I find middle-grade books with Jewish protagonists fairly rare. Even in making this list of Jewish middle-grade books, I was careful to choose those written by Jewish authors. But please let me know if I have erroneously included any non-OwnVoice stories. I’ve read just a few on this list, but I can report that they were fun, but impactful reads. While some feature history (Jewish Holocaust); others are strong family stories; friendship stories; stories about illness, both mental and physical; and of course; food and culture stories.
One last thing: these books aren’t just middle-grade books by Jewish authors, but middle-grade books by Jewish authors about Jewish kids. I’ve tried to stick to books in which the kids’ Jewish identity is an integral part of the story. So, there’s either a b’nai mitzvah, Hebrew school, Hanukkah, the Holocaust, or some other element of Jewish culture or religion in these stories.
Best Jewish Middle-Grade Books
The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah
I put my fingers up to my throat and touched the pointy Star of David, my grandmother’s necklace, a delicate chain made up of countless tiny links. If I wear this, will people think I am Jewish?
Is that what I want to be?
Seventh-grader Caroline Weeks has a Jewish mom and a non-Jewish dad. When Caroline’s nana dies around the same time that Caroline’s best friend, Rachel, is having her bat mitzvah, Caroline starts to become more interested in her Jewish identity.
It’s 2002. In the aftermath of the twin towers — and the death of her beloved grandmother — Shirli Berman is intent on moving forward. The best singer in her junior high, she auditions for the lead role in Fiddler on the Roof, but is crushed to learn that she’s been given the part of the old Jewish mother in the musical rather than the coveted part of the sister. But there is an upside: her “husband” is none other than Ben Morgan, the cutest and most popular boy in the school.
Deciding to throw herself into the role, she rummages in her grandfather’s attic for some props. There, she discovers an old violin in the corner — strange, since her Zayde has never seemed to like music, never even going to any of her recitals. Showing it to her grandfather unleashes an anger in him she has never seen before, and while she is frightened of what it might mean, Shirli keeps trying to connect with her Zayde and discover the awful reason behind his anger. A long-kept family secret spills out, and Shirli learns the true power of music, both terrible and wonderful.
It’s My Party and I Don’t Want to Go
Ellie Katz is sabotaging her own party.
Sure, it seems extreme, but it’s the only option for her bat mitzvah. Crowds and attention always made her nervous, and lately they’ve been making it harder and harder for Ellie to breathe. The celebration would mean (1) a large crowd, (2) lots of staring, and (3) distant family listening to her sing in another language. No thank you!
To avoid certain catastrophe, she hatches a plan with her best friend Zoe to ruin the big day. Cue the email hacking, DJ takedown, and an all-out food fight! Everything is falling apart according to plan, until a fight with Zoe leaves Ellie alone on her path of destruction, facing some unintended consequences and disappointments. Can she find a way to right her wrongs, face her fears, and light her candles?
The Paris Project
Cleveland Rosebud Potts has a plan. If she can check off the six items on her très important Paris Project List she will make it out of the small-minded and scorching town of Sassafras, Florida, to a rich and cultured life at The American School of Paris.
Unfortunately, everything seems to conspire against Cleveland reaching her goal.
Cleveland is ashamed of her father and angry that her mother and sister are never around because they have to work extra shifts to help out the family. Her Eiffel Tower tin has zero funds. And to top it all off, Cleveland’s best friend Jenna Finch has decided she’s too fancy for her and her neighbor Declan seems to be hiding something.
As Cleveland puts her talents to the test, she must learn how to forgive family for their faults, appreciate friends for exactly who they are, and bloom where she’s planted—even if that’s in a tiny town in central Florida that doesn’t even have a French restaurant. C’èst la vie!
All Three Stooges
Spoiler alert: This book is not about the Three Stooges. It’s about Noah and Dash, two seventh graders who are best friends and comedy junkies. That is, they were best friends, until Dash’s father died suddenly and Dash shut Noah out. Which Noah deserved, according to Noa, the girl who, annoyingly, shares both his name and his bar mitzvah day.
Now Noah’s confusion, frustration, and determination to get through to Dash are threatening to destroy more than just their friendship. But what choice does he have? As Noah sees it, sometimes you need to risk losing everything, even your sense of humor, to prove that gone doesn’t have to mean “gone for good.”
Equal parts funny, honest, and deeply affecting, All Three Stooges is a book that will stay with readers long after the laughter subsides.
Lucky Broken Girl
In this unforgettable multicultural coming-of-age narrative—based on the author’s childhood in the 1960s—a young Cuban-Jewish immigrant girl is adjusting to her new life in New York City when her American dream is suddenly derailed. Ruthie’s plight will intrigue readers, and her powerful story of strength and resilience, full of color, light, and poignancy, will stay with them for a long time.
Ruthie Mizrahi and her family recently emigrated from Castro’s Cuba to New York City. Just when she’s finally beginning to gain confidence in her mastery of English—and enjoying her reign as her neighborhood’s hopscotch queen—a horrific car accident leaves her in a body cast and confined her to her bed for a long recovery. As Ruthie’s world shrinks because of her inability to move, her powers of observation and her heart grow larger and she comes to understand how fragile life is, how vulnerable we all are as human beings, and how friends, neighbors, and the power of the arts can sweeten even the worst of times.
Meet the All-of-a-Kind Family — Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie — who live with their parents in New York City at the turn of the century.
Together they share adventures that find them searching for hidden buttons while dusting Mama’s front parlor and visiting with the peddlers in Papa’s shop on rainy days. The girls enjoy doing everything together, especially when it involves holidays and surprises.
But no one could have prepared them for the biggest surprise of all!
Looking for Me: …in This Great Big Family
One of 12 siblings growing up in depression-era Baltimore, Edith isn’t quite sure of who she is. Between working at her father’s diner, taking care of her younger siblings, and living in the shadow of her more mature sisters, Edith feels lost in a sea of siblings. When a kind teacher encourages Edith to be a teacher herself one day, Edith sees prospects for a future all her own. Full of joy, pain, humor, and sadness, this novel in verse is a wonderful look at the life of Edith Paul, the author’s mother, and is an enduring portrait (complete with family photos and an author’s note at the end) of one family’s pursuit of the American dream.
A Place at the Table
Sixth graders Sara and Elizabeth could not be more different. Sara is at a new school that is completely unlike the small Islamic school she used to attend. Elizabeth has her own problems: her British mum has been struggling with depression. The girls meet in an after-school South Asian cooking class, which Elizabeth takes because her mom has stopped cooking, and which Sara, who hates to cook, is forced to attend because her mother is the teacher. The girls form a shaky alliance that gradually deepens, and they make plans to create the most amazing, mouth-watering cross-cultural dish together and win a spot on a local food show. They make good cooking partners . . . but can they learn to trust each other enough to become true friends?
My Basmati Bat Mitzvah
During the fall leading up to her bat mitzvah, Tara (Hindi for star) Feinstein has a lot more than her Torah portion on her mind. Between Hebrew school and study sessions with the rabbi, there doesn’t seem to be enough time to hang out with her best friend Ben-O–who might also be her boyfriend–and her other best friend, Rebecca, who’s getting a little too cozy with the snotty Sheila Rosenberg. Not to mention working on her robotics project with the class clown Ryan Berger, or figuring out what to do with a priceless heirloom sari that she accidentally ruined. Amid all this drama, Tara considers how to balance her Indian and Jewish identities and what it means to have a bat mitzvah while questioning her faith. With the cross-cultural charm of Bend It Like Beckham, this delightful debut novel is a classic coming-of-age story and young romance with universal appeal.
The Length of a String
Imani is adopted, and she’s ready to search for her birth parents. But when she discovers the diary her Jewish great-grandmother wrote chronicling her escape from Holocaust-era Europe, Imani begins to see family in a new way.
Imani knows exactly what she wants as her big bat mitzvah gift: to find her birth parents. She loves her family and her Jewish community in Baltimore, but she has always wondered where she came from, especially since she’s black and almost everyone she knows is white. Then her mom’s grandmother–Imani’s great-grandma Anna–passes away, and Imani discovers an old journal among her books. It’s Anna’s diary from 1941, the year she was twelve and fled Nazi-occupied Luxembourg alone, sent by her parents to seek refuge in Brooklyn, New York. Anna’s diary records her journey to America and her new life with an adoptive family of her own. And as Imani reads the diary, she begins to see her family, and her place in it, in a whole new way.
This Is Just a Test
David Da-Wei Horowitz has a lot on his plate. Preparing for his upcoming bar mitzvah would be enough work even if it didn’t involve trying to please his Jewish and Chinese grandmothers, who argue about everything. But David just wants everyone to be happy.
That includes his friend Scott, who is determined to win their upcoming trivia tournament but doesn’t like their teammate — and David’s best friend — Hector. Scott and David begin digging a fallout shelter just in case this Cold War stuff with the Soviets turns south… but David’s not so convinced he wants to spend forever in an underground bunker with Scott. Maybe it would be better if Hector and Kelli Ann came with them. But that would mean David has to figure out how to stand up for Hector and talk to Kelli Ann. Some days, surviving nuclear war feels like the least of David’s problems.
Chaya Lindner is a teenager living in Nazi-occupied Poland. Simply being Jewish places her in danger of being killed or sent to the camps. After her little sister is taken away, her younger brother disappears, and her parents all but give up hope, Chaya is determined to make a difference. Using forged papers and her fair features, Chaya becomes a courier and travels between the Jewish ghettos of Poland, smuggling food, papers, and even people.
Soon Chaya joins a resistance cell that runs raids on the Nazis’ supplies. But after a mission goes terribly wrong, Chaya’s network shatters. She is alone and unsure of where to go, until Esther, a member of her cell, finds her and delivers a message that chills Chaya to her core, and sends her on a journey toward an even larger uprising in the works — in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Though the Jewish resistance never had much of a chance against the Nazis, they were determined to save as many lives as possible, and to live — or die — with honor.
Not Your All-American Girl
Lauren and her best friend, Tara, have always done absolutely everything together. So when they don’t have any classes together in sixth grade, it’s disastrous. The solution? Trying out for the school play. Lauren, who loves to sing, wonders if maybe, just maybe, she will be the star instead of Tara this time.
But when the show is cast, Lauren lands in the ensemble, while Tara scores the lead role. Their teacher explains: Lauren just doesn’t look the part of the all-American girl. What audience would believe that she, half-Jewish, half-Chinese Lauren, was the everygirl star from Pleasant Valley, USA?
From amidst the ensemble, Lauren tries to support her best friend. But when she can’t bring herself to sing anymore, her spot in the play and her friendship are in jeopardy. With the help of a button-making business, the music of Patsy Cline, and her two bickering grandmothers, can Lauren find her voice again?
Seventh grade is not going well for Will Levine. Kids at school bully him because of his funny-looking chin. His science teacher finds out about the turtles he spent his summer collecting from the marsh behind school and orders him to release them back into the wild. And for his bar mitzvah community service project, he has to go to the hospital to visit RJ, an older boy struggling with an incurable disease. Unfortunately, Will hates hospitals.
At first, the boys don’t get along, but then RJ shares his bucket list with Will. Among the things he wants to do: ride a roller coaster, go to a concert and a school dance, and swim in the ocean. To Will, happiness is hanging out in his room, alone, preferably with his turtles. But as RJ’s disease worsens, Will realizes he needs to tackle the bucket list on his new friend’s behalf before it’s too late. It seems like an impossible mission, way outside Will’s comfort zone. But as he completes each task with RJ’s guidance, Will learns that life is too short to live in a shell.
Buying and moving into the run-down Jewel Motor Inn in upstate New York wasn’t eleven-year-old Miriam Brockman’s dream, but at least it’s an adventure. Miriam befriends Kate, whose grandmother owns the diner next door, and finds comfort in the company of Maria, the motel’s housekeeper, and her Uncle Mordy, who comes to help out for the summer. She spends her free time helping Kate’s grandmother make her famous grape pies and begins to face her fears by taking swimming lessons in the motel’s pool.
But when it becomes clear that only a miracle is going to save the Jewel from bankruptcy, Jewish Miriam and Catholic Kate decide to create their own. Otherwise, the No Vacancy sign will come down for good, and Miriam will lose the life she’s worked so hard to build.
Death by Toilet Paper
Benjamin is about to lose a whole lot more than good toilet paper. If he doesn’t make tons of money fast by selling candy bars and winning contests—like the Royal-T Bathroom Tissue slogan contest—his family will get kicked out of their apartment. Even with his flair for clever slogans, will Benjamin be able to win a cash prize large enough to keep a promise he made to his dad before he died? Or will he lose everything that matters to him?
That’s What Friends Do
Samantha Goldstein and David Fisher have been friends ever since they met on their town’s Little League baseball team. But when a new kid named Luke starts hanging out with them, what was a comfortable pair becomes an awkward trio.
Luke’s comments make Sammie feel uncomfortable—but all David sees is how easily Luke flirts with Sammie, and so David decides to finally make a move on the friend he’s always had a crush on.
Soon things go all wrong and too far, and Sammie and David are both left feeling hurt, confused, and unsure of themselves, without anyone to talk to about what happened.
As rumors start flying around the school, David must try to make things right (if he can) and Sammie must learn to speak up about what’s been done to her.
There they are: 18 of the best Jewish middle-grade books aka middle-grade books with a Jewish protagonist. This list is just about as short as my list of Muslim middle-grade books and Muslim YA books, which means: we need more of these!
What are your favorite Jewish middle-grade books? Which ones have I missed on this list; what would you add? Please let me know in the comments!