Books

The 50 Most Essential Works Of Jewish Fiction Of The Last 100 Years

From the Kafkaesque to “Everything is Illuminated” and a childhood favorite: the 50 works of fiction by or about Jews that you must check out. Read More

By / February 9, 2011
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Jews have done a pretty good job holding up our end of the “People of the Book” deal, especially over the last hundred years.  Jewish writers from all over the globe have contributed fiction in a number of different languages, influencing the form in ways immeasurable, in turn helping to document the Jewish experience better than most history books.

Our criteria for this list was any work that could be considered “Jewish fiction”: written by a Jewish author or dealing heavily with Jewish topics and themes, all written in the last 100 years.   Short story collections, plays, graphic novels and novellas were all taken into consideration.  All publication dates reflect the American publication.

Think we missed something?  Think something deserved a higher ranking than it got?  We’re open to comments below.

1. The Metamorphosis (1915) by Franz Kafka

It’s really impossible to rate anything– especially the ultimate “Kafkaesque” work—any higher.  The Prague-born writer’s ultimate work about poor Gregor Samsa is one of the most seminal works of Jewish fiction in the last century.

2. In Search of Lost Time (1913) by Marcel Proust

Jews are naturally nostalgic folks, so simply replace the Madeleine with a rugelach and you might have one of the most Jewish works in literature.  And yes, Proust was a Jew.

3. Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) by Philip Roth

Trying to pick one book as the ultimate Philip Roth work isn’t as hard as you think.  Portnoy is the book you see every new title compared to, even to this day.  Goodbye, Columbus made him famous, but Portnoy made him a creepy god.

4. Death of a Salesman (1949) by Arthur Miller

Miller’s play tells the tale of Willy Loman, but also works as the perfect parable of the death of the American Dream.

5. The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger

No list dealing with best fiction of the last century would be complete without Salinger’s ode to teenage angst, and the limited knowledge we have of the late writer tells us that this book was indeed the product of Jewish neurosis.

6. The Trial (1925) by Franz Kafka

We recognize that we should have just said “Everything Kafka did” at the #1 position, but that wouldn’t have been fair, now would it?

7. Herzog (1964) by Saul Bellow

It’s hard to pick Bellow’s masterwork, but we really have to go with the book that made  mid-life crisis into an art form.

8. The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971) by Cynthia Ozick

Same as the Herzog: It’s nearly impossible to pick the greatest work from the Ozick canon, but for the sake of argument, we’re going to pick The Pagan Rabbi as the must read collection by this brilliant writer.

9. A Contract With God (1978) by Will Eisner

Some call it the first graphic novel.  Others dispute that.  Nobody denies this work’s greatness.  Eisner’s semi-autobiographical short stories of Jewish life in The Bronx was called “something momentous,” by the LA Times.

10. Call it Sleep (1934) by Henry Roth

This is the quintessential Jewish experience of the ghetto known Lower East Side of the early 20th Century.  They should issue it to students in Hebrew school.

11. Angels in America (1991) by Tony Kushner

It’s almost scary how lacking the 1990s were of “generation defining” art by Jews.  Thankfully, Kushner’s tour de force play made up for that by being one of the greatest artistic works in the entire Western Canon, both literally and according to Harold Bloom.

12. The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (1982) by Isaac Bashevis Singer

We aren’t going to play around with the Nobel-winning writer.  His short stories are the first place you need to go to experience his true greatness.

13. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) by Michael Chabon

The story of how Jews created the modern superhero might not be the most interesting idea for a story, but leave it in the hands of one of modern fiction’s greatest writers, and it’s an epic.

14. American Pastoral (1997) by Philip Roth

15. Are You There God?  It’s Me, Margaret (1970) by Judy Blume

A story about a girl growing up in an interfaith family, getting her first period, buying her first bra, and all the other fun issues that go along with being a teenager.

16.  The Odessa Tales (1931) by Isaac Babel

If there is any justice in this world, Babel’s work would be mentioned along with Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol and any other great Russian writer you can think of.  Until then, it’s undisputed that he’s certainly the greatest Jewish writer the country ever produced.  These, his stories of Ukrainian tough guys in the waning days of Russian Empire, are his best.

17. The Assistant (1957) by Bernard Malamud

18. Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller

In terms of the greatest dark humor anti-war novels, we’d pick Heller’s book over other Slaughterhouse Five or anything else you could think of.

19. The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936) by Israel Joshua Singer

We’ve stated on this website that Isaac Bashevis Singer was the most famous member of his family, but I.J. Singer was definitely the better writer.  Here, with The Brothers Ashkenazi, he gave us one of the greatest snapshots of pre-World War 2 Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

20. Where the Wild Things Are (1963) by Maurice Sendak

Essential?  Isn’t every child issued a copy of this when they’re born

21. The Day of the Locust (1939) by Nathanael West

West (born Nathan von Wallenstein Weinstein) gave us the great Hollywood novel through the eyes of unforgettable characters.  The influence of this novel on writers from John Fante to Joan Didion is undeniable.

22.   Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1986) by Art Spiegelman

The only comic book to ever win the Pulitzer Prize.  Art Spiegelman’s biography of his father’s life before, during and after the Holocaust, brought the medium to a whole new level.

23.  Goodbye, Columbus (1959) by Philip Roth

24. The New York Trilogy (1987) by Paul Auster

If anybody is looking for the post-modern mystery book of the last thirty years, look no further.

25. The History of Love (2005) by Nicole Krauss

Krauss’ second novel that launched her into the literary spotlight, is the story of a very old man and a very young woman, and how their lives are joined by one very special book. (Check out our interview with Krauss)

26. The Pawnbroker by Edward Lewis Wallant

The story of a holocaust survivor attempting to live with his demons will haunt you long after you’ve read it.

27. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959) by Mordecai Richler

Henry Roth had the Lower East Side, Philip Roth New Jersey and Saul Bellow ruled over Chicago; but Richler wrote the greatest books about Jews in Montreal, and Duddy is his finest work.

28. Everything is Illuminated (2002) by Jonathan Safran Foer

Upon this book’s release, some called it “genius,” others said it was “overrated.”   We’d like to say that it is one of the finest works of “Post-Holocaust Fiction.”  Everything is Illuminated is a book for people who want to try and make some sense of the senseless.

29. Absurdistan: A Novel (2006) by Gary Shteyngart

As of the writing of this list, Mr. Shteyngart is  3for 3 in terms of great novels, but the story of the very rich and very rotund Misha Vainberg, is his masterpiece.

30.The Nimrod Flipout (2006) by Etgar Keret

31.  The Man With the Golden Arm (1949) by Nelson Algren

32. The Street of Crocodiles (1936) by Bruno Schulz

Considered by many to be the greatest Polish writer of the 20th Century, Schulz’s masterwork is starting to peek back onto the cultural radar in the last ten years.

33. The Lazarus Project (2008) by Aleksander Hemon

The Bosnian-born Hemon might not be Jewish, but his novel juxtaposes a very autobiographical sounding protagonist with an immigrant Jew murdered in early 20th Century Chicago.  The Lazarus Project is impeccably researched, and written so well, that you’d think Hemon had been speaking English his entire life.

34.     Mind-Body Problem (1993) by Rebecca Goldstein

35.      The Tenants of Moonbloom (1963) by Edward Lewis Wallant

We’d suggest reading Dave Eggers’ essay on the book to better understand.

36. Motherless Brooklyn (1999) by Jonathan Lethem

Is it fair for us to say that Lethem’s 1999 novel set the stage for the current literary renaissance going on in the borough of Brooklyn to this day?  It certainly made the “Neuronovel” a trendy thing.

37. The Instructions (2010) by Adam Levin

If you’re going to make a big splash, write a 1000+ page book about a Jewish boy from the Chicago suburbs who might or might not be the Messiah.  That’s what Levin did with his debut, and that’s why it was our favorite work of fiction in 2010.

38. The Trial of God (1995) by Elie Wiesel

39. Bech, a Book (1970) by John Updike

The king of the W.A.S.Ps parodies his Jewish contemporaries, and gives the world the greatest work of “Jew envy.”

40. The Best of Everything (1958) by Rona Jaffe

It could be argued that this was the Sex and the City of its time.  But we think it’s so much more than that.

41. What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) by Budd Schulberg

Schulberg would go on to greater fame as a screewriter, but his story of Sammy Glick’s rise calls to mind The Day of the Locust, Dickens and Citizen Kane, and is a must read.

42. Comedy in a Minor Key (2010) by Hans Keilson

It took about 100 years, but Hans Keilson was finally recognized as one of the world’s greatest writers.  This book about a young Dutch couple that takes in a sick Jewish man during World War 2–only to find themselves trying to figure out how to cover up his death–isn’t the sort of dark comedy that leaves you chuckling.  It’s the sort that makes you exclaim, “that’s brilliant.”

43. Landscape in Concrete (1966) by Jakov Lind

A story written by a Jew who survived World War 2 by posing as a Dutch citizen writes a story about a Nazi soldier’s quixotic journey to rejoin the war after being declared mentally unstable to serve.  Possibly the most absurd novel on this list.

44. Homeland (2004) by Sam Lipsyte

If you check back with us in ten years, Sam Lipsyte will have replaced Philip Roth as the writer that everybody copies – whether they know it or not.   Bookslut described Lipsyte’s third book as “disturbing and comforting,” and summed up his style quite well.

45. The Finkler Question (2010) by Howard Jacobson

Salon said the underdog Man Booker winner in 2010 would “probably distress you on its way to disarming you.  Can we pay the novel any greater compliment?”  We don’t think so.

46.   Seize the Day (1956) by Saul Bellow

47. The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisneberg (2010) by Deborah Eisenberg

Eisenberg is one of the greatest living short story writers.  Do yourself a favor and read everything.

48.  For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999) by Nathan Englander

49. Witz (2010) by Joshua Cohen

The Jewish Ulysses?  Some have said that’s the case.

50. The Extra Man (1998) by Jonathan Ames