Cataloging today’s American Jewish experience

By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer

When Tablet’s Stephanie Butnick, Liel Leibovitz, and Mark Oppenheimer started their Unorthodox podcast in 2015 as a side project for the magazine, they had no idea it would become the most popular Jewish podcast on iTunes.

They also didn’t know their emerging roles as Jewish cultural arbiters would lead them to write last year’s comprehensive Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything in Between.

Originally scheduled to be in Dayton in May, the three will talk about their Newish Jewish project via Zoom as part of the JCC Cultural Arts & Book Series, Dec. 8. Here, Butnick fills us in on what to expect.

Who listens to Unorthodox?
One of the benefits of having a Jewish podcast is that you hear from your listeners all the time: whether they like something, whether they hate something — more often they hate something — but a lot of the listeners have become a real community.

We have this Facebook group where more than 5,000 people are members, and they talk to each other about the show but also about a million other things as well.

There’s a lot of intergenerational listening, which for me is the most fulfilling, the most valuable data point I have: people who listen with their mothers, people who listen with their grandmothers, kids who are in college who call their parents and talk about the show.

It’s really hard to get something that a kid and a grandparent would listen to and both find meaning in. And we run the spectrum.

First of all, there are people who are not Jewish who listen to the show who have Jewish partners or have Jewish spouses or friends, or just Jewish curiosities.

We have a lot of people who are on their way to becoming Jewish, they are at whatever point along the way they are in their conversion process, which is really meaningful to us, and then we have people who say, ‘You’re the only Jewish thing I ever do. I don’t go to synagogue, I don’t eat on Yom Kippur, but every week I put in my little earbuds and I listen to you guys.’

There are people who say, ‘I moved from New York to a really small town and I feel like I lost my Jewish community and now I’ve found it again.’

And people who are religious. I met a modern Orthodox man in Detroit while we were there for our book tour who said to me, ‘I love your podcast because I see different sides of Judaism, different perspectives on Judaism that I wouldn’t ever see in my Orthodox shul.’ And that was really meaningful because we accept everyone. We want to show all different points of what it looks like to be Jewish, what it means to be Jewish, what it sounds like to be Jewish.

Tablet Magazine Deputy Editor Stephanie Butnick, Senior Writer Liel Leibovitz (L) and Editor at Large Mark Oppenheimer co-host Tablet’s Unorthodox podcast and are the authors of The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia

Has the podcast shaped how you do the meat of your job, your editing and writing?
At the beginning it was sort of something we all did on the sides of our day jobs at Tablet. The podcast has really shifted wonderfully into being a real chunk of what I do, and (then we were) on a book tour for the Newish Jewish Encyclopedia.

How did the Newish Jewish Encyclopedia come about?
After year two or three of doing the podcast, we really started hearing from a lot of listeners.

We heard from people who said, ‘I don’t know where my local synagogue is, I wouldn’t feel comfortable there. I don’t have a local synagogue, but I want to make Shabbat a part of my life. How can I do that?’ Or, ‘I’m thinking about converting. What books and movies should I start reading and watching?’

At the beginning, we were surprised that we were the place these people were going to with these questions.

Then we realized that if we were that place, we needed to rise to that challenge. We realized, honestly, that a lot of people felt a little uncomfortable with how little they thought they knew about Judaism.

Or if they went to a new synagogue and they didn’t know the tune of the prayers that week, that they would sort of feel embarrassed.

We started thinking about a compendium of everything you needed to know to be Jewish today or know about Jews today.

The last time this was attempted was The Jewish Catalog in the 1970s, an amazing book, reissued three times, not a particularly modern retelling though. Since the ‘70s, a lot has changed.

So we took on the challenge of updating what that might look like, using that book as an inspiration.

It has everything from Shavuot to summer camp, from Masada to Mel Brooks. We have the range of what we think the Jewish experience looks like.

And then of course there are things we left out, but that’s for the next edition. The book is really an invitation to a million conversations. The idea is that you can open any page and on one page see Scarlett Johansson and Jonah, Job, Joseph, Al Jolson.

And there’s something on every page that surprises the reader no matter what your background is and where you’re coming from religiously, socially, culturally.

There are entries on aliyah. You can make aliyah or you can get an aliyah. Also we explain the different pronunciations between the two. Because actually, you don’t want to screw that up when you’re in a Jewish environment.

We’re trying to reach people where they’re at and say, it’s OK to have questions. We all have questions. So here’s a starting guide to getting you on your way, whether you’re thinking of converting or whether you’ve been Jewish your whole life.

The JCC Cultural Arts & Book Series presents Tablet’s Stephanie Butnick, Liel Leibovitz, and Mark Oppenheimer via Zoom, 7 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 8. Free. Register here.

To read the complete 2020 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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