The Best Jewish Books of 5782

Part of: The Almas 5782

Jews are the people of the book (do we make this joke every year? probably) and there were some absolute standout reads in 5782. The five books to take home an Alma this year represent the best in Jewish fiction, non-fiction, romance, YA and (a new category this year) scholarship. You can get (nearly) all the books on this list at Bookshop, a platform supporting independent bookstores. As we celebrate the Jewish new year, we wish you a sweet new year filled with lots of good books.

The Best Jewish Fiction

Despite the old adage, you can absolutely judge “Shmutz” by its cover. Featuring a plump, jam-filled hamantaschen with white lines emanating from its corners on a flesh-colored background, the cover art for “Shmutz” skillfully signals the Jewish sexuality of the compelling story on its pages: one of a young Hasidic woman who discovers pornography and subsequently feels pulled between her religious and secular identity. As author Felicia Berliner told Hey Alma, “I’d want [potential readers] to feel that faith gives meaning, that faith is beautiful, that faith is sustaining — and that restrictions around knowledge, exploration and identity are oppressive — and that wrestling with exploration, knowledge, identity and community can be very, very hard and very destructive to, in this case, a young woman who’s trying to find her way.”

The Best Jewish Non-Fiction

Elana Maryles Sztokman’s book “compiles the stories of 84 victims and survivors (Sztokman employs both terms) within Jewish communities. Sztokman starts the book by analyzing the grooming tactics that allow predators to take advantage of others and the stages in which they target victims, break down any resistance they may show, establish trust and gain their loyalty, and play mind games with the victim while lying to the community around them about what happened. Her thorough and careful breakdown makes it easy to understand the patterns of a phenomenon that can, at first glance, seem unimaginable.” For Hey Alma contributor Claire Davidson Miller, the book “forced [her] to confront the reality that [her rabbi’s] crimes did not occur in a vacuum.”

The Best Jewish Romance

As Lior Zaltzman writes, Elisa Sussman’s romance novel “Funny You Should Ask” is “the perfect Jewish rom-com — the kind of book I wish would get a movie adaptation, like, yesterday. It tells the story of Jewish writer Chani Horowitz, who gets the assignment of her career: to write a profile of upcoming ‘Bond’ actor Gabe Parker, who also happens to be her longtime movie star crush. For Chani, a young, idealistic, self-proclaimed ‘loud Jewish girl,’ meeting Gabe, her childhood crush, is a dream. What she doesn’t expect is for Gabe to know who she is — to have read her blog, to know about her life, to arrive to the interview just as prepared to grill her as she is to grill him. The interview turns out to be more than Gabe, or Chani, ever bargained for.Ten years later, both their careers have been permanently changed by it, and Chani is assigned to write a follow-up to their life-altering article. Will they be able to rekindle that initial spark? ‘Funny You Should Ask’ tells a story that’s still rare, in which the Jewish heroine gets to be loud and proud and still get the guy.”

The Best Jewish YA

Leah Scheier’s late 2021 release tells a familiar YA story, featuring themes of grief and love, about a girl, Ellie, and her missing boyfriend — so one might be tempted to consider this very familiar ground. But, as A.R. Vishny writes, what makes this book different is “that its cast of characters is all Modern Orthodox Jews — and this informs much about the way Ellie and her friends process their grief and carry on. Ellie’s friend Deenie has started to ‘frum out’ and become more religious, while her more rebellious friend Rae channels her grief into baking. Jewish religious identity is not technically ‘the point’ of the book, but it is an essential context for how the girls interact with each other and those around them. The expectations of the community and the expectations they have for themselves, as defined by religious Jewish life, are tested throughout in ways that feel unique and profoundly real.”

The Best Jewish Scholarship

A rare non-male Jewish scholarly voice, French rabbi Delphine Horvilleur has risen to prominence in the last decade (she even made the cover of Elle France). “In Eve’s Attire: Modesty, Judaism and the Female Body,” published in English for the first time in 2022, “explores what women’s bodies have been, and still can be, in Judaism — especially in modernity.” Per Paige Shoshannah: “Too often, men in positions of power — whether rabbis, community leaders or politicians — try to dictate women’s modesty. I found it refreshing to read about modesty, the female body and Judaism through the lens of a female rabbi, someone whose experience in the world has been shaped by existing in a female body… Many women in the Jewish canon, whether in the Talmud or the Torah, are often reduced to what their bodies can or cannot do. Horvilleur isn’t the first person to observe this. Yet she excels at weaving together various stories and their classical interpretations while also adding her own gloss.”