David Bashevkin: The Anniversary Episode

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SUMMARY

In this anniversary episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we sit down with our host, David Bashevkin, to reflect on the last year of episodes.

18Forty has explored many important and interesting topics and has helped build a community of people interested in exploring these ideas. But it has been a big undertaking involving many unforeseen factors and complications.

  • How has 18Forty decided what topics and guests to feature?
  • What has David learned about the process of interviewing?
  • How has 18Forty been affected by the community growing around it?
  • How has 18Forty dealt with controversy?

Tune in to hear David reflect on 18Forty’s beginning and growth over the last year.

References:
Top Five by David Bashevkin

For more, visit https://18forty.org/

David Bashevkin:

Hello, and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast, where each month we explore a different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless, Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and today, we’re actually not exploring a big topic. I wanted to take today because we’re really, in a way, closing out for the summer. We’re going to have new episodes and we have so many exciting things to tell you about, but I wanted to take at least one episode to reflect a little bit after what’s been a little more than a year of 18Forty. What have I learned? What have I learned about our audience? What have I learned about creating content, about interviews? And I think we have a really fun way of doing it.

So, I am so excited to be sharing this with you today. And this podcast is obviously part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy, Jewish ideas. So be sure to check out 18Forty.org, that’s 1-8-F-O-R-T-Y.org, where you can find videos, articles, and recommended readings. Especially now over the summer, where we are going to be having series, but not those big, deep dives into topics. Now is the best time to check out old episodes, see the stuff you missed. We know because we see the stats, and Lord knows that the early episodes did not get as many listens as, thank God, the audience that we’ve built now. So check them out, go online, go wherever your local podcasts are sold, and we really have some great stuff that I am excited for each of you to listen to.

So, I wanted to take a step back and talk a little bit about what I’ve learned from running 18Forty the last year. We started in May of 2020, and it’s been just over a year, and it’s really been an astounding journey, this entire period. And it’s really something special for myself to take a moment, take a step back, and recount a little bit about what we’re trying to accomplish. What are we trying to do? And I think we have spoken about this subject before. Early on if you check online, you can see there is another solo episode called, I think, Reflection After Four Months. That was a reflection that we did after getting into a little bit of hot water, which we will of course talk about. But I wanted to highlight five things – because we know I love top five, you could feel free to buy my book, Top Five: Lists of Jewish Character and Characters, wherever Jewish books are sold.

But this is a top five that is not a humorous top five, I don’t think, it’s certainly not trying to be. If anything, it’s like my new top five, which are mostly sad, but it’s top fives of lessons. What have I learned from doing this? And I want to share it with you and really highlight it through some of the clips and content and ideas that have not been on the show, but the great interviewers and content creators that have influenced me that I reach towards when I think of how to produce and create great content, which we strive to do. Though, more often than not, like many, we miss.

So before we start, I just wanted to highlight two other episodes where we discuss the very purpose of what we’re doing. One that I already mentioned, which is that solo episode that we did, Reflections Four Months After Launch. And then we have another episode, which is about, why 18Forty? A question that I assume many of you still have. Like, “What is with your name?” A member of our student board, Alex Harris, actually sent me something yesterday, which is a website called 19fortyfive.com. It seems to be about World War II or something. I did not check what kind of content that they have on there, but they have that same model as we do, which is the 1-8 numbers, and then the letters F-O-R-T-Y.org, 18Forty.org.

And on that second episode, which is Why 18Forty?, we discuss the significance of the calendaric year 1840, and why that became the name of this very podcast. It really animates so much of what we’re doing because of that transitional time that 1840 represented. Industrialization, the way content was shared, information was created. And that’s really in many ways what we’re trying to do here. This inflection point of 2020, 2021, we’re already in. And 1840 in many ways is what we’re reliving now. And I actually wrote an article that you could find on Tablet worth reading, which is about the parallel between the experience that we’ve all been through, particularly with the pandemic, that 2020 is in many ways a… We’re revisiting, we’re reliving so many of the choices and difficulties of the world that the world already faced in that great year of 1840.

So for those of you who don’t know, I’m not going to recount the whole story again, you can look at the four month reflection, look at the Why 18Forty?, but this podcast, this whole media, idea, videos, articles, everything that we do really began with a conversation with my partner, Mitch Eichen, who approached me and said, “I want to find a new way to share ideas and confront those really difficult questions about Jewish life and Jewish thought.” And that’s essentially what we are trying to do here. It’s not airing out the ugliness of Judaism, God forbid, far from it. What we’re trying to do, as I’ve said so, so many times, is go to those points of dissonance, go to those points of friction, and find a way to highlight and use that friction for momentum, a topic that we will get to in one moment.

But I was actually listening to one of my absolute most favorite content sites, which I’m going to recommend to anybody who likes sports. It’s called Secret Base. They have these videos, you can check them all out on YouTube. They have a massive following, over a million people. And they go through it. I’m not a sports nut. Honestly, I don’t think I can name, outside of basketball, I really can’t name I don’t think a minyan. I don’t think I can name 10 active sports players in other sports, maybe 10. I don’t think I know one living hockey player, active hockey player. Not one. But it really does these deep dives about the feuds and the beefs and the championships and the teams. And it does these deep dives. And they explained what they did and what they were trying to accomplish so beautifully. And I think in many ways it parallels what we’re doing here. Listen to how Secret Base explains what they’re trying to do in the world of sports.

Secret Base:

What if we put aside the everyday churn of news and rumors, scores and rankings? What if we gave context for those things by telling stories, explaining sports, and experimenting with new formats? What if we plumbed the absolute depths of sports failure? Recounted the tension between famous sports figures to better understand them? Teased apart the strangest rules and anecdotes? Dove deep into strange and fascinating data? Relived the buildup to iconic moments? Wrapped our heads around how great teams fall apart? Exploded video games? Scrutinized how and why certain sports legends never won a championship? We study old games, devour books and newspapers, and comb through stats to find stories that will help us, and you, understand and appreciate sports inside and out, past and present.

David Bashevkin:

And I love that idea of, what if we put aside the everyday churn of the stats and the scores and what’s going on on that daily news site? I think so much of our experience being online, on Facebook, New York times, wherever it is, is there’s this pace of the world unfolding before our eyes, and we never give ourselves the luxury of taking a step back and providing a little bit more context for those big heuristics for, how should we be viewing all of these unfoldings, all of these developments in our lives, in the Jewish world, in the general world? And what at least I try to do is think much more topically. Let’s take a step back. Instead of looking at what happened today, let’s think of the genesis of an idea. Let’s highlight the scholars, the people who have experienced this, the people who were involved, to really unpack what I think animates so many of these pressure points in Jewish life. And again, we’re nowhere near what Secret Base is, the SB nation, if you will. I don’t know if you’re part of it.

But in some ways, this is what we’re trying to do for Judaism, Yiddishkeit, religion. Really what it means to be human is trying to take a step back and give some context. Some of that involves the great feuds. Some of that involves the legacies and the team sports, so to speak, that evolve in religious life. Some of it involves those controversial topics and ideas. But it’s not about that daily churn. It’s about taking that step back and trying to find and trace some narrative, some larger story, that we are still a part of, that is still unfolding. And we still should have interest in moving that story and helping it unfold forward. So with that introduction, I want to highlight five ideas that I have taken out from really the past year of 18Forty.

And before I do that, I really want to be sincere and so appreciative to our listeners, to people who have taken a chance on something new and something different. I’ve gotten so much support from the organizations that I am affiliated with, most notably NCSY, but we didn’t have a massive email list to start with. We basically had, I don’t know, my personal Twitter account, and people who signed up for the emails here and there. And please, if you haven’t already, sign up for our emails, get our weekend readers, see the latest things that drop. But more than anything else, the people who have joined us for this journey, and there were people who came out especially early.

We were doing something different. I did get a ton of emails. “What exactly are you doing?” These sometimes grating questions. But the people who came along and have been supportive and have been listening, it means the absolute world to me. And I can’t thank you enough for taking a chance on something that wasn’t clear. We didn’t have a good name, like one of those J acronyms, J questions, or those good acronyms that explain exactly what you’re doing. 18Forty, which I insisted on it being the name. Mitch hated the name and he was probably right, but I insisted on it as a tribute to the school of Izhbitz, which animates so much of what I do, the Hasidic school of Izhbitz.

But, I think that sense of appreciation for the listeners who have gotten us to where we are is something that I can never overstate. And I don’t know when to do this. I’ll probably apologize again. So many people have begun emailing us with ideas, with thoughts, and I really try to stay on top of being responsive and reaching out to people. Thank you so much for everyone who’s reached out, and I’m so sorry that I have been less than perfect responding to all those people who have taken that time to reach out. So it really does mean a lot.

So, the top five that I’m going to be talking about, and we don’t need to keep it a secret what’s on this list. I’ll go through each one. The list is going to be as follows. One is we’re going to talk about the role of controversy. Two is we’re going to talk about dissonance and topic selection. Three is we’re going to talk about interviewing and how to really conduct an interview. Four is about managing my own anxiety, something we’ve spoken about. And five is creating a community and coming together and being able to create something together, so to speak.

So let me start with controversy. As many of you likely already know, in many ways it was a blessing and a curse. The podcast started in many ways with a bit of controversy. I think the second topic we covered was about people who left religion, who left Judaism. And one of the interviews on there, which was somebody who left Judaism for purely intellectual reasons, one of the brightest people I know, still remains a great friend and my co-manager of the Frum-OTD, the Frum and OTD is an acronym for off the derech, an acronym that I hate, but it’s used colloquially.

A friend of mine who manages it, who was anonymous at the time, he’s not really quite as anonymous anymore, we brought him on to talk about his experience to talk about what ideas and that rationalistic thinking that he’s really mastered in so many ways still tugs him towards Judaism, or what he would tell somebody who does have doubt, who does have concerns. And people did not like the fact that we spoke directly with somebody like that. And in many ways I appreciated that pushback. I appreciated that concern. But I think what separates us and what will continue to separate us is that I don’t want to just have a panel session symposium on people who go off or people who live different religious lives and not include their own voice. I think we live in a time where we can be confident enough to allow them to speak. We can be confident enough in our own commitment to allow them to speak.

And I was careful, as I always am, that I’m not looking to erode anybody’s religious commitment. God forbid, nothing could be farther from the truth. And neither was our guest. He’s really somebody who I have found to be so respectful, and even a proponent of people with deep, meaningful, religious commitment. And I’m proud of the fact that we had him on. I’m proud of our conversation. I wouldn’t say troubled. I’m saddened that a lot of people found it troubling, and that’s okay. It definitely gave us a bit of attention, but we weren’t trying to be sensational, but it told us something.

But that wasn’t the big controversy. The big controversy without a doubt was in that third, fourth topic that we covered, which was biblical criticism. And we had a guest, who is absolutely wonderful, whose podcast we did have to take down because we didn’t edit it, in a way. And it was a serious lack of judgment on my part and the way things were articulated. And what I found so remarkable a year later was how, not just understanding the guest, and I’ll say her name, Sarah Susswein Tesler, we’re still in touch. I’m in touch with her husband, really just lovely, incredible people. And she spoke about her experience teaching biblical criticism in a yeshiva.

What I found so impressive was the way that she reacted to this controversy. I was not impressed with the way I reacted. I was a mess and handled it extremely poorly. I felt like my life was falling apart. I remember I had this very intense conference call when I was at my niece’s bat mitzvah, I’m in my sister’s backyard, everybody’s doing the simcha dancing. And I was sitting on the phone, not even holding back tears, I was actively crying. It was just an absolute mess. And I’m still learning from that incident. But I’m still heartened and so impressed with the way she reacted, which she agreed. She said, “Yeah, this doesn’t belong. This should have been edited differently. I would have said things a little bit differently, came off a little bit cavalier, or whatever it was.” And just so thoughtful and understanding.

She could have made my life absolutely miserable, and it was the exact opposite. She was so supportive and understanding about just the situation I was in. And without a doubt, this is the most requested podcast. And it’s a commitment that I still have. And over the summer, subscribe to our emails, we may redrop, I would need to tinker a little bit, but redrop that episode for people who are curious. We got our first media attention with a story in the New Jersey Jewish Standard, which was… It always helps. I guess all press is good press. It’s not exactly the way I wanted to announce myself or 18Forty to the world.

I think for us this moment was in many ways, I am a student of late night television. I’ve read, and we’ll come back to this over and over again. I’ve read Bill Carter’s books, which, the first book talks about the fight between Jay Leno and David Letterman, and the second book talks about the fight between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. And I quote these books constantly, because they’re a map for me of how to create engaging content, and how to really get people excited over what you’re doing.

And those who may or may not remember, after Johnny Carson left the tonight show, there was this big battle of who was going to take over between David Letterman and Jay Leno. And it eventually went to Jay Leno. You’ve got to read the book by Bill Carter. It was later made into an HBO movie, which was okay, not as good as the book, not nearly as good as the book. And Letterman moved over, took his show to CBS, and he was beating Leno’s tonight show in the ratings week after week, until a certain interview on Jay Leno’s show with a celebrity who had just been caught with something really ugly. I don’t remember all the details, it was in 1995. And this celebrity, it’s no secret, Hugh Grant, went on the Jay Leno show and had this famous exchange.

Jay Leno:

Let me start with question number one. What the hell were you thinking? And I don’t mean that to be glib, but I think most people are going…

David Bashevkin:

And that question that Jay Leno asked, “What the heck were you thinking?” I’m still, my inner yeshiva guy, I can’t even pronounce the word “hell” without saying h e double hockey sticks, so I apologize for that. But it was that controversy that ultimately changed the tide and he got the ratings. I don’t think that controversy is what… It didn’t drastically change what we were doing. It certainly brought in people who were curious. But controversy does help. It is exhausting. It is tiring. It can affect who you are. It can shape and color in some unfair ways what you’re trying to accomplish. But I think in many ways, that episode and the aftermath in us taking it down was that Jay Leno moment, where many people who I respect deeply, and just great people, called me up and asked me that Jay Leno question, “What the heck were you thinking?” And we recalibrated in many ways, but I learned a lot, that controversy can be helpful. We don’t shy away from things, we talk about these topics. And I think that’s the way that you build an audience. People who go through these processes with you.

Which leads me to the second thing I wanted to talk about, and that is, dissonance brings momentum. This is something I’ve said over and over again. It’s the analogy that I use. If you ever try to run on ice wearing sneakers instead of ice skates, you can’t run on ice wearing sneakers. There’s no friction, there’s no dissonance, there’s no point for you to jump off. As opposed to, if you have ice skates, it allows you to dig a little bit into the ice and have that friction that ultimately leads to momentum. And that’s what I try to do topically, in a way, to go to those points of friction.

I always say there are three points of dissonance in our religious lives. There’s theological dissonance. Theological ideas that maybe we were told in more basic, elementary ways when we were younger, and now we’re older, more sophisticated. We want to understand them better. There is sociological dissonance. We were told certain ideas about maybe people outside of the Jewish community, maybe stories about other Jews, and now we’ve grown up. We meet them. They’re not awful. They’re not terrible. They’re not evil. Those more binary distinctions that help you understand the world when you’re younger don’t always work as you grow up and mature. And then finally, there’s emotional dissonance, which is that dissonance that you thought that religious life, maybe when you were more inspired in high school or in those college years, and it was just so uplifting. And now there’s emotional dissonance. The sense of connection, the sense of inspiration that I once had when I was younger seems to be lost.

There is this wonderful exchange between one of my favorite interviewers, and I’ll tell you more in a moment, but one of my favorite interviewers, Barbara Walters, really, really phenomenal, from Dateline, The View, really, really phenomenal, and had this way of getting people to really open up, this firm but caring way about her. And she was once being interviewed, and they asked her, “What is your favorite question? What’s a question that you would want to ask someone?” And this is what she said.

Barbara Walters:

Again, it depends on what we’re doing. Now I do a news magazine program, 2020. I do specials. I do a daytime television program with four women plus myself, which is very freewheeling, but also has interviews. I do interviews on that. I might say to someone, what’s the biggest misconception about you? Because you then learn things that they probably never thought they would tell you. And they’ll also bring up the rumors about themselves that they want to clear up.

David Bashevkin:

And I love this question. I’ve come back to this question so many times: where do you feel most misunderstood? What’s the greatest misconception about you? And I think in some ways, what we try to do topically is, we’re not just asking this question on the individual level. We’re trying to pose that question of misconceptions, misunderstandings, on that national level. If I can almost interview Yiddishkeit, if I can almost interview Judaism itself and sit it down on the couch and hand it a mic and say, “Where do you feel most misunderstood?” That embodiment of the tradition that we’re trying to perpetuate, hand it a mic and say, “Where are the misconceptions? Where do you feel most misunderstood?” Find those points of dissonance.

And I think it’s the parallel to what poor interviewing is, which is where you just leave it open. The worst interviewer of all time, without a doubt, it’s not an actual interviewer, but the great Chris Farley show that used to feature on SNL. I love the clip with him talking to Paul McCartney.

Chris Farley:

Yeah, everyone knows who you are. You’re Paul McCartney.

Paul McCartney:

It’s great to be here.

Chris Farley:

You remember when you were with the Beatles? That was awesome.

David Bashevkin:

Sometimes you listen to other interviewers, and somebody will say something, and they’re just like, “Oh, that was awesome, that’s so cool, that’s so good.” And what instead we try to do is go to those points of dissonance, to go to those points of friction, and build some intimacy. I think the place where I really try to do this, because you really sometimes have to extract it. I think in that first interview about the topic of Agunah, where I spoke to Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann, who was really masterful. And I got in touch with him right before Pesach. And we spoke a lot about Agunah, but then at the very end, I felt something was missing. And I asked him, “Can you take me through a get proceeding? Can you take me through, step-by-step, what goes on in the room? Take me through what happens.”

And I think that was helpful. It was helpful to me, but I think in some ways it was helpful to the audience to go into that place which is shrouded in mystery. So many misconceptions, so much confusion, and try to illuminate what the intimacy of that moment is. That moment of breaking off actually has some intimacy in it, as we later heard in that interview from my friend, who chose to remain anonymous about his own divorce proceedings. And he said the last, the most final moment, intimate, kind, connected moment he had with his wife was actually rolling their eyes and making a joke to one another in the moment they were getting the divorce.

But I think that general idea, that dissonance brings momentum, friction creates movement, is at the heart of what we are trying to do. And I think that Barbara Walters’ idea of asking somebody about their misconceptions, where they feel most misunderstood, we try to do that in that global sense, hand Judaism the microphone. Hand the people who represent those big topics in Judaism, and take us through it. Help us understand you better.

Which leads me to the third topic, and I think this is an area where I have grown the most, which is how to conduct an interview. And I’ll tell you, I am a student of interviews. I am a student of listening to the greats and how they interview and weave a conversation together. I’ll tell you my favorites. From the last generation was Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes. So confrontational, abrasive at times, but had this total control. And there’s this wonderful documentary called Mike Wallace Is Here, which is about his rise from not a serious journalist to somebody who was one of the major hosts of 60 Minutes. And he’s absolutely wonderful. The others, which again, I just mentioned Barbara Walters. She is an absolute great.

I think the greatest, and I may have mentioned this before, and I may get in trouble for this, but you could really divide up his genesis into two clear periods, is Howard Stern 2.0. Howard Stern when I was in high school was associated with absolute filth and drivel. He had this brief show on the E Network, which was just total garbage. You can watch, his first guest was one of my favorite comedians, Gary Shandling. And you watch that interview, and you see how self obsessed Howard Stern was, how much he filled up the room and didn’t allow the people he was talking to to share their story and their voice. He just kept on turning the conversation back to himself. And I think in many ways, 18Forty has a Howard stern 1.0, 2.0. We were never, thank God, quite as filthy as Howard Stern, but Howard Stern 2.0 evolved. I think 1.0 is, I was still learning and trying figure out how to create a space for the person I was talking to while still staying on topic.

And I was figuring out what 18Forty was, and how to integrate a topic driven interview into the lives of the scholars I was interviewing without becoming on the one hand, this free flowing, roaming interviewer where they just babble on, where they grew up, who they are, blah, blah, blah, all that stuff, which is great. And sometimes I’m really curious about it. But I do want to stay on topic. And on the flip side, you don’t want the interview to become an FAQ. You don’t want the interview to just be this back and forth most, here’s a list of five questions, can you just answer them? That the interview would have been the same in writing as it would be orally. And I think I’ve learned to navigate that. And a lot of that is the evolution, the influence that Howard Stern, and listening to the way his deeper, more thoughtful interviews have become. There’s this wonderful exchange where it’s not Howard stern, but it’s Conan O’Brien, another person who has become a marvelous interviewer, and someone whose career I followed quite closely, where Conan explains the magic that Howard Stern does.

Conan O’Brien:

What was really nice, for me, it was actually therapy for me, was talking to you that day, was your format. And I tell everybody this. People always ask me, “Who do you think is the best interviewer?” And for years I’ve been saying, and this is even before our interview, I said, “It’s Howard Stern, because the format fits him so perfectly.” It allows you to be curious. It allows you to really, “Wait a minute, this wasn’t on the card. I wasn’t supposed to ask this. But Conan just mentioned something about anxiety, and the anxiety he’s had in his life. I’m going to follow that, and I might follow it for 15, 20 minutes.” And I think that’s what’s so fulfilling. You couldn’t do that. I think if you had a conventional late night show, there’s always someone in the corner who’s signaling you to tell you that you really do need to wrap it up. And it’s just probably at the moment where I mention, “I have struggled with anxiety my entire life,” and you’d be like, “Huh, that’s interesting. Well anyways Conan we have to go.”

David Bashevkin:

And I love what Conan says about creating curiosity, urging curiosity. And that’s why I sign off every episode, I don’t know if you listen to the very end, but, “Stay curious, my friends.” I think more than anything else, at the end of an interview, I want the listeners to have learned and been involved in real substance, but I don’t want all their questions answered. I don’t want to tie it up in a neat bow and have everything laid out in front of you. I want us together to be on this journey of curiosity and discovery. My favorite emails that I get are the mistakes – it’s not my favorite, that’s my second to most favorite. I get emails telling me my mistakes all the time and that’s fine. But my most favorite emails are people saying, “Hey, that relates to this article. That connects to this idea. But what about this question?” That creates the interview as a springboard for curiosity, for a journey. Not getting stuck in the package of the interview, but allowing what we’re doing to be a springboard for curiosity.

And I think that’s deliberately why we structured 18Forty as a dialogue, not just between me and the person I’m talking to, but a dialogue of mediums, where we have video, conversation, and essays, book recommendations, because I don’t believe that any of these big questions can be solved in a neat bow, either in, “Here’s the essay that answers your questions. Here’s the video that puts it all together. Here’s the interview, the podcast that ties it up all neatly. Here’s the book that has everything you need.” I don’t believe that will ever happen, because I think that those questions that get to the heart of our humanity – and certainly religious identity, Judaism, is a part of that very big bucket – cannot be neatly resolved. There’s no step-by-step process for, how do you answer those big, lofty questions of what it means to be human? What it means to be religious? What religious life, religious thought, religious ideas are about? There’s so much more than that.

And it can be infuriating. And this is the debate that I constantly have with Mitch Eichen about, he wants it a little bit neater, even though he knows it can’t be neat. And that’s why we have not just a conversation with another person, but a conversation, a dialogue of mediums, where, here’s a video, see what questions that elicits. Here’s a conversation through a podcast. Here’s some book recommendations. Here’s an essay, a narrative, a weekend reader. And hopefully with all of this together, our community of listeners can create heuristics, create those lenses through which they can confront those messy aspects of Jewish life, religious life, or just life. That’s what we’re trying to do together ultimately.

Which leads me to the fourth topic. And I keep on coming back to this, but it’s something that I was never quite prepared for. It’s something that people never believe me when I say it, but it’s the anxiety of content creation. It’s the anxiety of creating something new. I mentioned in that earlier podcast, the first one that we ever did, where I reflected solo on what we’re doing, I spoke that we were supposed to launch in January of 2020, which is why our first topic was Talmud. That’s when the completion of the Daf Yomi cycle of the entire Talmud happens. It would’ve just been a great time to launch. And I was unable to do it. I wasn’t quite bedridden, but my anxiety, my concern, my nervousness did not allow me to go forward with it. And there’s something that still stays with me. I’ve learned to manage it much better, but there’s something really frightening and scary about creating content to a community, many people who you see, many people who give you the feedback and know that you do it.

And it’s scary because you create something that allows people to not only know your opinions, but it allows me in some ways, given the emails and the feedback that I get from friends, of what they think about this, and what they think about me. And I’m always struggling to find a way to articulate the anxiety of content creation. I think the interview, for me, that I found most powerful in all of this was a conversation between Steven Colbert on his CBS show – and Stephen Colbert is nothing short of a religious role model for me. He’s not Jewish, he’s Catholic, but I’ve just found so many of his interviews so enlightening and powerful. I know a lot of people disagree with his politics. That’s fine. I disagree with a lot of people’s politics. His religious commitment is something I’ve always found so inspiring and outstanding.

And he has this conversation with one of my favorite comedians, whose life pretty recently unraveled, named John Mulaney. If you don’t know him, he’s really wonderful. He’s pretty clean. You could actually listen to quite a few of his stuff. And they had this exchange about anxiety itself. And I first loved what he said is his vision of the afterlife.

John Mulaney:

And I said, “If there’s a hell, if there’s an afterlife, if there’s a hell, I think it’s an encyclopedia, and you can look up what everyone in your life thought about you. And if there’s a heaven, it’s a Wikipedia, and you can just change that.”

David Bashevkin:

And I always think about this when it comes to creating and sending out, whether it’s in writing or podcasts, or whatever it is, when you share something with an audience, you’re no longer in that world of Wikipedia where I get to imagine, edit, engineer my own self image and what I think or what I want people to think about me. You really start to learn what people think about me. Either because they don’t really care for this and they never listen, or because they send you an email and say, “Hey, you pronounced this word wrong.” Or, “That interview was sloppy or no good.” And I’ve gotten all sorts of that feedback, but I have needed to learn how to develop that equilibrium. I think everybody in this day and age needs to develop that core identity that, even in the face of feedback and criticism, that feedback can sometimes be positive or negative, but that core identity at your center that can confront other people’s feedbacks and not feel like that core part of who you are, is changing.

And I think, for me, that’s something I have matured in, I hope, but it’s something that I continue to struggle with. And it’s why I still have anxiety. I had anxiety for this very episode. Our audio engineer, Denah, round of applause for Denah. But Denah wanted this, I remember, I think she wanted the end of last week. I don’t even know if anybody’s going to ever listen to this. But I was anxious. I didn’t know exactly how to structure it, how to do it. And that anxiety of creating is something that stays with me. And I think a lot of people deal with, whether or not you have a podcast, it feels like everyone has one, but it has to do with sharing opinions. It has to do when you are emphatic about something, it has to do with the way we dialogue with one another on social media, and how we react when people disagree with us.

If you have a core that is intact, if you have the confidence of your convictions to say, “This is my opinion, this is who I am. And even if you don’t like it, it’s still me. And it’s still something that is enough and that I love.” That’s important. And that’s something that I think society at large is still grappling with. And as the interview went on between John Mulaney and Colbert, they really said something that I found quite haunting.

John Mulaney:

I wanted water. Is this yours?

Stephen Colbert:

No, that is absolutely yours. I have coffee over here, that’s water.

John Mulaney:

You’re drinking straight up coffee?

Stephen Colbert:

Black coffee, baby doll. Fresh hot cup every act.

John Mulaney:

Wow.

Stephen Colbert:

Yeah.

John Mulaney:

A whole cup of coffee every act?

Stephen Colbert:

Just a couple of sips, cleanses the palate, enlightens the mind.

John Mulaney:

Wow.

Stephen Colbert:

Yeah. Just water for you?

John Mulaney:

Just water for me and tremendous anxiety. Yeah.

Stephen Colbert:

Do you have a lot of anxiety?

John Mulaney:

I do have a lot of anxiety.

Stephen Colbert:

And that’s why you don’t want anyone to actually ever truly know you.

John Mulaney:

Oh, that’s a really good question. Is it okay if I take time? I know we’re on a network. Can I take time?

Stephen Colbert:

No, no. I’ve got a cup of coffee right here.

John Mulaney:

All right.

Stephen Colbert:

Just give me 15 seconds on the clock, Jimmy. While we wait for an answer, a reminder to our audience: John Mulaney has been asked the question, is your anxiety why you don’t want anyone to know you?

John Mulaney:

From an early age, I tried to be funny for the adults. My mom said, “When you were a baby, you used to poke your head out of blankets.” And she said, “It was like you knew how to be cute.” She didn’t say it flatteringly. She was like, “It was weird. You knew what you were doing.” I think I thought and feel still that I have to provide that in order for people to like me. The idea of, would they like me just as me without poking out of the blanket, metaphorically, is a real thought or concern.

David Bashevkin:

And I think at the heart of all of my anxiety is the need to be liked, the need to be impressive, the need to feel like people say you’re funny, or whatever it is. And when I heard him say this, that he likes the distance, he likes people not knowing him because he’s afraid if they really got to know him, they wouldn’t think he was funny, they wouldn’t think he was bright or all that other stuff. I don’t know, that hit me like a thousand daggers. And I think in creating this, especially when we first started, our audience was, eh, it wasn’t great. Obviously we really, really blew up, thank God, thank you to our listeners, from the series that we did on religious divergence.

But in those early months, we tried, we did our best, but it was a slow build. Slow, thank God it was only a year, but it was a slow build. And there was that sense of being vulnerable and putting out there a project that I was taking a full swing at and ultimately feeling like, “Oh, people don’t like this,” and confusing that with, “People don’t like me.” And I think creating that space in all aspects of our lives, at this point I’m not talking about 18Forty anymore, but learning how to be confident and vulnerable at the same time, to open yourself up to the public, to open yourself up to ideas, to open yourself up to curiosity, and have the vulnerability to do that and the confidence to do that, because vulnerability takes a great deal of confidence, because it is that fear of, “Maybe they won’t like me. Maybe they’re not going to appreciate this. Maybe it’s going to get spit back in my face. Maybe there’s going to be controversy,” whatever it is.

But the confidence to be vulnerable, the confidence to be curious, the confidence to not have all the answers, whatever that takes, and to see whatever people’s reaction will be to your own journey, to have that core sense of self and identity that allows yourself to weather those storms and really venture out and immerse yourself in these wonderful ideas. And these, I don’t mean 18Forty. I mean the ideas, whether it’s Yiddishkeit, religion, family, whatever it is, the confidence to be vulnerable is something that I’ve been learning more and more through the course of this journey. As we put out an episode, and my next door neighbor can weigh in on it, or somebody in shul, or whatever it is. You open yourself up to the public. And I’ve learned that vulnerability without confidence is just going to lead to anxiety. But vulnerability with confidence, I think in many ways, has led to a beautiful curiosity in my own life, and opening up yourself to that greater world.

Finally, the last thing on the list, if you’re not keeping score, we had a list of five. Controversy was number one. Number two was dissonance, bringing momentum. Number three was just how to conduct an interview. My great mentors in interviewing. Number four was coping with anxiety. And number five is about what we create together and figuring out the point. And this is really about what comes next in the world of 18Forty. But figuring out, at what point is it not one person in a room talking into a microphone, but the creation of a community? And learning how to take that point where you feel like, it’s not just me alone in a room, but we’ve created a community of sorts, who has a mutual interest in navigating this messiness together that is life, Yiddishkeit, the beautiful messiness that is our lives.

I always come back, and he’s not a good interviewer. He’s not. But he had one episode. I’ve probably referenced it before. And that’s Jerry Seinfeld’s show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. And I absolutely loved his interview with Lorne Michaels, I think it’s really worth listening to. And they had this beautiful discussion about, and Lorne Michaels, who, if you don’t know, is the producer of Saturday Night Live, SNL, is one of the massive influences in my life and how I think about content in general. And they have this wonderful exchange where they talk about the magic and the messiness and the imperfection of live comedy.

Jerry Seinfeld:

What do you think of movies, comedically?

Lorne Michaels:

I made a bunch of movies. I wrote Three Amigos with Steve and Randy Newman, which was in a year I wasn’t doing SNL, which I love doing. And the thing about movies is, it’s a chance to theoretically get it right. You have enough time. With SNL, you never leave the studio. You tend to thinking you got it. And then you go to a party and drink.

Jerry Seinfeld:

I think you have a better chance to get it right, comedically, on SNL than in a movie. Because you hear the laugh.

Lorne Michaels:

Yeah. You hear the laugh.

Jerry Seinfeld:

Is that the thing that you really couldn’t get away from? Because that’s what it was for me.

Lorne Michaels:

Well there’s a moment when it becomes an audience. It’s just a group of people that know each other, and if you can group them together, and they’re working together, it doesn’t get better.

David Bashevkin:

This show is not live. We thought about doing some live stuff, and we’re looking and we’re now experimenting in new formats and new ways to reach more people and connect to more people. But I think some of the messiness that he’s talking about, that distinction between movies and live television, is the room really becomes a community, as opposed to, when you watch a movie, it just stays out there on the screen. It doesn’t really integrate, become an audience in the same way of live comedy. And I think in some ways, when you have a live conversation rather than a lecture or a speech, which I try to avoid, and I certainly know the messiness of whatever the heck this episode is is far from a pre-scripted speech. But I think that it allows through that imperfection to actually get it even more right. Almost, it’s through that imperfection, that you see the honesty of ideas in a greater way.

And later on in that conversation, they talk about it. This is the nitty gritty. A lot of our listeners probably have already turned this off, which is fine, but I love the way that he talks about comedy in general. And he has this idea about how enchanting New York is.

Jerry Seinfeld:

Why are you in New York?

Lorne Michaels:

The thing about New York is that whoever you are, you’re not that important.

Jerry Seinfeld:

Yeah. So you had a line about alternative comedy. I don’t know what you’re doing down there below 14th street, but it doesn’t matter. And I know that’s half a joke.

Lorne Michaels:

It’s a stage. You go through it and you can’t hide behind art. When you’re playing the real game and you’re taking a full swing at the ball, there’s no denying that you missed. So I think that’s a bigger stakes game, and I think New York just forces you into that faster.

David Bashevkin:

And I love what he says about taking a full swing at it, and not an excuse for art. I think a lot of people start podcasts as a joke, which is cute, and shoutout, and more power to you, but I don’t like starting things as a joke, because then you’re not really giving it a thousand percent. Because then you’ll go, “I was just kidding around. It was just whatever, blah, blah, blah.” You have to take a full swing at it. And I think sometimes we protect ourselves by, whether it’s starting something as a joke, or hedging your own opinion, or what you share, because you don’t want to take the full swing at it. And you want to be able to rely on, “It’s just art. It’s just whatever. It’s cool. You have to understand.”

You need to take a full swing at it, which allows you to either strike out or hit a home run, if you want to really do something properly and share something of significance with the world. But it’s really hard to share and start something new, which later in that very episode, he actually talks about with this wonderful analogy.

Lorne Michaels:

There’s an old Shelley Berman joke about, his grandfather came to America, he was told that the streets were paved with gold. And when he got to America he found out three things. One, that the streets were not paved with gold; two, that the streets were not paved; and three, that he’s to be the guy paving it. And I think anything you start, you’re in that position.

David Bashevkin:

And I think I learned… I’m not paving the streets by myself. I have an incredible team that I want to mention right now. That’s our audio engineer Denah Emerson, Tsvi Benschar, Yehuda Fogel, who really deserves a massive round of applause and does our weekend reader, and someone whose thoughts and ideas about life… He’s in school now for a PsyD, one of the most profound thinkers that I’ve ever heard. And of course, the person who I really sat down and who’s been the visionary of so much of our marketing, my dear friend Duvi Stahler. And so many others, I’m afraid to mention names, but really Duvi, Denah, Yehuda, Tsvi Benschar, a few others.

Indulge me for 10 seconds, because I genuinely feel such gratitude. Maury Rosenfeld, who I believe is getting married the day this podcast drops, was probably the first person to call me up and say, “You’re really onto something here. How can I get involved?” Zachary Bier, an early person who just ventured out. Alex Harris, a student of our student board – which is an absolute mess, and the failure totally belongs on my head – called me up and said, “How could I get involved?” And so many others who reached out early. I never felt like I was paving alone, but I definitely didn’t realize how unpaved these streets were to start something new. They certainly were not paved in gold, the idea of sharing ideas in this way, in this format.

And I think we’ve started something really remarkable and people have taken notice. And I hope that we’re able to build upon that success. Which is hard, because we don’t have the format. We’re more topical driven, and we don’t have the format of the big time celebs, or whoever it is. To conclude this last part of what we’re creating together, we’re paving the streets together, so to speak. There’s that final exchange between Jerry Seinfeld and Lorne Michaels, where Lorne Michaels, that great producer of Saturday Night Live, tells him what people go to the zoo for. What do people love to see at the zoo?

Lorne Michaels:

The people who run studios, it’s a little bit like a zoo in the sense that when you go to the zoo, the first thing you want to see is the lion, because lion’s king of the jungle.

Jerry Seinfeld:

And who would that be? That would be Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks.

Lorne Michaels:

That would be the leading man, yes.

Jerry Seinfeld:

George Clooney. Those are the lions.

Lorne Michaels:

Yes. Then, the next thing we want to see is the bear, because the bear is the strongest and the fastest, and those are –

Jerry Seinfeld:

Who are the bears?

Lorne Michaels:

The bears are Arnold and action people. Yeah.

Jerry Seinfeld:

And then before you leave –

Lorne Michaels:

There’s the monkeys. There’s something about the joy, the sheer fooling around, because it is what comedians do. You can’t tell when they’re working. You can’t tell what they’re doing or how they’re working, and it’s disorganized and chaotic, and they’re doing it to make each other laugh, and they never seem to be settling down and getting work done.

Jerry Seinfeld:

No. They’re talking in the hall about sports, and somehow at the end of the week, there’s a show.

Lorne Michaels:

Exactly. So you can’t run that through a normal organizational –

Jerry Seinfeld:

Because they’re the monkeys.

Lorne Michaels:

Yeah, because they’re the monkeys, right.

David Bashevkin:

And I love this idea. Some people go to the zoo to see the lions. I don’t know, the lions in our community, probably the rabbinic leaders, the Rabbi Sackses, the Rav Hershel Schachters. Those great luminaries of thought. Sometimes you go to see the bears. The bears, I guess, we don’t really have action stars in the Jewish community, but I think maybe those are the singers, the people who have the big followings. I don’t know. I don’t want to mention any more names. But then ultimately there are the monkeys. There are the people who you may not have ever heard of, but you’re still able to extract a conversation from, because they’re mischievous, they’ve experienced something new and different in life that we can now share with the world.

And I think I pride myself, and I think what 18Forty largely is doing is, it has this mix. We don’t have a lot of bears, those celebs, but we try to pair lions with monkeys. And I’m really not saying that as an insult. I hope none of our guests are going to be like, “Was I a lion or a monkey?” Don’t worry. I assure you, you’re all lions. But what we try to do is pair that mischievousness of personal experience to the lions of scholarship and ideas and pair them together to be able to create a universe, a shared universe, where you both have that substance that the lions can provide, but also that mischievousness, curiosity that only a monkey navigating themselves through the ins and outs of the trees is able to embody and experience.

So, that’s my top five. And I hope that was illuminating. I hope you enjoyed this clip show. Anniversary shows are famous for having clip shows where you do highlights. We’ve done other highlights, and we’ll probably have highlight shows as well coming at you for the summer. And allow me to conclude with a word about the summer. I hope that we’re going to have a special episode for Tisha B’Av, and then we’re going to have a three-part series that is not topical, but all about summer, breezy reads and watches, great works of fiction, nonfiction, and documentaries. And I have lined up what I think are some awesome, awesome guests who are really towering figures who can discuss Jewish religious themes in fiction, nonfiction, and documentaries. If that doesn’t interest you, and you’re a new listener, please go back, check out our older episodes that you may have missed. Those first early topics, Talmud, comedy, OTD, Bible, Jewish peoplehood, and so on.

We had so many great guests, so many lions, monkeys, and all that other stuff together. And really, from the bottom of my heart, it is such a pleasure and privilege to be on this journey together. We have so many exciting developments for the 18Forty universe, community, family, whatever way you want to conceive of your affiliation with what we’re doing. We have so many exciting developments that we hope we’re going to be unrolling when we come back to our regular programming format at the end of the summer. And I’m so excited to share them with you. But in the meantime, let me conclude with just my absolute gratitude for being here with us, for listening, for taking out the time, for supporting what we do. It really means the absolute world to me.

So thank you so much for listening. And it wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of shnorring. So if you enjoyed this episode, or any of our episodes, please subscribe, rate, review. Tell your friends about it. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. If you’d like to learn more about 18Forty and the other great topics we’ve covered, and you haven’t done it by now, for God’s sake, please check out 18Forty.org. That’s the number 1-8 followed by the word “forty,” F-O-R-T-Y. Again, that’s 1-8-F-O-R-T-Y, 18Forty.org. You’ll also find videos, articles, recommended readings, essays, all the good stuff. Make sure to sign up for our email over the summer so you see some of the exciting pop-up episodes that we have planned for you, and this really exciting series and special Tisha B’av episode that we have planned. Make sure that you sign up for email. You can do that on the site. Thank you so much for listening, and stay curious, my friends.