The idea behind "What Is A Jew?" is simple: a conversation between the host, Larry Josephson, who knows very little about the religion of his grandparents, and a smart, warm, intellectually tough rabbi, Ismar Schorsch, about the essential nature of Judaismits beliefs, history, rituals and culture.
There are contradictory currents in the American Jewish community: a flight from religion, with intermarriage rates of more than 50%, and, simultaneously, a Jewish renaissance that has rekindled a desire among many secular Jews for meaning in life beyond material success. Religion is one answer to this need for meaning and community.
The New York Times recently ran an article in the Sunday Business Section entitled, "A Guilt Complex: It's No Longer Just the Economy, Stupid." According to the reporter
America is doing well by any material measure, and for the most part is thoroughly enjoying the experience. But there are also signs amid the prosperity that people are asking whether this is all there is ...
What It Is Not
It is important to note what this series is not: it is not a religious service, nor is it intended to recruit non-Jews (Jews do not seek converts; those who wish to convert are ritually turned away). The conversations are a purely intellectual discussion of spiritual and cultural questions, not the propagation of any sectarian view.
There are five major threads to the program, which will allow stations to mix and match individual programs, or to take the entire series. These threads include:
Jewish Holidays: ten programs that stations can, at their option, run as specials, or as part of the weekly series. (See letter and description from Rabbi Schorsch, included in the supporting documents, for more details about the holiday thread).
Ethics and Morality: conversations on the morality of physician-assisted suicide, human cloning, the right to health care, welfare, First Amendment protection of "offensive art" (the "Sensations" show at the Brooklyn Museum), or deeply hurtful yet Constitutionally protected speech by hate mongers.
Journeys: conversations with those who have traveled from one spiritual place to another, from rejection to acceptance of Judaism. The story of Steven Dubner, for example, who was born and raised Catholic but after uncovering the Jewish roots of both his parents, sought to learn more about Judaism and eventually identify himself as a Jew. In his book, "Turbulent Souls," Dubner addresses issues such as the function of religion in the family and the unexplainable emotional pull towards a religious community.
In this thread, we will also tell the story of forced physical migration, escapes from life threatening situations (fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe on multiple trips to eventual safety, as the Germans invaded a previously unoccupied country ). There are many astounding stories in these odysseys.
Scapegoats: a look at the phenomenon of antisemitism, at the hatred that has been directed at Jews since the middle ages, hatred that reached its culmination in the Holocaust, where six million Jews were murdered only because they were Jews.
While antisemitism is no longer acceptable in polite circles, it is on the rise on the fringes of American society: Buford Furrow emptied an assault rifle into a group of Jewish children at a day care center, fled, and then shot a letter carrier just because his skin was brown; Matthew Shepard was severely beaten, tied to a fence post and left to die only because he was gay; and James Byrd, Jr. was dragged to his death chained to the back of a pickup truck only because he was black. We will ask the ancient question, "why?"
A partial answer might be that those who commit hate crimes must first convince themselves that their victims are subhuman, and therefore deserve to be killed. While no radio program can prevent hate crimes, a series like "What Is A Jew?" could restore full human complexity to Jews, and by analogy, to other stigmatized groups. If the complex reality of Jewish life were deeply planted in the culture, it just might give the next Buford Furrow a moment's pause.
Music: sacred and secular, from Cantors performing sacred songs and chants, to folk and popular musicians, including Klezmer bands. This thread is designed to appeal to stations whose formats are primarily music, that program only a minimum of talk.
Our core audience consists of people interested in the search for community and meaning in life, those who seek principles of living beyond the material or ego goals that now dominate the American population--Jew or Gentile. Thus our target includes the entire public radio audience.
We have targeted secular, non-practicing Jews as a way to focus the discussions, to ask fundamental questions about the spiritual and ethical framework offered by the Jewish (or any) religion. Other sub-target audiences include observant Jews, Gentiles (non-Jewish spouses in mixed marriages, among them) and for that matter, anyone interested in the place of religion in society.
In December, we produced a Hanukkah special, a conversation with Rabbi Schorsch about the holiday, artfully mixed with the music of Hanukkah. The special is actually the third installment of "What Is A Jew?" Two earlier episodes ran as part of BRIDGES.
Station response to the Hanukkah special has been gratifying. Even though there was only one senior person available to do station sales and fundraising and interviewing and supervise editing and post-production, our Hanukkah special was carried in most major markets, including New York (WNYC), Los Angeles (KPFK), Philadelphia (WHYY), Chicago (WBEZ), Boston (WBUR), Miami (WLRN), Atlanta (WABE), Salt Lake City (KCPW), Portland, OR (KOPB/KOAC), and San Diego (KPBS). Also in smaller markets like Amherst, MA (WFCR), Southampton, NY (WPBX), Johnson City, TN (WETS) and Yellowstone Public Radio (KEMC), covering most of Montana. (Carriage data is not complete as of this write).
Distribution: Broadcast and Non-Broadcast Media
The programs in the series will be edited to make them timeless. After all, some of the questions addressed in "What Is A Jew?" have been around for almost 6,000 years (this year is 5760 in the Jewish calendar).
Hanukkah comes around every year, and so do the other Jewish holidays, so we are producing evergreens, audio content that will be available on CD & cassette, on the Internet, on direct broadcast satellites, and other new media, long after the broadcasts have run their course. Radio drives production, but audio archives of one sort or another are the final destination for "What Is A Jew?."
The Radio Foundation already works through multiple channels of distribution. We have licensed Bob & Ray to audible.com, and no doubt, this series will have a non-exclusive home there and elsewhere. Bob & Ray recordings are distributed to stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble via our distributor, Penton Overseas. We will sell cassettes of this series through that channel as well as our own direct marketing efforts.
A first-draft website is up and running at www.whatisajew.org.
CD and cassette orders for any of the three programs in the series done to date are now being taken at 1-877-WHATISAJEW. Cassette sales are promoted by means of a tag at the end of each program. Listeners can email us at: email@example.com.
We plan to distribute 54 programs per year, 40 originals, 12 repeats, and 2 fundraisers. We must be on every week to guarantee a desirable slot in station schedules. Producing every week (including re-editing repeats) will also keep the staff together. Otherwise we risk losing the production team to other freelance work. We need to get started in time to produce and distribute a holiday special for Passover, which begins at sundown on April 19, 2000.
We have assembled a highly-competent team consisting of a producer, editor, a talented engineer and web designer.
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, principal guest and advisor to the project, is Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Dr. Schorsch is a scholar in Jewish history, and is active in the United States and Israel advancing the cause of Jewish pluralism. He has been invited to the White House every time a Middle East peace accord has been signed. Rabbi Schorsch is also an advisor to Vice-President Al Gore, Hillary Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel. As you will hear, he has great radio chemistry with Larry Josephson. He is a natural for radio.
Larry Josephson, Host/Executive Producer, a 35-year veteran of public radio production, management and engineering. Most recently, Larry was the creator, Host, and Executive Producer of BRIDGES: A Liberal/Conservative Dialogue, which ran on 143 stations for more than four years (BRIDGES never went off the air. It is still heard in repeats on a several stations, including KCRW and KPFK.
Sarah Kaufman, Editor and Line Producer. A Yeshiva (Jewish Day School) graduate who is fluent in Hebrew and ProTools. Though young, Sarah is blessed with good taste and good sense, as well as the ability to maintain her concentration during long working hours.
Peter Zanger (PZ), Recording & Mix Engineer. Thirty-years' experience as a radio/audio engineer. PZ knows ProTools and the Mac inside and out. He has a golden ear for radio, and is a full partner in sound design and other elements of productiontiming, acoustics, editing, music, copy and overall flow.
H. Solomon Poretsky, Web Designer. Solomon created our website from scratch in less than a week. He has an excellent grasp of both the functional and technical aspects of web design, hosting and RealAudio streaming.
We also maintain a rep company of free-lance station sales, public relations, graphic design, engineering and acoustical consultants, plus lawyers and accountants, who have worked together on many of our productions.
There is ample evidence of a demand for alternatives to the materialistic, self- centered lifestyles that have marked the final decades of the 20th Century. "What Is A Jew?" is one attempt to satisfy that demand in ways that are deep and compelling, yet accessible and even entertaining.
The programs were originally produced with funds from Billie & Larry Tisch
and the Tisch Foundation,The Kaplen Foundation, Edwin A. Goodman,
the Louis Finkelstein Fund of JTS, Saul & Stanley Zabar, and Zabar's