Pho­to by Miik­ka A. on Unsplash

The best his­tor­i­cal fic­tion is utter­ly trans­portive, but it also has a uni­ver­sal­i­ty to it — a shared thread of empa­thy that ties us to the past. In Jew­ish his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, I have often found that thread not only in sto­ries of resis­tance and prej­u­dice, but also in those of pas­sion and joy. 

My forth­com­ing nov­el, The Phoenix Bride, is a love sto­ry set in sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry Eng­land about a Por­tuguese Jew­ish doc­tor and a young wid­ow. It’s about grief and hap­pi­ness both; and with this list, I’ve tried to uplift oth­er works of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion about Jew­ish peo­ple from across less com­mon eras and back­grounds, focus­ing on nar­ra­tives that are just as tri­umphant as tragic.

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kad­dish (Restora­tion England)

The Weight of Ink is set in the same peri­od as The Phoenix Bride, and it pro­vides a per­fect entry­way into a fas­ci­nat­ing era of Anglo-Jew­ish his­to­ry that often goes over­looked. In the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, the Jews were read­mit­ted into Eng­land after cen­turies of exclu­sion. In The Weight of Ink, Kad­dish inter­weaves the com­plex expe­ri­ences of the nascent Lon­don Sephar­di com­mu­ni­ty with a peren­ni­al sto­ry about wom­an­hood and how we con­nect with the past. If you’re inter­est­ed in expand­ing your his­tor­i­cal fic­tion read­ing beyond more com­mon­ly fea­tured time peri­ods, The Weight of Ink is a fan­tas­tic place to start.

True Pre­tens­es by Rose Lern­er (Regency England)

I’d be remiss not to include anoth­er romance in this list, and True Pre­tens­es rep­re­sents Regency romance at its very best: sweet, soul­ful, and cap­ti­vat­ing. In True Pre­tens­es, a Jew­ish swindler with a heart of gold tries to engi­neer a mar­riage for his beloved broth­er, but things go wrong when he falls in love with the intend­ed bride him­self. The elec­tric Ash Cohen is one of my favorite-ever romance pro­tag­o­nists; his scam-gone-wrong with Lydia, a sweet-natured heiress, is full of gor­geous moments, ren­dered in deft prose and with affect­ing ten­der­ness. Ash feels at once like a romance hero and a gen­uine reflec­tion of Jew­ish lives in the era. If you’re a Regency romance read­er yearn­ing for Jew­ish rep­re­sen­ta­tion, True Pre­tens­es is a won­der­ful option for you.

The Last Rose of Shang­hai by Weina Dai Ran­del (1940s Shanghai)

The Last Rose of Shang­hai fol­lows two extra­or­di­nary pro­tag­o­nists: Aiyi, the heiress to a Shang­hai night­club, and Ernest, a Jew­ish refugee with a tal­ent for jazz piano. Their rela­tion­ship is fraught with strug­gles and tragedy, but Ran­del bal­ances dark­ness with light. She vivid­ly depicts wartime Shang­hai and the deep con­nec­tion between Aiyi and Ernest, which blooms in an era that con­sid­ers their love impos­si­ble. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing explo­ration of the expe­ri­ences of a com­mu­ni­ty often over­looked in fiction.

By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan (Fif­teenth-cen­tu­ry Spain)

By Fire, By Water pri­mar­i­ly fol­lows Luis de San­tán­gel, a con­ver­so who finds him­self torn between com­plic­i­ty and resis­tance dur­ing the atroc­i­ties of the Span­ish Inqui­si­tion. His sto­ry is inter­linked with those of Jews across Spain, and the result is a mar­velous­ly com­plex and sub­tle exam­i­na­tion of what com­mu­ni­ty and faith mean in the face of prej­u­dice. Kaplan is faith­ful to the dark real­i­ties of the Inqui­si­tion, but he also brings beau­ty and sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the nar­ra­tive, with char­ac­ters whose inner lives are as rich as their exter­nal con­flicts. What real­ly sings here in par­tic­u­lar is Kaplan’s evoca­tive prose — it brings to life both the set­ting and Santángel’s inner turmoil.

Mis­tress of the Art of Death by Ari­ana Franklin (Medieval England)

This is a bru­tal yet fas­ci­nat­ing mur­der mys­tery that cen­ters female and Jew­ish expe­ri­ences in a peri­od when these voic­es were so often ignored. Our pro­tag­o­nist, Adelia, is a foren­sics expert who was raised by a Jew in Saler­no. She comes to Eng­land because the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty there has been accused of a series of heinous crimes — and she is deter­mined to clear their names. Mis­tress of the Art of Death deals with the impor­tant lega­cy of the blood libel, refus­ing to shy away from the cru­el­ty and prej­u­dices of the era. At the same time, Adelia is a love­able pro­tag­o­nist whose adven­tures are com­pul­sive­ly read­able. Do note that this book is quite graph­ic in its depic­tions of crime scenes!

The Golem and the Jin­ni by Helen Weck­er (1890s US)

The Golem and the Jin­ni is a work of his­tor­i­cal fan­ta­sy with an empha­sis on his­tor­i­cal. While Cha­va and Ahmad, the tit­u­lar golem and jin­ni, are com­pelling and com­plex pro­tag­o­nists, the real star here is Wecker’s extra­or­di­nary prose, which con­jures up nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry New York in live­ly detail. There, Cha­va and Ahmad find com­mu­ni­ty and each oth­er, and con­struct their own forms of lib­er­a­tion. The inter­play between the fan­tas­ti­cal and the real is sim­ply mas­ter­ful; Weck­er inte­grates Jew­ish mythos into her mag­ic to relate the sto­ries of immi­grants in a way that feels authen­tic. An utter delight from start to finish.

Natasha Siegel is the author of Solomon’s Crown, a New York Times Book Review Edi­tors’ Choice. She was born and raised in Lon­don, where she grew up in a Dan­ish-Jew­ish fam­i­ly sur­round­ed by sto­ries. Her poet­ry has won acco­lades from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford.