Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
I have always been a reader. As a kid, going to the local public library was the highlight of my week. And it really was an almost-weekly trip. My sister and I would spend half an hour or more browsing the shelves, looking for the perfect books, and then we would each make our way to the counter, nearly tripping up the stairs because of the teetering piles of books that blocked our view.
I loved so many characters, and I related to aspects of them. I liked to think I had Hermione Granger’s brain, I wished I had Anne Shirley’s imagination, and I felt quite sure I had Annabeth Chase’s fighting spirit. But I almost never read any books where I really saw myself.
There was never anyone Jewish in the books I read, unless I wanted to read about the Holocaust. I did love The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Diary of a Young Girl, and The Book Thief. But I was definitely lacking contemporary fiction with Jewish characters.
This never hindered my love of books. I think my workload in high school did that for me. But now that I’m out of college and I have free time and a real need for light-hearted entertainment, I’m back to reading. I’ve discovered that YA (young adult) books in particular have begun to include more Jewish characters. And it turns out that I never quite outgrew YA.
Here’s a quick highlight reel of Jewish characters in YA literature I’ve read recently:
- Cassandra Clare’s fantasy series The Shadowhunter Chronicles includes the Jewish character Simon Lewis
- Margo Roth Spiegelman is a Jewish main character in John Green’s Paper Towns
- TWO of the main characters in Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl are Jewish
- In If I Stay by Gayle Forman, Kim (the main character’s best friend) is Jewish
Becky Albertalli: Queen of Southern & Jewish YA Lit
My favorite author of the Jewish young adult experience is Becky Albertalli. Albertalli is from Atlanta, Georgia, and all of her books take place in and around the city (or feature characters from there). From the start, her Jewish representation is new and awesome because it’s southern! Plus, her books are funny, multidimensional, and quick to read.
Her big seller, which is also a big blockbuster, is called Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (the movie adaptation is Love, Simon). One of the main characters in the book is a Black, Jewish, gay boy. Another character is a Jewish girl named Leah. In a spinoff/sequel (Leah on the Offbeat), Albertalli tells Leah’s story. In this series, Albertalli tackles one of the core challenges of being a teenager—feeling different. She brings in diverse characters, real struggles, and heartwarming endings.
Albertalli also wrote a book that responds to the social and political climate in the South for Jews and Muslims. Her co-author was Aisha Saeed, and together they explored the joys and challenges of being non-Christian in the South, learning about other cultures, being motivated by one’s values, and more. Plus, Jamie Goldberg (the main character) gives a really cute speech at his younger sister’s Bat Mitzvah.
And those aren’t even all of her southern and Jewish books! Becky Albertalli is singlehandedly doing more for southern Jewish representation in media than almost anyone else.
So, Gabby, why did you write this blog?
Basically, I wanted to let people know a few things. First, you are never “too old” for YA books. Second, we all deserve to feel seen and understood by the media we consume, and YA is a great subset of contemporary fiction to turn to for quality Jewish content. Third, talking about books is so fun!
Even in my 20s, I’m reading a ton of YA fiction. These books tell the stories I’ve been waiting to hear my whole life. I get to read about characters facing real struggles, hardship, and heartbreak, and yet still getting a happy ending. Turn to the books I’ve recommended here if you’re looking for great books for high school kids, if you’re looking for a laugh and an escape, and especially if you’re looking for more diverse Jewish representation. It’s out there, and I can’t wait for you to read about it.