If you never learned Hebrew beyond what you had to know for your bat mitzvah and the word of the day on Birthright (Sababa!), but you still want to read Israeli literature (because, obviously), this list is for you. You won’t find Israeli literary giants Amos Oz, Meir Shalev, David Grossman or A.B. Yehoshua below—plenty of recommendations tend to showcase these famous male voices. We are pivoting the spotlight to some insanely talented Israeli women:
1. Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Gundar-Goshen is a force to be reckoned with. She has published two novels, “One Night, Markovitch” and “Waking Lions” (both translated by Sondra Silverston), each centering on morally ambiguous men in stories that feel uncomfortably real. The plot of “Waking Lions” revolves around an Israeli doctor committing a hit-and-run accident that kills an Eritrean illegal immigrant in the Negev desert. “One Night, Markovitch” is based on the true story of Jewish men who went to Nazi Europe during the 1940s to marry women to legally bring them to Mandatory Palestine; the plot begins when one man refuses to grant his fake wife a divorce. Both novels deal with questions of privilege, otherness, prejudice, and misogyny. You will not want to stop reading.
2. Dorit Rabinyan
Rabiyan, an Iranian Jewish woman, is best known for her novel “All the Rivers” (translated by Jessica Cohen). The novel tells the story of an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man who fall in love one winter in New York. A year after its publication, the Israeli Education Ministry banned the novel from high school reading lists. This controversy propelled Rabinyan into the news; she wrote in Time Magazine that “the book tries to address the Jewish fear of losing our identity in the Middle East. And yet that very fear condemned it to official rejection.” Don’t just read Rabinyan’s “All the Rivers” as a rebellion because of its banned book status; read it for a heart-wrenching portrait of a doomed relationship (spoiler: the book is all the more powerful when you find out the story is based on her real life relationship with Palestinian artist Hassan Hourani).
3. Ayelet Tsabari
“I’m about to cross the street to Café Rimon when I see Natalie sitting on the shaded patio and my heart skips, trips and falls over itself…” So begins the first story of Tsabari’s debut short story collection, “The Best Place on Earth,” which focuses on the Mizrahi Jewish community. By focusing on Mizrahi Jews, Tsabari deftly captures the voices of the often underrepresented community. Unlike others on this list, she skillfully hones in on the split in Israel between the Mizrahi (Jews of Middle Eastern, North African descent) and the Ashkenazi (Jews of European descent) community. Tsabari now lives in Canada, telling the Times of Israel that she’s an “exile by choice.” Exile or not, Tsabari’s stories show that she has her finger firmly on the pulse of Israeli Jewish life.
In 2015, Castel-Bloom won Israel’s highest literary award—the Sapir Prize—for her latest novel, “An Egyptian Novel.” Released in an English translation last month (translated by Todd Hasak-Lowy), English readers can finally delight in the tales of an Egyptian-Jewish family throughout generations. Castel-Bloom, currently a creative writing professor at Tel Aviv University, has written 11 books in the last three decades; only four are available in English. “Dolly City” (translated by Dalya Bilu), her most famous novel, is considered one of the most important works of postmodern Hebrew literature. Moral of the story: don’t sleep on Orly Castel-Bloom.
5. Judith Katzir
Combine “The Diary of Anne Frank” with “Lolita” (strange, we know…) and you get Katzir’s “Dearest Anne” (translated by Dalya Bilu). “Dearest Anne” is the tale of a forbidden love story between Rivi, a 14-year-old girl, and Michaela, her 28-year-old married teacher. Inspired by Anne Frank, Rivi begins to keep a diary. The Hebrew version, titled Hineh Ani Matḥilah (“Here I Begin,” a quote from Anne Frank’s diary), faced backlash for a “disrespectful” treatment of the Holocaust. Additionally, the story was almost resoundingly rejected by Israel’s queer community. The English version addresses these critiques head-on in the afterword. If you’re looking for something less Lolita-y, Katzir’s other English-translated book, “Closing the Sea” (translated by Barbara Harshav), is a collection of four stories.
6. Shanji Boianjiu
Boianjiu wrote her debut novel, “The People of Forever are Not Afraid,” in English, not Hebrew. She told the New York Times that “writing in English forced me to think carefully about every word I used.” So while this book is not in translation, the story is still a deeply Israeli story. Boinanjiu focuses on three Israeli women in the Israel Defense Forces and how they come of age in the midst of violence. In narrowing in on the female experience of war, she powerfully subverts the traditionally masculine genre of war novels.
7. Shelly Oria
Okay, so Shelly Oria was born in Los Angeles, not Israel. *But* she was raised in Israel, Hebrew is her native language, and she identifies as an Israeli-American author. She had to be included because her debut short story collection, “New York 1, Tel Aviv 0,” is 18 fantastic tales of love, relationships, and sex. As Out Magazine wrote, “It’s earnest and sarcastic; innocent and calculating; straight and queer; linearly narrative and experimental and sometimes sci-fi; and Israeli and American, as well as Israeli-American.” Oria’s hyphenated identity—born in America, raised in Israel—shines through.
Still looking for more? Check out the “Jewish Women Writers” series, a collaboration between the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and the Feminist Press. Happy reading!