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Jewish American Heritage Month: A Booklist for Middle and High School Students

May 4, 2023 | 2 comments

Jewish American Heritage Month: A Booklist for Middle and High School Students

Explore this diverse reading list for middle and high school students to celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month.

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“To be Jewish is to be specifically identified with a history. And if you’re not aware of that when you’re a child, the whole tradition is lost.” 

This quote is from prolific author Joyce Carol Oates. Raised Roman Catholic, she grew up in rural upstate New York, never learning about her family's roots in Judaism.

Fleeing antisemitic persecution in Germany in the late 19th century, her grandmother moved to a farming community outside Buffalo, N.Y. Due to the hate and trauma she experienced in Germany, Oates’ grandmother hid her Jewish heritage and faith from her family and neighbors after arriving in the United States. Oates only learned of her heritage after her grandmother died in 1970, when a biographer began researching her ancestry.

Regrettably, the story of Oates’ family is not unique. Many families and individuals felt—and still feel—that they need to hide their true identity. The U.S. prides itself on being a country that says "never again" to hate and genocide; instead, we see local and state governments banning books and lessons that discuss Jewish faith, culture and experiences.

Recently in several states, we’ve seen bans on books with Jewish themes and stories, such as:

  • The Storyteller
  • Chik Chak Shabbat
  • Maus (Parts 1 and 2)
  • The Purim Superhero
  • Anne Frank's Diary: The Graphic Adaptation

We’ve also seen bans on hundreds of books and discussion of topics that expand students' understanding of the world. This effort to eliminate teaching about the diversity of race, gender, and religious experiences and family configurations severely limits students’ knowledge of the world. It results in curricula where white, Christian, and straight married families are the norm. Any experiences or ethnicities different from these are implicitly “outsiders” and even “subversive.”

When Jewish and other voices are marginalized and silenced, it diminishes the richness of our collective human spirit. It also fuels the erasure of our full culture and history. This creates the conditions where it becomes easier for stereotypes and other harmful, toxic attitudes to spread.

So, how can we help our students learn more about the Jewish American experience?

One word: education.

When we teach, we take action, we take a stand, we question the status quo, and we expand the world.

Teaching: the original form of protest.

When we share knowledge of Jewish history and culture with our children and communities, we construct a bulwark against ignorance and hate. In a time when antisemitic rhetoric and violence are on the rise, it is essential that educators and parents help preserve and celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Jewish Americans and prevent it from being censored by governments that want to whitewash, deny or erase history. And by providing students with an accurate and comprehensive understanding of the Jewish experience, they develop empathy, respect and appreciation for our shared cultural diversity. 

Through this, we help lay the foundation for a more inclusive and tolerant society that recognizes the value of every individual, regardless of their background. It also empowers children with a strong sense of identity and pride in their heritage, enabling them to become advocates for their community and to challenge antisemitic attitudes.

Aside from exploring Share My Lesson resources that highlight Jewish American Heritage Month, I also curated this booklist for middle and high school students from a variety of genres, including novels, memoirs and historical accounts of Jewish American figures as models of courage, justice, art and civic engagement. You can find stories that will foster not only joy and compassion, but also resilience and understanding. If you’re looking for a preK-5 book list, read my article here

Middle School Reading List

The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman

The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman

Imani knows exactly what she wants as her big bat mitzvah gift: to find her birth parents. She loves her family and her Jewish community in Baltimore, but she has always wondered where she came from, especially since she's Black and almost everyone she knows is white. Then her mom's grandmother—Imani's great-grandma Anna—passes away, and Imani discovers an old journal among her books.

Learn more about this book here.
Alma Presses Play by Tina Cane

Alma Presses Play by Tina Cane

Alma's life is a series of halves: She's half-Chinese, half-Jewish; her parents spend half the time fighting, and the other half silent; and she's halfway through becoming a woman. But as long as she can hang out with her friends on the stoops of Greenwich Village and ride her bike around the streets of New York, it feels like everything will be all right. Then comes the year when everything changes.

Learn more about this book here.
Color Me In by Natasha Diaz

Color Me In by Natasha Diaz

Growing up in an affluent suburb of New York City, 16-year-old Nevaeh Levitz never thought much about her biracial roots. When her Black mom and Jewish dad split up, she relocates to her mom's family home in Harlem and is forced to confront her identity for the first time.

Learn more about this book here.
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch

Spunky, strong-willed 11-year-old Mirka Herschberg isn’t interested in knitting lessons from her stepmother, or how-to-find-a-husband advice from her sister, or you-better-not warnings from her brother. There’s only one thing she does want: to fight dragons! Granted, no dragons have been breathing fire around Hereville, the Orthodox Jewish community where Mirka lives, but that doesn’t stop the plucky girl from honing her skills.

Learn more about this book here.
Aviva vs the Dybbuk by Mari Lowe

Aviva vs the Dybbuk by Mari Lowe

This is a compelling, tender story about friendship and community, grief and healing, and one indomitable girl who somehow manages to connect them all.

Learn more about this book here.
The Assignment by Liza Wiemer

The Assignment by Liza Wiemer

Inspired by a real-life incident, this riveting novel explores the dangerous impact discrimination and antisemitism have on one community when a school assignment goes terribly wrong.

Learn more about this book here.
The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros

The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros

In 1893, Alter Rosen sees Chicago as a land of opportunity where he dreams of earning enough money to bring his mother and sisters to the city, freeing them from the oppression they face in his native Romania.

Learn more about this book here.
The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen by Isaac Blum

The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen by Isaac Blum

Hoodie Rosen's life isn't that bad. Sure, his entire Orthodox Jewish community has just picked up and moved to the quiet, mostly non-Jewish town of Tregaron, but Hoodie's world hasn't changed that much. He's got basketball to play, studies to avoid, and a supermarket full of delicious kosher snacks to eat. The people of Tregaron aren’t happy that so many Orthodox Jews are moving in at once, but that’s not Hoodie’s problem.

Learn more about this book here.

High School Reading List

Ethel's Song: Ethel Rosenberg’s Life in Poems by Barbara Krasner

Ethel's Song: Ethel Rosenberg’s Life in Poems by Barbara Krasner

Convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage for the Soviet Union against the United States, the author shares the story of Rosenberg’s beliefs, loves, secrets, betrayals and injustices in this compelling young adult novel in verse.

Learn more about this book here.
The New Queer Conscience by Adam Eli

The New Queer Conscience by Adam Eli

Voices4 Founder and LGBTQIA+ activist Adam Eli offers a candid and compassionate introduction to queer responsibility. Eli calls on his Jewish faith to underline how kindness and support within the queer community can lead to a stronger global consciousness.

Learn more about this book here.
Jew(ish): A primer, A memoir, A manual, A plea by Matt Greene

Jew(ish): A primer, A memoir, A manual, A plea by Matt Greene

In this wide-ranging series of essays, at turns irreverent, insightful, urgent and iconoclastic, Greene considers what might loosely be termed “the modern Jewish experience,” and asks what it means to be anything in a world obsessed with the self and the other.

Learn more about this book here.
The Ghosts of Rose Hill by R. M. Romero

The Ghosts of Rose Hill by R. M. Romero

Sent to stay with her aunt in Prague and witness the humble life of an artist, Ilana Lopez—a biracial Jewish girl—finds herself torn between her dream of becoming a violinist and her immigrant parents’ desire for her to pursue a more stable career. When she discovers a forgotten Jewish cemetery behind her aunt’s cottage, she meets the ghost of a kindhearted boy named Benjamin, who died over a century ago. As Ilana restores Benjamin’s grave, he introduces her to the enchanted side of Prague, where ghosts walk the streets and their kisses have warmth.

Learn more about this book here.
Battling Bella: The Protest Politics of Bella Abzug by Leandra Ruth Zarnow

Battling Bella: The Protest Politics of Bella Abzug by Leandra Ruth Zarnow

Before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren or Hillary Clinton, there was New York’s Bella Abzug. With a fiery rhetorical style forged in the 1960s antiwar movement, Abzug vigorously promoted gender parity, economic justice and the need to “bring Congress back to the people.”

Learn more about this book here.
The Chosen by Chaim Potok

The Chosen by Chaim Potok

In 1940s Brooklyn, an accident throws Reuven Malther and Danny Saunders together. Despite their differences, the young men form a deep friendship. Together, they negotiate adolescence, family conflicts, the crisis of faith engendered when Holocaust stories begin to emerge in the U.S., loss, love and the journey to adulthood. The intellectual and spiritual clashes between fathers, between each son and his own father and between the two young men provide a unique backdrop for this exploration of fathers, sons, faith, loyalty and, ultimately, the power of love.

Learn more about this book here.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

This is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that follows two Jewish cousins as they navigate the world of comic books during the Golden Age of comics.

Learn more about this book here.
Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba by Margarita Engle

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba by Margarita Engle

Daniel has escaped Nazi Germany with nothing but a desperate dream that he might one day find his parents again. But that golden land called New York has turned away his ship full of refugees, and Daniel finds himself in Cuba.

Learn more about this book here.
Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents' Tailor by Martin Greenfield

Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents' Tailor by Martin Greenfield

Taken from his Czechoslovakian home at age 15 and transported to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz with his family, he was separated forever from his parents, sisters and baby brother. Greenfield remembers his desperation and fear as a teenager alone in the death camp and how a Schutzstaffel (SS) soldier's shirt dramatically altered the course of his life. He learned how to sew and when he began wearing the shirt under his prisoner uniform, he learned that clothes possess great power and could even help save his life.

Learn more about this book here.

In Closing

Being Jewish goes beyond religious practice alone. Being Jewish also entails deep, meaningful connections to rich cultural, historical, racial and ethnic heritages. Given the rise in antisemitism, which continues to force Jewish Americans to confront the ongoing reality of prejudice and discrimination in a country that promises its citizens freedom of religion and expression, this sentiment is particularly relevant. And by sharing these stories and experiences, we can foster empathy, tolerance and appreciation for the many ways Jewish Americans have shaped our nation's history. If you have any book titles you’d recommend, add them in the comments below.

The voices, joys, struggles and accomplishments of the Jewish people are powerful. Now, more than ever, is the time to celebrate them.

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Andy Kratochvil
Andy Kratochvil is an SML team member who loves hiking, video games, scary books, Mexican food, and finding great content for the Share My Lesson community. He studied political science and French at California State University, Fullerton and received his Master’s in International Affairs from... See More
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ensenyo0309
ensenyo0309 May 7, 2023, 2:12 pm

It is mentioned that The Diary of Anne Frank is among the "banned" books. That isn't quite true. What was removed from the shelves was Anne Frank's Diary: The Graphic Adaptation.

Andy Kratochvil
Andy Kratochvil May 8, 2023, 10:54 am

Thanks for catching this! I'll make that revision; however, it is worth noting that the original book has been challenged or banned/removed from several libraries and school districts in the U.S. since its publication.