My mother likes to tell the story of how I spoiled my dad’s birthday surprise. When I was a toddler, a new kosher café opened in the neighborhood, and she decided to get my father something from there to celebrate. But as soon as we got home, I dashed inside and excitedly declared, “Abba, Abba, we bought you a surprise! It’s cake!” To which my father reasonably responded, “But if you tell me what it is, then it isn’t a surprise.” Not missing a beat, my 3-year-old self replied: “Well, it could be chocolate cake … It could be vanilla cake.”
Some might hear this story and see an adorable child. I see someone who was born to argue on the internet, where the goal is not to be right, but to find creative ways to never admit that you were wrong. If you’ve spent any time on social media, you’re familiar with this kind of thing: It’s not about understanding; it’s about winning.
Deep Shtetl is not that.
Instead, it’s my attempt to move beyond the stale scripts that pervade our discourse, and plumb the hidden currents that thrum beneath our experience. Deep Shtetl is the stories behind the stories; the people off the beaten track who don’t appear on all your podcasts; the things and communities we think we understand but don’t. This doesn’t mean I’ll avoid the big-ticket items—far from it—but that I’ll try to ask different questions about them.
What does this look like in practice? Here are some of the things I’ve explored in my decade in this business:
- The remarkable inside story of how Harry Potter was translated into Yiddish, and the ways in which translation is necessarily an act of interpretation and cultural exchange
- The complicated legacy of Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Quran, which is often held up as a symbol of tolerance, but whose origins are more ambivalent and tell us much about America’s relationship to its Muslims
- The reason Donald Trump simultaneously praises and derides Jewish people, and how his outlook stems from a long but obscure tradition of people who like Jews for all the wrong reasons
- How the smart dramatic choices that made The West Wing such riveting television also made it a poor representation of American politics and misled many as to how our democratic system works—and doesn’t
- The quest to reconcile Jewish belief with academic scholarship about the Hebrew Bible and its origins, and how this struggle has shaped the different branches of American Judaism
- How Chaim Bloom, then a little-known baseball executive with the Tampa Bay Rays, balanced baseball with Judaism while helping revolutionize the sport (before, of course, he became the chief baseball officer of the Boston Red Sox)
- How a Mormon real-estate controversy in Jerusalem brought tens of thousands to the streets in protest, caused a vote of no confidence in the Israeli government, and inspired an anti-Mormon Jewish pop song—and then was entirely forgotten
These explorations don’t stop with words. I’ve built bots to expose white supremacists masquerading as Jews, Black folks, and other minorities on Twitter. I compose and sing my own original Jewish music. And I recently scripted and designed an accessible video series offering plainspoken answers to deceptively simple questions about anti-Semitism, from “Whose fault is anti-Semitism?” to “Do Jews cause anti-Semitism?” (I specialize in entirely uncontroversial topics.)
As you can see from this lineup—not to mention the newsletter’s title—I often approach my work through a Jewish lens, because that is what I know best. But I am not so much writing for the Jews as from the Jews. The Jewish people have been around for thousands of years, and I’ve found that their experiences, traditions, and texts have much to teach us about contemporary conundrums, whether one is Jewish or not.
In these pages, we’ll explore what religious traditions can tell us about forgiveness in the social-media age; what Albert Einstein’s intervention in a 1944 Hebrew University controversy can teach us about today’s debates over academic freedom; how a fake pundit who fooled the political media in 2008 foreshadowed our online information crisis; and what anti-Semitism shows us about the corrosive effects of conspiracy theories on those societies that embrace them. And sometimes, we’ll just talk about food and make fun of hapless bigots.
Now that we’ve talked about what this newsletter is, let’s talk about what it isn’t.
There’s an old joke about a Jew who is marooned on a remote island. After realizing that rescue is not imminent, he sets about making a life for himself on the shore. Years later, he is finally discovered by a passing ship, and proudly gives the grand tour to his rescuers. “There,” he says, “is my hovel, and there is the storehouse, and there is the synagogue.” A sailor points to an identical building across the street and asks, “But what about that one?” “Oh,” says the Jew dismissively, “that’s the synagogue I don’t attend.”
If a Jew didn’t have someone to disagree with, in other words, they’d have to invent them. The Jewish community is incredibly diverse, and it has no ultimate arbiter, least of all me. I am not the Jewish Pope. (My dad is the rabbi in the family, and you couldn’t pay me to do that job.) I will do my best to explain the Jewish community, but I am just one person thinking his way through difficult issues. I hope you’ll think together with me.
Whether it’s religion or politics, these are not safe or simple subjects, and reporting on them necessitates care and concern—and will inevitably evoke good-faith disagreement. I’d like to foster that conversation in this newsletter, away from the distorting algorithms and disruptive trolls of social media, which means I want to hear from you. Feel free to send me your thoughts, tips, ideas, comments, and creative anti-Semitic harangues at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Welcome to Deep Shtetl. Make yourself at home.