NEW YORK — On the day “The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia” began shipping from Amazon, The Times of Israel visited publisher Tablet’s Manhattan offices. From down the hall, I could hear co-author Liel Liebovitz — a Tevye-like figure if ever there was one — shouting, “Of course God cares about baseball! What kind of heresy is this?!”
Liebovitz’s co-worker disagreed, and made a compelling argument. I suggested, rather Solomon-like, that maybe God only cared about the National League.
So now you know what a typical afternoon at the office of Tablet Magazine is like.
“The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia” is a weighty tome that just begs to be picked up, thumbed through, and quoted from. It is exhaustive but not exhausting, a thorough examination of Jewish themes presented as hors d’oeuvres to entice a larger meal.
Two of the new coffee-table book’s co-authors, Liebovitz and Stephanie Butnick, spoke with me in a small “second studio” they use for the podcast. The third author/podcaster Mark Oppenheimer joined us via telephone.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I’m a regular guest on the authors’ podcast “Unorthodox,” and that I also contributed a sizable number of entertainment-themed entries to the encyclopedia, and penned three of the larger essays, for which I was paid. (But I say, honestly, even if I were not involved, this would be the type of book I’d want to read.)
Below is an abridged version of our conversation.
How’s the book tour going?
Stephanie Butnick: We travel a lot for the show, but this is different, for sure. Boston, Tampa, Detroit, Denver, Houston.
Liel Leibovitz: The book tour mirrors our larger story arc, in a way. We started “Unorthodox” on a lark. Stephanie and I didn’t really want to do it, but Mark came up with this idea. We figured, “Fine, sure, who cares, we’ll try it.” And then people started reaching out from all over.
There are so many people out there that want to connect to Jewish life, but, y’know, synagogue is not for them, the “Federation” is not for them. Structures that were erected in the 19th century is just not for them, especially as the Jewish world has gotten so wonderfully diverse. Many people found this podcast to be the one Jewish thing they “did.” So to go back out into the world and meet these people, hear their journeys, it makes the podcast so much better. When we hear from people that say “hey, talk about Jews of Color, about Sephardim, about conversion,” we learn so much from our listeners.
Do you remember the first time all three of you were in a room?
Mark Oppenheimer: Five years ago, when [Tablet editor in chief] Alana Newhouse was on maternity leave, and I subbed for her.
SB: But don’t forget, when I was a senior in college I emailed you, Mark. I emailed “New York Times Writer, Mark Oppenheimer” with a “Hello, Mr. Oppenheimer. I’m a senior religion major and I want to write for a magazine one day.” And he actually said, “Great, call me, I’d love to chat,” and I never called him, because I was a dumb Millennial who can never follow up on anything. So it was special when he actually came in here.
SB: I actually don’t remember meeting Liel. He just sort’ve came with the furniture of when I joined Tablet. He was just there.
LL: This is true.
SB: But Mark took me to lunch and said “What’s your plan? What do you want to do?” and then he gave me a whole plan, that I should stay here, I should have two babies while I was at Tablet; I had just met him!
Then later Mark said “Everyone’s doing a podcast, we should do one.” Liel and I really weren’t that into it, but we said okay and now, truly, we are a very close, though somewhat dysfunctional family. It’s funny, I was just booking the hotels and –
Wait, why are YOU booking the hotels, that’s some antiquated, sexist –
SB: Well, I wanted to get the points, so…
LL: And also, I am incompetent.
MO: Liel handles the food.
SB: Mark handles overall morale.
If this were “The Three Stooges,” Mark is clearly Moe, Liel, no offense, is 100 percent Curly. Stephanie, are you okay with being Larry?
SB: What are the “Three Stooges”?
That’s a pretty good Larry answer.
SB: Is that like the Marx Brothers?
ML: I know who the “Three Stooges” are, but I’ve certainly never watched any of it.
LL: WHAT KIND OF JEWS ARE YOU?!
SB: This is why we needed experts like you, Jordan, to help with this book.
Wait, wait, we’ll get to my invaluable input to the encyclopedia later. But about the book, it’s all in there.
LL: Yeah, right there on the cover, from Abraham to Zabar’s, right there on the cover.
SB: Because the actual last entry is “Zyklon-B.”
LL: Abraham to Zyklon-B is not as good for marketing.
SB: The entry ends with “Damn you, Hitler.” So, yeah, Hitler is the last word. What a way to end an encyclopedia about Jews!
LL: For the next edition we’ll have “ZZ Top, a band frequently mistaken for Hassidic Jews.”
I’m getting a pen and going to every Barnes & Noble in town. Okay, let’s talk about the breakdown of responsibilities in making this thing happen.
SB: I was the project manager. I bossed everyone around, kept the schedules, worked with the outside contributors. Liel wrote 70% of the entries; he’s a workhorse, he wrote and wrote and wrote. Mark wrote a ton of entries, too, but looked at the big picture.
LL: He had the larger vision, the conception, and told us what we needed.
SB: He would look at what was coming in and say, you are missing, for example, 19th century Jewish life, and we would make additions. Then all three of us would edit entries.
LL: Endless conversations till two in the morning. Like everything else, we jumped in thinking it wouldn’t be much work, then we realized what a momentous task it was, and that no matter what we do, we’re going to forget some of it. And that’s okay. There’s no one book that can be definitive on anything. There are a thousand different entry points into a conversation, and one of them will include “I can’t believe you forgot X, Y and Z!” Must include it, as in all good Jewish texts. I mean, that’s what the Talmud is, no? Not to compare our book to the Talmud, but…
SB: No, do it.
LL: Ours has better illustrations and is cheaper.
An endless source of fun is turning to any page and reading an unexpected three-in-a-row juxtaposition. I did this and, pow, you have “Dirty Dancing,” Benjamin Disraeli and “dog whistles.”
LL: No one puts Disraeli in a corner!
MO: Page 116 has grape juice, the Grateful Dead and the Green Line.
SB: And this is the point. This book was such a massive undertaking. The fights we had building the list: what goes in, what stays out? Then how do we write them so they have the same voice? Some are funny and some are serious, some religious, some cultural, something is about Israeli politics. But that’s the range that we exist in every single day as Jews.
It’s quite a template. Would you be honored if, next year, an equivalent for, say, Irish people were to hit bookstores?
LL: One million percent, yes. One of the happiest things that’s happened to us in the course of the podcast was when three young, lovely Jesuit-adjacent Catholics approached Mark and said “Can we take your format for a podcast.” It’s called “Jesuitical,” for America Magazine. And we were thrilled, because we know how meaningful this has become to our community. And we’d love nothing more for the conversations to overlap. They came on our show, we went on their show. We’re all rooted with one leg in our own traditions but the other leg in the big world.
SB: We’re going to send “Jesuitical” the book, and I’m going to say “You should do this, too.” Deciding what goes in a Jewish encyclopedia, or Irish or whatever, it is such an exciting thought exercise. The idea of broadening the definitions by which we understand ourselves. Instead of these narrowing circles, you know, I’m a New Yorker, I’m Jewish, I’m a woman; I’m actually part of this massive community of people who don’t look anything like me but share this one common thing: Judaism.
LL: Confronting the big entries, like, say: Zionism. Gut instinct for me, as a hardcore Zionist conservative dude I was like “I’m going to write the rah-rah version!” But then you stop and think: well, there’s a percentage of the community that totally does not believe in this. You don’t need to alienate them. In fact, you are somewhat missing the point if you do. So you ask “What would they say?” It hurts your brain. “Radical empathy” as [theologian Abraham Joshua] Heschel would say.
Funny you should bring that up. Pre-release you have one Amazon review –
SB: I read it this morning, yeah yeah.
Well, it’s five stars. And they should only be five stars!
LL: That’s the new blessing. “You should only have five stars!”
Anyway, this review says “Most entries are chosen from a liberal angle, but then most Jews are liberals.” I don’t know exactly how entries could be one way or another, but I think as a trio you represent a political spectrum.
SB: Mark is our “good, lefty progressive,” wouldn’t you say, Mark?
MO: I hope we are all unpredictable. But, hey, I read that review, and I can safely say I don’t know what it is talking about. Was that liberal, religiously? I’m not sure. And it was the first review!
SB: Yes, so… so we need more people to write more reviews. Can you include that in your piece, please?
LL: Just by virtue of looking at the book, we have a mix all over, from [Revisionist Zionist thinker Ze’ev] Jabotinsky to [feminist leader] Bella Abzug. We go from cultural to religious — fun, bagel-themed entries as well as serious disquisitions about fast days and rituals, as well as meaningful historic and Talmudic discussion. So it isn’t 100% lighthearted, or just for one segment of the population. But we also want observant people to read about Larry David and think about him in a religious context.
SB: The biggest fights we had were about those contemporary things. We knew Barbra Streisand or Jerry Seinfeld would be in there, but what about “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”? I fought for that, because I want it to feel current and I think there will be lasting impact. I didn’t want it just to be people we know are famous. I also fought for [comedians] Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer to get an entry together. There’s no “Broad City” entry, because we don’t really know the lasting impact of that, but —
LL: And I wanted all seven Lubavitcher Rebbes, but they only let me put two in! It’s fine, it’s fine.
Let’s talk about the network of contributors involved; it’s a real rogues’ gallery of contemporary Jewish writers. Can you talk about how you found some of these people?
MO: We went to the subway kiosk at 72nd and Broadway.
LL: [Imitating kids with lulavs at Sukkot] Are you Jewish? Are you Jewish?
SB: We realized early on that we are not experts on absolutely everything. So when it came to Yiddish, we called upon Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath, who is a Yiddish expert, and Rokhl Kafrissen, another Yiddish expert. We wanted entries pertaining to Yiddish to be precise. Some of these entries, about Haredi compared with Hassidic, [needed] to be written by people who really knew what they were talking about. This led to some fun stuff, like A.J. Jacobs, who is a genealogy buff, writing about if all Ashkenazi Jews are related.
LL: Answer: yes.
SB: Lauren Bacall is Shimon Peres’s second cousin!
SB: Sarah Aroetse is a Ladino singer, so she wrote about Ladino, Esther Schor wrote about Esperanto, and [chef] Molly Yeh wrote about black and white cookies and Einstein Brothers Bagels, and how a business like that matters to someone in the Midwest.
LL: Even entries that we wrote internally, it was important to have authenticity. So one of the most challenging, transcendent evenings we’ve had was at my dinner table, calling up representatives of each major American denomination to read aloud the entry [on their denomination]. “Does this capture you?” The responses were fascinating. Everyone came at it with good will, but the conversations were enlightening.
SB: It’s fun to call someone and say “We’re writing about you in our Jewish encyclopedia, is this how you see yourself?” We have a whole chart with the branches of Judaism. But we took Chabad out, to make it its own entry, then we had to explain that to Chabad, and ask how they felt.
LL: Are you your own thing? Or should you be general Hssidim? You get interesting feedback.
I’m sure you got feedback.
SB: You know who loves to give feedback? Jews. Something I should mention is that the publisher who put this out does like to do updates. So there may be a “volume two” in a few years. There will be things to add.
MO: I’m thinking of Haggadah-sized inserts in matzoh boxes. Maybe Manischewitz or Streit’s can work out some marketing?
LL: Brought to you by Maxwell House.
Is that the paperback version you have there?
SB: No, this is a galley. And I don’t want a paperback. I want it to be this big, beautiful book that sits proudly — people are buying the e-book, which I find a little odd.
No, you want to be able to pick it up, flip through, put it down. You can’t thumb an e-book.
MO: Will we do an audiobook?
SB: Just us fighting.
LL: Only if Gilbert Gottfried will read it.
SB: But listen — on the record, I want to add that you wrote some of our best entries.
Okay, now we get to the part of the interview I was waiting for.
SB: As well as some of the essays, the Jews in Hollywood, Jewish stars and Holocaust films.
This is definitely going in the article.
SB: Yeah, and I said it, it’s not even you saying it, so you have to include it.
LL: And I repeated it!
Mark stayed silent, but that’s okay.
MO: Jordan, in the next edition we’re doing an entry of outdated Jewish men’s names from the 1970s.
I’m leaving now!
“The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia” is out now, and waiting for your coffee table.