People of the Books

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Reviews, recommendations, and other reasons to read. By Spertus Institute's Betsy Gomberg.

People of the Books

14 books about Jewish Chicago

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Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins, this year's One Book | One Community selection for Jewish Book Month, is set in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. In fact, the unnamed northwest suburb where the book takes place (we have a hunch it's Jami's hometown of Buffalo Grove) so contributes to the story's flavor and atmosphere that it's practically a character in its own right. In the Chicago Reader Aimee Levitt, who hails from the same stomping grounds as the author, says this: "literature is supposed to be about broadening your horizons and bringing you out of yourself and introducing you to new worlds, but that happens all the time. Seeing someplace you know well through someone else's eyes--now that's something rare and worth getting excited about."

With that in mind, in roughly chronological order, here are 14 books (some fiction like The Middlesteins, some not) where Jewish life in Chicago plays a role:

The Old Bunch (1937)
by Meyer Levin
Set on the West Side of Chicago, Levin's sprawling novel follows 19 first-generation Jewish Chicagoans in the 1920s and '30s.

Passage from Home (1946)
by Isaac Rosenfeld
Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Rosenfeld's semi-autobiographical novel tackles teenage rebellion - before it was called that.

The Adventures of Augie March (1953)
by Saul Bellow
This portrait of a Jewish Chicagoan in the Great Depression won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1954. Named one of the hundred best novels (ever) by both TIME magazine and the Modern Library Board.

Letting Go (1962)
by Philip Roth
Chicago in the 1950s is one setting (along with New York and Iowa City) of Philip Roth's award-winning first full-length novel.

The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb (1996)
by Irving Cutler
The classic guide to Jewish Chicago.

Total Recall (2001)
by Sara Paretsky
Paresky always places the exploits of private eye V.I. Warshawski in contemporary Chicago, with very real explorations of the city's cracks and crevices. This one explores stories of child survivors of the Holocaust.

Days and Nights at The Second City (2002)
by Bernard Sahlins
Second City founder and longtime producer/director Bernie Sahlins, who died earlier this year at age 90, tells the history of Second City from its humble start in 1959 to its role as the launching pad of American comics and comedy.

Fabulous Small Jews (2004)
by Joseph Epstein
The characters in the 18 finely crafted stories in this collection are lawyers, professors, scrap-iron dealers, and more.

Tales of a Theatrical Guru (2006)
by Danny Newman
The legendary theater impresario's autobiography is juicy and inspirational, with honest, heartwarming portrayals of his Jewish identification and his 44-year marriage to Yiddish theater star Dina Halpern.

Crossing California (2004)
by Adam Langer
Langer's debut novel, set in West Roger's Park in the late 1970s and early 1980s, shines a brutal - and funny - light on teenagers and parents in transition.

The Lazarus Project (2008)
by Alexander Hemon
A contemporary young writer, himself an immigrant to Chicago, becomes obsessed by the 1908 killing of a Russian-Jewish immigrant by Chicago's chief of police. (The source material for this book includes another good read, the nonfiction account of the Lazarus Averbuch mystery. Called An Accidental Anarchist, it's by Joe Kraus and Walter Roth of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society.)

The 188th Crybaby Brigade:
A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah - A Memoir (2010)
by Joel Chasnoff
A coming-of-age story from the former Chicagoan, who, at age 24, trades life as a comedian and writer in New York for a year as an Israeli tank soldier.

Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation (2012)
by Stefanie Bregman
A collection of personal essays from Jewish 20- and 30-somethings conceived and compiled here in Chicago.

Love and Shame and Love: A Novel (2012)
by Peter Orner
A multi-generational collage with a platform drawn from the Highland Park childhood of the double Pushcart Prize-winning author.

Did I miss your favorite? Leave a note in the comments!


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