May is Jewish Heritage Month (by the way, I am a firm believer in reading diversely year round) and one of my personal goals is to read more Jewish literature to connect with my roots. Without further ado, here is a list of two books I have adored and another that is on my TBR pile impatiently waiting for me.
The mainstream Fantasy world has long been dominated by Christian authors, but that does not mean that there are not Fantasy books without Jewish representation. Today, we will take a close look at three excellent options to fulfill our desires for Jewish Fantasy (with two bonus books added!).
1) “If the act of love is so dangerous, why do people risk so much for it?”
~ Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker – Many of you may have read this much celebrated book, but if you have not or have indeed this is a great time to visit or re-visit the book. Wecker’s much anticipated sequel to The Golem and the Jinni, The Hidden Palace, is set to be released in June 2021.
Synopsis: “Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic, created to be the wife of a man who dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.
Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free.
Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.”
Praise for The Golem and the Jinni includes:
- “Her story is so inventive, so elegantly written, so well-constructed, it is hard to believe that it is her first novel…The book is so good that I wonder if there was some other-worldly power involved in its creation.” ~Jewish Daily Forward
- “The premise is so fresh…A mystical and highly original stroll through the sidewalks of New York.” ~Booklist
- “The tale is meant to be magical, and it is, but Wecker’s real sleight of pen is recreating Manhattan as it was then. She has a historian’s grasp of detail and a novelist’s flair.” ~New York Daily News
Perfect for fans of Historical Fiction mixed with Magical Realism, Urban Fantasy, and Mythology.
Read about it on Goodreads.
2) “She became what she needed to be to save herself.”
~ Rena Rossner, The Sisters of the Winter Wood
The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner, an orthodox Jew who works as a literary agent at The Deborah Harris Agency based in Jerusalem, Israel. Published in 2018, The Sisters of the Winter Wood weaves together inspiration from “Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti with Haisidic bears, and shapeshifting swans. Digging through her own family history provided Rossner with the backdrop of a Yiddish and Dubossary shtetl. The Sisters of the Winter Wood received a Compton Crook Award Nominee in 2019.
Seeing a lack of representation in Fantasy books and an abundance of Holocaust stories, Rossner explains, “I chose to tell a story that was not about Jewish death, but Jewish life. Because so many of our stories end up being tragedy stories and I don’t think we deserve that.” She goes on to say in the same interview with The Times of Israel, “’You can point with one finger to the Jewish fantasy novels out there,’ says Rossner. ‘I would love to see myself as leading the charge [for more], because there is so much magic in our tradition, so much myth… I think that our kids deserve these stories and I’ve tried to tell it with a lot of respect… It’s something I feel I have a right to write, because I am Orthodox, but I don’t think only Orthodox people could write these.’”
Ultimately, The Sisters of the Winter Wood is a magical story about family, sisterhood, and facing adversity.
Synopsis: “Raised in a small village surrounded by vast forests, Liba and Laya have lived a peaceful sheltered life – even if they’ve heard of troubling times for Jews elsewhere. When their parents travel to visit their dying grandfather, the sisters are left behind in their home in the woods.
But before they leave, Liba discovers the secret that their Tati can transform into a bear, and their Mami into a swan. Perhaps, Liba realizes, the old fairy tales are true. She must guard this secret carefully, even from her beloved sister.
Soon a troupe of mysterious men appear in town and Laya falls under their spell-despite their mother’s warning to be wary of strangers. And these are not the only dangers lurking in the woods…
The sisters will need each other if they are to become the women they need to be – and save their people from the dark forces that draw closer.”
Praise for The Sisters of the Winter Wood:
- “Rossner’s fairy tale is creepy and moving by turn, full of heart, history, and enchantment.” ~Publisher’s Weekly *Starred Review*
- “Rossner’s debut weaves a richly detailed story of Jewish identity and sisterhood… emotionally charged, full of sharp historical detail and well-deployed Yiddish phrases…Ambitious and surprising.” ~Kirkus
Rossner also has another Fantasy book that came out in April 2021, The Light of the Midnight Stars, that also deserves our attention. Synopsis: “An evocative combination of fantasy, history, and Jewish folklore, The Light of the Midnight Stars is fairytale-inspired novel from the author of The Sisters of the Winter Wood.
Deep in the Hungarian woods, the sacred magic of King Solomon lives on in his descendants. Gathering under the midnight stars, they pray, sing and perform small miracles – and none are more gifted than the great Rabbi Isaac and his three daughters. Each one is blessed with a unique talent – whether it be coaxing plants to grow, or predicting the future by reading the path of the stars.
When a fateful decision to help an outsider ends in an accusation of witchcraft, fire blazes through their village. Rabbi Isaac and his family are forced to flee, to abandon their magic and settle into a new way of life. But a dark fog is making its way across Europe and will, in the end, reach even those who thought they could run from it. Each of the sisters will have to make a choice – and change the future of their family forever.”
Praise for Light of the Midnight Stars:
- “The Light of the Midnight Stars is storytelling as spellcasting. Rossner has conjured something vivid and wild and true.”
~Kiran Millwood Hargrave, author of The Mercies
The Sisters of the Winter Wood is perfect for those in want of a spellbinding Young Adult tale infused with fairy tales.
Read about it on Goodreads.
The Light of the Midnight Stars sounds perfect for those of you who are looking for a mix of History, Fantasy, LGBT representation, and love retellings.
Read about it on Goodreads.
3) “That is all we can do for each other in the world, to keep the wolf away.”
~ Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik is a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin story featuring a feminist Jewish protagonist. Spinning Silver follows Miryem, the daughter of an unsuccessful and detested moneylender, as she takes her family’s livelihood into her own hands and finds great success in doing so. When she inadvertently draws the attention of the king of the Staryk, a fey-like creature (our story’s version of Rumpelstiltskin), she finds herself forced to use her wits and talents to make the seemingly impossible happen. Her work draws in Wanda, an unhappy peasant girl; and eventually leads her into the path of Irina, the daughter of a local lord whose father is plotting to have her marry a tsar who is more than he seems. The young ladies overlapping quests bring them to the brink of sacrifice, love, and magic.
On the different histories and fairytales that influenced her books Uprooted and Spinning Silver, Nokik said in an interview, “Uprooted is very much about my mother’s side of the family, who were Polish Catholics. . . . Spinning Silver is about my father’s family, and they were Lithuanian Jews who had to escape persecution—not just from the Nazis, but from their own neighbors. It’s a really complicated history.” Therefore, Spinning Silver is quite different from Novik’s previously published Uprooted, which received many accolades from the literary world. Spinning Silver is not as quickly paced, but it is a richer and more complex tale for being so, as it contains more unexpected moments. Reader: I adored both books, but there really is something extra special about Spinning Silver to me and I think a large part of that goes to the Jewish representation.
There are several unique aspects to Spinning Silver, which include: fairy tale familiarity spun to a unique tale, female solidarity, and a multi-point of view look at the trappings and gifts of identity. This was a book I savored and thoroughly enjoyed. I fully appreciate how Naomi Novik took on anti-Semitism (both historical and literary) with this glorious novel. Spinning Silver warns of the danger of ego and hatred of the minority, whist it showcases a remarkable adaptability from the novel’s heroines.
Praise for Spinning Silver:
- “A perfect tale . . . This book is about the determination and quiet competence of women doing remarkable things without knowing first that they can do them. . . . A big and meaty novel, rich in both ideas and people, with the vastness of Tolkien and the empathy and joy in daily life of Le Guin.” ~The New York Times Book Review
- “Gorgeous, complex, and magical . . . This is the kind of book that one might wish to inhabit forever.” ~Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- “A stroke of genius . . . Novik’s characters are compelling, and the moral choices they are faced with are genuinely difficult. . . . Her tone can move from gently humorous, to sweepingly epic, to piercingly sad easily, and back again. . . . Even better than Uprooted.” ~Locus
Perfect for fans of Fairy Tale retellings, enemies to lovers’ romance, and multiple protagonists.
Read about it on Goodreads.
A note on affiliate links: if you are going to buy the books, it helps support this blog if you do so through my affiliate links.
If you have read another Fantasy book with Jewish representation or one of the ones I mentioned, tell me below!