‘Ruggedly Jewish’ follows NPR’s Bob Garfield’s musings regarding happiness
Bob Garfield, who co-hosts NPR’s “On the Media” with Brooke Gladstone, has a specific goal when he speaks at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts this Saturday. And that means he isn’t going to bring his award-winning podcast and radio show to Park City.
Garfield will give another presentation called “Ruggedly Jewish,” where he uses his own experiences and idiosyncrasies to address identity, happiness and society.
Much of the information he has gathered over the years for the appearance developed through his own identity-finding journey.
“There’s an old joke about being Jewish and being “Jew-ish,” and that pretty much sums it up for me,” Garfield laughed. “I grew up in a Jewish household. I got a Jewish education and 90 percent of the population of our neighborhood and schools were Jewish. And from the moment I left for college, I have been running as fast as I could to get away from that scene.
“So the show is partly, repeat partly, about me trying to reconcile my ambivalence of my culture with the fact that I am in every way as Jewish as you can get,” he said. “You spent five minutes with me and you will not mistake me for an Episcopalian.”
“Ruggedly Jewish” weaves together four different strands of the subject of identity. “One strand is the reckoning of my own life, background and future,” he said. “Another strand is something I observed during another part of my career that I think is peculiarly American – the pursuit of answers to the question ‘Who am I?’”
This strand interests Garfield because he says in other cultures, that question is predetermined.
“You have a station in life and you’re not expected to go beyond that, but in America, from its founding documents, you have been kind of mandated to seek a different, better and improved destiny,” he said. “Thomas Jefferson wrote it and novelist Horatio Alger wrote about it. And a whole bunch of our country’s pop culture is built around it. So I wanted to explore that.”
The idea of this strand emerged from the time Garfield worked on “All Things Considered,” NPR’s flagship news program.
“I tracked down ordinary Americans who decided they wanted to find themselves by improving their lives, usually by trying to get rich, and other ways,” Garfield explained. “When I originally did it, I was looking for fun features stories and the grim humor to watching people fail.”
Over time, Garfield said he began to see something more profound, especially when it came to the different definitions of happiness with each of his subjects.
“This had to do with the American impulse to find ourselves by improving ourselves,” he said. “And I think what they wanted to do was to make their mark on the world.”
Garfield did a story about a man who invested his last nickel in a freeze-drying business.
“What he freeze-dried were dead pets,” Garfield said.
Another story centered on a man who wanted to publish a magazine called ‘The Bathroom Journal.”
“He sank his fortune into the idea of a magazine that featured bathroom content in it that you would keep in the john,” Garfield said.
Garfield also spent time with a woman who thought her cat could talk.
“She couldn’t understand why cat food companies weren’t beating down her door and showing up with million-dollar checks,” he said.
Another strand in “Ruggedly Jewish” is identity politics and how he thinks divided the American culture.
“While [identity politics] is in a good name seeking justice and equity for every narrow slice of the electorate, it also creates conflict and grievance,” Garfield said. “It can get ugly and it has made our politics harder in a country that was based on pluralism.”
Identity politics, more broadly speaking multiculturalism, has blown up the motto “E Pluribus Unum,” Garfield said.
“It has given us the ‘E Pluribus,’ but it’s taken away our ‘Unum,’” he said. “And that leads us to the last strand, our current political moment, where one-third of the electorate has found its identity.”
This was done basically in resistance of the other fragments of the population who claim to have won the culture war, according to Garfield.
“That’s how, I think, we’ve got to Trumpism,” he said. “In a way, Trump, because he is so careless, has exposed himself to be put out of office in a variety of means. So this may just be a brief spasm in the history of the country. But even if he is deposed, we have learned that one-third of the electorate is very unhappy with the state of our society.”
And that is how Garfield came find his own identity.
“So I weave all of these strands together like you did when you made a lanyard out of vinyl strands [known as gimp or boondoggle] in Boy Scouts,” he said. “My show is boondoggle. I weave all of these disparate strands into one more-or-less useful thing.”
Garfield said it’s easy to see how America’s present-day issues manifested when people look back on the past 70 years.
“Of course hindsight is 20/20, but it’s easy to see how we got here, even though many people were blown away by the result of the [presidential] election,” he said. “Our time now is the result of the resentment we have been building since after World War II with the splintering and culture war.”
As a citizen and a journalist Garfield regrets seeing where the country is today.
“The major institutions of our democracy are under siege, but here we are, and we have to wait for this process to play out,” he said.
The Park City Institute will present NPR’s “On the Media” co-host Bob Garfield’s one-man show “Ruggedly Jewish” at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 17, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd. Tickets range from $29 to $79 and can be purchased by visiting http://www.ecclescenter.org.
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