Review: It’s A Whole Spiel // In Which I Talk A Bit About Representation

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I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

When I saw that this book was coming out I was SO EXCITED!! I mean, a foreword by Mayim Bialik? Stories by Laura Silverman and David Levithan? An entire book full of Jewish rep? What’s not to be excited about! 

I did end up giving a higher rating than I thought I would to this book, so I’m not going to jump in right away about how this didn’t really live up to expectations. Because some stories were really good!! But that’s the thing about an anthology, it’s so hard to give a concrete review because there are so many stories of different ratings included in the complete book.  My final rating was the average of my separate ratings for all the 12 stories, which means that I did end up liking more stories than I disliked.

*Here comes Chana rambling about this book

I would also like to issue a little disclaimer. I am Jewish. So for me, there may have been issues I had with a few of the stories that a non-own-voices reviewer might not have. Which I feel makes it even harder for me to review this! Because am I just being nitpicky because I wanted to read some good Jewish rep? Or is the story actually bad? Am I allowed to dislike it for rep reasons since a Jewish author did write the story?

Needless to say, I’m a little conflicted. Which leads me to why the book didn’t really live up to my expectations. I know it’s not really fair to the book, but I had very high expectations. I can count on one hand the amount of YA books that feature *good* Jewish rep, so I was really looking forward to something that I could recommend anytime someone said they were really in the mood for reading a book with Jewish rep. 

There were also some stories in this book that I feel did the rep… badly? I know it’s weird to say this of a book where all the authors were own-voices, but I’ll expound more on that later when I talk about a few stories in specific. I decided that since this is a review of an anthology I’m going to talk about a few of the stories that stood out to me, either for good reasons or bad ones.

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The Hold by David Levithan

There were a lot of good stories in this anthology, but this one really stood out to me. David’s chapter talks about Jewish identity, and how it’s different for each person. He speaks about what being Jewish means to him, and he talks about being gay in the Jewish community. Overall, a really powerful story and one that I enjoyed very much. 

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

Gaah, this story was just so cute!! The story is written fanfic style, with each chapter having summary and authors notes and endnotes. It was amazing. I don’t really know how to describe the story, but trust me it was adorable. Also the references to Matisyahu’s music? Peak Jewish experience. 

Neilah by Hannah Moskowitz

First off, the writing in this story was fantastic. The story focuses on Tina and the first time she goes to services with her girlfriend Mira on Yom Kippur. Tina wasn’t raised religious (only her father is Jewish) and she feels very self-conscious going to services for the first time. She is also battling an eating disorder that she’s keeping secret from her girlfriend. This story managed to make it seem like not a lot was going on while there was still a lot going on? It worked really well for the story.  Also, I got to read a YA book that mentioned a story I grew up hearing?? That’s pretty great rep. (The story is of Reb Zusha M’anipoly if anyone wants to look it up.)

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Good Shabbos by Goldy Moldavsky

This was probably my least favorite story in the entire book. One thing I really didn’t like was how there were footnotes explaining every little thing. Personally, I think that the best stories are shown not told. There were other stories in this book that mentioned concepts or Hebrew words that the average reader wouldn’t understand, but it was written in a way that was implied. I don’t want to read something and have every little thing explained to me. I am Orthodox, so I did know what everything with footnotes meant, but even without looking at the footnotes this story was just badly written. 

Me while reading this story

Find the River by Matthue Roth

Well. This one was just. Weird, I guess. The story follows a non-religious boy in public school who joins a Jewish youth group. The problems I had with this story were numerous, so I guess I’ll just break it down for you. 

Many times throughout the story it mentions that Orthodox Jews are cultish and brainwash the masses. This is a harmful stereotype that is really not okay. Throughout the story, it’s as if the MC can’t make up his mind whether or not to hate the religious kids or not. 

“They brainwashed you don’t you realize? Can’t you even see it?”

“Others, I sensed, were just there to meet girls-but we all watched the propaganda films…”

“A bunch of kids I didn’t know walked up to us and started talking to him….the guys with their heads covered, the girls in skirts…’What gives, Challah? Are these your rabbis?’”

At the end of the story, the MC seems to find “spiritual awakening”, I guess? And then decides he’s better than all the other less religious kids. All in all, it was a pretty weird story filled with harmful stereotypes and bad rep. 

Our Jewish boi Ben Feldman with a gif of wisdom

These are the two that I had the most issues with. I think that it’s important for me to mention these issues because I have been seeing reviews where non-Jewish people mention that they read this anthology and for them, it all seems great because the authors are all Jewish so the rep must be A+. There also were a few stories that had little things that didn’t really sit well with me (Jewbacca, Aftershocks) but don’t really merit any special passionate rant. 

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I’m also going to add some special mentions here for some really great stories that I didn’t want to expound upon in detail because I didn’t want to leave a super long review. (It seems like it’s too late for that, but oh well.) He Who Revives the Dead and Ajshara both talk about the Jewish experience of Birthright and Ajshara. They both describe Israel really well, and the mechanics of traveling Jewish teens. I swear I freaked out when Ajshara mentioned Sabich. It’s delicious and everyone should try it. Also, Good Shabbos should take notes on how well He Who Revives the Dead weaves in common Hebrew words and phrases. You don’t need footnotes to write about a culture that the general populace won’t understand. 

Overall, I did enjoy more stories than I didn’t enjoy. So I do recommend reading this book, but do be sure to take some of the stories with a grain of salt, since not all the stories are the best reflection of the Jewish experience.

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Do you think an Own Voices author can write a story that badly represents their culture? Do you have a favorite Jewish character? How do you tend to feel about anthologies?

 

16 thoughts on “Review: It’s A Whole Spiel // In Which I Talk A Bit About Representation

  1. I’m a Christian, and I’m extremely passionate about accurate religious representation. I’ve found that so many books feel like they can’t mention religion or a religious character without saying “well religion isn’t for me” or “religion is dumb” or “I believe only in science” to offset the “preachiness.” I find it very frustrating because while representation and acceptance with race or gender has definitely improved, religion still hasn’t gotten to that point.
    I’m really glad you found some stories that had good rep! Hoping that can become more common in the future. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is so true!! Most books that I read that have religious rep paint the religion in a more negative light, especially ones with Christian characters. I do hope that stories with representation of all kind become more common in the future because it’s so amazing to be able to read a story and really *see* yourself in it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Anthologies can be so hit or miss! And since you’re reading different authors I think the less skilled writers stick out like sore thumbs. I also think sometimes own voices aren’t always the best at showing their own culture. I know its odd but sometimes when its about a rep I know a lot about I just shake my head at how off I feel it is. I’m glad that for the most part you enjoyed this since it is a rep you’re so passionate about Chana. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Anthologies are just so frustrating sometimes because I sometimes let the stories that weren’t so good drown out the stories that were really great! That’s why I’m glad I separately rated each story and averaged the ratings all together because it really helped me realize that overall this book was actually good 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love own voices reviews! They provide such a raw perspective, and this was an amazing one! Chana, I hope you know that you’re absolutely valid as a Jewish person, and that your thoughts on this book are valid!! I’m so happy that you found some stories in this anthology that you enjoyed, and sorry that some weren’t that good :((

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m glad you enjoyed the collection of stories on the whole. I can absolutely see why you had issues with the two that you mentioned; the second of them definitely seems strange to have been included /: I hope you find more stories with Jewish rep in the future.

    I generally end up enjoying anthologies although I do agree that they’re hard to give ratings and reviews for as the stories within them can be rather hit and miss.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great reviews, Chana! I’m sorry to see that a lot of these really disappointed you with the rep. I do think that it is possible for #ownvoice novels to depict representation badly sometimes. Maybe it’s because the author feels that they need to “tailor” their writing to appeal to a wide audience, but it’s a shame that some of the stories caved into poor stereotypes. And, those footnotes sound like they would be such a bother! I am glad that you found a few stories in this collection that you did enjoy though! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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