Diving (back) into The Spiel

For many adults, the unrelenting euphoria and angst during bar and bat mitzvah season hasn’t affected us for decades. Weekend evenings (and occasional days) in Grade 7 and 8 were once marked with the promise of: dancing as if there were no parents in the room, longing, first kisses, third kisses, fun, and not knowing exactly what to do about anything at all. Things could get weird, and sweaty, and actions were simultaneously weighted by and without consequence. But come May, as the end of the school year approached, and the number of bar or bat mitzvahs started to dwindle—and especially if you were entering high school in four months—those weekend nights of dancing in woolly socks had already become part of a history imbued with moments you’d want to remember or forget. Luckily, Samantha Leach’s biweekly newsletter The Spiel is here to remind us all that the thrills and chills of bar and bat mitzvah season are worth revisiting.

After reading GQ’s interview with the Haim sisters about their bat mitzvahs, New York-based Leach, expressed to me she had “never been more jealous of an article” in her life, “why” she recounted, “didn’t I think to do this?” Learning Alana Haim just wanted to make out with this boy at her bat mitzvah, and it never happened, echoed Leach’s own experience. Unlike Alana’s Mardi Gras and masquerade themed party, Leach transformed her local Jewish country club into Club Samantha. The year was 2005 and “tabloids were always showing Britney Spears and Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan and these clubs all the time,” and she wanted what they had. Different themes, different locations, different states, but that relatable angst of knowing someone else knew what it felt like to be “dying to be kissed” became, I would say, consciously or not, foundational to The Spiel’s appeal.

As Bustle’s Entertainment Editor at Large, Leach knew the column would have been “too niche” there, so she decided , on her own, to create a newsletter. She began interviewing prominent Jewish personalities, and launched in September with fashion designer Rachel Antonoff as the first feature.

To date Leach has published 14 interviews, and has found “everybody’s story so unique, based on who they were, geographically, where they’re from, their age, so much of that factors into what the experience was like for them.” Which came as a relief because when she started The Spiel, she worried “every story would kind of be the same, that there’d be too much similar experience.”

However, for me, reading these interviews positively diminished the differences between my 12/13 year-old life to theirs, because at that age I could relate to: Sasha Spielberg discovering more about who she is while aching to feel wanted and desired, Sarah Ramos navigating the topsy turvy world of t(w)een social hierarchies, Jenn Kaytin Robinson’s unabashed expressions of horniness, Zoe Lister-Jones and Tavi Gevinson not giving a damn, and Susan Alexandra (Korn) giving her “thoroughly uncool” feeling 12 year-old self the bat mitzvah of her dreams as an adult. Learning about bar and bat mitzvahs of famous Jewish people might be what first made me want to read The Spiel, but what makes me return to it, is that Leach reinstates and emphasizes the layered complexities and glorious contradictions of t(w)eenagedom. Highlighting different personalities, and knowingly finding oneself in contradictory feelings and experiences, can, if willing, remind ourselves to reflect on our growth and feel nostalgic for the uninhibited actions we used to take.

Leach herself has identified with “so much of it [the newsletter]”, specifically highlighting Spielberg’s diary entries and all “those feelings and all those nerves.” And just as Spielberg’s diary was a place for her to express herself, The Spiel is a series of entries we all can return to, to reminisce, roll our eyes, and wonder about why couldn’t we just embrace our weirdness and individuality earlier? 

The newsletter conjures nostalgia that could make your face scrunch after thinking about a squeamish memory, or make you smile in celebration of one. The Spiel isn’t about revelling in hidden embarrassment, on the contrary, Leach wants each bar and bat mitzvah dalliance to encourage the embrace of  “our inner weirdo, [for] nothing cringy is really cringy. . . if you have the most embarrassing day of your life, well that makes for the best story, so I think if you’re mortified, great, that’s a hilarious dinner party story, tell it, use it now.”

Header image design by Orly Zebak. Photograph of Woman Diving from Pier. , ca. 1892. courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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