Jewish History Unpacked

Whoever said history was boring clearly never heard these stories…Welcome to Jewish History Unpacked! Join hosts Yael and Schwab each week as they take a dive into some deep cuts of Jewish history. From the Jewish Da Vinci Code to mass suicide pacts, explore true stories that feel larger than life.

38 mins

We’ve talked this season about some big characters like Josephus, Napoleon, Shabbetai Zvi. This week, meet Babatha. She was a wholly unremarkable woman, except for the world she opened up for us through the documents found in her abandoned handbag…2,000 years ago. This week, Schwab and Yael explore gender and rights, Roman bureaucracy and the many legal systems in 2nd century Judea, and the value of a good handbag.

35 mins

Every community has its weirdos. And in 17th century Amsterdam, the Jewish community’s resident weirdo was Uriel D’Acosta: converso, refugee, passionate Jew, and… dangerous heretic?

Join Yael and Schwab as they explore D’Acosta’s controversial legacy — from his influence on Spinoza to his ostracism at the hands of the Dutch Jewish community. And decide for yourself: what lessons does the story of Uriel D’Acosta hold for us today?

33 mins

How did a nice Jewish boy wind up a Christian apostle? Meet Saul/Paul of Tarsus, the man responsible for, well, Christianity.

Like Jesus, Saul was a Jew. But unlike Jesus, Saul preached a completely modified version of Judaism. A version that eventually transformed into the Christianity we know today.

Yael and Schwab ask, why are we talking about Christianity on a Jewish history podcast? When did Christianity become a distinct religion from Judaism? And why should Jews care about early Christian history?

33 mins

In December of 1950, a construction worker happened upon a cache of old milk tins buried in the Warsaw Ghetto, the contents of which upended our understanding of the Holocaust.

The tins held the second of three caches of the Oneg Shabbos archives: a collection by ordinary people turned archivists who risked their lives to preserve the darkest moment of Jewish history. Among the photographs and diary entries, concert tickets and poems, lay the collected sermons of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, also known as the Piaseczno Rebbe. In this episode, Yael and Schwab ask, what can we learn from Rabbi Shapira’s works? And what debt do we owe to the brave Oneg Shabbos archivists?

32 mins

Ah, Chanukah. That festive time of year where we light candles, indulge in fried foods, and celebrate… a brutal civil war? Join Yael and Schwab as they complicate the story we all thought we knew. What did the Maccabees really fight for? How should we feel about their legacy? And who is Helen?

36 mins

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition… to have given rise to two of the most powerful Jewish women in history. You may not have heard of Dona Gracia Mendes or Benvenida Abrabanel. You may not have learned about the vastly different ways they attempted to use their power in order to stop the persecution of Jews in the papal states. And you may not have considered the way that Gracia and Benvenida’s rivalry still echoes today. Yael and Schwab weren’t, before this episode. But now, they’re here to unpack all of this and more. So get ready — just like the Inquisition, it’s going to be quite a show.

34 mins

Jews don’t seek converts. There are no Jewish missionaries, no street preachers, no televangelists.And yet, Jewish legend tells of an 8th century pagan king who converted his entire empire to Judaism. Schwab and Yael ask, why? Why would anyone choose to become Jewish in 8th century Europe — historically, not the friendliest place for Jews? Is this story fact, fiction, or something in between? If it’s true, where did all those Jews end up? And why are antisemites so obsessed with this obscure Jewish legend? The answers might surprise you.

34 mins

You’ve probably never met a character as colorful as Shabbetai Tzvi. The 16th century Jewish mystic and rabbi led thousands of Jews to leave their homes and possessions to follow him as their Messiah. With the encouragement of his hypeman, Nathan of Gaze, Shabbetai Tzvi was revered and loved, picking up followers left and right…until the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire threatens him with imprisonment unless he converts to Islam, which he does. This week, Yael and Schwab tell us the story of Shabbetai Tzvi and ask, what is the deeper meaning of this crazy story and character?

31 mins

When we think about the French Revolution, our mind jumps to Marie Antoinette, Les Miserable, “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman.” We don’t generally think “hey, are Jews even people?” But that was the question on Napoleon’s mind as he built the French Empire. In this week’s episode, Yael and Schwab break down all the factors in Napoleon’s decision-making process as he tried to figure out whether Jews could be French citizens. It’s a story about liberte, egalite, fraternite. About Napoleon’s revival of an ancient Jewish court for the first time in 1,300 years. And about what it means to be a Jew in a wider society.

39 mins

Josephus Flavius is maybe one of the wildest characters in Jewish history, and that’s saying something. That’s largely because unlike most historians, he didn’t just chronicle the story; as Yael tells Schwab in this week’s episode, Josephus, or Yosef ben Matityahu, wrote himself into the story – and what a story it is. This week, we learn about Josephus and the siege of Yodfat, and they ask, what does it mean for us to write yourself into the story of Jewish history?

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