By Rhys Wright, Amy Blay and Rosie Green
To celebrate Hanukkah, we’d like to recommend some LGBTQIA+ reads with significant Jewish representation. We’ve included books that cover short fiction, young adult fantasy and non-fiction. What these books and their authors provide is a range of nuanced perspectives on the intersection of queer and Jewish identity. We hope they keep you entertained over the holiday season and give you some more insight into LGBTQIA+ Jewish experiences.
The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros
For anyone looking for queer Jewish representation in genre fiction, The City Beautiful is a novel that covers all bases. A young adult gothic fantasy that’s equal parts historical fiction and murder mystery, it’s an unforgettable journey through Jewish culture and folklore in 19th century Chicago.
Alter Rosen is a young Jewish immigrant in Chicago, setting aside every penny to bring the rest of his family over from Romania. During the 1893 World Fair, his roommate and best friend Yakov is the latest in a string of Jewish men to be murdered. Yakov’s dybbuk – his spirit with unfinished business – starts possessing Alter. Racing against time until the dybbuk possesses him completely, Alter must track down the killer alongside an anarchist named Raizel and his old friend Frankie, who he secretly has feelings for.
A finalist for both the Lambda Literary Award and the National Jewish Book Award, Polydoros’ novel successfully captures the nuances of queerness and Jewishness in the 19th century. It’s a novel brimming with the specificity of Jewish American immigrant culture, sparing no detail in order to bring it to life.
This portrayal of the grimy underbelly of industrial Chicago and its overcrowded tenements is teeming with eclectic characters whose cultural identity is never relegated to the background. There are plenty of Yiddish and Hebrew terms left untranslated and the characters believably think and act like people from the 1800s.
The inclusion of folkloric elements like the dybbuk makes this a distinctly Jewish fantasy novel that stands out from the rest of the YA fantasy market. But at the story’s core is Alter – a protagonist who, in the face of grief, poverty, antisemitism and homophobia, remains determined to find justice for all of the people his community has lost to antisemitic violence.
A Letter to Harvey Milk: Short Stories by Lesléa Newman
First published in 1988, A Letter to Harvey Milk comprises nine short stories, focusing on the convergence and collision of queer and Jewish identities.
Newman explores life, love and womanhood from the perspective of Jewish lesbians through a whole host of situations that will strike a chord with any reader. From mother-daughter misunderstandings, to delving into issues in relationships between Jews and gentiles (people who are not Jewish) and the complications of growing pains and self-discovery, every story is a fantastic read.
Through prose combining English and Yiddish – with a glossary available at the end for those unfamiliar with the latter – Newman takes the reader on a journey into how growing up as a Jewish member of the LGBTQIA+ community affects one’s relationship with family, faith, the world and one’s own self. Whilst angst in many forms – familial, generational, religious – is present, the stories are, overall, celebratory of Jewish traditions and perseverance amidst issues such as AIDS, antisemitism and the Holocaust.
Across this humorous coming-of-age collection, the cast of unique, quirky characters come to understand and embrace their heritage and identities in stories described as revealing, vulnerable and full of refreshing candour – all of which makes A Letter to Harvey Milk still relevant in the modern day.
The New Queer Conscience by Adam Eli
“Queer people anywhere are responsible for queer people everywhere.” This is the central message of Adam Eli’s The New Queer Conscience.
Eli begins by comparing the global outpouring of support by the Jewish community in response to a 2018 synagogue shooting to the lack of similar mobilisation by the queer community after similar events, such as the ‘purges’ of queer people in Chechnya. Rooting the idea in a quote from the Talmud that “all Jewish people are responsible for one another,” he calls for an equivalent attitude of collective responsibility in the queer community.
While he recognises the importance of acknowledging different queer experiences and that some groups are more privileged than others, he emphasises the need for unity above all else, presenting a compelling case for solidarity not just within the LGBTQIA+ community but with other marginalised groups, combating all types of hatred as one.
The book is both personal and universal, just as queer experiences are individual and collective; Eli explores his own story and his queer Jewish identity, then leads into the realisation that being LGBTQIA+ does not and should not mean being alone. Culminating with a set of guidelines for approaching this ‘new queer conscience’, this book is a short but powerful read, and an inspiring call to queer people and allies everywhere to stand together.