The Jewish Experience in America | Great Books

Holidays (particularly Hanukkah) and the Holocaust are dominant themes in children’s literature with Jewish content, but this does not represent the totality of the Jewish experience in America or around the world and should not be the only books with Jewish content that children are exposed to.

Gittel’s Journey by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Amy June Bates (Abrams 2019)


In response to the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh this past October, the Association of Jewish Libraries created a series of book lists to help teachers, librarians, and parents identify recommended titles with Jewish themes. As stated on the Association’s “People of the Book” blog, “Books read in youth impact future outlooks, and it is our hope that meeting Jews on the page will inspire friendship when readers meet Jews in real life.” Holidays (particularly Hanukkah) and the Holocaust are dominant themes in children’s literature with Jewish content, but this does not represent the totality of the Jewish experience in America or around the world and should not be the only books with Jewish content that children are exposed to. Below is a selection of books that appeared on the “Love Your Neighbor” book lists as well as other new titles that will help children learn about the Jewish religion, culture, history, and contemporary Jewish life.

Readers are also encouraged to seek out the Sydney Taylor Book Award winners, presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience, as well as the winners of the National Jewish Book Award. Both awards were announced in January.

Picture Books

CHURNIN, Nancy. Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing. illus. by James Rey Sanchez. Creston. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781939547446.
KIMMELMAN, Leslie. Write On, Irving Berlin! illus. by David C. Gardner. Sleeping Bear Pr. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781585363803.
NUCHI, Adah. God Bless America: The Story of an Immigrant Named Irving Berlin. illus. by Rob Polivka. Disney-Hyperion. 2018. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781368015769.
K-Gr 3 –To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the song “God Bless America,” three new picture books about its composer, Irving Berlin, were published in 2018, each focusing on slightly different aspects of his story as a Jewish immigrant fleeing pogroms in Russia and the prejudices and challenges he faced in America. Churnin emphasizes the beginnings of Berlin’s career while Kimmelman gives more attention to his family and his service in both world wars. Focusing on the creation of “God Bless America” and its legacy, Nuchi’s text is more concise and the most fun to read aloud. The illustrations all differ in style, palette, mood, and medium. All three books include extensive back matter.


NEWMAN, Lesléa. Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story. illus. by Amy June Bates. Abrams. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781419727474.
Gr 1-4–Stylized watercolor, gouache, and pencil illustrations help tell the story of nine-year-old Gittel, who journeys to America alone. Based on stories told to her by her grandmother and aunt, Newman’s heartwarming retelling captures the resilience of the estimated three million Eastern European Jews who came to the United States between 1880 and 1924. A detailed author’s note is appended.


ZALBEN, Jane Breskin. A Moon for Moe and Mo. illus. by Mehrdohkt Amini. Charlesbridge. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781580897273.
K-Gr 3 –While shopping with their mothers on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, Moses Feldman, or “Moe,” and Mohammed Hassan, also “Mo,” meet and become friends. When their families share a picnic in the park, Mo’s family brings date cookies, a traditional dessert enjoyed after the Ramadan fast, and Moe’s family shares raisin rugelach in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. Digitally assembled photo collage illustrations with acrylic, markers, and ink beautifully capture the contemporary, multicultural neighborhood.


Middle Grade

GRATZ, Alan. Refugee. Scholastic. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780545880831.
Gr 4-8–Winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award and the National Jewish Book Award, this middle grade novel presents the dramatic story of three different refugees: Josef, a Jewish boy fleeing Nazi Germany for Cuba in 1939; Isabel, whose family escapes riots and unrest in Cuba in 1994 on a makeshift raft, hoping to reach Florida; and Mahmoud, a Syrian boy desperate to dodge violence and war and find refuge in present-day Germany. The surprising connections among the three children make their tales all the more powerful, moving, and relevant.


KRAWITZ, Susan. Viva Rose! Holiday House. 2017. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9780823437566.
Gr 3-5 –Thirteen-year-old Rose lives a quiet life with her Russian immigrant parents in El Paso, TX, in the early 1900s until she discovers that her older brother is involved with the revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. Through both fictional characters and historical figures, Krawitz introduces readers to the Jewish involvement in westward expansion and the Mexican Revolution.


PERL, Erica S. All Three Stooges. Knopf. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780399551758.
Gr 4-7– Dash and Noah, both seventh graders preparing for their upcoming bar mitzvah, are best friends who share a passion for comedy. But when Dash’s dad commits suicide, Noah has no idea how to be a supportive friend. With an incredibly poignant mix of humor and tragedy, Perl creates multidimensional, authentic characters who embrace their Jewish identity and learn about repentance, forgiveness, and friendship. Noah has two moms, which is not a focus of the story at all but adds value to this beautifully rendered contemporary tale.


ROSENBERG, Madelyn & Wendy Wan-Long Shang. This Is Just a Test. Scholastic. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781 338037722.
Gr 3-6 –It’s 1983, and 12-year-old David Da-Wei Horowitz is anxious about what will happen if there’s a nuclear war. He’s also worried about his upcoming bar mitzvah, old and new friendships, two feuding grandmothers (one Jewish, the other Chinese), the interschool trivia contest, and how to talk to his crush. This is a humorous and quirky coming-of-age story about friendship, trust, and honesty featuring a thoughtful and engaging character.



LOCKE, Katherine. The Girl with the Red Balloon. Albert Whitman. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780807529379.
Gr 8 Up –Part mystery, part historical fiction, part science fiction and fantasy, this is the absorbing story of Ellie Baum, who visits the Berlin Wall with her high school class, finds a red balloon, and is transported back to East Berlin in 1988. The “Balloonmakers” series continues with The Spy with the Red Balloon (2018).


PIXLEY, Marcella. Ready To Fall. Farrar. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780374303587.
Gr 8 Up –When his mother dies of cancer, 15-year-old Max Friedman falls apart convincing himself that her tumor has entered his brain. He can’t focus at school and isolates himself from his family and friends. He transfers to a new school, making friends with a talented group of misfits, and through a steampunk production of Hamlet, Max learns to trust himself and others as he gradually accepts his mother’s death. A lyrical and moving character-driven novel about a Jewish family coping with a monumental loss.


SOLOMON, Rachel Lynn. You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone. S. & S. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481497732.
Gr 8 Up –Twin sisters Tova and Adina run the risk of inheriting Huntington’s disease, a devastating degenerative neurological condition that is mentally and physically destroying their mother. When both girls take the genetic test, one tests positive and the other negative. In alternating narratives, they each grapple with how to relate to each other, their parents, their high school peers, their Jewish identity and practice, and their sexuality. They also struggle with how to accomplish their goals—Tova wants to become a surgeon, and Adina dreams of being a concert musician. A heartbreaking and compelling debut YA novel.

Rachel Kamin has been a synagogue librarian for over 20 years and is currently the Director of the Joseph and Mae Gray Cultural & Learning Center at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, IL.

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing