Authors Explore Jewish Identity

It's Jewish American Heritage Month, and SLJ spoke with authors about the importance of writing Jewish characters and stories.

Evan Wolkenstein

Evan Wolkenstein conceived Turtle Boy as a story about a boy with a funny looking chin who wanted to hide from everyone. It was inspired by events from his life, but the protagonist didn’t share  Wolkenstein’s full identity. Then his agent suggested he incorporate his Jewish background.

“I had no real intent of making it a Jewish story until my agent felt it was important to the story because it’s important to who I am as a writer,” Wolkenstein says. “For books to be good books, writers have to tap into their heart and my Jewishness is really part of my heart."

With his agent’s encouragement, he found a way to “bring my Jewish self to the writing page.” And Turtle Boy went on to win the middle grade category for the 2021 Sydney Taylor Book Awards, which honor titles that authentically portray the Jewish experience.

For a long time, books about Jewish people or by Jewish authors fit into two categories: the Holocaust and holidays. Jewish secondary characters often embodied negative and damaging stereotypes. Today, Jewish children’s authors are putting Jewish joy and intersectionality on the page, creating characters who just live their day-to-day lives and happen to be Jewish. May is Jewish American Heritage Month and SLJ spoke with authors about how they bring their Jewish identity to their work.

Many of these authors grew up feeling like outsiders at best and targeted at worst. They can cite specific moments from their childhoods when they were made to feel ashamed or wanted to hide who they were.

Liza Wiemer

“Because of the numerous antisemitic incidents I, and others, experienced in the broader Jewish community, I felt a strong need to hide my Jewish identity; I was afraid,” says author Liza Wiemer. “And yet, I love and have always loved being Jewish. I love the traditions. I love the holidays. I love the sense of community.”

Now she and her fellow Jewish writers are celebrating their Jewish identity in the characters and narratives of their children’s and YA titles, trying to help young readers understand the diverse Jewish world. The publishing world has a responsibility, author Liza Wiemer says, to show a broad range of identities in non-stereotypical ways.

“It's important that Jewish joy is seen,” she says. “The trauma is a part of us without a doubt, but it is only one part.”

 

RIsing antisemitism and an urgency for stories

Like so many other marginalized communities at this time, Jewish people are experiencing a high level of violence, harassment, and hate. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Audit of Antisemitic Incidents, antisemitic incidents at K-12 schools in the U.S. increased 106 percent in 2021. Overall, the number of incidents reached an all-time high, with a total of 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment, and vandalism.

Wiemer’s 2020 book The Assignment, which was inspired by a real-life incident, explored discrimination, antisemitism, and the impact.

“When it came down to writing The Assignment, it forced me to confront how antisemitism had influenced my Jewish identity, and how I often kept it hidden,” she says.

This was something she previously only shared within her community but now felt was time to express to the rest of the world. She also wanted to use the story to push for change.

“The deeper message of this book is to speak out against hatred, bigotry, and injustice; to be an ally and an upstander,” says Wiemer. “That’s how we change the world.”

The rise in hate crimes against the Jewish American population has created a greater urgency in authors to share Jewish stories and those with Jewish characters.

Aden Polydoros

“It was really within these last few years with the rise in antisemitism, and what felt like an increasingly hostile environment, as someone who's Jewish, that's when I really began thinking about the importance of reading Jewish stories,” says Aden Polydoros. author of The City Beautiful, which won the 2022 Sydney Taylor Award in the YA category.

Polydoros didn’t grow up in a very religious family, so his first introduction to Jewish stories was Holocaust fiction.

“I realized that there was there's so much more to that, more to being Jewish than just the Holocaust,” he says. “Over these last few years, it's become increasingly important for me to write Jewish stories and trade stories that I didn't have as  a kid growing up.”

 

Intersectionality and the Jewish experience

Picture books, YA, graphic novels; characters who are very religious and those who are not; Jewish characters who are also LGBTQIA+ or raised in interfaith homes; Jewish characters who are flawed, funny, heroic, and just human. These are the books these authors sought when they were younger but were nowhere to be found. Now they are filling the shelves with their own stories for young readers.

Polydoros struggled a bit while writing The City Beautiful, wondering if he needed to make his Jewish characters “more appealing.”

“I kept thinking, ‘I need to make them pillars of faith and goodness and show people that these are good people,’” he says. “I realized that was the wrong way to approach it. I shouldn’t write a book with characters who are the epitome of goodness who have no flaws, as a way of humanizing Jews in readers’ eyes.”

Those inclined to believe negative stereotypes would not be swayed by some one-dimensional Jewish character in a book, he decided.

Veera Hiranandani grew up with a Jewish mother and a father from India who was Hindu. She writes about biracial characters and interfaith families. The author of The Night Diary and How to Find What You’re Not Looking For— the 2022 Sydney Taylor Award winner for middle grade books—explores both side of her families’ histories in her work.

“I’ve just always been writing the books that I needed as a younger person and didn’t always see or feel were available to help me just figure out who I was,” she says. “I’m still on that journey.”

Veera Hiranandani

She notes there can be a "blurry” line between culture and religion for Jewish people, and says while not very religious she enjoys the traditions and celebrations, particularly around the holidays. She finds joy and meaning in carrying out the traditions of her parents and grandparents. And like Polydoros, she has felt a need right now to own that Jewish part of her identity.

“I feel a fierceness in holding on to a certain identity that has been under persecution for its entire existence,” she says. “There is a part of me that feels like, ‘I'm here, my mother's here, my grandparents were here.’ When I look at my whole extended family, how many marginalized communities my extended family represents—and Judaism is one of those marginalized communities, I just think it's really important to just keep saying, ‘I'm here, we're here.’ That's not an opinion. You can’t argue with that. That just feels especially important.”

Yehudi Mercado is Mexican and Jewish and grew up outside of Houston as the only Jewish kid in his school besides his sisters. For a few years, he even changed his name to Jerry at school so teachers would stop mispronouncing it (or not even trying) and to try to fit in. But when he was pulled off the morning announcements in high school after saying Happy Hanukkah—church and state, after all, that wasn’t allowed (never mind the Christmas trees throughout the school and messages like, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” Mercado says)—it was a wakeup call for him.

“I was like, ‘Oh crap, changing my name to Jerry is hiding my Jewish identity. I need to reclaim it,’” he says. “So that’s when I started to go by Yehudi again.”

In his books, like the graphic novel Chunky and forthcoming sequel Chunky Goes to Camp, he weaves in the identity of his Jewish and Mexican characters. They are intersectional and multidimensional in a way that normalizes all of it.

“They fit in with the rest of the characters, and not in a square-peg-in-a-round-hole way,” he says. “I really just incorporate them and give them their own personalities and quirks so that their entire identity isn’t just that they are Jewish or that they are Mexican. I felt like that’s the secret—just make them another weird character, but weird on their own, not because of their identity.”

Both Hiranandani and Mercado say they don’t feel pressure to “balance” each piece of their identity, but instead to be true to the story with authentic characters. Polydoros, though, wasn’t sure where The City Beautiful might fit in because of the intersectional identities of his characters.

“I was so afraid that the book was too Jewish to be considered a queer book and too queer to be a Jewish book,” he says. “I was afraid readers wouldn't be able to relate. Then I realized that showing books with characters who are both queer and Jewish, or who have intersecting identities, is so important. I came to the realization that in a lot of books with observant main characters, they lose their faith, and that's considered character development or growth. I didn't want to show readers who are religious and observant that their faith was incompatible with their sexuality, or that becoming nonpracticing or changing their observance in any way is character development or character growth.”

 

Yehudi Mercado

Mirrors and windows for the Jewish diaspora

For young Jewish readers, seeing themselves (and all parts of who they are) is important.

“It's all about representation,” says Mercado, who believes he leaned toward science fiction growing up because he could “imprint my own identity on these fantastical characters.”

“So I've always wanted to stick Jewish characters and Mexican characters in all my books and show them as not the stereotype,” he says. “That is very important.”

The littlest details matter. Mercado remembers one child’s reaction when he showed a fake movie poster from one of his books that said, “Coming this Hanukkah,” instead of the usual Christmas message.

“This kid’s eyes lit up like, ‘Oh my gosh, I celebrate Hanukkah,’” he says.

That one drawing made a child feel seen, but Mercado also wants it to plant a seed in the non-Jewish readers.

“Those little things, I hope, get a kid questioning why, like the next time he sees a movie poster that just says, ‘Christmas,’” he says.

Wolkenstein wants non-Jewish readers to finish his books knowing “like 20 cool Jewish things” they didn’t know before. And 20 very specific things that raise questions about what it means to be a Jewish kid.

“I’m going to paint a picture that will make you ask more questions,” he says. “The letters I’ve gotten from non-Jewish kids, they’re curious, they want to know more, which is what I want.”

Jewish readers not only see themselves in his books, but Jewish people living differently from them.

“It’s so important that there are more books with intersecting identities,” says Polydoros. “My work focuses a lot on Jewish history and Eastern Europe, but obviously that’s not the only Jewish community. It’s important that there are also more Jewish books with characters who come from North Africa or the Middle East. There are so many Jewish communities out there, and it’s important that more stories feature those characters.”

Judaism is “not a singular thing,” says Mercado.

Depicting Sephardic Jews rather than Ashkenazi Jews is one way he tries to illuminate beyond the narrow view many have of the Jewish community.

“It is important to all my [work], just to show the diaspora,” he says.

This is what these authors strive for: to write Jewish stories about people from different places and communities, experiencing Judaism in a variety of ways. They want to normalize being Jewish, break the stereotypes, help the next generation of Jewish children not feel othered, and give non-Jewish readers that all-important window.

When Wolkenstein’s agent suggested bringing his Jewish identity into Turtle Boy, Wolkenstein was ambivalent at first. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be “a Jewish writer.” He just wanted to be a writer.

But, he says, “We need to remember that every time we encourage an author to tap into their lived experience and their intersectional identities and the complex places they’re from—which I think is the trend in writing anyhow—we’re not just doing a political exercise or keeping current with trends of identity, we’re actually pushing our writers and our creative people to make our best art. … If [something] is meaningful to you and your identity, bring that to the page and everybody’s a winner. The book is better. The writer is happier. The readers are more plugged in. And it paves the way for deeper meaning and for the next generation to turn to their legacies to inform their being.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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