Review of It’s a Whole Spiel

It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories (anthology) edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman. Forward by Mayim Bailik. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 2019.

It's a Whole SpielI really enjoyed this collection of YA short stories centering Jewish characters written by Jewish authors! It’s a very strong collection, with only a few stories that didn’t work for me and many that I adored. The vast majority of the stories were contemporary YA, but there were a couple ghost stories, and a good portion of the contemporary YA were romance stories.

As a Jewish reader, I really appreciated the range of observance and feelings about Judaism represented, though I would have loved to see more stories centering Jewish folks of color, and a wider range of diaspora. It feels US and Canada centered, and leans heavily toward Jewish characters whose families immigrated several generations ago, with no stories about present day Jewish immigrants.

I did my best to find out the identities that authors share publicly in bios and on social media, and my discussion of diversity specifics in the collection is based on that. It is not my intention to out anyone, and I welcome any corrections. In terms of diversity, out of fourteen stories, this collection has four stories by LGBTQIAP authors and four with LGBTQIAP content. It has two stories by authors of color, and one story with a main character of color. It contains two stories by disabled authors and five stories with MCs I read as neuroatypical (one I read as autistic; the others were mental illness).

I’m listing the stories from my most favorite to my least favorite, with a mini-review for each story. I’m separating the stories out into three categories: ones I especially enjoyed (6), ones that were okay but not faves (5), and ones that didn’t work as well for me (3). As you can see, I liked the vast majority of the stories, and loved quite a few, which makes this one of my favorite anthologies I’ve read in recent years, because there are so many great stories in it.

A few stories that I especially enjoyed:

Some Days You’re the Sidekick; Some Days You’re the Superhero by Katherine Locke

I loved this to pieces. It was beautifully paced, so incredibly geeky, and had one of my most favorite tropes ever: You’ve Got Mail. It’s not a romance, it’s more of a second chance friendship story, and I adored that. I liked how it was framed as fic, and the main characters were so compelling. I also fell really hard for the MC’s non-binary younger sibling. My most favorite story in the collection.

Representation

  • Jewish man MC
  • Non-binary Jewish MC
  • Non-binary Jewish secondary character
  • Non-binary Jewish author

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

Brief moment of cissexism, misgendering, and trans antagonism. Discussion of queer antagonism. Description of a moment of public humiliation and mockery. 

Neilah by Hannah Moskowitz

Wow, this story wrecked me. It’s beautiful and doesn’t pull any punches and the characterization is deep and complex and I loved it. So many feels, so so many. It has this lovely balance to it, and a gorgeous arc. It centers a queer Jewish woman who has an eating disorder and is set at Yom Kippur. Her new (first) girlfriend is more observant than she is, and she is fasting for the first time, and going to services. I really appreciated the representation of ED in this story, and the way the story felt hopeful. This is one of my favorite stories in the anthology.

Representation

  • Queer Jewish woman MC with an eating disorder
  • Lesbian disabled Jewish woman author

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

MC has an eating disorder and this is central to the story. Discussion of casual anti-semitism from an ex. Discussion of pressure to assimilate and act/be less Jewish. Reference to queer antagonism. 

Aftershocks by Rachel Lynn Solomon

I loved this m/f romance between two Jewish geeky teens who are nervously on their first date at Shabbos dinner and grappling with the fact of their different levels of observance. I appreciated the OCD and anxiety rep a lot, the anxiety rep resonated for me. I was rooting for them as a couple, and enjoyed the way they navigated the awkwardness of first date/mutual crush between friends becomes instant relationship. They are both so sweet in their insecure moments with each other, and how they bond over geekiness. I liked how much he was into her being competent and smart. The bit where they hold hands is super swoony and also full of this lovely humor. One of my faves in the collection.

Representation

  • Jewish teen girl MC with OCD and anxiety
  • Jewish teen boy love interest
  • Jewish woman author

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

MC with OCD and anxiety; panic attack depicted on the page. Earthquake occurs on page. 

Two Truths and an Oy by Dahlia Adler

I loved this story about a young woman navigating college orientation after going to yeshiva for her whole life. It felt so resonant, this struggle with so many cultural differences and choosing how much to talk about being Jewish, and the relief of seeing another Jewish student. I wasn’t raised Modern Orthodox, and I found college in California to be such a jolt after NYC, because I was going from being surrounded by Jewish folks to a place where we were few and far between. While the experience depicted here was different in many ways, I still really connected with Mali, and felt for her so much.

Representation

  • Jewish woman MC
  • Bisexual Jewish author

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

The MC has a bit of internalized anti-semitism.

Twelve Frames by Nova Ren Suma

I loved this story, which is about family legacies and trying to figure out who you are and assimilation and creativity. It centers a girl who just moved to a new town and is trying to be herself in a new place where she’d felt boxed in before. There’s just a hint of a ghost story to it, and I really appreciated the light touch with that. I felt so much for the MC, and adored her new friend to pieces. This is beautifully written, and it wrapped itself around my heart.

Representation

  • Jewish teenage girl MC
  • Jewish woman author

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

References to anti-semitism. Casual ableist language (“freak”). Ghost. 

Be Brave and All by Laura Silverman

I really enjoyed this story that centered a girl with social anxiety trying to go to a big conference with her BFF. The third wheel, social awkwardness, social anxiety aspect of the story was resonant. I liked the light touch of romance in the story, and the way a good portion of it was about her trying to push herself a bit to do activism she really cared about. I’m forever charmed by the socially awkward Jewish ukulele playing love interest.

Representation

  • Jewish woman MC with social anxiety
  • Jewish man LI with social anxiety
  • Disabled Jewish woman author

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

MC has social anxiety, and several moments of it lightly flaring are depicted on page. Discussion of gun violence in schools and gun reform. 

Stories that I liked but were not my faves:

Indoor Kids by Alex London

I enjoyed this m/m romance story quite a bit, probably because I was an indoor kid myself at camp, and rather miserable because of it. I read the MC as autistic, primarily because of his difficulties with social skills, the way he seemed to do a lot of mental rehearsal as part of planning out communication, what he was like when he was overwhelmed, and the way his thinking worked, but also because a bully calls him Sheldon. For the most part, I liked the autism rep and could connect with him. I thought the connection between the two boys was adorable, and was really invested in the whole space subplot. This was a lovely start to the collection.

Representation

  • Gay Jewish MC who I read as autistic
  • Gay Jewish love interest
  • Jewish man author

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

References to anti-semitism. Discussion of death. Recounting of a story where a character was afraid he might get eaten by a lion. Characters are focused on astronauts who are in peril.

El Al 328 by Dana Schwartz

This story about a college student on her way home from Birthright who feels like an outcast resonated quite a bit for me. It felt real and I connected with the MC, and felt for her as she tried to figure out what made her different and how to have the kinds of social experiences she wanted/felt like she was supposed to have. It captures that experience quite well, I felt.

Representation

  • Jewish woman MC
  • Jewish author

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

Discussion of sex and losing virginity. 

Good Shabbos by Goldy Moldavsky

So I ignored the footnotes while reading, and I don’t recommend reading it that way. A lot of the humor in the story is in the footnotes. I liked this story; it felt like nights I had as a teenager, where I wished that it could be about friendship but it became about trying to chase after boys. Except the boys inevitably were disappointing. The dialogue and humor are where the story shines.

Representation

  • Jewish MCs
  • Latinx Jewish woman author

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

Alcohol use, including drunkenness. 

Jewbacca by Lance Rubin

I liked this story about a Jewish teenage boy who doesn’t feel Jewish enough and pretends to be more observant than he is. This sense of being an imposter Jew is such a common one, and it resonated for me as a Jewish reader. The romance in the story is my favorite aspect of it, though the Hanukkah party is a comedy of errors that had me wincing for the MC all the way through.

Representation

  • Jewish MCs
  • Jewish man author

He Who Revives the Dead by Elie Lichtschein

I liked this story about a woman who drowned and was brought back from death, and is managing the trauma from that, and trying to extinguish some of her phobia around water through exposure during her Birthright trip. As someone who also took it upon myself to try to extinguish phobia that was trauma based as an older teen, it was resonant for me. I did wish that it had made it clear that this kind of thing isn’t curable with one big exposure, but I can let it go.

Representation

  • Jewish woman MC with trauma
  • Jewish man author

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

Trauma from drowning and being revived from death, intrusive trauma reactions depicted on page. Self driven exposure therapy enacted on page. 

Stories that didn’t work as well for me:

Find the River by Matthue Roth

I got thrown with this story, because it begins talking about skinny dipping and how the MC is “a boy with the perfect girl’s body” and I kept trying to parse the MC as a trans guy. I still don’t understand that line. So it took me a while to even find my way into the story, and I think part of it was that and part of it was that the experience of Jewishness described in the story was not one I know well, or have much cultural competency for. I don’t think I need to get it, or click with it. I did connect a bit with the spiritual questioning aspect of the story. And the characters were compelling, the arc of the story was interesting.

Representation

  • Jewish teenage boy MC
  • Jewish man author

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

Alcohol use. Altercation that included use of a knife. 

Ajshara by Aldi Alsaid

This magical realist story about a man who sees and talks to ghosts going on a trip to Israel, Europe, and Asia mostly focuses on his feelings about leaving familiar ghosts behind and interacting with ghosts during his travels when he first imagined the trip as an escape. It’s meditative and meandering, and despite being about ghost/human connection, something I often find deeply compelling, wasn’t especially engaging for me.

Representation

  • Latinx Jewish man MC
  • Latinx Jewish author

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

Discussion of death, details of how people died. Sex occurs in the story but is not described on page. Alcohol use, drunkenness. 

The Hold by David Levithan

I’ve loved Levithan’s writing in the past, but this didn’t quite work for me. It didn’t feel like a cohesive story, more like a monologue with some story elements. And for a monologue, I wanted a more distinctive voice to it. It was compelling, moving, and I loved the message of it. But the didactic aspect of it felt a bit too overt and central, like the message drove it, instead of the story. The time jumping was somewhat jarring for me, as well; I think it’s one of the things that made it not work for me, especially as YA.

Representation

  • Gay Jewish man MC
  • Gay Jewish man author

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

References to familial and community queer hatred and being a kicked out homeless queer youth. 

Disclosures

  • Source of the book: ARC from the publisher via Netgalley
  • I am friends with a few of the authors on Twitter. Dahlia Adler hosted both of my recent cover reveals on her website.

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