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Two Jews and a Podcast

Adam Valen-Levinson wasn’t looking for Judaism in Shanghai, China, and he definitely wasn’t thinking about starting a Jewish podcast.

He wasn’t raised observant. In fact, the first time he laid tefillin was as a 21-year-old in the United Arab Emirates, a story he tells in his book, The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah.

Adam, who is currently working toward a Ph.D. in cultural sociology from Yale, was in Shanghai one summer, back in 2017, studying standup comedy scenes across the globe and performing himself too. That’s also where his Jewish studies began.

A fellow American friend had invited him to Chabad for a Friday night dinner and he went to check it out. There he met Indiana-born Dovid Grossbaum, then a rabbinical student filling in for the local rabbi. The two immediately hit it off. Dovid attended Adam’s standup gig the next night and they stayed in touch even after Dovid headed back to the States.

Then Adam ended up in New York, where Dovid was studying, and the two began meeting up to learn and discuss Judaism. “We’d study some of the classic Jewish texts but end up having these long conversations and get into philosophy, and life in general,” says Adam. Sometimes others would join them. “We’d have these deep, two-hour free-flowing conversations, branching out into all these different ideas. It’s the kind of conversations you don’t get a chance to have otherwise.”

Adam’s travels soon took him abroad and Dovid married and took on a role at Chabad of Indianapolis, but the two stayed connected, meeting over the internet. “We talked about wanting to share these conversations with others,” says Dovid. “We felt like there was something in it that might be interesting to them.” They bandied about the idea of turning their chats into a podcast.

The typical episode follows a similar approach: Dovid will open the conversation with a Torah passage or concept. They’ll discuss the idea. Adam will push back on an assertion. Dovid will bring up a possible solution. Adam will bring up a different one. They’ll go off on a tangent. There will be lots of chuckles, self-deprecating humor, ironic observations, and pop culture references. The conversation will be interrupted by a kitschy imitation commercial. It will not follow a script or outline.

Adam knows his friendship with a Chasidic rabbi raises eyebrows, but that’s only until the eyebrow-raisers actually listen to their conversations. “They realize that our relationship isn’t just a tokenized one, like ‘look at this black-hatted friend I have,’” he says. “I’m happy to share our friendship and I think the same reason it’s meaningful to me is what makes it meaningful to everyone listening in.”

Comment 1
  • It’s a great podcast. I have met Dovid and he’s a wonderful Rabbi. This is by far one of my favorite podcasts and my favorite Jewish podcast

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