The best memoirs through the voices of women

Pamela S. Nadell Author Of America's Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today
By Pamela S. Nadell

Who am I?

I am a professor of history and Jewish studies at American University and author of America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today, winner of the National Jewish Book Award – 2019 Jewish Book of the Year. Since childhood I have been reading stories of women’s lives and tales set in Jewish communities across time and space. Yet, the voices that so often best evoke the past are those captured on the pages of great memoirs.


I wrote...

America's Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today

By Pamela S. Nadell,

Book cover of America's Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today

What is my book about?

What does it mean to be a Jewish woman in America? In a gripping historical narrative, Pamela S. Nadell weaves together the stories of a diverse group of extraordinary people--from the colonial-era matriarch Grace Nathan and her great-granddaughter, poet Emma Lazarus, to labor organizer Bessie Hillman and the great justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to scores of other activists, workers, wives, and mothers who helped carve out a Jewish American identity.

The twin threads binding these women together, she argues, are a strong sense of self and a resolute commitment to making the world a better place. Nadell recounts how Jewish women have been at the forefront of causes for centuries, fighting for suffrage, trade unions, civil rights, and feminism, and hoisting banners for Jewish rights around the world. Informed by shared values of America's founding and Jewish identity, these women's lives have left deep footprints in the history of the nation they call home.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

The Promised Land

By Mary Antin,

Book cover of The Promised Land

Why this book?

When we think of the memoirs, especially immigrant memoirs, contemporary literature pops out —Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior.  But long before their families came to America, more than a hundred years ago, another immigrant family, this one Jewish, landed in Boston. In 1912, at the age of thirty, Mary Antin told their story. Her tale of flight from the land of oppression to the land of freedom has remained in print for over a century, the quintessential memoir of the world opened to a young child who thirsted to learn and to live.

The Promised Land

By Mary Antin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Promised Land as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Promised Land is a compelling account of one woman's journey from Polotsk to Boston and her attempts to embrace a new culture and identity. Author Mary Antin highlights the old values and contemporary views that shaped her immigrant experience.



In The Promised Land, Antin recounts the many obstacles she encountered before and after emigrating to the U.S. Arriving in 1894, she details the years in Boston where she attempted to assimilate while facing religious, political and financial challenges. Despite hidden pitfalls and social barriers, Antin continued to make strides towards her American dream.

Although it centers a specific experience,…


Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood

By Kate Simon,

Book cover of Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood

Why this book?

In this evocative memoir, the first in a series of three and a New York Times 1982 best book of the year, Simon, a travel writer, captures the world of an immigrant child growing up in the Bronx in the 1920s. Their fathers were harsh disciplinarians; mothers knew abortion to be the most effective birth control; and daughters saw poor scores in math crush their dreams. A story of triumph over the odds, of female rebellion, and of the many ways of learning, this memoir evokes a bygone world that also feels very contemporary.

Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood

By Kate Simon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bronx Primitive as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"As an account of growing up female, it is a fit companion piece to Mary McCarthy's classic Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood." Le Anne Schreiber, The New York Times.


All-Of-A-Kind Family

By Sydney Taylor,

Book cover of All-Of-A-Kind Family

Why this book?

In 1951, Sydney Taylor invented the memorable Brenners—papa, mama, five sisters, and baby brother—a Jewish family on the Lower East Side in turn-of-the-century New York. Taylor’s words and Helen John’s illustrations in this book, the first in a series, set the scene. A calendar in the parlor announced that it was 1912. Tenements lined city streets. When I read these novels as a child, I did not yet know that they were closely based on Taylor’s own life. When the entire series was republished in 2014, I quipped: I became a Jewish historian because of these books. 

All-Of-A-Kind Family

By Sydney Taylor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked All-Of-A-Kind Family as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Meet the All-of-a-Kind  Family -- Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie -- who live with their parents in New York City at the turn of the century.

Together they share adventures that find them searching for hidden buttons while dusting Mama's front parlor and visiting with the peddlers in Papa's shop on rainy days. The girls enjoy doing everything together, especially when it involves holidays and surprises.

But no one could have prepared them for the biggest surprise of all!


Back Then: Two Literary Lives in 1950s New York

By Justin Kaplan, Anne Bernays,

Book cover of Back Then: Two Literary Lives in 1950s New York

Why this book?

Written in separate voices in alternating chapters, this unusual double memoir by the long-married couple, the novelist Anne Bernays and biographer Justin Kaplan, tells the stories of two privileged New Yorkers.  Growing up on opposite sides of Central Park, they came of age in the 1950s. Dreaming dreams of literary lives, they came to see them realized as their lives converged.

Back Then: Two Literary Lives in 1950s New York

By Justin Kaplan, Anne Bernays,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Back Then as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Novelist Anne Bernays and biographer Justin Kaplan -- both native New Yorkers -- came of age in the 1950s, when the pent-up energies of the Depression years and World War II were at flood tide. Written in two separate voices, Back Then is thecandid, anecdotal account of these two children of privilege -- one from New York's East Side, the other from the West Side -- pursuing careers in publishing and eventually leaving to write their own books.

Infused with intelligence and charm, Back Then is an elegant reflection on the transformative years in the lives of two young people…


The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed

By Wendy Lower,

Book cover of The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed

Why this book?

This book, just published in February 2021, makes my list. Readers may think – not again, another Holocaust history.  But this is far more than that. In Wendy Lower’s gifted hands, we learn of how she spent nearly a decade “reading” one single, horrific image—the murder of a woman and her family. Lower not only uncovers the murderers and the photographer, but this slim, riveting tale morphs into memoir as she narrates how, in archives, cities, and villages, across three continents, she discovered what she needed to know to reconstruct the events of that single terrible moment.

The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed

By Wendy Lower,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Ravine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner, 2022 National Jewish Book Award

Shortlist, 2022 Wingate Literary Prize

A single photograph—an exceptionally rare “action shot” documenting the horrific final moment of the murder of a family—drives a riveting process of discovery for a gifted Holocaust scholar


In 2009, the acclaimed author of Hitler’s Furies was shown a photograph just brought to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The documentation of the Holocaust is vast, but there are virtually no images of a Jewish family at the actual moment of murder, in this case by German officials and Ukrainian collaborators. A Ukrainian shooter’s rifle is inches from a…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in New York State, the German occupation of Europe, and New York City?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about New York State, the German occupation of Europe, and New York City.

New York State Explore 499 books about New York State
The German Occupation Of Europe Explore 54 books about the German occupation of Europe
New York City Explore 678 books about New York City

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Life and Fate, The Holocaust by Bullets, and Babi Yar if you like this list.