Melting Pot Challenge: Jewish Characters

Back in 2009 I was fortunate enough to see the television movie Loving Leah. In this film, Jake, a successful cardiologist, finds out that his elder brother has died. After the funeral, Jake learns that because his brother’s wife Leah has been left without children, they need to perform a ceremony called halizah in order to nullify a levirate marriage. It’s a fairly simple process and everyone is all set to go when Jake calls it off. He realizes that Leah is all he has left of his brother and he wants to hold on to her for just a few more months before they go their separate ways. Slowly, they realize that Benjamin gave them each one final gift with his parting: each other. Theirs was a slow, sweet romance and I absolutely loved it.

I then did what I always do when I love a movie – I looked for the book. Unfortunately, this movie isn’t based on one. I turned to romance, wondering if there were any novels available that matched the general premise of the film but couldn’t find any.

When the idea of the Melting Pot Challenge came up, I immediately thought back to Loving Leah. I had looked for (and not found) novels specifically about the Hasidic community but what of more mainstream Jewish characters? Because Jane Heller is a favorite author of mine, this was an easy question to answer. There are definitely books with Jewish heroes and heroines out there, many of them terrific reads. Among my favorites just from Heller’s backlist are Lucky Stars, Name Dropping and Sis Boom Bah. Each feature feisty, fun heroines in hilarious situations that have just that right touch of zany and romantic.

Digging deep in my pile of previous reads, I found another stack of favorites: the novels of Pam Jenoff. While her books don’t tend to be traditional romances with HEA’s, they do always contain love stories. In her most recent novel, The Things We Cherished, hero Jack had long been in love with Charlotte. However, as the girlfriend of his beloved brother, he had felt her off limits. Now, Charlotte and his brother have split and he has a second chance with her as the two of them work a legal case involving a possible Nazi war criminal. The story here is absolutely riveting. I found myself glued to my seat as the two characters raced the clock to clear their client’s name and bring light to an important piece of history. As in all of Ms. Jenoff’s books, the love story here is complicated, twisting and turning to keep up with the equally complex plot. The ending does not come complete with guarantees of happiness but it does bring our characters to a point where we feel we can safely trust them to find their way there.

Even though her books have not fared well here at AAR, I still think no column speaking of Jewish characters in romance would be complete without mentioning Belva Plain. In 1980, her novel Evergreen soared to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. In keeping with the times, this is an epic romance saga which tells the tale of Anna Friedman, a young Polish immigrant who finds herself torn between the love of two men – gentle Joseph and the wealthy, artistic Paul. She can’t pick one without hurting the other. And she can’t choose at all without hurting herself. Anna’s long quest for love carries us through the Second World War to the forming of Israel and beyond. It is an extremely memorable tale set against the Jewish immigrant community of the early 20th century.

For this challenge I picked up two very different novels. The first book is The Anglophile by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. The story centers around Shari Diamond, a grad student from New York. Most girls might be looking for tall, dark, and handsome but this girl is looking for slender, pale, and accented – as in a British accent. Reading about Christopher Robin as a child has left her with a strong taste for all things that come from across the pond. When she meets Kit during a linguistics conference in Chicago, she thinks she may just have found everything she is looking for, even if he isn’t Jewish. But then a boy from her past, one who is far more acceptable to her family, comes back into her life. Which man is the right man for her?

Fans of Bridget Jones Diary will find a lot to like in Shari’s tale of love lost, found, misplaced, and misguided. This is a quick, easy pleasant read. While Shari, like most chick lit heroines, sometimes got on my nerves with her sheer self-centeredness she viewed herself with enough censorious humor to make me overlook some of her more glaring flaws. I enjoyed this novel quite a bit.

My second pick is an Inspirational that has been on my TBR for a couple of years. A common trend in the Christian market is to tell tales of either biblical characters or characters living in biblical times. Janette Oke has written a series covering the early Christian church called Acts of Faith. I loved the first two books in this series but when I started book three, I found myself completely uninterested in the tale. This challenge seemed like the perfect time to dust the book off and try again.

The Damascus Way is the story of Julia, a young woman who is an outcast from both the gentile and Jewish communities. Her Jewish mother is the mistress of a rich Greek and as a child of both cultures, she finds herself accepted by neither. When she is introduced to followers of The Way, a new sect of the Jewish faith, she finds herself belonging like never before and wondering if this is a chance for her to find love and a family.

The book’s beginning was no easier the second time than the first. However, once I got further into the story I began to be more interested in Julia, Jacob, and the problems they must overcome to reach an HEA. I was in the end delighted by their love story, though a bit saddened by the troubles I knew they faced in a world where their religion and culture opened them up to imprisonment and persecution.

I would love to say that romances revolving around Jewish characters are easy to find but that would not be quite true. There are several printed in the Inspirational market every year, but these books celebrate the faith(and often involve conversions) more than they do the people and their culture. With the exception of Pam Jenoff, I didn’t find anyone currently writing love stories about Jewish characters.

So now it’s your turn. Have you read any of the books I discussed? Do you have any recommendations for other great reads?

– Maggie Boyd

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29 Responses to Melting Pot Challenge: Jewish Characters

  1. AAR Lynn says:

    It’s been a while since I read it, but I remember loving Bed of Spices by Barbara Samuel. It’s a medieval romance with a Christian heroine and Jewish hero.

    I’ve noticed a few inspirationals out there with Jewish characters, but I’ve shied away from most of them. I once read an inspy that featured a Jewish hero in Regency England, and rather than respecting his religion and culture, the story seemed to follow the, “Of course the godly heroine will convert that heathen,” theme. And I have to admit that I found that offensive.

  2. Leigh says:

    Of the authors you mentioned, I have read Belva Plain’s books and Jane Heller’s. It seemed to me that Millie Criswell wrote about Jewish characters – at least a mother. Judith Arnold has also had some Jewish characters because her books showed up on a list of Hanukkah themed stories –

  3. Connie says:

    Nita Abrams has a whole series about Jewish involvement during the Napoleonic wars. The Spy’s Reward is a book that comes to mind and Zoe Archer wrote a hilarious book about a Jewish cowboy….can’t think of the name.

    • RobinB says:

      Connie: Nita Abrams has a whole series about Jewish involvement during the Napoleonic wars. The Spy’s Reward is a book that comes to mind and Zoe Archer wrote a hilarious book about a Jewish cowboy….can’t think of the name.

      I also read the Nita Abrams series–it was most enjoyable, and the issue of intermarriage between Jew and gentile was a frequent theme in those books. I tend to read historical romance, so it’s not often that I encounter my fellow religionists as characters in my fiction reading!

      In a medieval prequel to her “Bride” series, Mary Jo Putney featured Jewish characters as heroic secondary players to the hero/heroine. The book is “Uncommon Vows”, and if it’s not still in print, it may be available as an e-book.

  4. Connie says:

    The Zoe Archer was LADY X”S COWBOY. NOt sure if its still in print.

  5. Leigh says:

    I might end up with two posts. A correction post is waiting moderation. However I checked again and Millie Criswell book is about an Italian family not Jewish. In fact the heroine’s brother is a priest.

  6. Kim T. says:

    Loved the Hallmark movie Loving Leah and recently purchased the DVD. I think the only (memorable) Jewish characters I’ve encountered in romances were in Judith Arnold’s novels and lots of chick-lit.

  7. Maria D. says:

    I can’t honestly think of too many books I’ve read with Jewish characters – I’ll have to check out the books you’ve listed. I do know I read a romance a couple of years ago that was a short story where the hero was Jewish and the heroine was African American – it was a holiday story – but I can’t remember the name of it right now.

  8. Lynnd says:

    Liz Carlyle’s Never Deceive a Duke’s Gareth Lloyd is half Jewish. She deals with issues of marraige between Jew and Gentile (Gareth’s parents) and also anti-semitism visited on Gareth.

  9. Connie says:

    Just checked and Lady X’s Cowboy is out on ebook on Amazon. It’s a hoot!

  10. Yulie says:

    I’m Jewish, so I tend to notice when there are Jewish characters in the books I read – and in romance novels, they are few and far between. When the issue of diversity comes up, a lot of time the focus is on people of color (who are also under-represented in the genre) and less attention is paid to religious diversity. I’d love to see more Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, atheists, etc. I’ve come across some romances in which Hanukkah was essentially substituted for Christmas , but I’m not really into holiday romances, and anyway Rosh Hashana and Passover are more important than Hanukkah.

    Okay, sort of rant over.

    In addition to Carlyle’s book that Lynnd mentioned, I’d like to add Laura Leone’s Fallen From Grace (Jewish heroine, fantastic book) and Phillipa Gregory’s The Queens Fool (which I had some issues with, but enjoyed overall). I think Megan Hart has written several books with Jewish characters, though I haven’t read any of them.

  11. Susan/DC says:

    Marjorie Farrell’s “Lady Barbara’s Dilemma” is a trad Regency with a Jewish secondary character who winds up with a lovely romance of his own. I liked the way Farrell handled the friendship between the Jewish businessman and the Christian aristocrat, as well as the anti-semitism of the times.

    Carola Dunn’s “Miss Jacobson’s Journey” is another Regency. The Jewish heroine must decide between two possible heroes, one Jewish and one Christian. The tension between the two men on several levels is quite realistic, but they nevertheless each remain a believable potential match for the heroine. There is a sequel where each of these characters reappear, but I did not like it nearly as much.

  12. Jessica says:

    Sharan Newman’s mystery series set in twelfth-century Paris has strong secondary characters who are Jewish who have an active role throughout the series. She was also writing her Ph.D in medieval history when she was writing these, so the history is excellent. The story is also, though it’s not a traditional HEA. These are best read in order.

  13. Eliza says:

    Besides the Jane Heller books you mentioned, the only other one that comes to mind is Deirdre Martin’s “Chasing Stanley,” part of her NY Blades series with a hockey hero, his misbehaving Newfie named Stanley, and a Jewish heroine who is a dog trainer.

  14. Eliza says:

    AAR’s review was B:

    “Chasing Stanley is, in a lot of ways, a quiet story. There is very little angst, no torment, no deep anguish. All the blood and violence happen on the ice. To keep a reader’s interest, therefore, Martin has to create her plot with the relationship between her main characters. Fortunately, Martin has a great talent for character development.”

  15. It may not be exactly current, but the book that springs instantly to mind for me is Close Relations, by Susan Isaacs. I read it years ago and loved it (but then I was studying politics at university at the time, and the heroine is a political speechwriter, so that might have had something to do with it). Either way, it remains my favourite of Susan Isaacs’ books.

    • maggie b. says:

      Susanna Kearsley: It may not be exactly current, but the book that springs instantly to mind for me is Close Relations, by Susan Isaacs. I read it years ago and loved it (but then I was studying politics at university at the time, and the heroine is a political speechwriter, so that might have had something to do with it). Either way, it remains my favourite of Susan Isaacs’ books.

      I can’t believe I didn’t include Susan Isaac! I’ve read several of her books and a couple of them had an HEA.

      • Close Relations definitely has an HEA. The whole set-up, in fact (successful woman in questionable relationship is “helped” by her well-meaning family to find true love) reminds me a lot of one of my favourite films, Crossing Delancey.

  16. maggie b. says:

    Thank you everyone for the terrific recs! Please keep them coming!

  17. Sarah says:

    I’ve been looking for books with jewish characters for a while – it’s tough, particularly when that selection is further limited by books that I think I’d actually like! I’ll definitely have to check out some of the books on this list. Someone mentioned Lady X’s Cowboy above – I’d add that it’s a good book, but neither character is actually jewish. The hero was raised by a jew, and the heroine has some jewish ancestry, but this is essentially used as an excuse to have them throw around some yiddish words and phrases here and there (which is really weird, but it fits with the bizarre zannyness of the book as a whole). The main characters are definitely not jewish, nor is jewishness explored in any significant way. It is a fun read, though!

    I’d suggest going back to Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot. For me, it’s still the best romance with jewish characters out there. It also doesn’t shy away from exploring the characters’ jewishness and what that means to them in their (19th cent. British) world in a realistic manner, without resorting to cliches. I dislike the way contemporary romances with jewish characters tend to convey this jewishness through the apparently typically jewish overbearing family and/or jewish american princess tropes. It’s terribly tiresome, and begs the question of why the characters needed to be portrayed as jewish in the first place. George Eliot, on the other hand, has a whole range of jewish characters who act and think and relate to their jewishness in a variety of believable ways. It also has a very strong romance. I want more like this. :(

    I’d also add that I’m ambivalent about using a Christian inspy as a book about Jews. Sure, the characters may be jewish…. but really, the point is that they’re Christian or end up as Christians.

  18. Kimberly says:

    Wendy Wax’ Hostile Makeover had a Jewish lead character…I think one or two of her other novels may as well.

  19. Connie says:

    Sarah, I forgot about Daniel Deronda. I haven’t read it in years, but thanks for the reminder, It is time for a reread. On Susan’s recommendation I have been reading Miss Jacobson’s Journey and am enjoying it. As in Nita Abrams books it also recounts the role of the Rothchild family in transporting money during the Napoleonic Wars and of course the anti-semitism towards Jews as money lenders. This is an excellent thread and I have enjoyed the posts and recommendations. Thank you all!

  20. Connie says:

    Wow, I just went to download Daniel Deronda on my Kindle and it is free!

  21. Anne says:

    If you don’t mind going outside of the romace genre, check out the Faye Kellerman series featuring LAPD lieutenant detective Peter Decker and his wife Rina Lazarus. A warning, however. Start with the first in this series where Decker meets the widow Rina in the course of an investigation. By starting at the beginning, you’ll be able to follow the developing romance of Decker (a non-religious gentile eventually converted to Judeaism) and the extremely religious Rina. Her influence on him is profound.

  22. Katja says:

    The books that immediately come to my mind when I think of Jewish heroines (and heroes) are Rashi’s daughters by Maggie Anton. They’re probably more historicals than romance, but I’d say with very strong romantic elements. I personallyjust love the amount of information about mediaval Jewish life, the Talmud etc. etc,; absolutely fascinating books.
    The first book was even reviewed on AAR

  23. Lilly says:

    It goes all the way back to the origins of the modern romance novel and Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Saxon Wilfred may love Norman Rowena, but he’s willing to fight and perhaps die in an attempt to right the injustices done to Jewish Rebecca [as is the Black Knight (King Richard in disguise)]. The novel played a part in the UK’s changing view towards Jews and the improving laws and rights of the 19th century.

  24. Maggie, thanks so much for this column. I’m Jewish myself so it was lovely to see it.

    If you want to read a romantic book with Hassidic Jews in it, I recommend Jephte’s Daughter by Naomi Ragen. It’s a Jewish inspie/women’s fiction/romance hybrid.

    As for romances or romantic books with more mainstream Jewish characters:

    Alisa Kwitney’s chick lit is pretty romantic and usually has a least one Jewish main character. My favorite of her books is probably The Dominant Blonde, which has a Jewish heroine.

    Megan Hart’s erotic novels frequently have at least one Jewish protagonist as well. I would start with Dirty, which has a Jewish hero.

    Patricia Gaffney’s historical romance Crooked Hearts has a Jewish hero, though this fact doesn’t come out until late in the book.

    Laura Leone’s contemporary romance, Fallen From Grace, mentioned above, has a Jewish heroine. The hero is a male prostitute.

    I’ll also second Bed of Spices by Barbara Samuels, a historical romance which has a Jewish hero.

    I hesitate to mention Meagan McKinney, an author who was convicted of hurricane Katrina fraud, but she has a couple of books with Jewish heroines as well. My favorite of these is A Man to Slay Dragons (romantic suspense).

    I’ve heard good things about Nita Abrams’ spy series of historical romances but haven’t gotten around to trying them.

    There’s also Eva Ibbotson’s The Morning Gift, with an Austrian Jewish heroine who escapes the Holocaust with the hero’s help. I wasn’t so keen on it but I know a lot of readers who loved it.

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