Ask Jordana Horn and Shannon Sarna a simple question and the conversation veers into unexpectedly complicated anecdotes seasoned with deadpan humor. Try “How did you meet?” and you will hear about a challah-baking family playdate with near-catastrophic results (“No restraining orders had to be issued,” Horn said), children who don’t get along, adults who do, and, eventually, how a fast friendship was born.
The banter is real. When they get together, there are stories about children, sex, and food, plus giggling, guffawing, and some honest-to-God cackling. Their humor permeates the most serious topics and their rapport carries them through even the most awkward of conversations. And if you listen to “Call Your Mother,” their podcast about Jewish parenting, you already know that.
“We thought it would be about Jewish parenting, but it became something much better and more complex,” said Horn, 46, a life-long resident of Short Hills. Sarna lives in South Orange and, like Horn, is a member of Congregation Beth El in South Orange. “We talk to people who are Jewish or Jewish-adjacent about issues that affect parenting, yes, but really, we try to do a deep dive into stories and issues that touch us as humans.”
While sipping lattes and tea with NJJN at The Order in South Orange on a recent Thursday morning, Horn and Sarna, 37, described the evolution of their show, what they look for in guests, and how Jordana’s mother became a podcast celebrity.
No topic is off-limits. Our conversation about balancing work and parenting began with a discussion of the kashrut of breast milk. (“It’s pareve,” said Sarna, who is nursing her third child. “You can eat a steak with breast milk and it’s kosher.) Later Horn — a writer, former attorney, and a mother of six — asked, “Why are people who work from home seen as more accessible than people who work from an office, even though I may be just as busy?”
For their podcast, they also search out topics that are timely — and controversial.
“When abortion was in the news, we knew we had to bring that in,” said Sarna.
In that episode, listener Shannon Berkowsky, who had previously given birth to two healthy children, discussed having a second-trimester abortion when doctors informed her that the pregnancy was not viable. Afterward Horn and Sarna invited women to call in to tell their own abortion stories. “We want to find a point of connection with real people and to exercise our listener’s muscles of compassion and empathy,” Horn said. “The goal is obviously to entertain, but also to make people think more.”
So while the first episode was an Israeli-born chef and restaurateur Einat Admony talking about her parenting style, “Call Your Mother” has also brought in Rafi Daugherty, a transgender man who birthed and is raising a child, and Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick to discuss how her Jewish background impacts her writing on law, politics, and the Supreme Court. Their diverse guest list has also included comedian Judy Gold, speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz, author Etgar Keret, NPR’s Ophira Eisenberg, best-selling author Jennifer Weiner, and Orthodox sex therapist Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus. And they’ve hosted suburban moms who suffer from alcohol or opioid addiction.
The podcast, sponsored by Kveller, a Jewish parenting site run by 70 Faces Media, is nearing its first anniversary, having recorded 40 episodes and amassed nearly 3,000 followers since it began with Macho, Macho Mama on Jan. 28. And on Tuesday, Dec. 3, Horn and Sarna will record their first live podcast, at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston — where Horn celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah — instead of their usual location, Argot Studios in New York City, near the Kveller offices. They will be joined by Michal Uziyahu, director of community centers for JNF’s Eshkol Region in southern Israel, and a surprise guest.
Every episode opens with Horn or Sarna offering a snippet of a funny story about their children (for example, a “feral” daughter with no interest in taking a break from playtime to find a toilet, or a Chanukah gift of home-baked cookies for elementary school teachers gone hilariously wrong). These are not carefully curated portraits of stylized nurseries and idealized families. Rather, they reveal the chaos of life as it is. “We are real, we are honest, we are messy,” said Horn.
Horn’s work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Forward, and Tablet, and she is a contributing editor at Kveller. Sarna, a food writer and editor of The Nosher, also affiliated with 70 Faces Media, is the author of “Modern Jewish Baker” (Countryman Press, 2017).
For both, doing a podcast was a first. They had to learn about the “sound axis,” that is, how to keep their mouths positioned over the microphones and their heads still. “The editors yelled at us a lot at first,” Sarna said, and Horn acknowledged learning the hard way to avoid speaking conversationally. After listening to the first few episodes she asked an editor if there was some kind of “vacuum you can use to clean the ‘likes’ and ‘ums’ out.”
The format feels like an extension of their easy-going friendship. Horn has honed her interviewing skills during her years of, well, interviewing people, but Sarna has amassed plenty of her own experience. She acknowledges that “Food is my bread and butter — I mean challah and hummus,” but her work has always involved plenty of interviews behind the scenes, and she’s fortunate to be a born performer. Still, she admits to battling nerves, especially when they host celebrities and guests on the show whom she thinks will be “super cool and will hate me.” Sarna’s fears aside, their guest wish list includes actress Alex Borstein, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
Each episode closes with a call to Gram, Horn’s mother (aka Susan Horn of Short Hills), who answers whatever question the pair throws at her. In one episode, asked how she likes to make chicken soup for sick grandchildren, Gram advised them to skip the soup and go straight for the Zithromax.
In fact, Gram has developed quite a fan following. At a recent birthday party for one of Horn’s children, a guest’s mother was less interested in pleasantries than she was in the host’s mom. “Is Gram here?” the woman asked. “Can I meet her? I just love her podcast.”
Horn just smiles. The name of the show may be “Call Your Mother,” but it is decidedly not her mother’s podcast.
“Call Your Mother” can be heard on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and other podcasting platforms, or on kveller.com/call-your-mother.
If you go
Who: Jewish National Fund’s “The Power of Women” event
What: “Chic Shuk” boutique and live taping of “Call Your Mother” podcast
When: Tuesday, Dec. 3, 6:30 p.m. buffet dinner and shopping, followed by program at 8
Where: Temple Beth Shalom, Livingston
RSVP: jnf.org/cnjwfi; $360 suggested minimum gift to JNF’s