Author pho­to by Michael Salama

Jor­dan Sala­ma orig­i­nal­ly shared his Jew­ish Book Month read­ing rec­om­men­da­tions with JBC’s email list this past week. Below is the letter.

Dear Friends,

When I was grow­ing up in a large Argen­tine, Syr­i­an, and Iraqi Jew­ish fam­i­ly in the New York sub­urbs, my favorite words to hear were kan ya makan.

Ara­bic for once upon a time,” kan ya makan lit­er­al­ly means it hap­pened or it did­n’t hap­pen,” or it was or it was­n’t so.” And in my fam­i­ly, it always meant a sto­ry was com­ing. Maybe that sto­ry was an ancient tale from The Thou­sand and One Nights, or maybe it was a fam­i­ly leg­end told across the kitchen table. 

It did­n’t real­ly mat­ter to me. My fam­i­ly had all sorts of sto­ries because they came from all over the world – Jews from Dam­as­cus, Alep­po, Bagh­dad, and Buenos Aires. And they passed these sto­ries down in numer­ous ways, through writ­ing, art, music, and every­day objects we had around the house. My new book, Stranger in the Desert: A Fam­i­ly Sto­ry, chron­i­cles a jour­ney I made across Argenti­na in search of traces of my great-grand­fa­ther (a Syr­i­an trav­el­ing sales­man in the Andes) and dis­cuss­es the impor­tance of inter­gen­er­a­tional sto­ry­telling in com­mu­ni­ties per­pet­u­al­ly faced with our demise. My rel­a­tives told these sto­ries so that we would nev­er for­get where we came from, and because they knew that Jew­ish life rests on the sto­ries trans­mit­ted by those who came before us.

Here in Argenti­na, I have found great com­fort in Jew­ish sto­ry­telling dur­ing these unfath­omably dif­fi­cult weeks for the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and the world. In the midst of so much fear and grief, I turn to sto­ries as I would a warm blan­ket, wrap­ping myself up in the shared human­i­ty that can be found.

I’ve been par­tic­u­lar­ly drawn to works that reflect iden­ti­ty as mul­ti­lay­ered, sim­i­lar to my own her­itage — each sto­ry, in its own way, bring­ing me clos­er to my own fam­i­ly and her­itage. Most­ly I’ve been read­ing and reread­ing Ban­i­pal Mag­a­zine’s recent spe­cial edi­tion entire­ly ded­i­cat­ed to trans­lat­ed essays, poems, and fic­tion by Iraqi Jew­ish writ­ers like Shi­mon Bal­las, Maryam al-Mul­la, and Samir Naqqash. There are so few texts in Eng­lish that rep­re­sent the emo­tion­al com­plex­i­ties of Arab Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, and this col­lec­tion is a trea­sure. Then there’s Sarah Abre­vaya Stein’s amaz­ing Fam­i­ly Papers, which pieces togeth­er the his­to­ry of a Sephardic fam­i­ly in the Ottoman Empire thanks to a trove of let­ters and doc­u­ments. André Aci­man’s stun­ning Out of Egypt is an all-time favorite of mine that I fre­quent­ly find myself return­ing to

I recent­ly came across Susan Lynn Meyer’s fas­ci­nat­ing essay Home­steading Jews.” This remind­ed me of Javier Sinay’s The Mur­ders of Moisés Ville. Sinay is a great nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion writer from Argenti­na and a friend of mine. When we think of the recent his­to­ry of Jew­ish migra­tions around the world, very often we think of urban spaces. But what about those who set out to make it in more rur­al areas? These com­pli­cat­ed his­to­ries have been much less explored, and these two works from oppo­site parts of the globe each shed light on the subject.

Last, but cer­tain­ly not least, I want to intro­duce you to two of my favorite Latin Amer­i­can singer-song­writ­ers, both of whom also hap­pen to be Jew­ish: Jorge Drexler and Cono­cien­do Rusia (led by Mateo Suja­tovich). From Drexler, don’t miss his song El pianista del gue­to de Varso­via” (“The Pianist of the War­saw Ghet­to”) and be sure to look up the trans­la­tion if you don’t under­stand Spanish.

May we all find com­fort in the sto­ries that make us feel whole, and strive to think crit­i­cal­ly about how we can make the world a kinder and more peace­ful place.

All my best,


Jor­dan Sala­ma is a writer cov­er­ing cul­ture and the envi­ron­ment in the Amer­i­c­as. His essays and sto­ries have appeared in Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, New York Mag­a­zine, The New York Times and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. An Amer­i­can writer of Argen­tine, Syr­i­an, and Iraqi Jew­ish descent, he is the author of Every Day the Riv­er Changes, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2021, and the 2022 Prince­ton Pre-Read,” and Stranger in the Desert, forth­com­ing in Feb­ru­ary 2024. He grad­u­at­ed from Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in 2019 and has been based, in recent years, between New York and Buenos Aires. In his free time, he enjoys jam­ming on the piano and gui­tar with his younger broth­ers, play­ing soc­cer, and kayak­ing in the waters of NYC.