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Conversation with Mark Oppenheimer

Judaism is big and diverse and interesting. So, Just Jew It, says the author of The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia

By Judie Jacobson

NEW HAVEN  Mark Oppenheimer describes himself as a writer, talker, father, husband, dog-owner, and challah baker. Though not necessarily in order of importance.  

Challah baking aside, the talker in Oppenheimer will get to do just that on Sunday, Dec. 15, 10 a.m., at Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel in New Haven, when he is guest speaker at a book talk and brunch celebrating publication of his new book The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia, which he co-authored with Stephanie Butnick and Liel Leibovitz.  

Oppenheimer is also creator and co-host of “Unorthodox,” a podcast about Jewish life and culture that’s been downloaded an estimated four million times. A production of Tablet magazine, where Oppenheimer is an editor at large, and it is co-hosted by his colleagues, Stephanie Butnick and Liel Leibovitz. Every week, the triumverate discuss and dissect “the news of the Jews,” interview a guest Jew, and interview a Gentile of the Week. “We make fun of ourselves (and you),” Oppenheimer writes on his webpage, “but we also take Jewish life, in all its forms, seriously.”

His varied career also includes stints as a newspaper beat reporter for the Hartford Courant, an essayist for The American Scholar, Southwest Review, and Yale Review, and an historian of religion, and six years, as the Beliefs columnist for The New York Times

In addition to his latest book, he is author of The Bar Mitzvah Crasher: Road-Tripping Through Jewish America and Wisenheimer, a memoir about his years as a high school debater. 

A resident of New Haven – where he lives with his wife, five kids and two dogs, Oppenheimer holds a PhD in religion from Yale University. He has taught at Yale, Stanford, New York University and, as he puts it, “many other schools worthy of admission scandals.”

Currently, Oppenheimer is working on a book about the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh in the aftermath of the 2018 massacre at Tree of Life synagogue. 

Recently, the Ledger interviewed Mark Oppenheimer about his new book, as well as his podcast, “Unorthodox”. 

JEWISH LEDGER (JL): Let’s start with your podcast, “Unorthodox”. Tell us about the genesis of your popular podcast, “Unorthodox”. 

MARK OPPENHEIMER (MO): It was an idea I had. We had such fun, frank, raucous editorial meetings at Tablet magazine, where I do some part-time work as an editor, and I felt that if we could record those, somehow get that spirit into a podcast, people would enjoy the Jewish hilarity (and learn a lot). So I asked two colleagues to tape a demo with me. And now, four years later, Liel [Leibovitz] and Stephanie [Butnick] and I have had over four million downloads. It’s the #1 Jewish podcast in English.

JL: Do you have a favorite “Unorthodox” podcast – or a couple of favorites? 

MO: I think our annual Conversion episode, around Shavuot, and our Apology episode, around Yom Kippur, are usually pretty terrific. But okay, start with episodes 184, 197, and 203.

JL: You’ve called “Unorthodox” a “smart, fresh, fun weekly take on Jewish news and culture.” What constitutes Jewish news? And Jewish culture, for that matter?

MO: Jewish news can be whatever we find interesting, from the Israeli election to the controversy over an Instagram guy posting a picture of his rubber duckie on the train tracks at Auschwitz. Recently there were some turtles in a lake in Seattle that some antisemite had defaced with swastikas. He put swastikas on their shells. But he got the swastikas backwards. Dumb antisemites make good news items. As for what Jewish culture is … most anything. It can be religious – we’re obsessed with Tzom Gedalia – or culinary or cinematic. Whatever Jews are interested in.

JL: Would you say that the podcast has a political point of view – and, if so, what is it? Do you plan on covering presidential politics in the podcast? 

MO: Liel is much more conservative than I am. I think Stephanie is somewhere in the middle, but still liberal. But I’d say we have a temperament, more than a politics. Our temperament is we like to laugh and be proudly Jewish. We tell Holocaust jokes. If those aren’t for you, then neither is our podcast.

JL: What inspired you to publish The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia

MO: We get so many questions from listeners. They write in to us because they don’t have a rabbi, or because they are afraid to ask their rabbi. The secular Jews want to know what Shemini Atzeret is. The religious Jews want to know who Adam Sandler is. The Gentiles (we have a lot of Gentile listeners) want to know how much to give to a bar mitzvah boy, and why Jews all show up late for shul. The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia answers all those questions. As we say, “from Abraham to Zabar’s.” Though that’s a lie, because Mark Zuckerberg and Zyklon-B are both after Zabar’s. But you know, didn’t want to end with those in the subtitle.

JL: How did you decide what to include and what didn’t make the cut? Will there be a sequel with all the stuff you should have or would have put in but didn’t?

MO: Oh man, we just argued a lot. One big question was, will we care in 10 years. Like, I didn’t think Mrs. Maisel would still be relevant in 10 years. Liel jokes that we only let him include two of the seven Lubavticher rebbes. I think subsequent editions will have some new stuff, stuff we forgot. Like the omer. How could we forget the omer? Just because I forget the omer every year during the omer, is that a reason to forget to include it?

[What is the ‘omer,’ you ask? Look it up. But not in The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia. It’s not there.]

JL: Can you define the audience for this book? Just Jews? Millennial Jews or whatever younger generations of Jews are called these days? 

MO: Oh, all humans. There is no Jew who won’t learn a lot from it. There is no better book for your bedside, or toilet-side.

JL: The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia is entertaining – but is there a point? That is, is there an overall message you wanted to impart? (In 1967, Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War sent Jewish pride skyrocketing. Years later, Adam Sandler’s Chanukah Song accomplished the same thing. Does The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia aim to have the same effect?)

MO: One message is that Judaism is big and diverse: Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, and more. Converts matter. So do Jews of color, queer Jews, newly observant Jews, Jews anywhere on their journey. But also that all of it is interesting. If you are a secular Jew who thinks Judaism is only bagels and “Broad City” on TV, then you are missing the joy of building a sukkah and reading Torah. The argument is to “Just Jew It.”

JL: Anything you’d like to add?

MO: Our book has the Omer and the Homer (Simpson). Also: we really believe that Judaism is about Jews. Jews, being together, in community. So buying two copies is the most Jewish thing you can do. Keep one, and give one to a friend. And then text each other, late at night, under the covers, as you giggle about your favorite entry. Or argue about it. And if you email me, at moppenheimer@tabletmag.com, I’ll write back.

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