The Book of Life in the News: Shalom Today

Cover Story: Wired for Words: Shul librarian creates Jewish book podcast
Shalom Today, a marketing publication of the Sun-Sentinel, June 1, 2006

The Book of Life Podcast Brings Jewish literature, culture to youngsters

by Michael W. Sasser, special to Shalom Today

Congregation B'nai Israel librarian Heidi Estrin was exploring means to expand the library's audio-visual components, and ways to market the offerings, when she began to consider a technology that was in its fledgling days.

"I knew about podcasts, and it occurred to me that might be a terrific way to reach people with audio content," Estrin said. "The initial idea was to promote new library products, but it grew. Still, it grew out of the library itself."

Thus was launched "The Book of Life," a show about "Jewish people and the books we read." The podcast first appeared in late 2005, and there have been new monthly editions available since.

A podcast is an Internet-based audio program that interested parties can either download to listen to on a home computer or any MP3 player; or patrons can subscribe and have new episodes automatically downloaded.

"It's a radio show, but one that is Internet-based," Estrin said. "Anyone can have a show if they know how, and have the equipment. There are a lot of podcasts out there, because there are opportunities for niche interests. A radio station might not want a show on Jewish books, but on the Internet, people who are interested can find it. The technology is only about a year old, so it's getting more popular."

Estrin said she had much experience to bring to the table, both as a librarian and on the Boca Raton shul's book committee. [Correction: on the Association of Jewish Libraries' Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.]

"I got to know a lot of people in publishing and authors, and I knew there were a lot of people on could interview," she said. "The show has become about music, but still mostly focused on books, with authors and publishers appearing on it. It's like National Public Radio, but it's aboutJewish material for kids."

Estrin said librarians are on the front lines of public information. She recalls that 10 years ago, libraries were on the fron line of utilizing Web pages.

"This is the next line in technology," Estrin said.

Estrin said there was a minimal amount of new machinery that she needed in order to begin recording, editing, and making "The Book of Life" available to audiences.

"Everything else I needed was less that $200," she said. "One could spend a ot more on higher tech, but I did not really need to."

Armed with an idea, a small investment in a digital voice recorder for interviews and software and the support of the shul, Estrin launched "The Book of Life" in time for Hanukkah last year.

That first episode celebrated the holiday with authors Eric Kimmel ("Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins") and Rebecca Tova Ben-Zvi ("Four Sides, Eight Nights: A New Spin on Hanukkah"), as well as a musical CD review and rabbinic thoughts on the importance of reading in the Jewish tradition.

Subsequent editions have contained similar format material and other timely material around holidays. A summer edition expected to be available soon focuses on travel, for example.

"It's a magazine format, witha new episode each month, revolving around a different theme," Estrin said. "We talk to different authors, discuss different books and music. There are several segments in each show, and each show is about 20 minutes long."

Estrin said the podcast has been received well.

"People here at the congregation have been supportive, and people all over the place have found it," Estrin said. "Other librarians know about it, as well. I have seen where people have downloaded it... and they are all over the United States and Canada, as well as Israel and overseas."

In addition to finding the Web site, Estrin said listeners are also finding the program through links from authors' Web sites.

"It's interesting to see how other people got to it," Estrin said.

>Fort Lauderdale's Susan Milton was introduced to "The Book of Life" by a friend who heard about it, and subsequently downloaded it to share with friends. Now Milton is awaiting a new edition.

"I think it's terrific, because there isn't anything else like it on telebision or on radio," Milton said. "I have two children, and we are all readers, but it's sometimes hard to find age-appropriate material for the kids that has strong Jewish content. I know there are books out there, but getting to them is sometimes difficult."

Milton said "The Book of Life" helps her identify reading material for her children, but that the program itself is valuable to youngsters too.

"Anything one can do to inspire, in children, an appreciation and enthusiasm for reading is a mitzvah," Milton said. "If adults are excited about children's Jewish literature, then children will be too. That, as much as the material in the program, is a real positive for our family."

Lauren Wohl, a publicist with Roaring Brook Press, which has published several Jewish-themed books in the past year, said that marketing children's books is different than marketing adult books, and the programs like "The Book of Life" can help.

"Children, up to a certain point, are protected by well-meaning, caring adults, like parents, teachers, librarians, and even booksellers," Wohl said. "They arm the gates. It's important to reach these people, the caregivers, with information; whereas with adults, you can reach them directly."

A podcast like "The Book of Life" helps because it reaches members of library associations, who make decisions about where books appear, as well as conceivably reaching parents, teachers, rabbis and others.

"There are not a lot of publications or programs that review children's literature," Wohl said.

Already aired eiditons of "The Book of Life" are available on the Web site, where interested parties can also subscribe.

To access "The Book of Life," visit or call 561-241-8118 ext. 206 for more information.