Bob Garfield has been a newspaper reporter, an ad critic, a roving national correspondent for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and, currently, the host of WNYC’s “On the Media.” Now he’s also a playwright and stage performer, taking his autobiographical one-man show, “Ruggedly Jewish,” to weekend performances around the country. He’ll be at the Majorie S. Deane Little Theater on New York’s Upper West Side for a pair of performances on Sunday, January 14, and in advance of his half-block-off-Broadway debut he spoke to Jesse Oxfeld about identity, performing, and the search for the American dream.
Jesse Oxfeld: You are doing a one-man show called “Ruggedly Jewish.” And as you make clear very early in it, you are neither rugged nor particularly Jewish.
Bob Garfield: The best way to put it is that I haven’t read the Torah in 49 years but I care deeply about lox and bagels. I’m both as irreligious and as Jewish as they come, I guess. But it turns out the title opens up all sorts of opportunities to discuss identity, and that’s what the whole play is about. By the time you sit through an hour and a half, it turns out that this silly title is not just silly after all.
You’re discussing your quest for identity. But you’ve had an identity for decades. You’ve been a columnist, a public radio personality. What was left for you to search for in your identity?
Well, even there — I was an advertising critic, I was a media critic, I was a humorist, I was roving features correspondent. What the hell was I even in my career? I guess I had an identity, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you what it was. In some ways, my media career is analogous to my Jewish identity. The answer is, I didn’t have an identity.
And I’ve spent most of my life running away from Jewish culture. Running away, but kind of unsuccessfully, because it’s in my every cell. It was a weird bifurcation of trying not to have my identity determined by my Judaism. And yet it comes out of every pore. There was that. That was a bit of a paradox. But in this particular historical moment, it dawned on me that you don’t necessarily get to determine your own identity.
Right. In fact, you even end up making an explicit analogy to early-Nazi-era assimilated German Jews, this can never happen to them. Do you think this is a comparable moment?
Yeah. I do. I mean, they’re not building camps. Nobody’s getting put on a train. But we’ve had some Kristallnacht-type moments. Those who have suppressed their political views and their hatreds for the last 25 or 50 years now feel liberated by Trumpism. I don’t want to make the mistake of thinking that everything’s going be fine. Everything isn’t fine.
So how do we react to that?
Me, I’m steering into the skid. It may be counterintuitive to turn the wheel in the direction where you’re losing control, but that’s what I’m doing. I think that’s the only way we can ever regain traction. That may be a bit of a tortured metaphor, but I don’t think this is any time to just shrug and hope it all goes away. No, I think it’s time to take those triple parentheses and wear them prominently.
Hence, “Ruggedly Jewish,” after a lifetime of running away from your Judaism.
I was in the process of of dicking around with the memoir and trying to turn it into a stage show. I was confronted with the obvious problem that if I didn’t have standing as a memoirist, why would I have a standing as a monologist, because what is it all about other than a collection of anecdotes. My wife said something about identity, and it was one of those eureka moments. It was sort of full formed in my mind, and if I might say, in my heart. I knew it had to be done, to talk about finding my identity.
You say in the play that you realized that there is something universally American about the search for identity. Why is that?
I think it has to do with individuality as it is ingrained in American culture. The pursuit of happiness and the American dream of limitless opportunity. In other cultures, there are limited opportunities to transcend your past. Here, that notion is inculcated in us practically from birth: Anybody can be president. And when you start telling someone that anybody can be president, if you don’t become president, well, wow, you screwed up. This is America. Why aren’t you president? Why aren’t you rich? Why isn’t there a building named after you? It raises the bar for life success. It was in the freakin’ Declaration of Independence. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
At base your quest is an echo of those oddballs you profiled in your radio career, which you talk about in the play.
I went around looking for man-bites-dogs stories, kind of clueless people tilting at windmills in ways that were funny and sometimes poignant, sometimes a little pathetic, and ultimately in the aggregate profound. The guy trying to sell pay-phone slip-on covers, so that you wouldn’t get disease — back when dirty payphones were a thing — or the country music-singing endodontist, or the worm ranchers. In their particulars, they were goofy and sometimes troubling, but once you looked at them, once you pulled back, you reveal a pattern and that’s the pattern that I’m talking about in the show. The stories, while on the face of them were kind of preposterous, were also kind of noble and poetic. The only difference between the guy who wanted to sell telephone condoms and Thomas Edison is that Thomas Edison was smarter and he had a better idea.