My Three Favourite…Books Set in Jewish Communities

25th Mar 2013

My Three Favourite...Books Set in Jewish Communities

How does it feel to live in a world so encased in tradition, where beauty and the everyday and faith are intertwined. How do families work, or not, and what about those outside the community?

I grew up without a faith, without a tightly bound community, in a small family with few traditions, so books set in communities, especially those bound by religion, have always had a draw.

The history of Judaism is as fascinating as it is turbulent. As well as being one of the most ancient of the world religions, with traditions and festivals that have been passed down through thousands of years, many of the individual communities have their own ways of living and have strict, or not so strict, laws that govern behaviour.

I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits

The story of a family who leaves a world ripped apart by racism in order to live the way their ancestors have for decades is beautiful, informative and in places very sad I Am Forbidden, published in paperback at the end of February this year, is by Anouk Markovits who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Satmar family before leaving to avoid an arranged marriage.

Unlike what you may expect from an author with this history, I Am Forbidden looks not at what happens to the person who leaves an Orthodox family, but to those still left behind.

Opening in Romania at the outbreak of the Second World War, the story of a family who leaves a world ripped apart by racism in order to live the way their ancestors have for decades is beautiful, informative and in places very, very sad.

Religious fanatic and gifted Talmud scholar Zalman Stern adopts two children orphaned by the Holocaust. His daughter Atara becomes best friends, more than sisters, with little Mila, but when the family move to Paris she soon becomes disillusioned with a world which segregates men and women in most things and believes the Messiah will never come until every Jew strictly observes the Sabbath.

Longing to learn about the world, Atara leaves.  Mila, who only longs to be a good girl, a good wife and a good Hasid, marries and tries to live her life in the way the Torah tells her.

But the restrictions of her community weigh heavy on her, and her internal struggle to conform is the main point of drama for the second half of the novel.

This is a wonderful book which contains some beautiful writing, and is a fascinating insight into the Hasidic world. I loved the relationship between Mila and her husband, and the little things, like deciding on the scarf or necklace you would wear to indicate to your husband you were ‘clean’ and he was therefore allowed to sleep with you I found strangely touching.

This is Markovits’ second novel, but her first written in English, and I look forward to seeing more from her.

The River Midnight by Lilian Nattel

My second recommendation under this theme I first read as a teenager, but is such a lovely book it has stayed with me. The River Midnight, by Lilian Nattel, is set in the fictional Shtetl of Blaszka in Poland, at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The story of four friends, known as the ‘vilda bayas’ or wild creatures, whose friendship has become stretched by jealousy and the  petty squabbling that takes place in intimate communities, this book, which is written partly in lyrical prose, is told from the points of view of various people in the village and the neighbouring towns.

Incorporating folk tales and dry humour, the book follows the friends and their families through the Jewish calendar year and the accompanying festivals.

It also looks at the effects of migration to America, and the Russian pogroms of the late 1900s on the community and is quite emotive in places as it includes descriptions of violence and terror. Fans of Angela Carter, however, would love it.

Four Mothers by Shifra Horn

My favourite book, which is still one of the most beautiful I’ve ever read, is Four Mothers by Israeli writer Shifra Horn. Set in Jerusalem over the last 100 years, it is the story of a family apparently cursed – the husbands will always leave the wives, no matter how much they love them.

The resulting matriarchal dynasty includes some fascinating characters: the beautiful Sara, whose magical rose water makes them rich, and Pnina-Mazal, whose gift for languages attracts the attention of the American Ambassador. The book is not too political, but does cover the expansion of Israel.

The Jewish way of life is ever present throughout the book, especially from the point of view of the women; the descriptions of visiting the Mikveh and the blessing of children are especially profound. Fans of Isabel Allende, Amy Tan, or other lyrical dynastical books should buy it.

What have has missed and what should I be reading? Do you know of books set in other religious communities that are equally as lovely to read? Or do you find this genre stifling or dull? Let us know!

Image via zeevveez

Jess Haigh


  • woodsiegirl says:

    I haven’t read very many books set in Jewish communities, but recently I picked up Naomi Alderman’s “Disobedience”, which is wonderful! It taught me a lot about orthodox Judaism in the UK, which isn’t something I really knew anything about. It’s also fabulously feminist 🙂