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 freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, BusinessWeek, and The Forward.