Jewish Historical Fiction
for Older Readers:
Immigration and "The American Experience"
Chanukah on the Prairie
By Burt E. Schuman
Chanukah on the Prairie is the perfect introduction to a little-known slice of American Jewish history.
As many Eastern European Jews immigrated to America, a small few traveled beyond New York City to the West. There, in the rolling plains, much like the homes they had left behind, Jews from all over Eastern Europe came together to make a new home.
Based upon true events, this poignant story by Burt E. Schuman with beautiful illustrations by Rosalind Charney Kaye, follows the journey of the Zalcmans as they travel from their small village in Poland to Ellis Island and ultimately to Grand Forks. This story is a wonderful addition to any child's library. Join in the joy as the new immigrants celebrate their first Chanukah in a new land.
Good Night, Maman
By Norma Fox Mazer
Karin Levi's world of family, school, and friends is torn apart when the German army occupies Paris in June of 1940. Karin and her brother, Marc, like Jews all over Europe, find themselves on the run, seeking safety wherever they can find it. When Marc obtains two coveted places aboard a ship bound for the United States, Karin knows that crossing the ocean means she may never see her beloved parents again. Yet she and Marc have little choice if they are to survive. Karin's unforgettable story—revealing the little-known world of a handful of European refugees in World War II America—tells of survival, of growing up, and of love's ability to endure even the most extraordinary circumstances.
A touching novel that begins in 1940 and ends in 1945. Mazer follows 12-year-old Karin Levi and her experiences first as a hidden Jewish child in France, next as a traveling refugee, and, finally, as an inmate in the displaced persons camp in Oswego, NY. After Karin, her mother, and older brother leave France, they stay with a kind man in Italy. When it becomes clear that they must flee, the girl's mother is too ill to continue, and the two siblings must leave her behind. Throughout the book, the child deals with her feelings of loss by writing her mother letters. Mazer captures the refugee experience as Karin travels from place to place in constant fear with no sense of belonging, until she finally settles in at Oswego. Although the prose occasionally becomes strained and even saccharine, such as when the girl refers to her family as her "beloveds," for the most part, Karin's voice is realistic. Despite everything she has been through, she has her moments of petty jealousy and preteen difficulties. However, when her brother finally tells her that their mother did not survive, she manages to overcome her grief and look to the future when they will live with their father's aunt in California. Libraries looking to expand the scope of their Holocaust literature will find this book a welcome addition.
A Time of Angels
By Karen Hesse
Hannah and her sisters live in Boston with Tanta Rose and stern Vashti, awaiting their
parents' return from a Europe embroiled in World War I. An influenza epidemic sweeps
through the city, killing thousands including Tanta Rose. As Hannah is leaving town, she
comes down with the flu and is helped by a mysterious girl with violet eyes. Hannah
makes a slow recovery in Brattleboro, Vermont, cared for by an old farmer named Klaus,
whose German heritage has made him suspect in the town. Hesse's meticulous re-creation
of time and place (substantiated by an author's note) gets the novel off to a very slow start
but lends an authentic feel to the story, despite some incidents that seem added merely
for historical flavor. Her characters are also richly drawn, especially Klaus and Vashti,
and there's a ring of truth to Hannah's being torn between her life in Vermont and her
life in the city.
This magical book tells the story of Hannah Gold, a young Russian-American Jewish girl who lives in Boston with her two sisters, her great-aunt, and a family friend during World War I. Their mother was trapped in Russia by the Bolshevik Revolution and their father enlisted in the U.S. Army. As they struggle to make ends meet, Hannah longs for the time when her parents will come back and lies awake at night waiting. On some nights, she sees angels in the sky. When a lethal flu epidemic hits Boston, Tanta Rosa and Hannah's sisters fall ill. When Tanta Rosa dies, their family friend Vashti fears for Hannah's life and sends her away. Hannah is helped at the train station by a young girl with violet eyes. After getting sick on the train, Hannah is taken to a Red Cross hospital where an elderly German man named Klaus Gerhart takes her under his wing. Through her new "Uncle" Klaus, she discovers that there are humans on all sides of the war with family just like her father. When she is well enough to travel, the young girl with violet eyes returns to take her home and Hannah realizes the girl is actually an angel. This touching novel provides a realistic glimpse of the World War I era and explores the development of relationships between friends and family in ethnically diverse neighborhoods.
A warm, personal novel set in Boston during 1918. Hannah Gold, 14, and her two sisters live with their Tanta Rose while their parents are trapped in Russia because of the war. Although life is not easy, Tanta Rose provides for the girls as best she can. Rose's companion Vashti, however, feels that the girls are an intrusion. When the deadly influenza epidemic ravishes the city, Hannah's world is turned upside-down. Driven away by Vashti after Rose's death, the feverish young woman is guided to safety by a beautiful, ethereal girl (actually, an angel) who saved her life once before. She is nursed back to health on a Vermont farm by an old man whose strength and wisdom give her the courage to go back to Boston and to make peace with Vashti. Aspects of Jewish culture are nicely incorporated into the story, as are period details. However, some plot elements may cause confusion. The angel, portrayed as a guiding force instead of a fully developed character, interacts with Hannah on an almost subconscious level. Also, some of Hannah's actions do not seem realistic. Shortcomings aside, Hesse offers readers much to enjoy, analyze, and consider in this piece of historical fiction with a mystical bent.
Speed of Light
In Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956, there's a bus boycott, but in 11-year-old
Audrey's small mill town in the mountains of Virginia, segregation is never
challenged. Then Mr. Caldwell tries to become the town's first black policeman,
Audrey's father supports the integration, and Audrey and her family are verbally
and physically attacked as Jews "trying to help that nigger." Many Jews in the
community wish Audrey's dad would stop making trouble, but she supports
her dad, even after the racists attack her home and hurt her mother. Central
to the story is the brooding presence in Audrey's home of her distant cousin
Tante, an Auschwitz survivor. Through Tante's personal testimony, Audrey
learns about the Holocaust, and she makes the connections to slavery and its
bitter aftermath in segregation. The dramatic confrontations and the issues will
move readers. In a quiet
climactic scene, Audrey and her black friend spontaneously integrate the
town bus when Audrey offers him her seat.
Winner of Sydney Taylor Book Award (Association of Jewish Libraries)
Letters from Rifka
By Karen Hesse
Twelve-year-old Rifka's journey from a Jewish community in the
Ukraine to Ellis Island is anything but smooth sailing. Modeled
on the author's great-aunt, Rifka surmounts one obstacle after
another in this riveting novel. First she outwits a band of
Russian soldiers, enabling her family to escape to Poland. There
the family is struck with typhus. Everyone recovers, but Rifka
catches ringworm on the next stage of the journey -- and is denied
passage to America ("If the child arrives . . . with this
disease," explains the steamship's doctor, "the Americans will
turn her around and send her right back to Poland"). Rifka's
family must leave without her, and she is billeted in Belgium
for an agreeable if lengthy recovery. Further trials, including
a deadly storm at sea and a quarantine, do not faze this
resourceful girl. Told in the form of "letters" written by
Rifka in the margins of a volume of Pushkin's verse and
addressed to a Russian relative, Hesse's vivacious tale
colorfully and convincingly refreshes the immigrant experience.
Brooklyn Doesn't Rhyme
By Joan W. Blos
A Newbery Medal-winning author returns to early Americana. Eleven-year-old
Rosey is worried about her school writing assignment. How can she write
interestingly about her ordinary life in Brooklyn. As Rosey writes her stories,
a vivid and heart-touching picture emerges of life in a Jewish-American
community in the early years of the 20th century.
Rosey Sachs, 11, narrates these loosely connected stories about a Polish Jewish immigrant family in New York City in the early 1900s. Her voice is gently upbeat, with an authentic Yiddish idiom ("He bought for us a house"), evoking the warmth of the extended family that celebrates the old ways even as it eagerly tries to become part of America. Like Blos' Newbery winner, A Gathering of Days, the focus is on the small events of daily life. The account of the family's move to a new house is a marvel of affectionate comedy. The story "Momma and the Vote" personalizes history with wit and verve. There's a touching episode about two brothers who can only go to school alternate weeks because they share a pair of shoes. Unfortunately, much of the material reads like bits and pieces of anecdote and local color, with characters that come and go too quickly to hold our interest. As Rosey comes to realize, there's a difference between something that happens and making it a story. This is family folklore, and in fact, that's the way the book will be best used: in writing classes to encourage kids to find their own family stories, whether the immigration was many generations back or is happening right now.
"Knowing about your family will help you to know yourself."
That's what Miss Edgecomb, Rosey Sachs's sixth grade teacher, says when she asks her students to write stories about their families. But, Rosey wonders, what can possibly be interesting about her immigrant parents, her small Brooklyn house, and the everyday lives of her friends and relatives in New York in the early twentieth century?
Then Rosey starts remembering things she hasn't thought about since they happened, and she realizes she does have stories to tell: about Momma and Papa, about her big brother Arnold and her baby sister Sadie, about her uncles and aunt and cousins, and about Itzy Carnitzky, Arnold's best friend, who might just turn out to be Rosey's friend as well. And Rosey discovers that Miss Edgecomb was right.
Land of Hope
By Joan Lowery Nixon
In the first book of the Ellis Island series, 15-year-old Rebekah Levinsky escapes persecution
against Jews in Russia and flees with her family to join Uncle Avir in New York City. Few of the family's
belongings can be brought on the treacherous voyage, and Rebekah misses her best friend and
the home she leaves behind. Even so, she adapts quickly to life on board the ship and finds friends.
Her arduous journey is vividly described; her friendships and fleeting shipboard romance are less
convincing. When Rebekah's grandfather is denied entry into the U.S. because he is lame, the
family is devastated. They are also unprepared for the cramped living quarters of their new
home and the long hours they must work in the sweat shop to survive in the new land. Despite
the difficulties, Rebekah is still granted her one wish--to go to school. Nixon's careful rendering
of life for immigrants in the early 1900s is realistically harsh yet hopeful, and teenagers will absorb
a strong sense of the times as they read Rebekah's engrossing story.
When Rebekah Levinsky and her family embark on the long voyage to America at the turn of the century, she befriends two other young immigrants. At Ellis Island, the three friends part ways, with the Levinskys staying in New York. The city is a shock as they adjust to the many changes and new hardships. An honest portrayal of a slice of American history, from the perspective of a young Russian-Jewish immigrant.
Two Cents and a Milk Bottle
By Lee Chai'ah Batterman
Twelve-year-old Leely Dorman has a big problem. She knows the right thing to
do, but getting it done seems impossible. How can Leely, the child of Russian
immigrants living in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, find the money to pay
back a debt to her friend-especially when the Dorman family can barely afford to
put food on the table for themselves? In this charming first novel, author Lee
Chai'ah Batterman introduces readers to Leely, her brainy fifteen-year-old sister
Evy, and Arnie, her tag-along brother, as they face a new neighborhood, a new
school and new friends. Over the course of the novel, Leely becomes a faithful
friend, an entrepreneur and the first girl in the neighborhood to study to become a
Bat Mitzvah. The contrast of Leely's Jewish background and her best friend
Francy's Italian heritage adds an especially colorful twist to their sweet friendship.
But it is Leely's moral dilemma-and her poignant and often humorous efforts to resolve it-that draws readers into this beautifully written tale of adolescent tribulations and family cohesiveness.
There is a life lesson to be learned in every chapter of Two Cents and a Milk Bottle, from developing humane values and intercultural friendships to confronting sickness and death. And Leely proves herself a wonderfully capable teacher for young adults and their parents alike.
By Sharon Kirsh
Molly, a young Jewish girl growing up in the early sixties, learns about life
through trial and error, confronts anti-Semitism at school and at home.
By Eileen Bluestone Sherman
This Jewish immigration story set in 1907 has a resourceful and
engaging hero, an unusual setting, and enough plot and action to
sustain reader interest. Elias Cherevnosky, 14, accompanies his
aging, sickly Hebrew teacher from Russia to Galveston, Texas in
exchange for free passage. When they dock, the man is found to
have traucoma, grounds for automatic deportation, and Elias
decides to remain in the United States. Through a series of
coincidences, and some quick thinking and fast talking, he
finds himself in Kansas City, working in a department store as
a janitor. This is a well-textured story with a variety of
subplots and relevant themes. Elias develops a shy romantic
interest in his boss's daughter, which provokes resentment on
the part of the girl's aunt, who doesn't like the idea of an
immigrant getting too close to her family. The fear of pogroms
in Russia that threaten his remaining family is a real one.
Most readers will identify with the adolescent anxieties
described. The main characters are sensitive, likable, real
people. This story can be highly recommended both to general
readers and to those with that perennial historical-novel
By Adele Geras
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Mina, Daniel, Yasha, and Rachel are just a few of the many people leaving their countries for America. They have great hopes for their new lives, but before they can achieve their dreams, they must survive the long and difficult voyage across the sea.
As passengers in an overcrowded steerage compartment, they must endure hunger, thirst, and even brushes with death. And as they struggle to hold on to their hopes for a better future, they find that even under such harsh conditions, friendship and love can flourish.