Florida district pulls many Jewish and Holocaust books, including Saul Bellow’s ‘Herzog’ and ‘Black, White and Jewish’


((JR)) – A global bestseller by a Jewish Holocaust victim; a novel by a beloved and politically conservative Jewish American writer; a memoir of growing up mixed-race and Jewish; and a contemporary novel about a high-achieving Jewish family are among the nearly 700 books a Florida school district removed from classroom libraries this year in fear of violating state laws on sexual content in schools.

The purge of books from Orange County Public Schools, in Orlando, over the course of the past semester is the latest consequence of a conservative movement across the country — and strongest in Florida — to rid public and school libraries of materials deemed offensive. While the vast majority of such challenged and removed books involve race, gender and sexuality, several Jewish books have previously been caught in the dragnet. 

The Orange County case is unusual for the sheer volume of books removed — 699 including some duplicates, according to documents the district provided — and for the unusually large number of books about the Holocaust and Jewish identity included among them. They included: 

  • “Suite Française,” by Irène Némirovsky, a Ukrainian-French Jewish writer who wrote her novel in secret under German occupation before perishing in Auschwitz 
  • “Herzog,” a semi-autobiographical novel by Jewish writer Saul Bellow, an outspoken cultural conservative whose son Adam Bellow is a publisher of right-wing Jewish books
  • “Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self,” by Rebecca Walker, feminist theorist and daughter of author Alice Walker, whose own antisemitic comments and writings have faced scrutiny in the past
  • “Bee Season,” a novel about a high-achieving family of Jewish scholars and cantors, by Myra Goldberg
  • “The Splendid and the Vile,” a nonfiction history book about Winston Churchill’s decision to fight Hitler’s forces during World War II, by Erik Larson
  • The collected plays of Lillian Hellman, a Jewish playwright and left-wing activist who was accused of Communist activities
  • “The Storyteller,” a novel dealing with the Holocaust by bestselling author Jodi Picoult
  • “The Reader,” a German novel about the aftermath of the Holocaust by Bernhard Schlink
  • “Sophie’s Choice,” a bestselling novel also about the aftermath of the Holocaust by William Styron
  • “The Freedom Writers Diary,” a nonfiction compilation of several high school students’ diaries inspired by their teachers’ efforts to instruct them on the Holocaust and Anne Frank

“Books are removed from classrooms with deference to House Bill 1069,” district spokesperson David Ocasio told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, referring to a Florida law signed this year that heavily restricts instruction and classroom materials about human sexuality

No individual reasoning was given for each book’s removal, but Ocasio said that all of the books had been marked as “not approved for any grade level.” He added that every book will go through a secondary review to determine if it will be restricted to certain grade levels or “weeded from the collection” altogether.

Jodi Picoult and her daughter Samantha Van Leer pose at the opening night of the musical “Between The Lines,” July 11, 2022 in New York City. (Bruce Glikas/Getty Images)

Some of the books on Orange County’s list have come under scrutiny in the past for removals from other districts. “The Storyteller” was the subject of widespread press coverage after a member of the right-wing activist group Moms For Liberty successfully pushed for its removal from a different Florida school district earlier this year. “Sophie’s Choice” was recently removed from a third Florida school district at the behest of a Jewish parent’s challenge; both parents said their challenges were due to sexual content. 

Other outwardly Jewish books on the list, including “The Reader” and Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” contain explicit sexual content. Non-Jewish World War II novels “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Catch-22” were also pulled.

Among the hundreds of other books flagged for removal in the district were frequently challenged books like “Gender Queer” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” as well as literary standards like Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” and children’s fare like a book based on Disney’s “The Incredibles.” Some items were listed more than once.

Other districts in Florida this year have pulled an illustrated adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary in order to comply with the state law.