These young adult novels are expanding the way literature depicts Jewish teens


This article was produced as part of (JR)’s Teen Journalism Fellowship, a program that works with Jewish teens around the world to report on issues that affect their lives.

((JR)) — Growing up Orthodox Jewish in the suburbs of New York City, Dahlia Adler read books that showed a life vastly different from her own. “I started writing as a way to live both at once — to be someone who kept Shabbos and kosher but also ate whatever and wore bikinis to the beach,” said Adler, the author of the young adult novels “Cool for the Summer” and “Going Bicoastal.” 

When Adler encountered Jewish representation, it was either hardly there at all or in a historical context. “I barely remember reading any [stories of Jews] that weren’t in Holocaust books, but if I did, the mention of their Judaism was always a quick slip of a mention on the page,” said Adler. 

In “Cool for the Summer,” two Jewish teens, Lara and Jasmine, fall in love over the course of a summer in the outer banks of North Carolina. One of the most formative points in Lara and Jasmine’s relationship is their Shabbat dinner spent at Jasmine’s Mom’s house. 

“I loved the casual display of Judaism in this book — how it can come in all shapes and forms, from Jasmine’s mom’s Syrian roots and weekly Shabbat dinners to Larissa’s mom’s Russian roots,” wrote Goodreads user abbysbookadventure

These Jewish readers and authors want books that represent a Jewish identity that isn’t shaped by persecution, as in the case of Holocaust novels, or a deeply religious lifestyle, in the case of books about Orthodox teens. Instead, they are looking for characters who reflect the modern range of Jewish identity: secular but proud Jews, teens who experience their Judaism through social action, teens growing up in homes where Judaism is both central to the family’s identity but also expressed “casually,” a word that comes up a lot in their comments.

Dahlia Adler said she grew up reading books that lacked Jewish representation. (Maggie Hall)

Adler isn’t the only Jewish author who grew up reading books that lacked Jewish representation. Other award-winning authors, such as Lev A.C. Rosen and Abby Sher, noticed similar patterns in their childhood books. In response to this need, these authors wrote books with the representation they wanted to see. Their characters not only gave voice to their teen selves but also to the teens of today. 

Young adult literature as a whole has seen major growth in recent years. According to, “Young adult books have been the fastest growing category over the last 5 years, with print sales jumping by 48.2% since 2018.” This category of books targets adolescents aged 12-18 and often features teenagers as main characters. This increased interest shows the importance of self-identification in the books teens read. 

For YA author Abby Sher, any Jewish characters she came across in books in her youth were one-dimensional. “To be honest, they felt more like examples to me than full-fledged characters,” said the author of “Miss You Love You Hate You Bye” and “Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying.” 

“Miss You Love You Hate You Bye” chronicles two best friends, Hannah (aka Hank) and Zoe. Zoe always seemed perfect to Hank, and Hank grew comfortable living in Zoe’s shadow, but that all changed once Zoe’s parents got divorced. Zoe cracks under the pressure of her home life and develops an eating disorder, and it’s up to Hank to help her. Hank is Jewish and brings up several struggles she faces, including reframing take-home Christmas trees at school as “Hanukkah bushes” and adults struggling to pronounce her last name, Levinstein, correctly. Neither deeply religious nor a victim of persecution, Hank’s Jewish identity is different from previous Jewish representations in the media. 

Jewish authors writing about their identity means a teen Jewish audience now has representation.  

“I don’t see a lot of Jewish representation, so when I do find books with a Jewish character, it’s kind of exciting because it doesn’t happen a lot,” said teen reader Orlie Weitzman, 15, from Chicago, Illinois. 

Other teen readers read books with Jewish representation more frequently because they actively seek it out. “I come across it probably more than the average reader. Part of it is because I choose books with some kind of Jewish representation. But sometimes it surprises me,” said teen reader Rafi Josselson, 16, from New York City.

This excitement is exactly what authors missed in their upbringings, so their teen self often comes to mind during the writing process. 

“I think for most authors, their first audience is themselves whether they think it is or not, and it’s hard to get outside that,” said Lev A.C. Rosen. “I always keep teen me as a centering point.” Rosen grew up in New York City in an Orthodox Jewish household. He now identifies as culturally Jewish, so his characters often reflect that identity. 

Rosen is the author of critically acclaimed novels such as “Jack of Hearts and Other Parts,” “Camp,” and more recently, “Emmett,” a modern-day twist on Jane Austen’s “Emma,” that stars Emmett Woodhouse, a queer, interfaith Jewish teen. 

Emmett is well-off, well-liked, and apparently well-suited for matchmaking after setting up his friend, Taylor, with her boyfriend. Emmett then challenges himself to find his friend-with-benefits, Harrison, a boyfriend. Emmett lost his mother to cancer four years prior, and the struggle to hang on to the Jewish traditions she brought to her family is evident throughout the book. Emmett’s father sets out to keep Emmett’s life as “normal” as possible. This includes making an effort to uphold the tradition of Hanukkah and making his mother’s latke recipe. 

This subtle yet purposeful mention had many readers on Goodreads taking notice. “The casual Jewish and queer rep was so amazing,” said Goodreads user Spiri Skye, a sentiment that popped up in other reviews as well. 

This idea of subtle Jewish representation is what Jewish book club Matzah Book Soup prefers. 

“One of our favorite types is ‘casual representation’ where characters are ‘Jewish’ and are allowed to be themselves without being questioned,” said club founders Lillianne Leight and Amanda Spivack via Instagram direct message.  

Matzah Book Soup is a book club for all ages focusing on Jewish representation. It started in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic as a way for readers to discuss Jewish representation in books virtually. “We wanted to find a way to elevate Jewish stories and quickly realized that most books with Jewish representation were about the Holocaust,” said the founders. “We wanted to show people that Jewish joy exists in the world.”

Many teens also seek out that sort of “casual” Jewish representation. “I like that for most of the books I’ve read with a Jewish main character, they just seem like normal kids,” said Eliza Cohen, 12 from New York City. “Sometimes the fact that they are Jewish doesn’t really add to the story in [any way]; it’s just a fact about them.”

Lev A.C. Rosen, who attended an Orthodox Jewish synagogue growing up, is the author of “Camp.” (Rachael Shane)

One book that Eliza noted had subtle representation was “The Witch of Woodland” by Laurel Snyder, which tells the story of a magical witch preparing for her bat mitzvah. 

Another important component that these authors and readers mentioned was the importance of intersecting identities, in particular, queer and Jewish identities. 

“For me, it’s really important to, like, bring my queerness into my Judaism and my Judaism into my queerness,” said Rena Kantor, 16, from Detroit, Michigan. “I didn’t know that the two things could exist at once…” One of Rena’s favorite books is “Camp” by Lev A.C. Rosen (writing as L.C. Rosen), which features queer Jewish characters

Rosen attended an Orthodox synagogue growing up, which put his Jewish and queer identities at odds. Rosen says his writing is a form of escapism for the teen he once was. “Writing teens who don’t have the experience I did makes me embrace my cultural heritage that much more, which is nice. Healing, maybe,” said Rosen.

Jewish representation in YA literature also allows non-Jewish readers to gain perspective on the Jewish experience. “Over the past few months, antisemitism has increased dramatically, and we think a lot of this stems from people not knowing what Judaism is,” said Matzah Book Soup founders. “Including Jewish representation in YA literature is a crucial part of education and showing others that Jews are people too.” 

Additionally, Jewish representation can highlight the realities of antisemitism. “You know, there’s usually less Jewish kids in my class, so it’s cool to read those books,” said teen reader Eliza. “Everyone knows a Christmas story, but I had someone ask me, ‘Do you speak Jewish?’ and I [said] ‘I really wish you didn’t say that.’”