The Newish Jew­ish Ency­clo­pe­dia: From Abra­ham to Zabar’s and Every­thing in Between

By – December 9, 2019

The world works in mys­te­ri­ous ways. The Newish Jew­ish Ency­clo­pe­dia, a wit­ty, com­pre­hen­sive ref­er­ence guide writ­ten by the hosts of the pop­u­lar pod­cast Unortho­dox” from Tablet Mag­a­zine, fell into the lap of a life­long triv­ia junkie. Fred Worth’s leg­endary Triv­ia Ency­clo­pe­dia” occu­pied a per­ma­nent place on my night­stand when I was a kid in the 1980s. I still crack open my copy of The Book of Lists,” with its front cov­er miss­ing and pages curled from sig­nif­i­cant overuse.

Writ­ers Stephanie But­nick, Liel Liebovitz and Mark Oppen­heimer, have suc­cess­ful­ly scaled an extreme­ly high moun­tain with this book. Their mis­sion to explain not just Judaism” or the Jew­ish peo­ple,” but all things Jew-ish,” is accom­plished in a way that is both sub­stan­tive and digestible. Cov­er­ing high­lights across food, hol­i­days, cul­ture, his­to­ry, lan­guage and rit­u­al, the ency­clo­pe­dia serves as a per­fect entry point for novice learn­ers, as well as an engag­ing read for seri­ous observers.

The book itself is strik­ing. The bold graph­ic cov­er with black hand­writ­ten font sets the stage for edgy and engag­ing visu­als. Inside, the text is orga­nized accord­ing to the alpha­bet (this is, after all, an ency­clo­pe­dia) with a dif­fer­ent chap­ter per let­ter. Each is intro­duced with an eye-catch­ing black page with white head­ers that serves as a casu­al nod to the wide breadth of what is con­sid­ered Jew­ish.” The H sec­tion, for exam­ple, cov­ers From Hadas­sah to Hydrox” while P is From Lar­ry Page to Purim.” Inter­mit­tent­ly, the text devi­ates from its stan­dard for­mat to fea­ture a total­ly dif­fer­ent font, lay­out and col­or scheme that calls out a par­tic­u­lar top­ic. A two-page, retro-themed spread explains the his­to­ry and influ­ence of del­i­catessen,” along with that of pas­tra­mi, pick­les and cho­les­terol. Well-known con­tribut­ing writ­ers add to these entries, such as Daphne Merkin, whose mus­ings about shon­de” sit below a pic­ture of Bernie Madoff’s mugshot.

Those famil­iar with the enter­tain­ing, intel­li­gent ban­ter and com­men­tary that have won Unortho­dox” a devot­ed fol­low­ing will not be dis­ap­point­ed. With easy, often fun­ny writ­ing, read­ers are intro­duced to less­er-known terms (mechitzah?) and giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to gig­gle at famil­iar ones (Bar­ry Manilow!). The def­i­n­i­tions them­selves run the gamut from in-depth exam­i­na­tions of a top­ic (Bibi gets almost a half-page) to quick hilar­i­ous hits (see: Yacht­ing). Pol­i­tics take a bit of a back­seat, although the entry for Herod” is quite telling (and a per­son­al favorite).

With the one-two punch of high-end design and clever writ­ing, The Newish Jew­ish Ency­clo­pe­dia is a wel­come addi­tion to the Jew-ish” canon and is equal­ly appro­pri­ate for the cof­fee table or the nightstand.

Amy Oringel is a com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tant for risk advi­so­ry firm K2 Integri­ty, as well as a free­lance writer whose work has appeared in The New York TimesBusi­ness­Week, and The For­ward.

Discussion Questions

For any­one who has polite­ly turned down offers from a well mean­ing aunt of all ten plus vol­umes of the Jew­ish Ency­clo­pe­dia, the hosts of Tablet Mag­a­zines Ortho­dox” pod­cast have cre­at­ed a com­pact, com­pelling, and hilar­i­ous solu­tion. The Newish Jew­ish Ency­clo­pe­dia, despite only com­pris­ing one vol­ume, is expan­sive and com­pre­hen­sive in what it cov­ers. Flip­ping to a ran­dom page, one can learn about the 1976 raid on Entebbe, the basics of how eru­vs oper­ate to make Shab­bat eas­i­er for reli­gious Jews, and the Jew­ish roots of Esperan­to, a con­struct­ed lan­guage. The authors clev­er­ly bring in images and graph­ics that trans­form the tra­di­tion­al ency­clo­pe­dia expe­ri­ence into some­thing tech­ni­col­or. Entries are punc­tu­at­ed with a clever con­coc­tion of wit, seri­ous­ness and aca­d­e­m­ic curios­i­ty. Open up a page and see what you find out — who knew that the char­ac­ter of Bugs Bun­ny was alleged­ly inspired by Grou­cho Marx? The authors have cre­at­ed the improb­a­ble: the ency­clo­pe­dia that you might actu­al­ly leaf through and the cof­fee table that not only adorns but also educates.