On Also reading books about joy

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As someone who writes and reviews books, I receive a lot of books from publicists every day. As someone who has written about and reviewed Jewish themed books, I have also been suggested or sent books about the Holocaust. Some sound bad, some sound really bad, and some sound pretty decent. Sometimes they even send me books about the Holocaust – usually fiction – without my asking for them. To be perfectly honest, they often end up in the recycle bin, unread.

I rarely read Holocaust fiction. I grew up with teachers who had their own stories. I had colleagues with grandparents who survived. Every year at school we celebrated Yom Hasho and spent an entire year dedicated to an in-depth study of the Holocaust. When I pick up a novel, it’s not the genre I choose. When I read about the Holocaust, I prefer to read non-fiction because there are so many stories to read. There are so many stories that have not yet been told, and may never be told. We don’t need fiction, we need facts. We must bear witness to the lived experiences of these individuals. We need the stories of the survivors before there are no more. I don’t want a romanticized version of the Holocaust or World War II, nor do I want an appropriative novel that is voyeuristic or incompletely factual. With all that said, I still choose my consumption of Shoah nonfiction carefully and only after doing a lot of research on the book.

But here’s the thing: As with any marginalized group, we are more than our history. We are more than the worst parts of our history. We are more than genocide, more than ghettos, more than camps. We are more than ustashas. We are resistance groups, we are underground fighters and we are people who have chosen to live a Jewish life, day after day, under the threat of death. We are the families who rebuilt their lives and built backyard sukkahs for Sukkot, we are the ones who fry latkes for Hanukkah, dance carefree at Simchat Torah, and light candles every Friday night. Even today: we are more than newspaper stories about anti-Semitism. We are stories of survival and celebration. We are joy.

And yet I am rarely given or sent those books about Jewish joy, about everyday Judaism. (I have a few thoughts on this, the main one being that trauma sells, unfortunately, and that’s a bigger discussion that needs a separate post).

I guess we all want to read different books. I hope. We want our children to have access to different books. We want to teach our children accurate, factual history. And that’s all well and good. In fact, it is necessary. But it can be easy to keep choosing books that focus on struggles, hardships, and times of oppression. After all, that’s what’s on the shelves in the history section. Although we all need to learn and know that history, equally important – if not more so – are the stories of celebration, life, joy.

Picture books about celebrating Passover, or books about the family, e.g Tia Fortune’s New Home: A Jewish Cuban Journey. Graphic novels perfect for putting in your overnight bag, like Yehudi Mercado Stubby. Immersive Jewish SFF The city is beautiful, Herevilleor Anya and the dragon. Stories about different Jewish characters like Lucky Broken Girl or The full story of half a girl. Or books that are simply fun to read, e.g That’s the whole game, Eight nights of flirtingand Gitty and Kvetch.

For adults there are memoirs like Kosher soul, Shandaand My Jewish year, to name just a few. Naomi Ragen books are always a good choice (An unorthodox match and An attentive wife are a great duology), as well as Ben Freeman’s Reclaiming Our Story. If you’re looking for something with more emphasis on social justice themes, anthology There is nothing as whole as a broken heart is great.

These books should also be considered when looking for Jewish books, not only Mousediary of Anne Frank, i Night — these are all still important stories, but they are not the whole story.

History is important and should not be minimized or mitigated. But it is also necessary to include stories of joy and celebration alongside that history. Our lives are bigger than anything. The stories we read should reflect this.

If you’re looking for more books to add to your list, check out this post on Jewish contemporary novels and this post on various Jewish books for children and YA.

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