The Podcast: an accidental pulpit for a new Jewish conversation
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All ears'Most are clueless about how engaged listeners are'

The Podcast: an accidental pulpit for a new Jewish conversation

With the rampant popularity of this new media genre, as a new cadre steps up to the mic it is — inadvertently or not — changing a generation’s engagement with Jewish content

The 'Israel Story' team (Courtesy/Photo by Avishag Shaar Yashuv)
The 'Israel Story' team (Courtesy/Photo by Avishag Shaar Yashuv)

President Barack Obama’s former chief strategist-turned-podcast host David Axelrod seems to relish few things more than talking with his many Jewish guests about their Judaism on his political podcast, The Axe Files.

Seemingly unencumbered by time constraints, Axelrod speaks slowly and interrupts often in his transplanted New Yorker drawl as he questions his famous guests on the factors that helped shape their positions.

In a recent episode, he manages to prompt CNN’s Jake Tapper into a dialogue that sounds more reminiscent of a Birthright trip’s late night sharing circle than a traditional political interview.

About his Jewish “spiritual journey,” Tapper tells Axelrod, “I don’t really think God cares too much about what I eat or put in my body and I think that God probably — if there is any sense of justice in the universe — prefers that I spend more time devoted to good deeds which is a part of Judaism, than praying.”

“Do you have two sources on this?” Axelrod jokes, while offering his own thoughts on attending synagogue growing up.

Axelrod is one in a large class of broadcasters on the increasingly popular audio platform. In just five years, the percentage of Americans who listened to podcasts went from 12 to 40 percent, and between 2016 and 2017, ad revenue grew 85% and is expected to have surpassed $220 million.

As a recent Forward article titled, “So, why are all podcasters Jewish anyway?” noted, a good number of these podcasts happen to have Jewish hosts. Many of them, whether passively or intentionally, are infusing Jewish content into their “pods.”

Self-described podcast buff Dafna Farkas told The Times of Israel what this means to her as a listener. “I think [podcasts are] widening Jewish discourse by exposing listeners to points of view from people they would never have met normally.”

For many listeners, the open-minded, yet relatable Jewish presence in podcasting is creating some of the most raw and democratically accessible conversations taking place in the community today. If podcasting grows in pace with recent years, it will continue to reflect, if not shape, contemporary ideas on Jewish identity and issues.

The patriarch of modern podcasting

According to Dr. Josh Lambert, academic director of the Yiddish Book Center and professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, any discussion of podcast’s contemporary relevance, let alone its Jewish influence, starts with an appreciation for Ira Glass, the patriarch of modern podcasting and host of “This American Life.”

“When Ira Glass started [producing ‘This American Life’] in 1995, from the very beginning he had — which is difficult to talk about — a Jewishly recognizable voice and Jewishly recognizable way of speaking. But he was also really comfortable and committed to talking about Jewishness on air,” said Lambert, whose academic research focuses on the intersection of contemporary Jewish culture and podcasting.

Ira Glass of ‘This American Life’ is credited with making podcasting what it is today. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

An example is a recent “This American Life” episode on “words you can’t say,” where Glass introduced the segment by debating the use of “Jew” vs. “Jewish Person.”  Lambert credits Glass for creating the framework for future Jewish podcasters’ ease in incorporating their Jewish identity on air.

“[Glass] was one of the major influences, for sure, in making someone like, let’s say, Marc Maron [the popular Jewish comic and podcaster] — who had his own obsessiveness and Jewishness — think, ‘Oh yeah, I can do some of this work. This might sound good. This might be meaningful,’” Lambert explained.

Glass also hired and mentored some of the biggest names in podcasting today, many of whom happen to be Jewish, including Sarah Koenig of the 2014 breakout podcast “Serial,” Brian Reed of “S-Town” and Alex Blumberg, who went on to co-found the podcast network Gimlet Media.

Laughing all the vey

One standout podcast under the Gimlet umbrella is “Heavyweight,”  a podcast telling stories of regret. The show’s host Jonathan Goldstein, another Glass protege, described his podcast to The Times of Israel as “drenched with Jewish comedy.”

Jonathan Goldstein of ‘Heavyweight’ heavily infuses his podcast with Jewish themes. (Courtesy: Gimlet Media)

And he’s not wrong; random slivers of Jewishness pop up throughout both seasons in which Goldstein and his frequently-appearing parents will casually insert a Baruch Hashem” (thank God) or farkakte” (lousy) around any subject, with little or no explanation.

Goldstein even devoted an entire episode, “Jeremy,” to his religious journey — from considering going to rabbinical school in his teens to the present day, where he finds himself opening up Christmas presents at his non-Jewish wife’s parents’ home and liking it.

Podcasters like Glass and Goldstein also appeal to a larger secular audience who don’t tune in specifically for the Jewishness of the content, such as Haley Berry.

Listing recent podcasts she listened to with Jewish themes, the 24-year-old biracial graduate student said, “I think because I’m a minority, I understand more than most why someone might mention on a podcast that they are of a distinct faith and how it affects whatever they are discussing on their show.”

“It helps to put a real human behind the voice in your headphones, which is something we need now more than ever,” Berry said.

Across the Mediterranean

Another podcast reaching a diverse audience, according to its host and creator, Mishy Harman, is the Jerusalem-based “Israel Story.” Inspired by “This American Life,” Harman originally set out to create an Israeli-version of the show after a “transformative experience” listening to Glass’ podcast on an American cross-country road trip.

Mishy Harman out reporting for ‘Israel Story.’ (Courtesy)

“There was something very intimate with a complete stranger in your ears telling you a story. It has the ability to make you feel as if you’re a part of the story,” Harman said.

“Israel Story” which aims to share diverse perspectives from within Israeli society, has both a Hebrew-version airing on Israel’s Army Radio and an English podcast in partnership with Tablet Magazine.

While Harman wouldn’t classify his podcast as “Jewish,” there are a handful of podcasts actively producing Jewish content.

There’s “The Kibitz,” on Jewish culture, and Chabad and other educational institutions have a number of learning-based podcasts, though the quality tends to be low and the show’s format not specifically adopted for podcasting. Newer podcasts on the scene include“Miss Mitzvah,” featuring Jewish coming-of-age stories and “The Joy of Text” on Jewish sexuality.

David Zvi Kalman, co-founder of Jewish Public Media, recently noted in The Forward that religious podcasting’s value is in creating a conversation that couldn’t happen elsewhere. This, he said, is something that Jewish podcasts are only now waking up to.

The icono-casts

The Jewish podcast with perhaps the most mainstream success is “Unorthodox,” another Tablet Magazine production where hosts Liel Leibovitz, Stephanie Butnick and Mark Oppenheimer discuss Jewish culture and news.

“Unorthodox” podcasts — some of which are recorded in front of live audiences in New York — feature interviews with a Jewish and gentile guest each week and take on taboo issues such as Jewish girls and nose jobs.

Mark Oppenheimer, co-host of ‘Unorthodox’ (Courtesy/ Lotta Studio)

On the lack of great Jewish podcasts, Oppenheimer said, “A lot of gifted Jews don’t want to do stuff that leans right into their Judaism.”

Additionally, he said, the funding isn’t readily there.

Pointing out that a lot of podcasts rely on grants and private donations to succeed, he continued, “[‘Unorthodox’] got a grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation. But when I’ve talked to other foundation officers, most are clueless about how engaged listeners are, and what a terrific way [podcasts can be used] to reach out.”

In fact, what most separates the podcast from other traditional forms of media is the intimate listener experience the podcast creates, he said.

“I had a religion column in The New York Times for years and got almost no mail though it was read by tons of people,” Oppenheimer said.

“[‘Unorthodox’] listeners send us emails, come up to us on the subway and live shows. Over 2,800 of them have joined our closed Facebook group. They are a much more engaged and passionate audience. They listen all the way through, giving us 50 minutes of their time.”

64-year-old “Unorthodox” listener Sheldon Goldfarb said that listening to Oppenheimer and his co-hosts is “a bit like being at a family gathering.”

“I grew up in a secular household and now live and work mostly among non-Jews, so this is a little touch of Jewishness in my life, but not heavy and not overly religious,” he wrote in an email.

‘Unorthodox’ podcast hosts: Liel Liebowitz, Stephanie Butnick and Mark Oppenheimer (Courtesy)

Or there’s 70-year-old Jeffrey Grossman who recently moved to Seattle after 65 years living in New York: “The podcast and its hosts provide me the Jewy New York-centric vibe that I miss so much — the irreverence, sarcasm and wit that is in short supply in my new home,” he said.

These listeners are Jews connecting on a weekly basis with Jewish ideas through a podcast.

And they’re not alone. From a hospital bed, army base, or a tiny town that not even Chabad has found, any Jew can download a podcast and not just fill their ears with new ideas, but feel connected to it.

Future Jewish conversation

Today, podcasts are giving Jews a new way to engage with their identity. And they’re doing this, perhaps, in lieu of participation in more traditional forums.

Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone listens to podcasts on his morning commute (Courtesy/Photo taken by Megan Mack)

Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone, a voracious podcast consumer (he listens to podcasts at 2.8x the normal speed) and social media editor for Chabad.org, said podcasts are just another outlet for the younger generation to explore their Judaism.

“The same demographic that’s going to Chabad young professional events are listening to podcasts,” he said. “They’re cut from the same cloth.”

But Harman of “Israel Story” has a more idealized take: “Judaism is a very oral religion. For at least 2,500 years, people have been getting together and listening to another person sing them a story. It’s a story that they already know and they’re coming back to listen to it again and again,” he said.

In that way, said Harman, the congregant is the “original podcast listener.”

Ultimately, he said, podcasting allows any individual to access the Jewish conversation without embracing the social identification.

At the very least, Harman said, “Listening to a podcast is more enjoyable than going to shul.”

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