Jerusalem as a Second Language

(15 reviews)


Publication Date: September 29, 2020 – Order Today!

In 1998, the old Soviet Union is dead, and the new Russia is awash in corruption and despair. Manya and Yuri Zalinikov, secular Jews—he, a gifted mathematician recently dismissed from the Academy; she, a concert pianist—sell black market electronics in a market stall, until threatened with a gun by a mafioso in search of protection money. Yuri sinks into a Chekhovian melancholy, emerging to announce that he wants to “live as a Jew” in Israel. Manya and their daughter, Galina, are desolate, asking, “How does one do that, and why?”

And thus begins their odyssey—part tragedy, part comedy, always surprising. Struggling against loneliness, language, and danger, in a place Manya calls “more cousin’s club than country,” Yuri finds a Talmudic teacher equally addicted to religion and luxury; Manya finds a job playing the piano at The White Nights supper club, owned by a wealthy, flamboyant Russian with a murky history, who offers lust disguised as love. Galina, enrolled at Hebrew University, finds dance clubs and pizza emporiums and a string of young men, one of whom Manya hopes will save her from the Israeli army by marrying her.

Against a potpourri of marriage wigs, matchmaking television shows, disastrous investment schemes, and a suicide bombing, the Zalinikovs confront the thin line between religious faith and skepticism, as they try to answer: what does it mean to be fully human, what does it mean to be Jewish? And what role in all of this does the mazel gene play?

SKU: 978-1-951547-06-6 Categories: , Tag:

Additional information

Publication Date

September 29, 2020


Perfect Paperback, eBook


978-1-951547-06-6, 978-1-951547-07-3


292 pages


5.5 x 8.5 inches

In the Media

Read an excerpt from Jerusalem as a Second Language on Jewish Fiction (September 2020)

Read the article, “From borsht to falafel,” by Robert Nagler Miller in JUF News (September 8, 2020)

15 reviews for Jerusalem as a Second Language

  1. Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, and book editor of the JEWISH JOURNAL

    Jerusalem as a Second Language allows us to experience the profound culture shock of Jews from post Soviet-Russia who find their way to a country and a people that are famously intense.” Read full review by Jonathan Kirsch on the Jewish Journal.

  2. Rabbi Deborah Miller — Books and Blintzes

    “[Jerusalem as a Second Language] has all the hallmarks of the best kind of coming of age story.” Read the full review at Books and Blintzes

  3. Michelle Anne Schingler — Foreword Reviews

    [An] absorbing and sensitive novel about how religiosity is adapted in liminal spaces . . . Distelheim is variously incisive, funny, and poetic in approaching questions of religious practice and resistance. Read the full review at Foreword Reviews.

  4. Rosellen Brown — Author of The Lake on Fire, Before and After, Tender Mercies, and Civil Wars

    Jerusalem as a Second Language tells a necessary story that I’m surprised hasn’t been told for American readers before. With wit and complexity, Rochelle Distelheim takes on two cultures whose differences are daunting and she manages to represent both with convincing detail and, most importantly, with sympathy. Her book builds a bridge over a deep chasm that her characters walk across with dignity and just enough mordant humor to convince us they’re real.

  5. Sally Koslow — Author of Another Side of Paradise and the international bestseller, The Late, Lamented Molly Marx

    Meet Manya, who grudgingly trades Russia for Israel. Shimmering with wit and bittersweet insights, Rochelle Distelheim’s Jerusalem as a Second Language is an emotional travelogue that begs the question, how does a secular Jew find her place in the world?

  6. Elizabeth Wetmore — Author of Valentine

    Quick on the heels of her smart, charming, and deeply humane novel Sadie in Love (2018), Rochelle Distelheim’s Jerusalem as a Second Language introduces her devoted readers to a whole new cast of displaced characters. As secular Jews who have fled to Jerusalem from an increasingly corrupt and dangerous Russia, the Zalinikov family struggles against displacement, loneliness, and danger in a country that is as strange to them as it is compelling. Simultaneously tender and steely-eyed, often funny, and occasionally sorrowful, Distelheim’s elegant prose plucks at the heart of what it means to be a family at odds with their new country, and with each other.

  7. S. M. — Reviewer, NetGalley

    This was a lovely story. Beautiful writing, and I particularly liked the main character Manya. Well done in expressing the feelings and emotions of the culture shock, loneliness, and homesickness that she felt, and her struggles between what she wanted and her desire for her husband’s happiness. All in all a good read.

  8. Rekha Rao — Reviewer, NetGalley

    A lovely story of a woman who has recently moved with her family from Russia to Jerusalem. Culture shock, learning to adjust to the orthodox ways of her fellow citizens, trying to get her daughter married so that she doesn’t have to serve in the army, a little infatuation with her boss and her husband’s overly attachment to new ways of living. I loved the writing and storytelling. Manya, the protagonist, is likable.

    I recommend this book to those who love to read books of the genre literary fiction.

  9. Joshualyn Prater — Reviewer, NetGalley

    This was my first book by this author. It was pretty enjoyable. I would give this book a 3.5 star rating! It was a pretty quick and easy read!

  10. Lisa Curtin — Reviewer, NetGalley

    I really enjoyed this book. The overall subject is not something I know anything about so as well as reading a story I felt like I was learning. I was very impressed.

  11. Neriman Kuyucu — Reviewer (Educator), NetGalley

    What a wonderful plotline and brilliant title! This novel has so much potential, but unfortunately, the narrative voice and the characters weren’t for me.

  12. Grace J — Reviewer, NetGalley

    There is no doubt that the late Rochelle Distelheim is a massive loss to the writing community; this is a really interesting and informative book, with a good splash of humour!

    Manya and Yuri Zalinikov are Russian Jews, both highly skilled in their fields. Manya is a concert pianist and Yuri, a mathematician was recently dismissed from his position and now runs a (black) market stall where the couple, along with their adult daughter, receive a sinister visit from a threatening man with a gun. Deciding to leave their Russian home, Yuri decides to take the family to Israel, where they can freely practice their faith. Manya and Galina aren’t quite so convinced that all their problems will be solved by moving to Jerusalem but, nevertheless, they set out. That’s only the beginning of their journey, they have so much more to experience and suffer – not without a few laughs along the way!

    This is a culture I thought I knew nothing about up until now, but this novel is bursting at the seams with lots of interesting details – some were vaguely familiar, others completely new. This isn’t a candy-coated tale; rather it’s an honest version of each member of the family struggling to fit in with a different way of practising their faith, in a new country where they should communicate in a different language to the one they are used to. I’m not sure how well I would fare doing the same, although I’d like to think I’d give it a good go! (Certainly my daughter embraced another culture and a second language easily.) Manya is a strong character, beautifully portrayed and I sympathised with her often. Yuri was shown as a bit stubborn, but trying to do the best for everyone and Galina was just being young! Their experiences make for a very entertaining read and I really have learned an awful lot about things new to me. A very worthwhile read which I’m happy to give four stars, and a recommendation to those happy to embrace new cultures through books.

    My thanks to Midas PR for providing my copy and my spot on this tour; this is—as always—my honest, original and unbiased review.

  13. Beth Nolan Conners — Reviewer, NetGalley

    This was such an interesting story and so very believable. I had to think that this was largely based in personal experience (??). Now is a time when immigration is so prevalent in the news; it’s so moving to read a book of “strangers in a strange land.” At times I found this novel laugh out loud funny. At times it nearly broke my heart.

    Highly recommended!

    (I was part of the blog tour for this novel in October, 2020. Full review is on my blog at

  14. Deirdre Sheridan — Reviewer, NetGalley

    An interesting look at an unexplored era of Soviet history, as Jewish citizens were granted permission to emigrate to Israel as part of Gorbachev’s effort to “open up” to the rest of the world. Distelheim tells an intriguing story of a family caught up in this culture clash. The plot is a bit breezy and I wish there was a bit more tension, but it was a decent exploration of identity in the decline of an era.

  15. Yona Zeldis McDonough — Lilith Magazine blog

    A Profound Posthumous Novel from a Very Late Bloomer

    What does it feel like to publish your first novel at the age of 90? That’s the question Lilith posed to Rochelle Distelheim two years ago—she was in a position to know. Distelheim, an award-winning short story writer and Chicago native, released her debut novel, Sadie In Love (Aubade Publishing), in 2018 and in addition to the Q & A that appeared on Lilith’s blog, we also ran excerpts from the novel, a warmly comical and deliciously wry story that sweeps us back to 1913 and the world of struggling Jewish immigrants in New York City’s Lower East Side.

    Jerusalem as a Second Language, Distelheim’s second novel, is out from Aubade on September 29, 2020 but sadly, Distelheim died on June 12 and didn’t get to savor the praise that is sure to come for her sophomore effort. Read more.

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