8 Jewish American Heritage Month Books for the Classroom
The Classroom

8 Jewish American Heritage Month Books for the Classroom

Newsela Editorial
Apr 24, 2024

On April 20, 2006, President George W. Bush named the month of May as Jewish American Heritage Month. This heritage month recognizes the contributions that Jewish Americans have made to our shared culture. You can help students explore the Jewish and Jewish American experience through the eyes of real and fictional characters and the stories’ authors with these Jewish American Heritage Month books:

8 books that explore the Jewish and Jewish American experience

Add diverse perspectives to your ELA lessons by incorporating texts that focus on the lives of real and fictional Jewish characters with books like:

1. “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank

Though Anne Frank never lived in America, her autobiographical diary helps shed light on what life was like for Jewish people living in Europe during the Nazi rule, some of whom later became Jewish Americans themselves. You can pair this Newsela ELA book study with the text to build background knowledge on topics like:

  • Who Anne Frank was and why her diary is such a significant artifact when understanding and remembering the World War II era.

  • Why immigration resistance caused some European Jews to stay in their Nazi-occupied countries rather than try to escape and look for refuge in other countries.

  • What effects reading and writing have on people in stressful or traumatic situations, like the ones Anne encountered, and why she may have turned to writing as an outlet.

2. “Prisoner B-3807” by Alan Gratz

This middle-grade novel tells the story of Yanek, a Jewish boy in Poland who is taken prisoner during the Holocaust and tattooed with the marking B-3087. Gratz based Yanek’s character on Jack Gruener, a real-life Holocaust survivor and Jewish American. Pair the Newsela novel study with the book to provide more insight into Yanek and Jack’s experiences:

  • Watch an interactive video where 97-year-old Holocaust survivor Lily Ebert talks about her experiences surviving another crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic, and how the two experiences shaped her during different stages of her life.

  • Learn how Ebert also created a TikTok channel with her great-grandson to educate people on the platform who don’t believe the Holocaust happened.

  • Discover how the American government and military responded to the Holocaust and why the response is still a topic of great debate to this day.

3. “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry

This historical fiction novel gives an outsider’s perspective of the struggles and challenges Jewish people faced when trying to escape the Nazis’ rule during World War II. Use the novel study on Newsela ELA to give students insights into related topics like:

  • Exploring the genre of historical fiction with an interactive video to help students understand how real-life events can influence fictional stories.

  • Discovering what the Nuremberg Laws were in Nazi Germany and how they deprived Jewish people of their basic human rights.

  • Reading about how friendship, empathy, and understanding can help people focus on the things they have in common rather than what makes them different from each other.

4. “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” by Art Spiegelman

“Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” tells the true story of Art Spiegelman’s father Vladek, and how he survived the Holocaust and made it to America. Use the Newsela novel study to expand on the content in the graphic novel with your students:

  • Debate how graphic novels like “Maus” can help teens learn about social justice in a format that’s more engaging than a traditional textbook.

  • Explore other mediums that Holocaust survivors have used to share their stories in the modern age, such as on Instagram.

  • Learn about a 2018 Polish law that made it a crime to falsely blame the nation for the horrific acts committed by Nazi Germany, and the controversy surrounding the law.

5. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith

Though this novel discusses the life of an Irish immigrant family in the 1900s, it describes the struggles and dreams of all the immigrant groups in Williamsburg, including German, Italian, and Jewish Americans. Use our Newsela novel study to explore themes related to immigration in the novel:

  • Share an interactive video about growth in cities thanks to immigration and what that growth means for capitalism and the American economy.

  • Have students read an article about the evolution of the “American dream,” and discuss if prosperity and happiness for all is an attainable goal in our country.

  • Explore the history of antisemitism—from its roots in religious differences to its racialized and radicalized form in Nazi Germany—and discuss the ways that antisemitism still exists in the U.S. today.

6. “I Survived the Nazi Invasion, 1944” by Lauren Tarshis and Scott Dawson

As one installment of Lauren Tarshis’ “I Survived” series, this novel (and its graphic novel companion!) tells about siblings Max and Zena Rosen and their life in a Jewish ghetto after their father is captured by the Nazis. Use the Newsela novel study to help students explore themes related to growing up Jewish in Nazi-ruled countries:

  • Discover what Jewish life was like in Poland before the Holocaust, and see how Poland’s independence after World War I may have set the stage for antisemitism during World War II.

  • Learn more about Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 and the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943, and how both were pivotal moments during World War II.

  • Watch an interactive video about Virginia Hall, an Allied spy who was at the top of the Nazis’ most wanted list for her efforts to help and rescue Jewish people from their rule. 

7. “Night” by Elie Wiesel

This memoir gives a voice to the experiences of Holocaust survivors in their own words. Author Elie Wiesel became a Jewish American professor and author after his liberation from the concentration camps. Use the book study to learn more about:

  • The autobiography and memoir genres and how they’re different from fiction and other types of nonfiction works.

  • Wiesel’s other works, like his 1999 speech, “The Perils of Indifference,” which reflected on the tragedies of the 20th century and warned people about being indifferent to potentially world-altering events. 

  • Wiesel’s life following the Holocaust, his eventual immigration to the United States, and the legacy he left behind when he died in 2016.

8. “The Devil’s Arithmetic” by Jane Yolen

This novel by Jane Yolen shows that sometimes the family rituals and traditions young people find “boring” have greater significance than they realize. Use the novel study to help students explore the sci-fi, historical, and religious themes of the novel, like:

  • A history of the Jewish holiday of Passover, including its rituals and traditions that Jewish Americans incorporate into their celebrations each year.

  • Why genocide happens in the world and why it continues to happen in modern times despite our knowledge about events like the Holocaust.

  • The possibility of time travel, and what that could mean for events in the real world and not just science fiction.

Explore the lives and works of Jewish American authors

Help students get to know the Jewish American authors behind famous works and some of their favorite books:

  • Watch an interview with author Judy Blume as she discussed her National Book Foundation honor for “distinguished contribution to American letters.”

  • Have students read Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus,” which is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

  • Read about the J.D. Salinger exhibit at the New York Public Library that gave fans of the author’s work a glimpse into his reclusive life out of the public eye.

What will your students read next?

Novel and book studies are the perfect companions to books your students read during Jewish American Heritage Month—and at any other time throughout the school year. With Newsela ELA, you can help students build background knowledge on any topic to better understand the stories they read and how they relate to the real world.

Not a Newsela ELA customer yet? You can sign up for a Newsela Lite account and try our differentiated content and activities for free with four new articles available to you each month. Plus, if you want to give our premium products a try, as a Newsela Lite user, you can sign up for a free trial and explore everything Newsela ELA, Newsela Social Studies, and Newsela Science have to offer!

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