A Very Unorthodox Reading List

Tablet’s flagship podcast looks back on the year’s literary highlights

December 18, 2017

Each week on Unorthodox, we interview a Jewish guest and a gentile of the week, and we’ve been lucky enough to have all sorts of wonderful and interesting guests over the past 115 episodes. We’ve read a lot of books and spoke with a lot of writers, and as 2017 comes to a close and best-of lists begin to flood the internet, we wanted to share our favorites. Here’s a look at the best, most Unorthodox books we’ve featured on the show.

The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman

For this prequel to Alice Hoffman’s bestselling 1995 novel Practical Magic, which was made into the 1998 film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, the novelist reimmersed herself in the magical Owens family 20 years later. Hoffman joined us last month to discuss the ways in which her Jewish background influenced her interest in rebellious women, and why it’s important to her to redefine the popular mythology of witches.

How to Be a Muslim, by Haroon Moghul

This memoir by Haroon Moghul, a fellow in Jewish-Muslim Relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute, is less a how-to guide and more a complex, moving portrayal of his personal journey. Moghul joined us on stage at the Manhattan JCC in July and told us how a 2015 trip to Israel with Muslim and Jewish leaders changed the course of his career, and what he wants us all to know about American Muslims.

Jack’s Wife Freda: Cooking from New York’s West Village, by Maya and Dean Jankelowitz, with recipes by Julia Jaksic

Maya and Dean Jankelowitz run Jack’s Wife Freda, the popular pair of identically named restaurants in downtown New York City. This cookbook features the recipes like peri peri chicken, malva pudding, and Maya’s mother’s chicken schnitzel.

We interviewed Maya in May, and she told us about opening a restaurant that honored her Israeli and her husband’s South African roots (Jack and Freda were Dean’s grandparents), and serving green shakshuka to Israeli tourists in Manhattan.

Safekeeping, by Jessamyn Hope

Jessamyn Hope’s debut novel tells the intertwined stories of several strangers who find their way to a kibbutz in the summer of 1994. Hope was a guest way back on Episode 33, and she told us how her stay on a kibbutz in her twenties inspired some of the characters and storylines and the surprisingly antagonistic responses she’s received at dinner parties for writing a novel set in Israel.

My Adventures with God, by Stephen Tobolowsky

Stephen Tobolowsky isn’t just your average character actor. In this collection of short stories, Tobolowsky writes honestly, and often hilariously, about his complex, evolving relationship with god and faith. He joined us on the show in June to tell us about getting recognized in shul (he started going to synagogue twice a day to say kaddish after his mother died), what it’s like to tackle something as intimate as faith while working in Hollywood, and the time he had to shoot a movie on Yom Kippur, even though five of the actors in the film were Jewish.

Irish novelist Ruth Gilligan’s latest book was inspired by the largely unknown story of the Jewish community in Ireland. She phoned into our studio in May and told us about the similarities between the Jews and the Irish and explained her research for the novel, which started over tea in the homes of the remaining Jews of Cork and took her to Israel, where she met with Irish emigrants.

It’s All Relative, by A.J. Jacobs

This entertaining and informative book chronicles A.J. Jacobs’s unlikely entry into the world of genealogy, culminating with his attempt to throw the world’s largest family reunion. Jacobs, who holds the special distinction of being our first-ever guest back in 2015, returned for our October live show at the Manhattan JCC to tell us about the famous—and infamous—relatives he discovered, the lessons he hopes his kids learn from his project, and, in a Maury-style twist, reveals which hosts are related to him.

This memoir from Iranian-American Muslim comedian Negin Farsad is hilarious and eye-opening and inspiring. Farsad, who hosts the political comedy roundtable podcast Fake the Nation, is one of our favorite guests. She returned to our show this summer and told us why comedy has gotten harder in the era of Trump, and asked whether Jews consider themselves the veterans of oppressed religious groups.

A Really Good Day, by Ayelet Waldman

Israeli-American novelist and essayist Ayelet Waldman’s latest book chronicles her experience taking microdoses of LSD to treat her mood disorder. She joined us for a special Valentine’s Day episode to explain what microdosing is and how it helped her and her marriage, and tells us what it’s like to be married to another writer.

The Bed Moved, by Rebecca Schiff

Rebecca Schiff’s debut short-story collection was published in April 2016 to rave reviews. She was a guest on the show soon after, and she read us one of the stories and told us what her mom thought of the sex and drug references in the book.

Linguist John McWhorter’s latest book offers a fascinating exploration—and celebration—of Black English in America. McWhorter was a guest on the show last December, and we were lucky enough to record a crossover episode with his podcast, Lexicon Valley, this summer. We had an in-depth conversation about whether there’s such a thing as Jewish English, the beauty of yeshivish, and, of course, the dinner scene from Annie Hall.

Eddy Portnoy, of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, explores the colorful and often unremembered characters in the modern Jewish world in this book. He joined us this fall to tell us how he stumbled on these long lost tales—so many of which seem to involve Jews rioting—and why it’s important for a community to examine the good with the bad to truly know its history.

Molly Yeh is the funfetti genius behind the endlessly clever and creative food blog, my name is yeh. Molly on the Range, one of The New York Times’ top fall cookbook releases of 2016, tells the recipe-filled story of her unlikely move from Brooklyn to a sugar-beet farm on the North Dakota-Minnesota border. Yeh brought sprinkle hamantaschen (recipe here!) to the studio as a pre-Purim treat, and told us how far she has to go for a good bagel with lox these days.

This book, by Rod Dreher, senior editor at The American Conservative, takes readers inside the concerns and rhetoric of a conservative Christian world distant from the experiences of the general Unorthodox audience. We spoke to Dreher over the summer, and he made the argument for why we would all be better off living in cloistered communities given the fragmentation and atomization of religious life in America today.

Unorthodox is a smart, fresh, fun weekly take on Jewish news and culture hosted by Mark Oppenheimer, Stephanie Butnick, and Liel Leibovitz. You can listen to individual episodes here or subscribe on iTunes.

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