Name some books about Jews!
February 17, 2010 1:13 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for books that will help an anti-Semitic teenage boy challenge his stereotypes.

A friend of mine is working with a young man who is very invested in stereotypes. He seems most comfortable expressing anti-Semitism and heterosexism, but there's probably other prejudice floating around in there also. He loves to read and is a "good reader" (can probably handle adult material), so my friend and I are trying to brainstorm books that would challenge his prejudices. Books about the Holocaust are ok, but I'm particularly looking for books that present Jewish people and Judaism as multi-faceted and real in the world right now, not just intertwined with WWII and the Holocaust. Any help is greatly appreciated.
posted by epj to Religion & Philosophy (50 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Anything by Chaim Potok is probably going to be useful.
posted by valkyryn at 1:17 PM on February 17, 2010

Jews Without Money by "Michael Gold".

Socialist propaganda and (fictionalized) personal memoir of Jewish poverty in the Lower East Side in the early 20th century. Kinda Angela's Ashes, but with an explicit political point. Quite readable.
posted by orthogonality at 1:25 PM on February 17, 2010

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay

It's set in the same time period as the cold war, but mostly in America. Plus it's about comic books and it's written in a fresh and engaging modern voice.

And, as a bonus, it's got a vibrant homosexual relationship that develops about halfway through the book and catches the reader by surprise.
posted by 256 at 1:26 PM on February 17, 2010 [16 favorites]

Everything is Illuminated might be a good choice since it features parallel narratives, one about contemporary Jewish identity and the other offering a broad historical range that touches on the Holocaust. It's also really funny, has some semi-edgy sex stuff in there, and teenagers adore it.

And seconding Kavalier and Klay.
posted by eggplantplacebo at 1:27 PM on February 17, 2010

I don't know how 'adult' you mean by 'adult reader', but I thought The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay managed to be pretty page-turning, gave a good feeling for what it meant to come to the US as a Jewish person, and also made the point that many of the founders of the comic industry were Jewish (I'll never look at Superman in the same way).

It might be a little literary (and pretty thick) for some kids, and if you're not in the US it might make you scratch your head a little, because it's basically United States historical fiction, but I thought it was great.
posted by Valet at 1:28 PM on February 17, 2010

Damn! You people are fast typers.
posted by Valet at 1:29 PM on February 17, 2010

And by "the cold war," I mean the hot war. World War II. Incidentally, all of Michael Chabon's books are pretty great and they all deal with both Jewish Identity and sexual identity to some degree. But Kavalier and Klay is definitely the most accessible for a teenager.
posted by 256 at 1:29 PM on February 17, 2010

How old is he? Kavalier and Clay and Everything is Illuminated seem a little dense for most kids.
posted by Think_Long at 1:30 PM on February 17, 2010

I would advocate the movie "The Believer"
posted by digividal at 1:31 PM on February 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Valkyryn beat me to it! Hard to get better than The Chosen or My Name is Asher Lev.

This may be a bit "young" for him, but Lois Lowry's Number the Stars is still one of the most fantastic books I've ever read.

For more contemporary titles, I'm a fan of Dara Horn - a lot of the heart of Jonathan Safran Foer without the verbal pyrotechnics.
posted by bookgirl18 at 1:32 PM on February 17, 2010

If I had to pick one Chabon book, it would most definitely be Yiddish Policeman's Union over K&C.
posted by Oktober at 1:36 PM on February 17, 2010

Philip Roth's The Plot Against America? My (non-anti-semitic) teenage brother loved it.

It might help us to know why he is anti-semitic--is this something his parents passed on and he just accepted until now, or is this some "theory" he's come up with and wants to argue with people about? What kind of community does he himself come from--comfortable suburbia, upper middle class, poverty-stricken?

Also, is he going to read something that is "obviously" designed to change his mind?
posted by sallybrown at 1:39 PM on February 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, there's Maus. It's really quite heavy, but the fact that it's comic book might get it across the transom. And if he does read it, I don't see how it can help but have an effect. It's like a distillate of Night and The Diary of a Young Girl (both of which are pretty obvious recommendations which I'm assuming you wouldn't be able to convince him to read).
posted by 256 at 1:41 PM on February 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Schindler's Ark?
posted by jbickers at 1:42 PM on February 17, 2010

I'd suggest The Book-Thief. It's an amazingly well written story about a poor, non-Jewish girl in WW2 Germany and her gradual realization of the world that she lives in. It's a marketed as a young-adult book and is quite readable for a youngster, but it's also very emotionally engaging.
posted by rks404 at 1:45 PM on February 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

If he's "heterosexist," maybe knowing that all the founding members of KISS are Jewish would give him a nudge. He needs to know that Jews can be just as monstrous douchebags as he is, not that they're great writers, which only serves to support stereotypes.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 1:47 PM on February 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm not trying to be a suck-up, but ponying up a $5 MeFi membership might be a great idea. I see a lot of lazy assumptions and poor arguments in favour of racism, sexism etc. get challenged and refuted here every day by smart, engaging people, and usually (fairly) politely.

The userbase is intelligent enough that long threads are often compelling reading, and since 90% of the content here is not in those sensitive areas, it won't feel like you're shoving him into the forum site of racists-suck-dot-com.
posted by Shepherd at 1:49 PM on February 17, 2010

How about Maus?
posted by KathrynT at 1:49 PM on February 17, 2010

I think to challenge prejudices in this way, you may wish to find readings where the fact that the person is Jewish is almost incidental rather than a focus.

The Hate Crime is good for this because the main character, while he's Jewish, doesn't really practice or have the same reaction as his girlfriend, who is very much involved in her religion.
posted by zizzle at 1:50 PM on February 17, 2010 [2 favorites] point being that reading about Jewish experiences is not going to make any anti-Semite change. Knowing that cock-rock superstars are Jewish might.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 1:50 PM on February 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

shit and you specifically said not the holocaust, even. Please disregard; I'm going to have another cup of tea.
posted by KathrynT at 1:50 PM on February 17, 2010

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It's a young adult book, but has some very adult themes. It's set in WWII, however.

As for the anti-gay stereotypes, I would suggest Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan or Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson. I haven't read Boy meets Boy, but David Levithan is a fine writer. Bermudez Triangle is a great read, but the main characters are all girls so he may not connect with that.

(Sorry to recommend all young adult books, but that's where my knowledge lies and frankly I think they often do the stereotype-breaking better than lots of adults books.)
posted by sarahnade at 1:53 PM on February 17, 2010

Not a book but is a good online resource, focused mostly at educators. It has several online resources, one which could be valuable to you is guided discussions about current events. Same with the US Holocaust Museum's website.
posted by fontophilic at 1:53 PM on February 17, 2010

I know you're asking for books that are not about WWII and this is a movie that is about WWII, but Inglourious Basterds has some kick-ass Jews in it
posted by nomad at 1:57 PM on February 17, 2010

For the heterosexism: David Sedaris
posted by sallybrown at 2:01 PM on February 17, 2010

Leon Uris definitely wrote with a heavy hand but I remember reading Mila 18 (a fictionalization of events surrounding the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising) as a teen and finding it very compelling (ie: hard not to read).

Exodus was pretty effective too.
posted by philip-random at 2:05 PM on February 17, 2010

Recommend a book about Jews for an anti-Semite kind of reminds me of that joke Microsoft interview question, "design a sugar dispenser for diabetics". Anyway, I enjoyed Foreskin's Lament, a humorous autobiography by a guy trying to get over his ultra-Orthodox upbringing and abusive father. The book's funny and the protagonist is very relatable, but he also kind of hates Judaism so it may not convey the right impression. Angels in America has a good treatment of both Judaism and homosexuality but it's a little out there and adult and (for lack of a better way of putting it) very, very gay and the kid will almost certainly hate it.
posted by phoenixy at 2:06 PM on February 17, 2010

I really enjoyed "Tough Jews" by Rich Cohen. I heard an interview with the author speaking about how one of the reasons he wrote the book was to explore stories about Jewish people that weren't stories about the Holocaust or other persecution.

The book details the Jewish mafia. Entertaining read.
posted by Edubya at 2:16 PM on February 17, 2010

I really want to say Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird, because the story (a semi-fictionalized/semi-autobiographical account of a young Jewish/Gypsy boy's harrowing escape from capture in WWII-era Europe) is fast-paced and exciting in an immediate and visceral way perhaps likely to hold the attention of many teen-aged boys or young adult men. The book is about a suggestively Jewish protagonist during WWII, but it is not necessarily a WWII story--or, for that matter, a Jewish one. Rather than focusing only on the persecution of Holocaust scapegoats, the book summons a more universal concept of prejudice as its central theme [the "painted birds" were captured doves (I think) which were shunned and killed by their own flocks after being painted different colors and released]. Think Catcher In The Rye during WWII Poland and waaay more subversive.

Why I would hesitate to recommend it?: It's a brutal book. And to a young person not quite mature enough to appreciate the metaphors, the violence and creepiness might just titillate. And while it's true that the protagonist throws many Jewish stereotypes right out of the window, he is not a particularly sympathetic person. Especially at the end of the book where he appears to succumb to hatreds of his own. ...I think the question is whether the OP's young man would see this moral as a cautionary warning about hate--or a nihilistic celebration of it.
posted by applemeat at 2:18 PM on February 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think for a kid that age you have to make bigotry seem uncool, rather than evil. Evil has too much sex appeal.

Borat (i.e. Sasha Baron Cohen)? Sarah Silverman? Get him hooked on some musician/entertainer and then point out that they're Jewish.
posted by phrontist at 2:28 PM on February 17, 2010

Chabon also has Gentlemen of the Road, which is King-Solomon's-Mines type adventure, about a couple of Jewish adventurers.
posted by inkyz at 2:33 PM on February 17, 2010

This is an interesting and challenging question. I agree that comedians are a great idea and luckily there are tons of Jewish and gay comedians out there! How about movie night instead of or as well as book lists?
posted by serazin at 2:37 PM on February 17, 2010

How about William Sutcliffe's New Boy? While dealing with both Jewishness and emerging homosexual feelings, neither are the focus of the novel as much as attending a boy's school in 1980's England. Also, it's damn funny and meant for teenage boys without being patronising.
posted by Wantok at 2:58 PM on February 17, 2010

It all depends on the boy - who he is will define what will speak to him. So, all this is a shot in the dark. However, I'd suggest something different: Isaac Bashevis Singer. The boy may not have much of an attention span, and short stories might just do the trick to pull him in. And Singer is such a deeply humanistic writer, that I contend it is impossible to read him and remain an anti-Semite. Singer is not strident, so it won't get anybody's hackles up. If you can hate him, then you hate all humanity.
posted by VikingSword at 3:19 PM on February 17, 2010

Philip Roth's first story collection Goodbye, Columbus contain good stories about a young, Jewish man attempting to relate the world. One of Roth's most famous novels, Portnoy's Complaint, is about a young Jewish man dealing with the sexual anxiety all teenagers face. Both of these works are about assimilation and how it effects the characters viewpoints about their Jewish upbringing. I don't see them as game changers for this boy's issues, but they might give him a good introduction to just how similar all young men are, no matter their religion or cultural viewpoints.
posted by rabbitsnake at 3:25 PM on February 17, 2010

The Diary of Anne Frank
posted by cactus86 at 3:44 PM on February 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you very much to everyone for your thoughtful responses! The young man I'm speaking about is presently in an inpatient mental health facility with children of various ages, so books are more practical than movies because there's no issue of "someone else is watching the TV" or "little ones shouldn't see that". I may recommend that my friend organize an "Inglorious Basterds" viewing, though; kick-ass Jews sound like they might fit the bill quite well.

In answer to sallybrown, we don't have the faintest idea where the anti-Semitism is coming from. He denies that anyone in his family shares his views, and that seems to be borne out in my friend's interactions with his family. I don't know how much he buys in vs. how much is just trying to shock others.

As far as him reading things that he knows are about "changing his mind", that's why my friend and I wanted to steer clear of Holocaust literature, if possible. Rather than enlightening him that prejudice is WRONG!, we're taking the approach that being Jewish isn't strange/foreign/bad, and even if you don't know many Jewish people personally, here are some books with Jewish people you can relate to. Thanks again for all the responses, and sorry for my rambly response here.
posted by epj at 4:45 PM on February 17, 2010

Best answer: Hmm, I've done some work in this area recently.

Despite the fact that it's set during WWII, I third The Book Thief (Zusak). It's an incredible book, and frankly, the main character isn't Jewish and she kind of has to be nudged into being ok with Jews.

Here's another one: Confessions of a Closet Catholic. It's more girl-based than young man might like, but if he's desperate for a book he might just jump in.

There's You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax? though that's a picture book; it but might help if he's into baseball at all.

You might try looking at past winners of the Sydney Taylor Award; it's an award for "outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience."

I have a TON of stuff for LGBT fiction, but I have to run. If this has been helpful, I can go into LGBT books when I get back.
posted by librarylis at 4:57 PM on February 17, 2010

Berries Goodman is a great young adult novel that addresses anti-semitism. It won a Newberry medal but it may be a little "young" for this individual.
posted by Sculthorpe at 4:58 PM on February 17, 2010's a second thought. Is the kid a Lemony Snicket fan, or is he familiar with Lemony Snicket? (Would Lemony Snicket be okay for him to read if he isn't?)

Because Daniel Handler, the creator of Lemony Snicket, is Jewish and totally awesome. There was an NPR interview with him some years ago and the man is funny. If you can find that interview for the kid to listen to after reading some of the books together, that may be a good in....I mean, it may be problematic if he doesn't understand how Lemony and Daniel could be the same person but Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler = AWESOME. Yup.
posted by zizzle at 5:10 PM on February 17, 2010

Another thought: what ethnicity is this kid? Maybe you could look for authors (or subjects) that are Jewish AND this kid's ethnicity too?
posted by serazin at 5:39 PM on February 17, 2010

If he's ok with openly expressing his prejudiced, I'm not sure that you'll get far by just pushing some books in front of him and saying "read about these Jewish/homosexual people, they're just like you!"

When I was younger I understood that some people held contempt for Jews, I never understood why. It wasn't until later in life that I actually learned of the stereotypes. Asking him why he doesn't like Jews may make him take a step back and actually think about his prejudice. He may not even know why he dislikes Jews. After that, the book suggestions may be helpful.

Not sure if my suggested approach would work on the heterosexism front. It's easier to quantify the difference between homo/hetero-sexual and he's probably just reacting to something he views as different.
posted by ASM at 5:45 PM on February 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Will Eisner's A Contract With God. Pictures, words, emotions, humanity.
posted by SPrintF at 7:20 PM on February 17, 2010

Before you think to recommend The Painted Bird, you might want to read this. It's a brutally (one might say gratuitously so) violent book - and it turns out Kosinksi was a liar and a fraud. It may not be a good choice. Especially for someone in an inpatient facility.

The Book Thief, Kavalier and Klay, Contract with God are all fantastic. I liked Gentlemen of the Road, but it felt slightly unfinished.

That being said, I'm also a bit skeptical - conversations like ASM suggest might be helpful first.
posted by canine epigram at 9:53 PM on February 17, 2010

Also, Eisner's To the Heart of the Storm. Wonderful book, his reflections on his life up until his entry into the army in WWII. Involves his best friend's anti-semitism, his parent's histories, etc.
posted by Hactar at 10:21 PM on February 17, 2010

Ok, so you've got a start on some books about Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish experience. If you'd like to also work on his heterosexism, try the books that the Rainbow Project recommended.

As their explanation notes, "Coming-out stories have consistently made up a large part of GLBTQ literature, as have “problem novels” populated by characters defined by orientation. But the books on this year’s Rainbow List go much farther by offering young readers rich characters embodying the full spectrum of youth and family experience."

Some of the highlights of the list have been mentioned above (Boy Meets Boy, The Bermudez Triangle), but I'd also suggest Freaks and Revelations (the two sides of a teenage gay hate crime, victim and perpetrator), the funny Absolutely Positively Not (as in, the protagonist is trying very hard not to be gay), or Wide Awake (another David Levithan, this one a double whammy: the newly elected President is both gay and Jewish).
posted by librarylis at 10:51 PM on February 17, 2010

Hank Greenberg"s memoir is back in print.
posted by brujita at 11:22 PM on February 17, 2010

Final paragraph from the review of Jerzy Kosinski's Painted Bird that canine-epigram linked to above.

Although The Painted Bird may not be directly about the Holocaust, although it may not be based on Kosinski's own experiences during the Holocaust, it is nevertheless an indispensable document of the Holocaust. It is perhaps the greatest example of what is coming to be known as a "second- generation" book: a contemporary report of the hell in which a survivor of the Holocaust must live, one generation after the event.

Doesn't mean it's an appropriate read for a troubled teenage boy however.
posted by philip-random at 11:54 PM on February 17, 2010

I read Harry Golden's "Only in America" picked randomly off of some bookshelf in my deep memory. He was a columnist and I recall being engaged in the collection and I wish I remembered more about it. From the reviews it looks like it might really meet your needs; I recall the tone as being rather light and not polemic.
posted by fydfyd at 12:48 AM on February 18, 2010

What about The Yiddish Policemen's Union, also by Michael Chabon? It's a very engrossing noir-esque book about a policeman in an alternate history in which the Jewish people were resettled in Alaska.

It is a really great book, and the protagonist is a sort of 'man's man' character.
posted by winna at 7:33 PM on February 24, 2010

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