6 Novels That Have Unique Jewish Main Characters

As a Jewish reader, it’s always nice to find main characters who share the same background as I do. Read on to learn about some exciting Jewish novels.

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Book covers of "Call Me By Your Name," "My Last Innocent Year," and "The Intimacy Experiment."

While novels are based on fiction, it is always nice when they have relatable elements. For instance, when looking for a new novel to read, it is satisfying to find some representation. As a Jewish reader, I am always on the lookout for a Jewish main character in my novels. Naturally, every Jewish experience is different, and I am not going to relate to all of the experiences I find in books. Even so, I appreciate having this connection to the characters that I read, especially considering so many novels do not involve Jewish main characters. Here are some novels that focus on this form of representation.

My Last Innocent Year by Daisy Alpert Florin

Book cover of "My Last Innocent Year" with yellow text over a drawing of a women's face with short brown hair.

My Last Innocent Year takes place in 1998 when Isabel Rosen is in her final year of college at the prestigious (and fictional) Wilder College. Rosen is a Jewish woman whose father owns an appetizing store and is dealing with being one of the few Jewish students on her campus. The latter becomes especially tough after a harmful incident with another Jewish student. In her last semester, Isabel takes a writing class taught by an exciting poet, R.H. Connelly. Thus begins a new connection between the two that could lead to shocking consequences, not in a good way. Isabel’s Jewish Identity provides background for her life experiences and her culture as she deals with feeling different and new issues that come before she ventures off into the real world.

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman

Book cover of "My Basmati Bat Mitzvah" with young smiling girl on yellow cover with drawings of different symbols and shapes.

At any age, cultural identity issues can be difficult. That may be especially true when drawn into two different worlds. That is the case for Tara Feinstein in My Basmati Bat Mitzvah. Tara comes from a Jewish household, but her mother is an Indian immigrant who previously practiced Hinduism. Because of that, Tara feels like she is drawn in different directions at times in her family, along with some kids at Hebrew School saying she is not “really” Jewish. All of this is happening with Tara’s Bat Mitzvah just around the corner, so she is dealing with the usual young troubles with friends while also figuring out what her culture means to her. This novel may be geared towards a younger audience compared to the rest of the books on this list, but its discussions of mixed cultures can be relevant for audiences young and old.

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

Book cover of "Call Me By Your Name" with a young man leaning on the shoulder of a slightly older man on a blue background.

Before it was an Oscar-winning film, Call Me By Your Name was a touching novel that dealt with romance and identity. Young Elio meets Oliver when he stays with his family for the summer of 1983. That begins a relationship that the two will never forget. An important thing to note about this novel is how Elio’s Judaism comes into play. At first, he is a bit more reserved about it since he does not live in a Jewish area. However, Oliver soon makes Elio feel comfortable about his religious identity. In fact, their shared religion is what helps begin their bond. Later on, Elio starts wearing a Star of David openly. While this novel focuses on the love shared between Elio and Oliver, their Jewish culture plays an important part to this story and the novel would not be the same with that part.

The Innocents by Francesca Segal

Book cover of "The Innocents" with a woman in a red dress from the waist down running on a grassy field.

It is always fun to see a modernization of a classic story. It helps take characters from over a century ago and allows them to live in our modern world. That is the case for The Innocents. This novel is a modernization of the classic novel The Age of Innocence. Instead of 1870s New York, this novel is modern London in a Jewish suburb. Adam Newman and Rachel Gilbert met as teenagers on a trip to Israel, and now, over a decade later, the two are engaged. Everything is wonderful until Rachel’s cousin Ellie comes to town. Suddenly, Adam is confused by his relationship, and he doesn’t know what direction to go. Ellie’s arrival brings chaos to a formerly quiet life. Not only does this novel reinvent the past, but it also adds Jewish culture into the story with religious pressures and beliefs. A cultural reinvention is at play, which makes an old story brand new again.

The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Danan

Book cover of "The Intimacy Experiment" with a well-dressed woman and a casually dressed man standing at a podium on a blue background with white stars.

The trope of opposites attract has been used many times. That means it is time that the trope got a new spin. How about a former porn actress and a rabbi? That attraction occurs in The Intimacy Experiment. Naomi Grant used to be a porn star, but now runs a sex positive start up made for sexual education. Ethan Cohen is a new rabbi trying to bring more young people into his synagogue. The two team up and decide to start a seminar series that will reach both if theiraudiences and help out Ethan’s synagogue. Their relationship starts out strictly professional, but some sparks start to fly. It is a romance story with an attractive and passionate Jewish love interest. What could be better?

Disobedience by Naomi Alderman

Book cover of "Disobedience" with a close-up of two women kissing with their eyes slightly open.

Grief can often bring people together, especially when grieving someone important to the community. However, coming together can also mean that old wounds are reopened. That is what occurs in the novel Disobedience. When an Orthodox Jewish community’s rabbi dies, it shakes everyone else up. It also leads to his nephew and possible successor Dovid calling up the rabbi’s daughter Ronit so that she can come home and see everyone. Ronit left this community a while ago, but she is willing to return during these troubling times. When Ronit returns, the past is awakened, and all secrets and mistakes are put on the table. This novel is about struggling with what culture means to you and the complicated relationship one may have with religion. It is a dark journey that gives an interesting perspective on the religious Jewish people.

There is a lot of variety in the Jewish representation on this list. These main characters come from different backgrounds, have different lived experiences, and have unique relationships with their faith. However, what they all have in common is that they each recognize their Jewish heritage as a key part of themselves. That heritage may not be central to their stories, but it helps make them who they are and influences some of their thoughts and choices. That’s the beauty of reading all these books; you can learn about different relationships with Judaism and see how it affects many people’s lives.


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