This Podcast Proves That Jewish Gossip Can Be Good, Actually

In "The Girlfriends," a group of women come together to prove "The Good Jewish Doctor" they all dated is guilty of murder.

True crime, as a genre, doesn’t appeal to me. I have quite enough anxiety without any outside prompting, thank you very much. However, when I heard that iHeartPodcasts and Novel put out a Jewish true crime podcast this summer, I was intrigued.

Okay, technically that’s not how “The Girlfriends” was marketed. But the first episode is called “The Good Jewish Doctor,” so that’s a tip-off. And by the time we’re three episodes in, we get an appearance from Ouidad, founder of the eponymous curly hair salon and hair care product line and thus a patron saint to Jewish curly girls everywhere. (Apparently if you want me to listen to your podcast, just interview someone who might tell me how to optimize my curls and I’m all in.)

The podcast starts in 1990, when Dr. Bob Bierenbaum moves to Las Vegas and quickly attracts a lot of female attention. He’s multilingual! He flies planes! He bakes bagels! He saves lives! As Carole Fisher, the podcast’s host and one of Bob’s ex-girlfriends, puts it, “For us single Jewish ladies in Las Vegas in the 90s, he was the holy grail.” Or, as Mindy Shapiro — another one of Bob’s ex-girlfriends — says, “The word was out: another Jewish doctor had arrived!”

He proceeds to date a sizable percentage of Vegas’s single Jewish female population. And pretty much all of them independently come to the same conclusion: It seems extremely likely that Bob Bierenbaum killed his wife.

Before arriving in Vegas, Bob had lived on the Upper East Side of New York City and was married to Gail Katz, a graduate student who’d grown up in Brooklyn and Long Island. Then, in 1985, at the age of 29, Gail disappeared. She was never seen again.

The podcast isn’t a whodunnit. These women are smart, and they can tell that Bob has definitely done it. Instead, the big question of the series is: How do they prove it?

The answer turns out to be an approach that has worked for many women, including Jewish women, since time immemorial. These ex-girlfriends and their loved ones get together, and they gossip.

Many Jews know gossip as lashon hara, translated literally as “evil speech.” It’s a significant sin. You are not supposed to do it, even if the gossip you’re spreading is true. It’s a commandment my mother takes quite seriously. My whole life, whenever my mother is about to give me intel about a friend or colleague, she stops herself and says, “Nope. That’s lashon hara,” and she’ll go no further.

Lashon hara is essentially any speech that’s damaging to someone else’s reputation. Judaism (and my mother) teaches that it is always bad. But stories like “The Girlfriends” call that rule into question for me. Does the sin of lashon hara really outweigh the benefits of a whisper network in every instance?

Carole and Mindy, along with other women who had dated or worked with Bob, started gathering for drinks at a strip mall restaurant. Initially they were just shit-talking a guy who had treated them all poorly. But as they kept meeting, they began to develop credible theories for how Bob might have killed his wife.

Now, talking about how your ex-boyfriend seems like a murderer will definitely make others think less of him. And talking about it on a nine-episode podcast is going to make a lot of people think less of him. That’s lashon hara. But it feels to me like a more than reasonable consequence of his actions.

Much to my mother’s chagrin, I enjoy gossip. I like knowing things about people. One of my favorite podcasts is “Normal Gossip,” which has way lower stakes than any true crime show and makes its own case for the value of talking behind someone’s back — mostly that it’s entertaining and usually harmless. But “The Girlfriends” make the case that gossip can be important. It’s not a coincidence that the people who most strongly discourage lashon hara are often the ones in power. They’re the ones with the most to lose if their secretaries and nannies and abused girlfriends start talking.

We hear from a few men in “The Girlfriends.” One of them is a good friend of Bob’s who never even knew that his pal had been married. “I think it’s a guy thing,” the friend says. “I mean, most guys don’t start gabbing. Now, when they gab too much about their past, you know, I’m a little suspect. I’m not sure I want to be around them anyway.” We also hear from two male detectives who are working to take Bob down, and they are amazed by just how many details the women remember about their interactions with him. As a woman, though, I felt like, No duh. Of course they were paying attention. They had to.

If women gossip more than men, I don’t think it’s because of any biological predisposition. I think it’s because sometimes, gossip is the only weapon we have. Lashon hara unquestionably can harm some people — but it can also keep other people safe.

None of the women on “The Girlfriends” who met for drinks and amateur crime-solving had ever met Gail. But they saw themselves in her. Like Gail, they were professional young Jewish women, and like Gail, they were drawn to a man who looked good on paper. The only meaningful difference was that they got out alive.

There are all sorts of reasons to talk behind someone’s back, and plenty of them aren’t especially noble: because it’s fun, because you feel important knowing something secret, because you want to make yourself feel better by tearing someone else down. But I just can’t place all lashon hara in the same bucket. Sometimes there is a legitimate reason, even if the rabbis and my mom may not agree.

Leila Sales

Leila Sales (she/her) is the author of eight middle-grade and young adult novels, most recently THE MUSEUM OF LOST AND FOUND. She grew up in Boston, graduated from the University of Chicago, worked as a book editor in New York City, and now lives in Austin—but her favorite place to be is at summer camp.

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