Celebrating Diversity – Books with Asian Jewish Voices

April is Asian American and Pacific Islander Month. In celebrating diversity within our Jewish tribe, I’ve compiled a list of books by Asian Jews and featuring Asian Jewish characters.

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The Jews of Asia by Sidney Mendelssohn

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From the 10th to 16th centuries, when Jews of Europe were living under persecution from bigots, robber kings, the conversionists, Inquisitors, and Crusaders, their brethren in the Far East, in the lands of the predecessors of the Great Mogul and other potentates of India, Jews were enjoying idyllic times and lives of peace and plenty.

Sidney Mendelssohn (1860-1917) was a Jewish diamond merchant in South Africa, who eventually retired from business to England. His success in the diamond business allowed him to pursue his interest in collecting rare and antiquarian books on Jewish history in Africa and Asia. This library of rare Jewish books became his source for his two monumental works on Jewish history, one titled “The Jews of Africa,” and the other the present 1920 volume “The Jews of Asia.”

In “The Jews of Asia,” Mendelssohn compiles the history of Jews in the Asian countries of India, China, Turkey, Palestine, Persia, Yemen, Kurdistan, Mesopotamia.

Regarding a community of black Jews in India, Mendelssohn notes that a “race known as the Black Jews of Cochin came into existence. There is a tradition that at some period, the date of which is obscure, the black Jews revolted against the domination of their white brethren, who, by that time, had greatly diminished in numbers.”

There are those who assert that there were Jews in India from the times of King Solomon, the first Jewish King to encourage traders among his subjects and thus to develop that commercial element among the Jews which has so often imperilled the very existence of that nation.

Of the Jews in China, Mendelssohn writes that “although the early Jewish colonies in China reached the size of other settlements of the race in Asia, there can be little doubt that few of the other outlying communities established in that continent surpass them in point of antiquity.”

Regarding the genesis of the Jews of Persia, Mendelssohn explains that “Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, and captured it after a long investment (587 B.C.), burning the Temple and taking many of the surviving inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judea as prisoners to Babylon. Half a century later, the Assyrian-Median-Babylonian monarchy having been overthrown by Cyrus, King of Persia (circa 537), the descendants of the deported Jews, together with the survivors of the captives from Judea, became subjects of the Persian conqueror.”

Like his book “The Jews of Africa,” Mendelssohn’s “The Jews of Asia” is interesting reading and valuable as source book for the little-known story of Jewish communities in Asia.

Black Mirror by Nancy Werlin

Frances Leventhal refuses to look in the mirror; she can’t bear to face her reflection. She has hidden from herself and everyone around her for such a long time, and now that her brother Daniel has committed suicide, she can’t help thinking that it’s somehow her fault. If she hadn’t been so caught up in her own pain, maybe she would have noticed her brother’s. It’s time to stop hiding—to reach out to Daniel’s friends at their private school. Daniel had been deeply involved in Unity Service, the charitable group on campus, and Frances is determined to join the group and to make amends.

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The Whole Story of Half a Girl by Veera Hiranandai

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After her father loses his job, Sonia Nadhamuni, half Indian and half Jewish American, finds herself yanked out of private school and thrown into the unfamiliar world of public education. For the first time, Sonia’s mixed heritage makes her classmates ask questions—questions Sonia doesn’t always know how to answer—as she navigates between a group of popular girls who want her to try out for the cheerleading squad and other students who aren’t part of the “in” crowd.

At the same time that Sonia is trying to make new friends, she’s dealing with what it means to have an out-of-work parent—it’s hard for her family to adjust to their changed circumstances. And then, one day, Sonia’s father goes missing. Now Sonia wonders if she ever really knew him. As she begins to look for answers, she must decide what really matters and who her true friends are—and whether her two halves, no matter how different, can make her a whole.


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The Subprimes by Karl Taro Greenfeld

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A wickedly funny dystopian parody set in a financially apocalyptic future America, from the critically acclaimed author of Triburbia.

In a future America that feels increasingly familiar, you are your credit score. Extreme wealth inequality has created a class of have-nothings: Subprimes. Their bad credit ratings make them unemployable. Jobless and without assets, they’ve walked out on mortgages, been foreclosed upon, or can no longer afford a fixed address. Fugitives who must keep moving to avoid arrest, they wander the globally warmed American wasteland searching for day labor and a place to park their battered SUVs for the night.

Karl Taro Greenfeld’s trenchant satire follows the fortunes of two families whose lives reflect this new dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-financially-fittest America. Desperate for work and food, a Subprime family has been forced to migrate east, hoping for a better life. They are soon joined in their odyssey by a writer and his family—slightly better off, yet falling fast. Eventually, they discover a small settlement of Subprimes who have begun an agrarian utopia built on a foreclosed exurb. Soon, though, the little stability they have is threatened when their land is targeted by job creators for shale oil extraction.

But all is not lost. A hero emerges, a woman on a motorcycle—suspiciously lacking a credit score—who just may save the world.

In The Subprimes, Karl Taro Greenfeld turns his keen and unflinching eye to our country today—and where we may be headed. The result is a novel for the 99 percent: a darkly funny comedy about paradise lost and found, the value of credit, economic policy, and the meaning of family.

Jet Black and the Ninja Wind by Leza Lowitz

Jet has never lived a so-called normal life. Raised by her single Japanese mother on a Navajo reservation in the Southwest, Jet’s life was a constant litany of mysterious physical and mental training. For as long as Jet can remember, every Saturday night she and her mother played “the game” on the local mountain. But this time, Jet is fighting for her life. And at the end of the night, her mother dies and Jet finds herself an orphan–and in mortal danger.

Fulfilling her mother’s dying wish, Jet flies to Japan to live with her grandfather, where she discovers she is the only one who can protect a family treasure hidden in her ancestral land. She’s terrified, but if Jet won’t fight to protect her world, who will? Stalked by bounty hunters and desperately attracted with the man who’s been sent to kill her, Jet must be strong enough to protect the treasure, preserve an ancient culture and save a sacred mountain from destruction.

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In Jet Black and the Ninja Wind, multiple award-winning author, poet and translator team Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani make their first foray into young adult fiction with a compulsively readable tale whose teenage heroine must discover if she can put the blade above the heart–or die trying.

Collected Poems by Nissim Ezekiel

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This new edition of Nissim Ezekiel’s Collected Poems comes with a critical introduction reevaluating Ezeikiel’s place in the modernist canon by John Thieme, and a preface by Leela Gandhi.

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Ali and Nino by Kurban Said

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First published in Vienna in 1937, this classic story of romance and adventure has been compared to Dr. Zhivago and Romeo and Juliet.  Its mysterious author was recently the subject of a feature article in the New Yorker, which has inspired a forthcoming biography. Out of print for nearly three decades until the hardcover re-release last year, Ali and Nino is Kurban Said’s masterpiece. It is a captivating novel as evocative of the exotic desert landscape as it is of the passion between two people pulled apart by culture, religion, and war.

It is the eve of World War I in Baku, Azerbaijan, a city on the edge of the Caspian Sea, poised precariously between east and west.  Ali Khan Shirvanshir, a Muslim schoolboy from a proud, aristocratic family, has fallen in love with the beautiful and enigmatic Nino Kipiani, a Christian girl with distinctly European sensibilities.   To be together they must overcome blood feud and scandal, attempt a daring horseback rescue, and travel from the bustling street of oil-boom Baku, through starkly beautiful deserts and remote mountain villages, to the opulent palace of Ali’s uncle in neighboring Persia.  Ultimately the lovers are drawn back to Baku, but when war threatens their future, Ali is forced to choose between his loyalty to the beliefs of his Asian ancestors and his profound devotion to Nino.  Combining the exotic fascination of a tale told by Scheherazade with the range and magnificence of an epic, Ali and Nino is a timeless classic of love in the face of war.

Assassins of the Turquoise Palace by Roya Hakakian

On the evening of September 17, 1992, eight leading members of the Iranian and Kurdish opposition had gathered at a little-known restaurant in Berlin when two darkly-clad men burst through the entrance. Within moments, the roar of a machine gun filled the air. Two rounds of fire and four single shots later, four of the men were dead. One of the survivors of that shooting, along with the widow of one of the victims and a handful of reporters, attorneys, and fellow exiles, began a crusade that would not only pit them against Tehran but against some of the greatest powers in Germany. When an undeterred federal prosecutor, and an endlessly patient chief judge, took over the case, a historic verdict followed which shook both Europe and Iran, and achieved something few could have predicted—justice. Roya Hakakian’s The Assassins of the Turquoise Palace is an incredible book of history and reportage, and an unforgettable narrative of heroism and justice.

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The Walled City by Esther David

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This novel traces the rigid circumscribed lives of three generations of women in an extended Jewish family in the walled Indian city of Ahmedabad.

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Flowers in the Blood by Gay Courter

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In Gay Courter’s bestselling sweeping saga, beautiful Dinah Sassoon, daughter of an affluent opium trader and pillar of Calcutta’s tight-knit Jewish community, sees her privileged future destroyed when her mother is mysteriously murdered. This tragic event leaves Dinah dishonored and virtually unmarriageable…until Edwin Salem, offering unconditional love, sparks her indomitable spirit and passionate ambition. Exotic and richly textured, Flowers in the Blood rings to life a nineteenth-century India never before portrayed. Irresistible in its storytelling power, it is one of the finest novels set in India. E-book edition extras include author interview & bio plus book club discussion guide.

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