Jerusalem as a Second Language

(20 reviews)


Publication Date: September 29, 2020 – Pre-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)

20 reviews for Jerusalem as a Second Language

  1. Avatar

    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.

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    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

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    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.

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    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.

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    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?

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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!

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    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.

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