Feminism, Podcasted: an Interview with The Book of Life's Heidi Rabinowitz
Podcasts are all the rage these days, but Heidi Rabinowitz’s The Book of Life podcast is no flash in the pan: on the contrary, this show about Jewish authors, books, and arts has been going strong for twelve years. Chances are if you’re a podcast fan or a Jewish book fan or both, you’ve heard this show somewhere, maybe even on JWA: a Book of Life episode recently appeared here as tie-in content to our May Book Club pick, Marjorie Ingall’s parenting guide Mameleh Knows Best.
We sat down with Rabinowitz to hear about why she decided to start a podcast dedicated to Jewish literature and arts; why women storytellers have a harder time than men storytellers; and what The Book of Life and JWA’s podcast Can We Talk? have in common.
Why do you podcast?
Behind every great story … is another story. And that’s why I podcast, to get a peek behind the magic curtain, to learn how and why people create beautiful things, to experience familiar stories from a whole new angle.
What is The Book of Life?
The Book of Life is an audio podcast that I started in 2005 to help readers find more Jewish books to love. It’s an extension of my work as a synagogue librarian and of my personality as a lifelong reader. It also covers music, film, and websites.
Why is it important to shine light on Jewish books, music, film, and web?
Philosophically, Jewish works engender pride in Jews and understanding in non-Jews, both of which are important for the well-being and future of our people, as well as making the world a better place. Practically, these works need all the publicity they can get. The more they are seen and embraced, the more interest will be generated.
Why is it important to shine a light on the work that Jewish women produce?
It’s important because we have a lot of catching up to do! Men’s voices have been recorded throughout the ages (in Jewish terms: we have a record of the wisdom of the fathers), but for women, this is a very recent development. Women’s voices predominate on The Book of Life by almost two thirds, not by design but because that’s who I find most interesting.
Do women face storytelling challenges not faced by men?
Men are still the “default”–their stories are seen as universal while women’s stories tend to be seen as more individual. Everyone in the book industry (authors, publishers, booksellers, librarians) needs to accept and promote that stories by or about women are as inherently interesting and universal as male stories. We need to stop framing men’s writing as serious and women’s writing as light. As readers we know better, and our experience shows us that any writer can be emotional or scholarly or humorous or philosophical. The challenge is in reprogramming our thinking.
Tell us about a memorable interview with a Jewish woman.
In fall 2016, I interviewed Debbie Levy, who wrote I Dissent, an inspiring picture book biography of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This book lets us see what a superhero RBG is and how her Judaism is relevant to her passion for justice. Debbie’s excitement over listening to Ginsburg argue cases fascinated me, and I learned that “the notorious RBG” was not just an important public figure, but something of a rock star. I conducted this interview just before the 2016 election and had planned to publish it on the day after, thinking it would be an appropriate celebration of strong women in government. It turned out instead to be a ray of hope in the dark.
What do you think are the overlaps between The Book of Life and JWA’s podcast Can We Talk?
Both podcasts provide unapologetically Jewish spaces that showcase personal stories as a way to help listeners relate to larger topics. Can We Talk? has both a broader focus (all culture, not just the arts) and a more focused exploration of women’s voices than The Book of Life, but they both invite listeners to dive deep and learn something new; that knowledge can empower them.
How does The Book of Life advance the cause of feminism? How does it advance other social justice causes?
Can We Talk? is, by definition, a feminist podcast. The Book of Life is a general-interest show (for those who like the Jewish arts) but it’s covertly feminist too. My not-necessarily-feminist listeners are exposed to a preponderance of women’s voices and egalitarian attitudes, thereby absorbing a worldview in which women’s strong participation is normalized.
The very existence of a Jewish podcast is activist in the sense that it amplifies minority voices. But The Book of Life is consciously activist too. I promote liberal/Jewish values whenever I can, both by who I interview and by the questions I ask. In the current contentious atmosphere in our country, I feel more strongly than ever that I must spotlight works that promote justice, peace, egalitarianism, kindness, and cross-cultural understanding. I’ve recently started asking guests to describe how their creations relate to tikkun olam, the Jewish value of repairing the world, as a way of illustrating that every book (or song or film or web project) can be a force for good; we can all be a force for good.
You’ve worked hard on the podcast for twelve years. What keeps you focused on this work?
It’s for the greater good. As I said, it is important to increase the demand for Jewish works and celebrate Jewish values. But really, I’m just having too much fun to stop. The Book of Life gives me opportunities for so many fangirl moments, and it’s highly satisfying to be able to have real conversations with my heroes instead of brief encounters asking for an autograph and a selfie!
How to cite this page
Book, Bella, and Emily Cataneo. "Feminism, Podcasted: an Interview with The Book of Life's Heidi Rabinowitz." 23 May 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 17, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/feminism-podcasted-interview-with-book-of-lifes-heidi-rabinowitz>.