As far as accessing diverse Jewish voices is concerned, I didn’t know how sorely I needed to hear from a foul-mouthed Hasidic mother of four and a self-described Israeli “secular sinner” until I began listening to the new podcast, “Ask a Jew.” But after five minutes of listening to Chaya Leah Sufrin and Yael Bar-Tur trading barbs and asking each other questions most of us couldn’t bring ourselves to ask them, I was hooked.
“What’s the goal of Talmudic studies?” Bar-Tur, my favorite heathen, asks Sufrin in one of the first episodes. Sufrin, who is Hasidic and genuinely interested in Bar-Tur’s life, also has a question for her co-host: “How often do you have sex?”
Listening to “Ask a Jew” is like eavesdropping on the best coffee date in the world between two of the most quick-witted, but wildly different, women you’re likely to meet.
I’ll admit I never expected to hear those words on-air from a Hasidic woman. And it’s a question neither Bar-Tur nor Sufrin agrees to answer, but listening to the build-up of the conversation as it culminates into brilliantly impromptu (and hilarious) insights is as good as it gets in the world of podcasts. In fact, listening to “Ask a Jew” is like eavesdropping on the best coffee date in the world between two of the most quick-witted, but wildly different, women you’re likely to meet.
The premise is simple, but electric: Sufrin, who lives in Long Beach, California, and Bar-Tur, who grew up in Herzliya without ever having spoken more than a few words to non-secular Israeli Jews, ask each other various questions, from what it’s like to be a single woman living in New York City (Bar-Tur) to why, once a year, Jewish women bake phallic-shaped challahs. Yes, schlissel, or key challah, is customarily made in preparation for the Shabbat after Passover as a sign to earn a good livelihood, but it does have a certain resemblance, and Sufrin’s response, in which she acknowledges that her friends “really think they’re making keys,” is so good precisely because it’s ad-libbed and innocently honest.
That’s one of the secrets to Sufrin’s crucial role in “Ask a Jew.” She masters a difficult balance between describing the positive meaning she derives from being an observant Jew, while remaining unabashedly honest about aspects of Jewish practice that, let’s face it, still need some explaining.
“I’m done. My kids are never getting married. I have just ruined their chances, so let’s just go for it now,” Sufrin concedes in one episode after a particularly honest conversation about men. She and her husband have four sons, ages 12 to 19.
“None of them listen to the podcast,” Sufrin told me while describing her experience trying to balance one of her son’s Talmudic studies while allowing him to watch all 33 seasons of “The Simpsons” during the pandemic. Sufrin is nothing if not a master of circumstantial flexibility. She’s also in a league of her own.
“Before every episode I ask her [Sufrin], ‘Can I ask this?’ and usually, she laughs. She’s never once said something is off limits,” Bar-Tur said. “In fact, I have probably asked not to talk about certain things related to my lifestyle more than she has. But that’s what makes it great. I can ask things earnestly that are truly on my mind. Mostly, I worry that her family will think I’m a bad influence, but so far they think she might be a bad influence [on me].”
Bar-Tur and Sufrin met in a virtual chat room while listening to another podcast, “The Fifth Column.”
“I remember being very surprised that this political/not-family-friendly/hilarious current affairs podcast has a Haredi listener, but it turns out there are quite a few,” said Bar-Tur, who messaged Sufrin during a Zoom “happy hour” for “The Fifth Column” podcast.
“When I came to LA, she invited me over for Shabbat, and I just felt so comfortable with her. I always thought our conversations were funny given that we have such different backgrounds, and I told her we need to record them.” – Yael Bar-Tur
“When I came to LA, she invited me over for Shabbat, and I just felt so comfortable with her,” said Bar-Tur. “I always thought our conversations were funny given that we have such different backgrounds, and I told her we need to record them.”
She continued, “I realized how many stereotypes I had about Orthodox people and I was floored by how little I knew. I thought everyone should learn from her, and I am not embarrassed to ask her the questions that are on everybody’s mind, I think.”
Bar-Tur is a social media consultant specializing in crisis and law enforcement who previously served as the director of social media for the New York City Police Department. She moved to the United States in 2007 to “pursue the American dream,” serving at the Consulate General of Israel in LA for three years before moving to Cambridge to study public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She moved to New York City in 2012.
Sufrin was born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and moved to Southern California at age eight, when her father was offered work as a Chabad rabbi in Long Beach. Her father’s parents were Holocaust survivors and Sufrin, who studied history as an undergraduate, taught high school Jewish history for 12 years. For the past six years, she has worked for Long Beach Hillel, first as senior Jewish educator and, for the past four years, as executive director.
Married at 20, Sufrin had her first child at 21, which often inspires her to ask Bar-Tur questions about single life. “Yael, do you get lonely?” Sufrin asks in one episode, admitting that, as a mother of four, she is always surrounded by others, but also experiences moments of loneliness. When Bar-Tur says that she “isn’t a miserable single,” but a woman who “loves going on dates and getting butterflies,” Sufrin confesses that she is jealous.
“I love asking Yael about being single and not having kids,” Sufrin said. “[Motherhood] is such a huge part of my life that it’s hard for me to imagine life as a single adult. Her freedom and independence are certainly attractive to me to a degree. Talking about it with her helps me understand her life more.”
Bar-Tur also poses the right questions, such as when she asks Sufrin, “Does your community talk about mental health?” The two are natural speakers and their on-air chemistry is deliciously palpable.
“I do feel envious sometimes at her level of faith and strong sense of community,” said Bar-Tur. “I live a very different life — no dependents, no religious community, and though I have lots of freedoms and enjoy my lifestyle, I do think the practicing lifestyle sounds very fulfilling. I’d like to learn more about religion and have more perspective and insight.”
Sufrin is obsessed with world events and pop culture, and that’s unique, given that most Hasidic families do not own televisions or follow current events as closely as non-Hasidic Jews. “People in my community are incredibly uncomfortable with how open I am,” Sufrin said, “but I have always been a consumer of media. I love reading, music, politics, journalism, etc. From an early age, it was clear that I was curious about the world around me.”
Sufrin grew up loving bands such as Nirvana, Weezer and Linkin Park. She secretly watched “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Friends,” and, when she was older, she watched the “Sex and the City” series in its entirety.
Bar-Tur was thrilled recently when she ran into several young, Haredi men who said they listened to the podcast, but the most meaningful feedback came from a secular cousin in Israel, who told her that the show inspired her to look very differently at Orthodox Jews. In their own way, Sufrin and Bar-Tur hope to bridge the gap between observant and secular Jewry.
Sufrin said, “Although my parents are Chabad shluchim, they are open minded and were raised in homes that encouraged ‘worldliness.’ My grandparents got three newspapers delivered every day. They had a TV in their house when no one else had one. I definitely took it up to another level, but I was always encouraged to be curious about the world. I remember distinctly being in seventh grade and listening to the Anita Hill trial on the radio every day. My friends thought I was nuts. They had no idea who Anita Hill was and they certainly didn’t care about the trial. [But] I was glued.”
With “Ask a Jew,” Sufrin hopes to expand the media representation of Orthodox Jews, and women in particular, beyond shows such as “Unorthodox” or “My Unorthodox Life.” An impassioned and educated civic action advocate, she was awarded the “40 Under 40” award in 2016 by the Mayor of Long Beach and currently serves on a committee to help develop a Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) in that city. She has also been involved with the Jewish Federation of Long Beach and the Alpert JCC.
“I really enjoy working with the local Federation because I feel like I am a bridge between the Orthodox world and the more liberal Jewish world of [the] Federation,” she said.
The podcast is hosted on Paloma Media with the help of the duo’s friend, Nancy Rommelmann, who owns the platform. Bar-Tur records from Rommelmann’s studio in Chinatown and Sufrin calls in from Long Beach (she recorded the first two episodes in person in New York City).
“We call our editor Mickey, who isn’t Jewish, ‘Mickey the Mohel” because he chops it up for us and we also couldn’t do this without him,” said Bar-Tur.
Recent podcast titles include, “G-d Loves the New England Patriots,” in which Bar-Tur asks Sufrin if, despite her tattoo, she can be buried in a Jewish cemetery; “There Were No Fat People in the Holocaust,” in which Sufrin admits to nursing a hangover from Las Vegas (while Bar-Tur asks her if there are kosher restaurants in Sin City); and “Jews Want to Convert Your Babies.” In that episode, the duo discussed the hostage situation in Texas and jokingly asked which is worse: antisemitism, or Coldplay?
“I think our audience is anyone who is interested in faith in any way, Jewish, non-Jewish, it doesn’t matter,” said Bar-Tur. “There are no ‘wrong’ or ‘stupid’ questions on our show. It is inclusive in a way that anyone can listen and participate without fear of being looked down on. It turns out there are so many things people want to know, but they are just too afraid to ask.”
As for Sufrin, she admits that she doesn’t actively promote the podcast in her own community. “Some have listened and I’ve gotten some positive feedback,” she said. “I’m sure my occasional cussing makes people uncomfortable, but I’m trying to do that less so that people can hear my message and not get stuck on my foul language.”
The duo is still learning about their similarities as well as their differences. “We have the same obsession with nineties pop culture, but we have very different tastes in men,” said Bar-Tur.
In the shallowest sense, Bar-Tur and Sufrin are stereotypes: one, a young Jewish woman who seemingly over-indulges in single life in New York City; the other, an Orthodox wife and mother with seemingly little agency of her own. But neither plays by the rules of those stereotypes.
Bar-Tur isn’t, as she describes herself with her trademark self-deprecating humor, a “trainwreck,” but a thoughtful, curious and accomplished young woman. Sufrin isn’t a stereotype of a stereotype; namely, an unorthodox Orthodox woman who is hell-bent on making sure everyone knows she’s a rebel. There’s an unadulterated love for Judaism in her insights that neither overly praises nor defames the Hasidic experience.
For the most enjoyable experience of “Ask a Jew,” I highly recommend listening from the very first episode, which sets the tone for everything to come. There are few conversations, if any, between secular and religious Jews that come close to matching the rapport between the duo. Simply put, it’s not being done. And “Ask a Jew” works precisely because Sufrin and Bar-Tur are completely and unabashedly themselves, not in spite of it.
“We are both so opinionated and have so much to say about the world, and the fact that our lives are so different makes it all even more interesting,” said Sufrin. “Also, as Yael said in our first show, ‘There just aren’t enough Jews in media.’”
“Ask a Jew” is available on various podcast platforms including Audible, Amazon and Apple. Yael Bar-Tur and Chaya Leah Sufrin encourage listeners to engage with them on Twitter @yaelbt and @saysCL or to email PalomamediaNYC@gmail.com.