NEW YORK – Mayim Bialik could hardly contain her excitement about appearing on a recent episode of Tablet Magazine’s Unorthodox podcast.While waiting to be released from the Zoom waiting room to appear on episode No. 246, “Nobel Effort,” the Jewishly observant Big Bang Theory actress, who holds a PhD in neuroscience, sent a frantic message to show co-host Mark Oppenheimer, begging to join him and co-hosts Stephanie Butnick and Liel Leibovitz for the discussion on their shared hobby of Googling Nobel Prize winners to see if they are Jewish.
Oppenheimer pitched the idea of a Jewish podcast to Tablet Magazine five years ago when he began noticing that “podcast listening was exploding.” The Unorthodox podcast, which reminds its prospective 5,280 Facebook group members that it is “not a group for the Netflix show and book of the same name,” recently aired episode 250. Unorthodox boasts a loyal and diverse fan base of more than 20,000, known as the #JCrew.
In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, Oppenheimer reports, “We know from Facebook and listener surveys that we attract Jews from all ranges of observance, lots of non-Jews and a large number studying for conversion.” He adds, “There is no typical listener. They are young and old, Conservative, Reform and Modern Orthodox, and there are some haredi [ultra-Orthodox] listeners. A haredi listener may learn about secular TV and a secular listener may learn about Shmini Atzeret.”
Episodes follow a similar format including playful banter among the co-hosts, news from the Jewish world, appearances by the Gentile and Jew of the Week and fan letters.Oppenheimer is a writer with a PhD in religious studies from Yale and the director of the Yale Journalism Initiative.
Butnick serves as deputy editor of Tablet, and Israeli-born Leibovitz, who frequently mentions growing up in Israel and his army service, is a journalist, media critic and video-games expert.
In the current episode, the Gentile of the Week is celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, head judge on Bravo’s Top Chef and founder of Crafted Hospitality. He discusses whitefish, the story of proposing to his Jewish wife over pastrami at Manhattan’s 2nd Ave Deli, and raising Jewish children.
Oppenheimer notes that the “Most-Coveted Gentile” on the show was English actor John Cleese, of Monty Python fame. “He was witty, famous and very non-Jewish!”
The Jewish guest in episode #250 is Temple University Prof. Lila Corwin Berman, discussing her new book, The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex: The History of a Multibillion-Dollar Institution. Other famous Jewish guests include comedian Judy Gold, NPR’s Peter Sagal, writer Abigail Pogrebin and former Israeli ambassador to the US and former member of the Knesset Michael Oren.
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who died last week at 72, appeared on the show twice, including this past September, when he discussed his most recent book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.
Special episodes each year include the Apology episode each fall, to coincide with the High Holy Days, and the Conversion episode each Shavuot. Stephanie Butnick reports, “My favorite episodes are probably the ones that send me to fun and unexpected places, like the Joyva factory in Brooklyn, or to Petaluma, California, to tell the fascinating history of its Jewish chicken farming community, or to Food Network host Molly Yeh’s farm on the Minnesota-North Dakota border, where we made sprinkle challa. ”Oppenheimer feels what makes the podcast unique is that it is “not preachy and not doing kiruv [outreach].”
He adds, “We are having an authentic discussion that matters to Jews culturally and politically, and listeners can eavesdrop on frank talk among Jews.”
Butnick notes, “The best part of Unorthodox for me is showcasing the diversity of the Jewish experience, and the many different ways of being Jewish. We hear from listeners who don’t live near a Jewish community, or have no interest in going to synagogue, but they find a deep Jewish connection each Thursday when they play the podcast. That is incredibly meaningful for me as a host.” LAUREN GROBOIS, 24, of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, reports that Unorthodox is “the only podcast where I find myself being intellectually challenged, tearing up and laughing hysterically within one episode. I am proud to be a member of the #JCrew.”
Erika Dreifus, a New York-based writer and self-described “super-fan,” reports, “I was a little late to embrace podcasts. I suppose you could say that Unorthodox was my gateway podcast. As a regular Tablet reader, I took note of its development. I began listening, and I was instantly drawn in. The hosts – who even when they disagreed with each other were never disagreeable – seemed to become my friends.
“The conversation was always lively; the guests (both Jewish and non-Jewish), intriguing. I became something of a super-fan, attending virtually every live show they produced in New York, and joining their Facebook group. These days I don’t always get to listen to the weekly episode the very first thing each Thursday morning, but I never let the episodes accrue.
I’m always caught up!” The three hosts, who recently wrote The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything in Between, have taken their show “on the road” to many American cities.
Oppenheimer observes, “I terribly miss not being able to go to these cities due to COVID. We love meeting hundreds of listeners, being in the community and having listeners come up and hug us!” He reports that they wrote the book because “people were treating us as their rabbis and professors with their questions about Yiddishkeit [Judaism].
They didn’t know who to ask or were afraid to ask. There are lots of books about Jewish practices, but not also about black-and-white cookies and Barbra Streisand. We wanted it to reflect the eternal questions about what we are – a people, a nation, a religion, an ethnicity – all of the above.”
While the majority of Unorthodox listeners come from the United States, Oppenheimer feels listeners in Israel would also enjoy and learn from the podcast. “It is the best weekly window into what American Jews find interesting. It is funny.
One of the things we do is NOT take ourselves too seriously! We are not self-righteous and not overly serious. It is an enjoyable space. It is a place to turn when people are fed up with old Jewish institutions.”
Butnick is pleased with the show reaching the milestone 250th episode. “I can’t quite believe we’ve hit 250 episodes. It’s been five wonderful, surprising, edifying years doing this podcast, and I couldn’t be more grateful for our top-notch guests, our energetic community of listeners, and – I’ll admit it – my two co-hosts.
“According to Leibowitz, the experience of being part of Unorthodox has opened his mind to the Jewish world beyond Israel.
“Before embarking on this podcast, I too, like so many Israelis, often believed that Jewish life was at its most vibrant and meaningful when experienced anywhere between Eilat and Misgav Am, and forms of Jewish expression that weren’t directly related to observing the mitzvot and engaging in study were wallpaper at best and, at worst, a distraction,” he said.
“Hearing from our tens of thousands of listeners, however, I discovered tens of thousands of ways to be Jewish, all wildly passionate, deeply meaningful and blissfully unorthodox. And I realized that for all our griping about dwindling synagogue attendance, say, or intermarriage, the actual, real-life Jews out there aren’t experiencing their identity as the staging ground for crisis; they’re seeing it as an opportunity to explore the most moving, intimate, and transformational ideas and emotions, and they gravitate to the podcast because it feels like a space that’s both open and curious.
“It’s our profound privilege to be a part of so many people’s Jewish journeys, and to change the national Jewish conversation from one predicated on anxiety and dread to one focused on tremendous pride and joy.”