‘Badass Jews’: Spies, Strongmen and Athletes Come Alive in New Podcast
“Hebraic heroes who won gold medals, saved drowning children or threw Nazis through plate glass windows” take center stage in Andrew Davidsburg’s new “Badass Jews” podcast.
By Ebin Sandler, United with Israel
“I want people to realize that for generations we were really tough people,” says Andrew Davidsburg, the producer of a new podcast called “Badass Jews.”
Davidsburg, who works in digital media, volunteers in Jewish community security organizations, and leads Birthright trips to Israel in his free time, views his new show as an outgrowth of his mission to inspire young Jews to engage with their history and culture in new ways.
According to the podcast’s description, “Badass Jews digs into the untold stories of the athletes, soldiers, spies and all around tough guys who lived their lives in true Maccabian style.”
“Toughness is something that is well taught in Israel. American Jews look at the IDF and think, ‘Yeah, they’re tough, but we’re not like that,” Davidsburg recently told United with Israel. “But there are tons of examples within the diaspora from which Jews can find inspiration.”
“I started sharing stories of brave Jews with my Birthright trips. I began with people like Eli Cohen,” said Davidsburg, referring to the notorious Israeli spy who lived undercover in Syria in the early 1960s and became completely embedded in the upper echelons of Syrian political and military society. Cohen became the chief adviser to the Syrian Minister of Defense, but was eventually discovered and hung in Damascus after being tortured.
“I saw the way young people reacted to those stories, and to accounts of people like Esther Cailingold, a woman who fought in Israel’s War of Independence and was killed in the battle for the Old City of Jerusalem,” Davidsburg added.
“It’s great that we teach about rabbis, scholars, and scientists, but young people now relate more strongly to athletes and the like. So, Jewish education needs to adapt to that reality and incorporate more dynamic stories into the mix.”
‘Tikkun Olam with Two Fists’
To fill the void, Davidsburg created the podcast, which features individuals who approached the Jewish precept of “tikkun olam,” or repairing the world, with “two fists.”
“The legends of these Yids ranges from superhuman strength to unequaled bravery. Never starting the fight, but always finishing it,” explains the podcast’s description.
Indeed, “Badass Jews” has featured unique historical figures like Joseph Greenstein, known as “The Mighty Atom,” an Eastern European Jew who “could bite a nail in half, straighten a horseshoe with his bare hands and pull a Packard automobile with his hair.” As the podcast discusses, Greenstein’s path crossed with famed illusionist Harry Houdini, among many other fascinating figures.
“The Mighty Atom also hated Nazis and made sure they knew it,” explains the description of the episode, which chronicles Greenstein’s forays as a strongman and his penchant for taking on American anti-Semites, including members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi Brownshirt movement.
At one point in the episode, Greenstein’s mentor, Valenko, tells him, “It’s hard to be a Jew and it’s hard to be a man, but try. And never forget who you are.”
The show includes period-appropriate music and Davidsburg’s dramatic narration, an entertaining combination that makes the production feel more like a radio show from the 1930s than a modern host-with-a-microphone podcast.
Davidsburg joked that his time as a teenage bar mitzvah deejay prepared him for getting behind the microphone on his podcast, as did the time he spent as the assistant cruise director on a boat stationed off Hawaii, a position that regularly forced him to speak in front of large crowds of passengers.
Protecting the Jewish Community
While “Badass Jews” is an entertaining listen, Davidsburg sees it as an extension of his work with community organizations in New York like The Legion and the Community Security Service, which train Jews to physically protect their members, their institutions and the Jewish way of life. Both groups provide self-defense training and theoretical counter-terrorism instruction to prepare community members for the mounting threats posed by anti-Semitic forces on all ends of the political and ideological spectrum.
“Jews sometimes harbor a notion that we don’t have the ability to defend ourselves or fight back,” said Davidsburg. “Even worse, some Jews perceive fighting back as a provocation.”
Davidsburg sees the podcast as a chance to remind Jews that they have a history of standing up for themselves when necessary.
“I think about Emrich Lichtenfeld,” Davidsburg continued. “He created the Krav Maga self-defense system, which was popularized in Israel. But he created it in the diaspora, in Bratislava. That’s where he needed it to defend himself–in the diaspora.”
“Defending ourselves in America is as important as doing it in the IDF,” Davidsburg added.
Bravery and Character
Bravery is a theme that emerges repeatedly when Davidsburg discusses the podcast.
“My main criteria in picking subjects for the podcast is that they show bravery and a willingness to take risks. And most of all that they are interesting people.”
With that being said, Davidsburg said he refuses to focus on figures whose character is lacking. He illustrates the point with the tale of a famous Jewish gangster in the 1930s who found himself in the same jail as several American Nazis.
“When he found out there were Brownshirts in the cell next to him, he paid off the guard to be placed in their cell so he could beat them up.”
“So that’s brave, but I don’t want to highlight someone who also robbed, lied, cheated, stole and was generally a terrible person. I avoid subjects with questionable morals. I really only highlight people who could be role models.”
“And I also avoid politics at all costs. My goal is that someone on any end of the political spectrum could listen to the podcast and find something to connect with.”
“I would also never highlight someone who wasn’t pro-Israel,” Davidsburg added.
“On the Birthright trips I lead, I ask the participants, ‘Are you proud to be Jewish?’”
“Very few people have said they’re embarrassed, but a much larger percentage say they don’t care either way than say they are proud.”
“I want people to know: it’s okay to say we’re proud to be Jewish,” Davidsburg concluded.
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