Jewish arts and culture nonprofit Reboot has launched several new digital programs, including a pair of thought-provoking podcasts focusing on Jewish life during COVID-19.
Emmy and Peabody Award-winning writer and TV producer Steve Bodow (“The Daily Show”) brings his gift of gab to “In Quarantine,” a 15-minute interview podcast that posts twice a week. “I’m a social person. I like and miss talking to people,” he told the Journal. “The podcast is a different way to keep that in my life, to scratch my itch and maybe help others as well. I thought, since this pandemic was going to be such a life-changing thing, maybe I could have some conversations about it and hear how other people are contending with it and how their lives are adjusting. Everyone’s lives and careers are affected in some way. We’re all in this together.”
So far, Bodow has discussed germaphobia with author A.J. Jacobs; moving the American Jewish Historical Society’s exhibits online with its director Annie Polland; and restaurant closures with chef Jessica Koslow (Silverlake’s Sqirl), who is providing meals to furloughed restaurant workers. “We talk about Jewish identity, if it has played any role in the quarantine,” Bodow said. “It’s not focused on religion, but it’s the spice, the accent that runs through it.”
Bodow, who was raised in a Conservative home in Rye, NY, “kind of dropped” Judaism after his bar mitzvah. “I always felt Jewish, but it wasn’t an active part of my life,” he said, noting that having children — he has two, one studying for her bat mitzvah — and being part of Reboot has reconnected him. He and his family are quarantining in his parents’ home north of New York City. “We have more space and it’s a little easier to maintain the isolation,” he said. “Between working on scripts for new projects and having kids at home, the days tend to go pretty fast.”
Rabbi David Kasher and comedian Moshe Kasher explore life in coronavirus times through a Jewish lens with humor and brotherly banter. In their podcast “Kasher vs. Kasher,” they take potshots at each other while providing provocative insights into the issues currently dominating our lives.
“Right now, there’s really only one topic. Everyone is thinking about the same thing,” David Kasher, an associate rabbi at IKAR, told the Journal.
Recording separately as social distancing requires, “We talk about the aspects of our reality that Judaism might provide insights to.”
So far, the brothers have compared the COVID-19 crisis to the plagues of Exodus in the Passover podcast, and weighed in on the biblical preoccupation with cleanliness and how it has served us well historically and continues to do so during the present outbreak. The third podcast’s theme is about “hermits, loners and living the cloistered life, and self-imposed isolation in Jewish tradition,” Kasher said.
“I want people to see that Judaism is fascinating and relevant, but also through our debates and banter, I want them to see that part of what it means to engage with Judaism is to debate and question and disagree.” — Rabbi David Kasher
“It’s difficult to find ways to share Jewish ideas through entertainment media,” he noted. “What we’re trying to do is find that sweet spot that is ‘edutainment.’ Part of a rabbi’s job is to show how the tradition can speak to our current reality, whatever it is. In this moment, the tradition really does have something to say, in some really surprising ways that people haven’t thought about.
“It’s a little tough to talk about purity rituals in Leviticus on a podcast, so having a comic there and a lively conversation creates an ease and enjoyment that allows us to talk about these things without hitting you over the head.”
Kasher doesn’t mind playing straight man to Moshe, who is three years younger and is a podcast veteran, currently participating in another with his wife, comedian Natasha Leggero. “Any opportunity to work with my brother is a lot of fun,” he said, noting “Kasher vs. Kasher” is an expanded version of a previous Reboot podcast. “We get along really well, but there’s an argumentative streak in our family that we both share. It’s natural for us to be debating and borderline insulting to each other, but it’s all in love. It’s a family dynamic but also a Jewish dynamic.
“I want people to see that Judaism is fascinating and relevant, but also through our debates and banter, I want them to see that part of what it means to engage with Judaism is to debate and question and disagree,” he continued. “You can be an active interpreter of information, not just a passive receiver of it.”
For Kasher, the most difficult part of the pandemic “is the fear of what might happen. I’m fortunate to be working and haven’t lost anyone close to me. But I live with the fear that someone I love might get sick,” he said. “People I know are already experiencing economic hardship. We’ll all have to deal with the economic collapse that will follow this. We’re all trying to make the best of it. But I’m worried for the people I love. The dread is with me all the time.”
And in his job at IKAR, he has had to adapt to the new normal. “We’re not meeting in person, and the whole rhythm of our communal life has drastically changed,” he said. “The day-to-day looks very different, but the bottom line is the same. We do a lot of classes online, services online. I call people to check in on them. We’re just trying to keep people connected and cared for.”
Kasher is not surprised both he and Moshe entered professions in which communication is key, and he credits that to growing up as sons of deaf parents. “You do a lot [of] interpreting and talking for them, so we got used to it at an early age,” he said. “We had a deep understanding of what it means to communicate not only through words but gestures, tone of voice and expressions. We owe a lot to our parents for deepening our toolbox of communication skills.”
After the Kashers’ parents’ marriage ended, their father, who was raised in a Chasidic family, married a woman from the ultra-Orthodox Satmar community. “It’s a huge part of what shaped me as a child,” Kasher said. “My encounter with that community when I was young was on the one hand strange and uncomfortable, but also very compelling and alluring. It was rich and profound but also mysterious. When I finished college, I went to yeshiva to figure all of it out. One thing led to another and I’m still trying to figure it out.”
Kasher, a New York native who has degrees from Wesleyan University and Berkeley Law, was ordained in 2007 and served as an educator at Northern California’s Berkeley Hillel and the nonprofit Kevah there before joining IKAR two years ago.
“A religious life is constantly evolving. If we’re on a spiritual journey, the whole point is that we don’t have all the answers. The search never ends,” he said. “I had become more progressive, and when the opportunity arose, I found, to my delight, that my journey matched what IKAR stood for: trying to strike a balance between a traditional Jewish service and practice and the modern world and its values, and trying to embrace the past in the medium of the present. Judaism has always tried to figure out how we can carry this tradition forward, be rooted in the past but also respond to the challenges and opportunities of the moment. That’s what Judaism is and what the podcast is.”
Thinking about the lessons the coronavirus crisis has taught him, Kasher said, “I feel incredibly grateful for my relationship to God, to Torah and to my people. Those are the things that are carrying me. My spiritual life, my intellectual life and my connection to my community make this strange isolation meaningful and tolerable.
“What this pandemic is making so clear is it’s not about what we ought to do, but we have to do. We have to care for each other because our lives depend on it. To care for everyone is to care for yourself. I hope that will stay with all of us.”
CORRECTION: Annie Polland is the director of the American Jewish Historical Society.