Jewish podcast ponders every week: Is it good for the Jews

What do California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s hair, 13-year-old scotch, Burning Man and going to the dentist have in common? Nothing. Nothing at all.

But that doesn‘t stop Larry Rosen and Eric Goldbrener from bringing up those and scores of other disparate topics, then asking the salient question: Is it good for the Jews?

In point of fact, that’s what the two friends and San Francisco residents named their weekly podcast.

Launched last March, “(Is it) Good for the Jews?” blends the snarky repartee of a two-person radio talk show and the sober reflections of friends who care about Jews and Judaism. All episodes — there were 36 through last week — can be listened to for free at Butisitgoodforthejews.com, or downloaded for free on iTunes (listed in the “comedy” category).

“The idea was that we can have an hourlong discussion on anything and ask if it is good for the Jews,” Rosen says. “We talk about the Middle East, but I also wanted to talk about Elvis, sandwiches and yoga.”

In one episode, the two men humorously/seriously discuss the experience of buying a new car from a dealership (and often feeling ripped off). After 15 minutes of nondenominational banter, Jewish components are introduced: Do Jews carry around the stereotype that they should be able to strike a good deal? Are Jews born in relative affluence as penny-wise as their predecessors who lived through the Depression? Are some stereotypes good for the Jews?

“We want to keep it real and fun and mundane, talking about parking in San Francisco, and all the things we San Franciscans deal with,” Goldbrener says. “I wanted to share my worldview as a Jew, a Zionist and a libertarian, but in the context of living in San Francisco with its unique progressive culture.”

Once a week, the pair huddles in Goldbrener’s basement studio/rumpus room/man cave — affectionately nicknamed the Twilight Lounge — and gets to work. Rosen will come in with a serious topic or two, a few notes, and that’s about it.

“We come in, sit down, plug in the mics, sit on the couch and have an hourlong conversation,” Goldbrener says. “We meander our way through and decide whether it’s good for Jews.”

“It’s entirely improvised,” Rosen adds. “Usually we try to keep some structure. Yesterday the topic was whether Barbra Streisand is good for the Jews. I walked in thinking maybe she’s not, but I came around.”

The two 50-somethings met a few years ago as parents of students at San Francisco’s Brandeis Hillel Jewish Day School. They hit it off right away, but in some respects they are unalike.

Larry Rosen (left) and Eric Goldbrener photo/sharon goldstone

Rosen, author of the memoir “The Rabbi Has Left the Building” and former San Francisco Examiner columnist, grew up assimilated, attended Catholic schools and a Jesuit university. He says he didn’t even know many Jews prior to enrolling his child in Jewish day school.

Goldbrener, on the other hand, grew up with a strong Jewish identity as the son of an Israeli father in an ardently Zionist household. As a film student at San Francisco State University, he formed the Zionist Student Body, the only pro-Israel campus group at the time. The group, which he describes as “radically liberal,” called on the Israeli government to recognize the PLO.

That wasn’t good enough for the anti-Israel forces on campus. “I still got my ass kicked,” Goldbrener says.

He has worked in film production, high tech and information systems for the last 25 years. Goldbrener is also working on a film, “Revolt,” based on former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s account of the Irgun, the underground guerilla force in pre-state Israel.

The two friends so enjoyed conversing and making each other laugh they decided to go public with a podcast, the meta-topic of which would be Jewish identity.

“My Jewish identity has been one of ambivalence,” Rosen says. “What I grapple with is feeling like an outsider, the otherness of being a Jew. Eric is more of a Jewish warrior. It seemed like a natural thing for us to talk about, and for me personally to explore.”

“We’re trying to get to the heart of what is Jewish identity,” Goldbrener adds. “How do we fit in? The issues we talk about are opportunities to dig into the deeper issue of what it means to live in the diaspora.”

Podcasting has been around for more than a decade, and many podcasts feature a similar format: two or three people talking about current events, other topical issues, movies, sports, science … just about anything. According to reports in the Washington Post, subscriptions of podcasts through iTunes reached 1 billion in 2014, and the number of unique monthly podcast listeners has tripled from 25 million to 75 million over the past five years.

Rosen and Goldbrener are but a drop in that ocean. They have accumulated about 50 subscribers so far (“Not just my mom,” Rosen hastens to add), but have not engaged in much marketing and promotion of the podcast. Not yet, at least.

“The Internet is a great democratized platform,” Goldbrener says, “where ordinary guys like us reach out to the whole world. What we want to do is get slicker: slicker website, higher production value.”

Meanwhile, the two will continue huddling in the Twilight Lounge and kick around the issues of the day and ask their all-important question.

“I want people to understand there is a Jewish national psyche,” Goldbrener says, “and here are two guys exploring that psyche from two different perspective. I’m a member of a great civilization and we should be proud of that.”

Of course, there’s always room for improvement.

Says Rosen, “We don’t mention the weather often enough.”

“(Is it) Good for the Jews?” Listen for free at www.butisitgoodforthejews.com. Listen or download for free from iTunes.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.