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EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Jew or Not Jew

Shalom Life speaks to the founders of the popular 'who's Jewish?' site on their latest venture: using Kickstarter to crowd-fund a new book called '50 States - 50 Jews'

By: Emily Brewes
Published: October 8th, 2013 in News » World
Jew or Not Jew

The Internet is rife with humour sites, with tones ranging from tongue-in-cheek to outright absurdism. Nestled comfortably in the middle is JewOrNotJew.com, where two crazy cats from Jersey profile and rate the 'Jewishness' of celebrities past and present. In light of the site's success, the pair have taken the concept to the next level, setting up a Kickstarter campaign to crowd-fund a book, 50 States - 50 Jews.

The book will contain profiles of every state in the union, rating their 'Jewishness' and highlighting areas of Jewish cultural interest, such as the first Jewish resident, or the best delicatessen.

Interested in plumbing the depths of this creative pair and their intriguing project, Shalom Life caught up with them so they might answer our most burning questions.


Shalom Life (SL): Let's start off with some easy ones. Who are you and what do you do? What gave you the idea for your website?

JewOrNotJew.com (JONJ): My name is Yakov and my co-writer/creator is Zev (those are the pseudonyms we write the site under, anyway). I work as a writer, professionally, and Zev is a programmer. We've been writing JewOrNotJew.com since 2006. The idea for the site came from a conversation about whether some celebrity (I cannot remember which) was Jewish or not. We realized it made a great topic for a website, and we developed the idea from there. Most of the ideas that we feel make our site unique (the Jew Score, the fact that we profile pretty much anyone and anything) came from those initial discussions of what we though the site could/should be. That was seven years ago, and we had hoped to write around 50 profiles. Now we have over 1700 profiles and more than 4000 visitors a day to our site. It's been a fun ride.

SL: It sounds fun! So, why did you choose to do a book?

JONJ: We love the site, we love the work we get to do for it, and we're constantly coming up with new ideas to take the content in new directions. The idea of a book appealed to us both and it seemed like a natural extension of the writing we already do. (we also have a Facebook page).

SL: Makes sense. How did you decide on the conceit of state-by-state profiles for your book?

JONJ: We actually went back and forth for around 2 years about what we could do. We talked for a long time about a book profiling Jewish athletes, for example. But in the end '50 States - 50 Jews' provided us the freedom to write about the widest range of people, tell the most interesting stories, and appeal to as many of our readers as possible. The process of figuring out who to profile for each state was also a TON of fun.

SL: Why shift from the content presented on your website?

JONJ: I don't think we see it as a shift, so much as an extension. Doing the book allows us to explore our writing in a different medium with new challenges and opportunities. But in the end, the humour and dedication we pride ourselves on doing for the website is the same as on the book. Just on a page instead of a screen. Unless you print out the site. But that would just be silly.


SL: You chose Kickstarter for your campaign. Did you consider crowd-funding sites positioned to target a Jewish audience, like Jewcer?

JONJ: Kickstarter appealed to us as a way of judging the market for the book without having to spend six months or a year writing something that no one wanted. It also allows us to afford some of the expenses that come with making '50 States - 50 Jews' its best including hiring our awesome graphic designer, bringing in an editor, etc.

As for Jewcer and the like, we felt it was important to put the book in front of as diverse an audience as possible. While we absolutely wouldn't exist without the support of the Jewish community, we actually also have a large contingent of (gasp!) goyishe fans and wanted to make sure no one felt excluded.

SL: What do you hope to achieve with this book? Are you aiming for widespread appeal?

JONJ: We both grew up in a small north Jersey town where being Jewish wasn't just a rarity, but was treated as a serious character flaw. In creating JewOrNotJew.com and now '50 States - 50 Jews' we want to encourage and celebrate cultural pride, while educating the greater masses about Jews and Judaism. Jews can be pirates, astronauts, superstar athletes, inventors, writers, politicians...anything. We want to make sure that today's version of our lonely selves never has to feel embarrassed or wrong for being who they are.


SL: That's certainly a noble goal. Where else can people find you and your work?

JONJ: You can hit up our Kickstarter for '50 States - 50 Jews' at 50Jews.com. We've got a lot of really cool exclusives up as part of the Kickstarter, but time is running out so hurry over before they're all gone! We also continue to post new profiles every weekday on JewOrNotJew.com. Coming up in the next few weeks we have profiles of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, science fiction superstar Jules Verne, and the oldest Nobel laureate ever, Leonid Hurwicz joining over 1700 profiles of celebrities, historical figures, sociopaths, and fictional characters.

Be sure to check out the JONJ Kickstarter campaign soon - they have only about 20 days to hit their funding goal of $6000.

Related articles: Jewish News, Jew or Not Jew, Kickstarter, Crowd-funding, Social Media, 50 States - 50 Jews
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