Age of Innocence” by setting it in the Jewish community of northwest London. Twenty-eight-year-old Adam Newman begins to question the direction of his life and his upcoming wedding to Rachel Gilbert, who has conventional values, after Rachel’s young and independent cousin, Ellie Schneider, comes to visit.
This novel is the story of two Jewish fathers and their sons, against the backdrop of mid-1940s Brooklyn. Although they come from different Jewish sects—Hassidic and modern Orthodox—the boys become best friends after they meet at a baseball game. Over the years of their friendship, the growing men and their fathers clash over religion, the establishment of the state of Israel, and the changing world around them. The book also has a sequel titled “The Promise.”
An interesting thriller set in the Holocaust, Italian writer Antoni’s novel tells the story of the 10 prisoners of Block 11 in Auschwitz, where the Nazi commander announces that only one of the 10 must die and the prisoners themselves must decide who that person will be. The prisoners begin a life-or-death debate. Questions include, “Should they sacrifice the communist? The gay artist? The financier? The rabbi? His wife? The old Jew? The criminal? The adulterer?”
The Sherlock Holmes-style crime genre gets a new twist in this Michael Chabon novel. Imagine an alternate universe in which during the Second World War a Jewish settlement was established not in the land of Israel, but in the U.S. state of Alaska. In this fictional Yiddish-speaking community, a quirky and alcoholic detective is investigating a murder.