Contemporary Jewish Youth Literature

Stories reflect pride in Jewish identity

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Do you remember the Jewish books for kids of days gone by? The majority seemed to focus on holidays, shtetl life, or persecution. Historical fiction and folklore ruled the day. Readers learned a lot about their Jewish past, but not much about their Jewish present. 

With changes in the Jewish zeitgeist came changes in the literature. Today, Jews in the Western world are less shy about their identity and are ready to reach out to others. New children's books reflect this confidence as they explore deep issues of Jewish identity, offer playful expressions of Judaism, and portray Jews as multifaceted characters rather than ethnic symbols. Most recent Jewish "kidlit" is all, in one way or another, about embracing Jewish identity.

Choosing Jewish Identity

The greater popularity of "chick lit" for young girls and teens has translated into Jewish writing on spiritual self-examination. This has helped to create a segment of youth literature aimed at teenagers and young adults. In this contemporary Jewish literature, characters think deeply about what it means to be Jewish and choose to embrace their heritage because they find personal meaning in it.

jewish kid bookTwo recent winners of the Sydney Taylor Book Award, the only prize that focuses solely on Judaic literature for young people, each help older readers explore a young woman's understanding of God in a Jewish context. Feeling abandoned by God after her mother and sister die in a house fire, Cara in Julia's Kitchen (2006), by Brenda A. Ferber, eventually learns to see God as sympathetic rather than protective. In Confessions of a Closet Catholic (2005), by Sarah Darer Littman, Justine is pressured by her family to be "Jewish, but not too Jewish." Exasperated, she embraces her best friend's Catholicism in a journey that ultimately leads her back to her own heritage.

Another teen novel, Strange Relations (2007), by Sonia Levitin, features Marne, an assimilated Jew who spends a summer with Orthodox relatives. Their life seems restrictive and uncomfortable until she learns to see the love and spirituality behind their unfamiliar practices. In A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life (2006), by Dana Reinhardt, Simone, adopted by agnostic Gentile parents, meets her Jewish birth mother and refines her own understanding of the meaning of religion and family. In all of these "girl books," we meet characters for whom Judaism is not a given--they choose to express Judaism after finding a personal connection.

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Heidi R. Estrin

Heidi Estrin, M.L.S., hosts The Book of Life, a monthly podcast on Jewish books, music, film, and web. She is president of the Association of Jewish Libraries' South Florida Chapter, and past chair of AJL's Sydney Taylor Book Award committee. She is the Library Director at Feldman Children?s Library, Congregation B?nai Israel in Boca Raton, Florida.