“It’s sort of an invitation to a million conversations.” Author, editor, and podcast host Stephanie Butnick shares the inspiration behind “The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything in Between,” a book she wrote along with her fellow Tablet Magazine’s ‘Unorthodox’ cohosts. Between frequent interruptions, Stephanie and Zibby discuss all things Jewish in this candid, humorous, and accessible conversation.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Stephanie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything in Between.

Stephanie Butnick: Thank you so much, Zibby. It’s weird for you to be interviewing me now. I’m a little stressed. I don’t know what the questions are. I don’t have notes in front of me. It’s weird for me to be on this side of things.

Zibby: I’m sorry. You don’t need any notes. I know. I’ve loved being on “Unorthodox,” the Tablet podcast. You, of course, are Miss Tablet everything and now part of this book. I’m just so impressed with all the things you’re doing. Actually, why don’t we start there? Before we talk about this particular book, tell me about your whole journey with Tablet and how you’ve been in it since the beginning. In the introduction, it says you’re basically running the show of the whole company. Let’s hear a little bit more about that.

Stephanie: My boss and Tablet’s founder, Alana Newhouse, wrote that introduction. She’s a very wonderful mentor to me. I think she’s exaggerating a little bit, but I’ll take it. I’ve been with Tablet now for ten years, which in media time is centuries. I really, really love it. It’s a wonderful place. It started about two years before I got there. It’s an online Jewish publication that is thought-provoking and smart. There’s stuff about arts and culture and lifestyle. There’s essays. There’s, of course, stuff about Israel and the Middle East. There’s news. It has everything. We just have this amazing readership who really, really care about Jewish things. About five years ago, we decided to start this podcast called “Unorthodox.” The idea was it would be sort of like these conversations we were having in our office. Maybe other Jewish people or non-Jewish people were interested in the same things, were talking about the same things as they come up. Two of my colleagues, Mark Oppenheimer and Liel Leibovitz, started this podcast called “Unorthodox.” You were on the show. I got to interview you myself, which we’re doing more and more these days because everything is over Zoom. We interrupt each other too much for three people to interview one person on a Zoom. It’s crazy. It’s chaos for a Jewish podcast in the pandemic. We started this podcast because we just thought maybe people want to hear these Jewish conversations.

I’m still surprised because it just blew up beyond our wildest expectations. We have all these people who say, “I don’t do anything Jewish. I just listen to your podcast once a week. I don’t live near my family. I don’t live near a synagogue. I would never go to a synagogue, but I do this one thing each week.” It’s been really, really inspiring. That leads us to the book, which I’m so excited to talk about. People had a lot of questions. You don’t want to google Jewish stuff. You’re not going to get good answers. You’re going to go to weird places. There’s not that many authorities on things. What we were finding was that we had these amazing listeners who would reach out to us and be like, “What do I do for Shabbat? How do I have a Shabbat dinner? What do I need? Do I need anything special?” We’re like, not really, maybe candlesticks and a challah. We were having people ask us questions. “I’m dating someone Jewish. I’m going to my first bris. What happens there? What do I do? What do I say? What do I bring?” We were finding that people had all these somewhat basic but also somewhat existential Jewish questions. They didn’t know where to go for them. We were always tickled that they were coming to a Jewish podcast. We’re not experts. We’re journalists. We have different guests on the show. We realized we wanted to give these people what they wanted, which was a more foundational undergirding in all things Jewish.

Zibby: Amazing. It was funny because I was reading it from start to finish. My husband was asking me what it was about. I’m like, “It’s like an encyclopedia, but it’s really funny.” He’s like, “What do you mean it’s funny?” I was like, “It’s just funny.” It’s great. There’s so much character in everything. As you were saying, by the way, about interrupting, you had this whole section in here on Deborah Tannen’s quotes about how — she was actually on this podcast too — about how even in her book from 1990 she was talking about how Jewish people tend to interrupt. Of course, it’s not just Jewish people interrupting, but this is such a part of it. I suddenly felt so validated because that’s something I try so hard to work on. I’m constantly interrupting people. Especially on the show, I have to always be like, don’t interrupt. Wait for people to finish.

Stephanie: I stopped myself from interrupting you. I think it’s a sign of excitement and engagement. She calls it cooperative overlapping. It’s almost the biggest sign of respect you can do to interrupt someone being like, yes, yes, yes, that’s exactly right. It’s funny, the thing we hear from people is, I like listening to your show because I feel — I call it the je ne sais quoi — I feel like I’m listening to a Jewish conversation at a Shabbat table, people interrupting and loud and boisterous. My husband listens to all podcasts on 1.5 or 2X speed. He’s like, “I cannot listen to you.” He barely listens to us anymore after the pandemic because we’ve spent every day together for a year. Now he’s just like, “I can’t listen to your podcast. I have to listen to it on 1X because you guys talk too fast.”

Zibby: You talk very quickly, I have to say. I love it. That’s a pet peeve when someone speaks so slowly. I’m like, come on, come on, come on. You do definitely have a quick voice, but I love it.

Stephanie: I have two chatty cohosts that I need to get a word in edgewise. I talk so fast now. It’s funny, we hear from a lot of people whose conversion rabbis, rabbis who are helping them through the conversion process or who are leading their Judaism 101, getting the foundationals before they start a conversion, wherever they are in their journey, people say, listen to this show because you’ll hear a Jewish conversation. That, to me, was this amazing validation. I love that idea that you can live wherever but just tune in each week and hear these kind of crazy people talk. It’s us. We’re crazy. I’m talking so fast. You’re right. I’m just caffeinated.

Zibby: It’s fine. No, no, I love it. It’s not a criticism by any stretch. The podcast is amazing, as I told when you when I was on “Unorthodox.” I had people coming out of the woodwork from all different parts of my life, this ex-boyfriend who hadn’t reached out in forever. Oh, my gosh, it was amazing. Your listenership, as you well know, is far and wide. Yes, the sense of Jewish geography I think makes it all even smaller.

Stephanie: Strong.

Zibby: As you say in here, the seven degrees of separation or whatever, how basically every Ashkenazi Jew is related, if you’re eleventh cousins or third cousins. Everybody sort of came from the same little towns. We’re all, essentially, related in some way, shape, or form.

Stephanie: I love that. We talk a lot at Tablet, at the show, are Jews…what? Are we a religion? Are we a people? I’ve heard this from someone, a family, this idea of, we’re a family. I love that because families fight. They get mad at each other. They yell. They interrupt. They’re sort of all connected. You and I, we could put our things in the genealogical thing. We’re probably not that far away. It really validates that idea. It’s funny, for me, I’m not a religious person. I’m a journalist.

Zibby: I knew you were about to say that. Sorry. See, I interrupted you. There we go.

Stephanie: I love it. I think it’s important to say. I studied religion in college. I did a graduate program in religious studies and journalism. I wanted to be a religion reporter. I sort of got at it sideways by serving a Jewish community and a Jewish audience. We have a lot of non-Jewish readers and listeners at Tablet and “Unorthodox.” For me, I see myself as, does this make sense to me? How do we say something that makes sense to someone who doesn’t have the fluency, didn’t go to a Jewish day school or a yeshiva? How do we make this accessible to people? That’s what we really tried to do in this book. One of my favorite things we do is we have two entries. One is for aliyah. They’re both for aliyah. One is for, you get an aliyah at synagogue. You get called up to the bimah during a bar mitzvah. The grandparents go, the parents, the aunts and uncles. It’s a whole, probably, drama behind the scenes of deciding the order. Then there’s this idea of making aliyah, which is to move to Israel.

Those words are pronounced differently. For me, it was so important in this book to say, this is how you pronounce this one. This is how you pronounce this one. You don’t have to feel uncomfortable that you might actually say the word wrong. I always feel like people go to synagogue for the first time — also, how about the fact that temple, synagogue, and shul are three words for the same thing? Temple is more traditionally reform if you have a reform Jewish temple; conservative, synagogue; orthodox, shul. Those words are kind of interchangeable, but they’re kind of not. I think that there’s a really fun blueprint we could provide for people. Again, fun is the key here. We’re The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia. The New Jewish Encyclopedia is a twenty-four-volume, leather-bound book that we have in our Tablet offices because someone had it in their mother’s storage unit. She was cleaning it out and didn’t want it anymore. I got in an Uber and picked it up. I was like, who’s using this? This is not accessible at all. For me, the point is — the cover’s bright. It’s golden. It has funky lettering.

Zibby: I love it.

Stephanie: To me, this needs to be fun. That’s the key to the podcast. We trick you. We’re having a fun conversation. Actually, wait, I’ve just spent forty minutes listening to a Jewish conversation. That’s what we’re trying to do with this book. You can be proud of being Jewish. You can have fun with it. You could dip in one page at a time. You could go from start to finish. To me, it’s so important to what I do to show people that this isn’t just sad history and bad things happening to Jews even though there’s a ton of that. It’s in this book, but there’s so much more fun that I feel like we don’t have permission to enjoy. That’s the goal of the book.

Zibby: It’s the Jewish sense of the humor and the smart, witty friend who would be at your table. That’s this book. It’s such a great resource. First of all, everybody’s who’s Jewish should own this book, A.

Stephanie: Thank you.

Zibby: You’re welcome. B, this is also something that every bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah gift should include. This is just such a natural thing. What should I get? Should I get her a silver bracelet? Do I have to give her money? This book, perfect gift. This should be on everyone’s list. There were so many funny things. I know I keep saying funny. It’s also really relevant. Some of it is very poignant and everything. Even, look at how you did these Monopoly cards for all the different banks in the whole Jews in Finance section. Lehman Brothers that looks like Park Place, and Bear Stearns and Ben Bernanke and Goldman Sachs and Lloyd Blankfein, it’s hilarious, just the way you formatted everything. Then of course, Ode to Nora Ephron who’s my favorite author, creator ever, ever, ever and all the different people that you point out who were Jewish, and even Carrie Fisher who’s half Jewish.

Stephanie: We’ll take her.

Zibby: You’ll take her. I know. It’s just so funny, all of it, the Munich Olympics and the Maccabiah Games. It’s everything that you need. I’m trying to think what else. This is also so relevant, this Passover section. Passover, as we’re recording this, is coming up this weekend and will extend, obviously, for —

Stephanie: — Forever.

Zibby: Forever. My annual carb-free reset where I’m like, okay, God has put me on a diet. I got it. I got the message loud and clear. Gwyneth Paltrow, so funny. I noticed in the back you had a thousand collaborators on this including, by the way, Sarah Aroeste who I went to college with back in the day who’s amazing. She was really good friends with a good friend of mine who I ended up dreaming about last night probably because of this. Anyway, how did you put this whole thing together with these twenty, thirty contributors and make it into this book?

Stephanie: It was a nearly impossible task. We worked with this amazing publisher, Artisan Books. They do beautiful books. They do a lot of incredible cookbooks that everyone listening probably has on their shelves. It was really important to us to say, this is going to be a beautiful book. It’s going to look primarily like an encyclopedia. That’s what the pages look like. Then we’re going to have these breakout things about Jews in Hollywood, Jews in banking, Jews in the garment industry, Jews in feminism, Jews in the sixties, have these breakout essays that really do break up the book. What we did was sort of go through our Rolodex. Who have we had on the show that’s been really interesting? We had Sarah Aroeste on, sing in Ladino for us, which is a Sephardic Jewish language that I didn’t really know about as an Ashkenazi Jew whose family is from Eastern Europe. She came on and sang to us. We were like, we need to include Ladino. We have this page, it’s called How to Curse in Jewish. We have Ladino. We have Esperanto. We have Hebrew. We have Yiddish. It was important to us to show the range of the Jewish geographical, historical experience. Then we said, who’s our favorite food writer? We brought on this amazing woman, Gabriella Gershenson. We said, “Who are the six food figures that belong in this book?”

We went to one of our great friends who is a sportswriter and said, “Okay, you’re going to do the Jews in Sports page. You make your hall of fame.” We went to Jordan Hoffman who’s a great film critic and film reviewer. We said, “You’re on Jews in Hollywood. That’s you. Give us the breakdown of the five different types of Holocaust movies. You go with that.” Of course, everything gets edited. We wrote a bunch of it. We sort of outsourced to experts in our world, most people we knew, people we didn’t know. I had this great professor in South Africa write the essay on Jews in the garment industry because he had written a great book about it. I was like, “Just summarize this for us. You know. You are the expert.” I’m never going to pretend to be the expert on all this stuff. We put it together. It’s this, I want to say a mishmash. One of the debates on our show, if it’s pronounced mishmash or mishmaash. People get very heated about it. What it ended up with because the book is alphabetical — my favorite page, I will tell you, is page 149 which starts with Billy Joel.

Zibby: I’m going there. Hold on, 149.

Stephanie: Billy Joel, I guess I kind of knew he was Jewish. Then he wore a yellow star on stage after Charlottesville at Madison Square Garden. You’re like, that’s a big Jewish act. Then we have Scarlett Johansson who’s a Jewish actress. Then we have Al Jolson and Jonah, the guy that was in the whale, and then Joseph. You’re going to go on any page from the biblical, to the pop culture, to the serious, to the funny, to the sad. We wanted to get that mix of just what happens when you put all the Ks together. I think Kristallnacht is on the same page as Krusty the Clown. You’re just like, that is the Jewish experience. It’s textured. It’s rich. It’s weird. There’s things next to each other that don’t necessarily make sense, but it’s all there on the same page. I feel like that’s what we’re trying to do, is say we’re all on the same page even if we disagree.

Zibby: My favorite sequence of terms here is on page 260 where you start with swastika next to sweater — did you bring one? — next to Sweet’N Low. By the way, I didn’t even know that story. I’m just going to read that in a second. And then synagogue, which of course goes back to your earlier conversation. Here’s what you wrote about Sweet’N Low. “While running a cafeteria in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Benjamin Eisenstadt invented the sugar packet but neglected to patent it. Then in 1957, together with his son Marvin, he invented the pink-packaged artificial sweetener that we still love and use today.” Who knew?

Stephanie: The crazy thing is, the author Rich Cohen, this is his family. He has this whole thing about his family’s — there’s a big drama. It’s crazy. It’s really fun, the stories you can uncover. To me, it was such a fun experience. It was chaos to put this together. It was me and Mark and Liel. The three cohosts were the three coauthors, coeditors. We obviously wrangled a bunch of amazing collaborators. Then at a certain point, we had to turn it into the publisher. The book, it’s a coffee table-size book, but it’s not enormous. It’s not an encyclopedic volume. We had to put a deadline on it. We could’ve gone forever and ever and just kept adding things. We’ll do reprints. We’ll do reissues and stuff like that because things do change. It’s funny, the conversations we had. I fought to get Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in there. My cohosts said, “Are people going to care about that in five years?”

Zibby: Yes!

Stephanie: I don’t know for sure, but it’s so important right now. This is such an amazing, fun depiction of Jewish life on screen right now and one of the most popular shows. We had these funny debates of who gets into this canon. Of course, Joan Rivers is going in there, but what about Abbi and Ilana from Broad City? It mirrored the conversations I think a lot of us are having about what will stand the test of time. It was a crazy project, but it was so, so fun.

Zibby: You even had the section on people who you think are Jewish but are not Jewish.

Stephanie: Yep, like Alan Alda.

Zibby: I would’ve said for sure. Jason Biggs, he’s really not Jewish?

Stephanie: Nope.

Zibby: I was like, I have to google this. This can’t be right.

Stephanie: He is not Jewish. His wife is Jewish, which is amazing. Everyone must think he’s Jewish.

Zibby: Okay, all right, I’ll let it go. Sometimes, though, I feel like you don’t necessarily believe — people’s roots sometimes get mixed up in the things. You never know. Anyway, it’s amazing that you guys had fun while you were doing it because you can tell. There’s so much spirit. When I said earlier, I had a feeling you were going to talk about how religious you are, because I feel like every Jewish person always says, well, I’m not that religious, but… Not everybody. A lot of Jewish people are very religious.

Stephanie: Most people do say. It’s a throat-clearing thing to be like, I’m not weird, don’t worry.

Zibby: Right, or I love my kids, but I’m going to complain about them. Of course, we know you love your kids. Most people, being Jewish, which you talk about in different ways, shapes, and forms in the book, is not about how often you go to temple and how much you observe it because it’s just part of who you are. It’s so much more a cultural thing for so many people. That’s why a cultural reference guide like this is so apt.

Stephanie: The thing is, we really do want to give you the information. When you mentioned the Passover page, we have these patent-pending religi-o-meters at the top of the page. Passover’s a five, all the way at the end tipping the scales. Hanukkah’s a one or a two. What we’re trying to say is, we’re going to show you what these holidays are about. Every holiday says, any bad guys? What do we eat? We’re going to explain the holidays to you. We are really serious about Jewish history. You’re going to get a lot of history. You’re going to get a lot of religion from this book, but yeah, we skew cultural. The thing is, I guess I did do that as a way of telling your listeners, this is fun. I’m not trying to make you religious. It’s totally a tick. It’s a defensive thing. I think what I’m trying to telegraph is that it’s okay wherever you fall on the spectrum. Obviously, as I said, we hear from people who don’t do Jewish things but love the show.

We also hear from orthodox Jews who say, I listen to your show to get a more diverse perspective of Jewish voices than I get in my shul. That’s why, to me, it was important to put Scarlett Johansson on the same page as Joseph and Jonah. If you’re religious and you look at this book, you’re like, of course Joseph’s here, of course Jonah’s here. We all know the whale and Technicolor Dreamcoat. Why is Scarlett Johansson here? The idea is that on any page you’re going to get a diversity of viewpoints. Something’s going to surprise you. Something’s going to make you wonder why it’s in here. Something might make you mad. That’s the whole point of this. It’s sort of an invitation to a million conversations. The fun thing is when people write in and say, why didn’t you put this in the book? We’re like, oh, my god, great idea. We had to stop at some point. I think it’s all about that conversation. I hear you. I think that’s totally true. People say that all the time. It’s fine, don’t worry, I’m not going to try to make you be more religious or anything like that. I’m not.

Zibby: Stephanie, tell me a little more about you as you, not just you as host and you as writer and you as religious studies expert and journalist and all of that. What do you do on the weekends? What are some of your favorite things to do that aren’t work?

Stephanie: That’s a funny question. I forgot that there are things that you can do. It’s funny. I feel like you must feel the same way. You’re like, wait, who am I when I’m not hosting a podcast? What do I talk about in real life? How do I have a conversation with someone without peppering them with questions as though I’m interviewing them? In real life, I don’t know, what do I do? I don’t do Jewish things, which is very funny. I don’t really observe Shabbat. I think that would be a nice idea. I’m just like, I’m done at the end of the week. When you work at a Jewish magazine, by the time the holidays roll around, you’re like, I’ve been thinking about Passover for six weeks, at least, trying to get our coverage ready. I’m supposed to do this now? What do I do in my real life? I have a wonderful husband. He’s a sports reporter. There’s sports going on in our house a lot, sports on the TV. We have a crazy cat. I love reading. I love writing. You know, when you read a lot for work, for a show, it’s important to find things that are so unrelated, but that’s what I struggle with, reading for fun. That’s why I love your show so much because it’s just a nice little window into all these books that I might not have heard about otherwise.

Zibby: What are you reading now?

Stephanie: What am I reading now? It’s a Jewish book. It’s this amazing memoir by this guy, Menachem Kaiser. It’s called Plunder. I’m doing an event with him, so this is a work-related thing technically. It was such a good book. He basically picks up his grandfather’s property restitution claim. His grandfather passed away before he was born. He goes back to Poland and tries to figure out where this building was that his family owned. Did they live there? Who lives there now? It’s all about that. Then there’s this whole other interweaving story about these people who basically look for Nazi-looted treasure. There’s supposedly all these tunnels underneath Poland with a train made of gold. The stories weave together in a real seamless way. I found myself being really captivated by it. He goes out of his way to say, this isn’t your typical book by a grandson of Holocaust survivors. To me, it was just a fascinating look at modern Poland, intergenerational trauma. That’s a book that I’ve been really, really excited about.

Zibby: Have you read Julie Metz’s new book? It’s called Eva and Eve or Eve and Eva.

Stephanie: No, I haven’t.

Zibby: It’s so good. Her mom grew up in Vienna. It does this amazing pre-Holocaust depiction of Vienna and what it’s like to be a girl there and also a businessman there because her grandfather was a huge businessman. They eventually get out. You see them through the war. Then it comes back to modern day and her interactions with her daughter and going back to Vienna. It’s really good. Like you said, it’s not a typical memoir about a grandson, I feel that way about this book. I felt like it was something really new, a new way to do it, and just so visual. It felt like a movie to me. Put that on your list.

Stephanie: I love that. More Jewish books, add them to my list.

Zibby: I know, sorry. Judy Batalion’s new book, have you read?

Stephanie: Yes. What a great spread she got in The Times.

Zibby: I know. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, oh, my gosh, amazing. So great. What advice would you have for aspiring authors not just for this, but for the magazine and everything that you’re doing that’s also literary and Jewish and just amazing? Let’s say there’s someone out there. How would you inspire them? What could you say? What advice would you give?

Stephanie: The thing I always say because I do — every time a young journalist emails me and says, I’m interested in this, I’m a college senior — in the olden days, I would get coffee with them. I never say no to that. I probably shouldn’t be saying this on your show. To me, it is so important. So many people did that for me when I was coming up. I will give you all my time, basically, to people who are interested. Obviously, that’s something that you are quite familiar with as the trailblazer in that world. What I say now is, when I was in college, you had to — this wasn’t that long ago, but you had to write for the student newspaper if you wanted to get clips. You could do that still, but there are so many ways. I tell people, just write. Write anywhere. It doesn’t matter. Send me your Medium clips. Send me anything you’ve written because you can just write wherever now. You don’t have to wait to get in. The gatekeepers don’t exist in the same way anymore, and so you don’t need to wait for that New York Times clip to reach out to someone else. You start with the self-published clip that you send to someone. That gets you somewhere. Then you get to the next place. To me, there’s just such a wide-open field of opportunity for people now. That’s exciting.

I felt like I missed the beat on my freshman year of college to get on the newspaper. Then by sophomore year, it’s too late. Then I was graduating. All of a sudden, I was like, I want to be a journalist. What do I do? I think now it’s so easy to do that. So many of the people that I like and the people that I read, you just start publishing yourself. Then you go from there. To me, that’s a very optimistic view of all of this. I also caution people who want to get into journalism right now that it’s really dicey. It’s really hard. It’s hard to get a full-time journalism job. I feel really lucky to have one and have had one for so long. I just tell people, think about if you’re comfortable freelancing. Think about if you want to get a real job and then do this on the side. Think about what that actually will mean. Do you want to be on your computer at night after you’ve just done a full day’s work? It’s really hard. I just try to encourage people to find their little points of access. I’m very specific. I basically made myself completely unmarketable by the time I graduated college and grad school being like, I do journalism about religious studies.

Zibby: You have the perfect job.

Stephanie: I found a place. To me, people who have really specific sets of interests are really interesting. They are experts in them because they know more than anyone else in that newsroom about that thing. I’m always telling people to find their niche and just really double down on it.

Zibby: Amazing. Last question, what’s next for you? Any new projects aside from this and everything you’re already doing that we should be aware of?

Stephanie: Something at Tablet we’re focusing on which I’m heading up is more podcasts. We love the fact that there are so many people who want to listen to good Jewish podcasts. You were on our newest show, “Anxiously,” which is a weekly look at our two amazing hosts’ anxieties from the trivial to the existential. You were helping them talk about time management. By the way, your tips were so helpful. I’ve actually been thinking about them a lot lately. I like knowing that you record your intros all at once on Tuesday mornings. I love that idea.

Zibby: Yes, go for it.

Stephanie: We have a bunch of new podcasts coming. We’re working on a show about Jews and sports. We’re working on a narrative nonfiction, big, heavy-hitting podcast. We have so much stuff coming from, we’re calling it Tablet Studios. We have a lot coming from Tablet Studios, Tablet more broadly, “Unorthodox,” everything.

Zibby: Love it. Oh, my gosh, amazing. Stephanie, thank you so much. This was so much fun. I could talk to you all day. Thank you.

Stephanie: Thank you. It is an honor to be part of this pantheon of guests that you’ve assembled. It’s really exciting.

Zibby: Have a great Passover.

Stephanie: Thanks. You too. Enjoy that matzah.

Zibby: Okay. Bye.

Stephanie: Bye.



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