The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything in Between is a clever compilation of facts about Jewish life and Jewish history with an emphasis on the American Jewish experience.
While the book is peppered with humour, it also provides interesting information on a range of Jewish topics, including bios, historical events and rituals.
The encyclopedia’s tone and humour seem to reflect the sensibility of millennials and possibly younger gen-Xers, which is no surprise because they appear to reflect the age range of the book’s creators.
The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia is the brainchild of Stephanie Butnik, Liel Leibovitz and Mark Oppenheimer, the co-hosts of Unorthodox, the popular podcast put out by Tablet magazine.
Unorthodox is very entertaining and at times irreverent, and that’s an apt description of many of the entries in the Newish Jewish Encyclopedia:
“Miami Beach: the other promised land; Gal Gadot: an Israeli actress cast as Wonder Woman in the 2017 blockbuster and the most kickass Israeli woman since Golda Meir; Fantasy baseball: it remains an obsession for nerdy Jewish boys who could never quite throw a changeup, but who could do some math and figure out who’s on top.”
The writeup on Herod, the Judean king who built Masada and the Second Temple, is definitely a laugh-out-loud entry. “Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the ambitious and narcissistic son of a rich man shocks the world by somehow ascending to power, mainly by colluding with a large empire, but he’s still a real estate guy at heart so he spends most of his energy building huge structures that are very, very fancy, lives an exorbitantly flashy lifestyle and is hated by pretty much everybody.”
An interesting read is the piece on the comic book: “Next to scripture, it’s the second greatest literary gift the Jews have given to the world.”
The contributor talks about Jewish entrepreneurs like Max Gaines and Harry L. Wildenberg who turned “comic books into a truly massive commercial phenomenon in the early 1930s.” The discussion continues on to highlight some of the key Jewish players in the industry, like Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and Stan Lee of Marvel Comics.
“Jewdar,” which is understood as the intuitive detection as to whether another person is Jewish, has become part of the modern Jewish lexicon, but people may not be as familiar with the term, “bagelling.” It is defined by the encyclopedia, as “Using one’s Jewdar, trying to figure out whether someone you’re talking to is Jewish. You casually bring up things like summer camp or drop a phrase like ‘mazel tov’ to gauge his or her reaction.”
Bagelling should not be confused with “Bagel Jews,” essentially Jews who know almost nothing about Judaism but they still “love a good bagel with lox.”
Most of the entries on Jewish food are pretty funny. For instance: “hamantaschen: Do these triangular Purim cookies symbolize Haman’s ears or Haman’s hat? And does it matter when it’s really the filling that counts?”
Humour aside, the encyclopedia offers some very well-researched sections like the ones on Jews and the garment industry and the Jews and Hollywood.
It’s common knowledge that the iconic Barbie doll has Jewish roots. She’s the creation of Ruth Mosko Handler, the wife of a co-owner of the Mattel toy company, but who knew that the Beastie Boys, a trio of New York City hip-hop artists popular in the ’80s and ’90s, are also Jewish?
The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia would make an excellent gift for adults. The book is full of informative tidbits. Read it for five minutes or five hours. You’ll learn something new or you’ll have a good laugh … or both.