What’s it really like to become observant after a secular childhood? How do secular parents react when an adult child wants to become religious? How do baalei teshuva parents approach raising religious kids? Is it possible to maintain old friendships with secular friends after becoming observant? What about frum-from-birth Jews who start having doubts in college?
These and many more questions about Jewish observance are tackled weekly on “Saturday to Shabbos,” an OU podcast that I host. The show is executive produced by Rabbi David Pardo, managing director of Torah Initiatives at the OU, and produced by Gary Waleik, who formerly produced “Only a Game,” a sports program that ran on NPR for 27 years.
Having recently posted episode No. 25, Gary and I reflected on their journey together thus far and plans for future episodes.
Jeff: It seems like just yesterday we were launching our first episode and now we’ve officially hit the 25-episode mark. What are your thoughts on achieving that milestone for “Saturday to Shabbos”?
Gary: I think it’s fantastic! We’re almost half a year old! What we’re learning, based on the reception we’ve gotten, is how eager people are to tell their stories and share what they’ve learned. Having this accessible but deep series of stories told by people who have made their own journeys to Jewish observance is a valuable tool with which to inspire people who are taking on—or considering taking it on.
Jeff: I totally agree. But we’ve also gone beyond just folks who became observant. We’ve featured inspiring guests like Harry Rothenberg and Lior Arussy who were born religious but also had fascinating stories about what keeps them on the path.
Gary: Good point. You can have an inspiring journey regardless of your starting point. What has surprised you the most so far about the podcast?
Jeff: The willingness of people from very, very diverse backgrounds to share their stories. I’m really impressed with the sensitivity and honesty that people have when describing some truly personal matters. Also, it’s nice to hear some pretty famous people express happiness that we’ve given them a chance to talk about an aspect of their lives that few, if any, ask them about. For example, Saul Blinkoff, a Hollywood filmmaker for Disney, Dreamworks and Netflix, really blew me away when he shared how he inserted a mezuzah into Winnie the Pooh’s residence. Talk about religion intersecting with entertainment! Have you had a favorite guest or two, Gary?
Gary: I don’t have one favorite. But Penina Taylor and Shannon Nuszen leap to mind. Their stories are unique, but somehow related. And their commitment to authentic Yiddishkeit is really amazing. And I like the Shmuel Bollen episode, not just because he and his family are dear friends to me and my family, but also because he and I used to frequent the same punk rock venues about 40 years ago. What about you?
Jeff: Those were some unique guests. I really like the fact that it doesn’t matter the level of celebrity of our guests. Yes, people have enjoyed the big names, but those relatable stories have resonated strongly, too. For example, Mois Navon, who pioneered the technology behind self-driving cars, really grabbed me with the deep thinking he’s now doing around artificial intelligence and ethics as it relates to religion.
Gary: I hear you on that. I really love that we provide for listeners a good, solid story with some compelling twists and turns. Story is king! People wouldn’t listen otherwise. Nobody wants to hear someone go on and on in an abstract way. They’re looking for the real steps people take in their own Jewish observance. Like when Sam Ulrich, a renowned photographer, convinced his high school principal to launch a Judaic track to support his continued growth.
Jeff: Interestingly, despite the diversity of our guests, there are some common themes we keep hearing. For example, so many of our guests grew up thinking Judaism ends at your bar or bat mitzvah. There’s this spiritual void into early adulthood. Then, there’s this unexpected little flash of inspiration that comes from absolutely nowhere and the journey is underway.
Gary: We’ve also seen Israel emerge as a common topic of conversation. Everyone we’ve featured seems to hold the state of Israel close to their heart and seems to have found positive ways to connect and engage with it. Sometimes that Israel experience is truly transformational, as Mark Rosen, a guest we just interviewed, talked about, taking immediate steps to become observant after visiting the kotel.
Jeff: It’s also been fascinating to see the unique talents of our guests. We’ve interviewed musicians, journalists, authors, photographers, chefs and even a stand-up comedian. What have you learned about how they balance religion and sharing their talents with the world?
Gary: That sometimes it’s not easy, but it definitely can be done. It certainly helps to have understanding families and employers, but it really all comes down to commitment. If you’re apologetic that you want to live like a Jew, particularly when it comes to Shabbos observance, then you’re not going to get far. If you’re steadfast in the knowledge of who you are and what that means, then you will succeed beyond your wildest dreams. Also, how our guests got to their levels of expertise is fascinating. For example, Jamie Geller, a renowned kosher chef, entered her marriage unable to cook at all! Look how far she’s gone. Whereas Sasha Silber, who has played piano at the most prestigious concert halls in the world, practiced for thousands of hours.
Jeff: Their paths to fame certainly were different. But they do share the fact that when they talk about their steadfast commitment to Judaism, and their willingness to communicate up front about their beliefs, they earn respect. All the fears about honesty seem to melt away. In the workplace, being an unapologetic Jew can be powerful! Still, you do need to make these kinds of decisions slowly and deliberately and figure out what’s best for you.
Gary: You just mentioned taking it slowly, but we ask the opposite of our guests when it comes to the lightning round. I always like the answer to “What food would a Shabbos guest see at your table?” It was especially cute when one of our guests invited his wife onto the podcast to share her thoughts.
Jeff: I loved that moment, too. So speaking of lightning, let’s “flash” ahead one year from now. What do you hope we are saying about the podcast in 2023?
Gary: That we’re reaching everyone who can benefit from the stories we present every week; baalei teshuva, converts, frum from birth, it doesn’t really matter. We just want to inspire people looking to live their most authentic Jewish lives.
Jeff: Amen to that, and it’s been a privilege working with you, Gary. Looking forward to our continued journey together.
Jeff Cohen served as president of Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn from 2017 to 2020. Cohen is a seasoned human-resources consultant and executive coach who has written several books related to his field. A baal teshuva himself, he’s truly inspired by people’s journeys to Jewish observance and how they tackle the most pressing issues facing Judaism today. Those who wish to listen to “Saturday to Shabbos” can access the latest podcasts at www.tachlismedia.com or simply subscribe wherever they listen to podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon, etc.). Also, if you’ve got a compelling story to share or know someone who would make an excellent guest, feel free to email Jeff at [email protected].