Back when Jason Harris helped lead young Jews on more than a dozen Birthright Israel trips, it would irk him that he had so little time to answer their questions about Israeli history.
As a professional Jewish educator and history buff, Harris knew the answers.
Then in 2016, he came upon a unique way to address those kinds of questions and offer insights on Jewish-Israeli history: He rented a cabin for a week near Mount Shasta.
That week marked the birth of his podcast, “Jew Oughta Know,” the first of its kind in a wide world of Jewish podcasts that cover Torah, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Jewish pop culture. Recently tabbed by Washington Jewish Week as one of the Jewish podcasts “you should add to your rotation,” it can be found on iTunes, Stitcher and other podcast apps, as well as on the website JewOughtaKnow.com.
While some episodes cover Jewish history, Harris says, none start from “The Beginning.”
“There are thousands of years of history,” he says. “It’s intimidating. Where are you supposed to start? I want to give people a place to start.”
The chronology he follows covers everything from the backstory on the Jewish calendar to the history of Zionism. Harris considers his podcast a mission to teach Jewish historical knowledge in a fun and accessible way, while filling a gap in historical knowledge.
“It’s such an incredibly rich history, with so many interesting stories and so many wonderful heroes [as well as] villains,” he says. “We should know it.”
A Bay Area native, Harris has a degree in international relations from UC Davis and two master’s degrees, in Jewish communal service and Near Eastern and Judaic studies, from the Hornstein Program for Jewish Professional Leadership at Brandeis University.
He likes to hang out at his local Peet’s with a stack of books that often includes Paul Johnson’s “A History of the Jews” and Howard Sachar’s “A History of Israel.”
There are thousands of years of history… I want to give people a place to start.
In his day job, he oversees the programming at Berkeley-based Lehrhaus Judaica, a center for adult Jewish education.
Creating each episode of “Jew Oughta Know” requires around 10 to 12 hours of work, typically stretched over one to several weeks. So far, there have been 58 episodes, with most of the recent ones between 22 and 27 minutes; the first 20 or so were even shorter.
“His episodes are informative, short, funny, and they’re really well-researched,” says Harris’ friend and fan Irina Klay, the Russian-speaking program manager for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.
More surprising, Klay adds, is that the podcast appeals to friends who have a broad spectrum of Jewish knowledge, from lay people to experts.
Perhaps most of all, it appeals to Harris, who was raised with a strong Jewish identity. “I really love the history, I love learning Jewish history, I love talking about Jewish history,” he says. “So it is fun for me to do this.”
Along the way, he hopes to challenge two narratives prominent in the media, one being that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a simple, straightforward conflict of good vs. evil.
“It’s a complex story, it’s a fascinating story and there are reasons why things are happening the way they are today,” Harris notes. “It’s hard to know who’s the David in any given situation, and there are more Davids and more Goliaths than just the two of them.”
Before joining Lehrhaus four months ago, Harris spent five years as the Birthright program director at the S.F.-based Federation. One of his former students in that role, Michal Vardy, is now a fan of the podcast.
Her favorite episode is from June 2018, and it’s titled “1929” for the year the Arab-Israeli conflict exploded in then British Mandatory Palestine. “It’s very factual. It’s very objective. It doesn’t take one side or the other,” Vardy says.
With his podcast, Harris also is seeking to challenge the narrative that Jewish history is one of relentless persecution, sorrow and tragedy. While Jews have certainly been oppressed, he says they should recognize that they’ve done incredible things.
“We ought to know what these things are and be able to celebrate those things, and we shouldn’t feel like our history is just one of victimization,” Harris says. “It’s a really incredible human story about triumph.”