It’s a Whole Spiel uses its all-star lineup of Jewish YA authors to maximum impact, painting a nuanced, intersectional picture of the joys and pains of contemporary teenage Jewish identity.

A Jewish boy falls in love with a fellow counselor at summer camp. A group of Jewish friends take the trip of a lifetime. A girl meets her new boyfriend’s family over Shabbat dinner. Two best friends put their friendship to the test over the course of a Friday night. A Jewish girl feels pressure to date the only Jewish boy in her grade. Hilarious pranks and disaster ensue at a crush’s Hanukkah party. 

From stories of confronting their relationships with Judaism to rom-coms with a side of bagels and lox, It’s a Whole Spiel features one story after another that says yes, we are Jewish, but we are also queer, and disabled, and creative, and political, and adventurous, and anything we want to be. You will fall in love with this insightful, funny, and romantic Jewish anthology from a collection of diverse Jewish authors.

It’s a Whole Spiel is excruciating.

Whatever this short story collection is, it’s sharply, painfully that. Excruciatingly sweet. Excruciatingly awkward. Extremes of joy and embarrassment and fear and love and boredom and hormones and confusion. The raw intensity of the stories in this collection deserves to be taken in beneath the safety of a blanket fort.

To my mind, that’s high praise for a YA anthology. I love when stories about teenagers succeed at communicating unbridled emotional intensity. That’s hard to pull off without seeming ridiculous, but it’s core to the teenage coming-of-age. It’s an especially remarkable achievement to elicit that sort of reaction with a short story, since the reader has so little time to build attachment to characters and empathy for their situations.

It’s a Whole Spiel boasts a spectacular lineup of YA authors who use every paragraph they have for maximum impact. It can be a little exhausting; I was glad I left myself time to read these stories at the pace of one or two a day. But mostly, it’s exhilarating–everything Young Adult fiction should be.

the stories

Editors Katherine Locke (The Girl With the Red Balloon, etc.) and Laura Silverman (You Asked For Perfect, etc.) curated an exceptionally well-balanced medley of stories. It’s a Whole Spiel spans a huge range of styles, tones, and characters. This variety is an important part of what makes this anthology so successful.

Even as YA grows more diverse, the first books to feature a particular marginalized identity face a difficult bind. Authors are sometimes expected to represent an entire community and criticized when a book fails to meet the standard of “The [Identity] Book.” This is an impossible standard, of course, and it can prevent publishing from embracing characters who manifest a given identity in unexpected or complicated ways.

An anthology, though, can free writers from the (perceived) responsibility to represent an entire identity. It’s a Whole Spiel (subtitled “Love, Latkes, and other Jewish stories) is far from the first representation of Jewish teens in YA, but it’s a notable addition to the still-small body of YA examinations of contemporary Jewish identity.

To some extent, the anthology asks authors to answer, what does it mean to be a Jewish teenager in 2019? Because none of them are responsible for a single answer that describes an entire community, the authors went in the opposite direction: hyper-specificity. Here’s what being Jewish means to this person, and this person. Here’s what it means to be Jewish and also gay, or also fat, or ultra-Orthodox, or non-practicing. It all adds up to an incredibly nuanced, intersectional picture of a complicated–sometimes contradictory–label.

Katie’s picks

If you’re on the fence about picking this one up, just try the first story. I think you should be able to read the first story from the ebook sample (most of it, at least). That’s perfect, because the very first story, “Indoor Kids” by Alex London, was one of my favorites. (Before that, there’s a forward by the amazing Mayim Bialik, but it’s pretty short.)

If you’re looking for more adorable, excruciating attempts at romance, also make sure you catch “Aftershocks” by Rachel Lynn Solomon and “Jewbacca” by Lance Rubin.

Also not to be missed: Dahlia Adler’s “Two Truths and an Oy,” a painful but hopeful college story, “He Who Revives the Dead,” Elie Lichtshein’s tender tale of recovery and rebirth on a Birthright trip to Israel, and “Be Brave and All” by editor Laura Silverman, a sweet story about a fledgling activist in the social hotpot of a youth trip to DC. My favorite was probably Hannah Moskowitz’s “Neilah,” which synthesizes a world of inner conflict about Jewish identity and body image into a single short, hopeful gut-punch of a story.

A few of the stories take some pretty impressive risks. Some of those risks definitely didn’t pay off for me, but a couple resulted in stories I loved. Dana Schwartz’s “El Al 328” and editor Katherine Locke’s (very long!) “Some Days You’re the Sidekick; Some Days You’re the Superhero” require a bit of adjustment to a different tone, but I think they’re well worth it.

I received a review copy of this title from the publisher in expectation of an honest review. No money changed hands for this review and all opinions are my own.

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