'We Believe Deeply In Lox And Bagels': What It Means To Be A Secular Jew In his new one-man show, On the Media host Bob Garfield grapples with questions of identity and belonging. "I've been running from the religious part of my religion for my entire adult life," he says.
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'We Believe Deeply In Lox And Bagels': What It Means To Be A Secular Jew

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'We Believe Deeply In Lox And Bagels': What It Means To Be A Secular Jew

'We Believe Deeply In Lox And Bagels': What It Means To Be A Secular Jew

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Jewish High Holy Days are upon us beginning with the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, which ended last night. For many people, this is a time of celebration and spiritual renewal. But for some, it might be a challenging time, especially for people who might have a more ambivalent relationship with their faith - people who might identify as culturally Jewish rather than religious.

Bob Garfield is such a person. You might know him from his long career as an NPR features correspondent and as co-host of WNYC's On The Media. But now he has written and stars in a new one-man show called "Ruggedly Jewish." It wrestles with some of those thorny questions about identity and belonging.

Bob Garfield takes the show on the road later this year, but we caught up with him just before his initial performance in Philadelphia last weekend. And I started our conversation by asking what made him want to rethink his Jewish identity at this moment in life.

BOB GARFIELD, BYLINE: Well, I've been running from the religious part of my religion for my entire adult life. And, you know, without sort of stepping on the joke of where "Ruggedly Jewish" inexorably leads at the end of the show, the answer is the current political moment. And, oh, what the hell, I may as well just give it all away here. I'm just giving it up.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Just giving it up.

GARFIELD: I finally stopped struggling when I realized that it's not necessarily just up to me to decide who I am. Other people have some thoughts on that subject, and a mess of them are Nazis. So I realized that I am not the sole arbiter of my identity and that just kind of got me to thinking.

MARTIN: When did you make the decision that you would give yourself permission, say, to step away from being Jewish?

GARFIELD: When I was an obnoxious teenager. You know, there's this whole large category of secular Jews. And they're often, you know, called in the pejorative, self-loathing Jews. There's this bizarre, sometimes hostile ambivalence about the religion and the culture from which we spring.

You know, it's a big part of the American-Jewish community. We are - the best way I can put it to you is this, Michel, we don't read much Torah, but we've read every word Philip Roth ever wrote. And we don't necessarily even believe in God, but we believe deeply in lox and bagels. So we, on the one hand, are not really participants in the spiritual part of our religion, but we are as Jewish as can be.

MARTIN: You talked about the fact, in the play, which I got to read a little bit of, that you realized that in a lot of your reporting as a correspondent for NPR that you'd spent a lot of time talking with other people who have been in search of identity, who've been thinking about, you know, who they are.

GARFIELD: Sure. You know, I went on the road for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED for 12 or 15 years before I did On The Media. And I was on the hunt for oddball feature stories, American idiosyncrasies. But what tied them all together was that the people who I was pursuing were themselves pursuing identity.

They were in pursuit of the American dream, sometimes with kind of belly-flopping results. And that's - I was mining the humor of failure for the most part, but I also found in that something noble. And it's something peculiarly American. And I kind of began to rethink the freak show aspect of my body of work and look at it more along the lines of people pursuing their birthright.

MARTIN: It sounds to me that you kind of feel like you speak for a lot of people trying to figure out, you know, who they are and where they fit in to this big kind of American story. How does that loop back to your kind of meditation about what it means to be Jewish?

GARFIELD: Because it's all about identity. And this is what dawned on me as I'm trying to process what's happening with Trumpism. I spent 15 years chasing around people who ultimately were in search of their identities, self-actualization. And you don't do that by sticking with the status quo. It was all about escalating your station in life.

And now contemporary politics are about the identity of people like me, Jews, and not to mention Latinos and Muslims and African-Americans. I mean, we are in the crucible right now. And at the same time, the people who are bedeviling us, what Hillary Clinton called the deplorables, have found their identity. And had - they found it in their very rage, in their very frustration.

So these are various threads of identity that, in the show, "Ruggedly Jewish," I kind of weave together like a Boy Scout lanyard, hopefully, to have, you know, achieve some useful result.

MARTIN: Why ruggedly?

GARFIELD: It's a joke.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Oh, OK (laughter).

GARFIELD: We haven't actually met. But there is nobody who has ever met me and walked away going, wow, he is a rugged Jew. No. It's - that's just silly.

MARTIN: OK (laughter). Well, that's Bob Garfield. He's co-host of WNYC's On The Media. He is the author of and the star of "Ruggedly Jewish." It's a one-man show. It is going on tour to various cities around the country later this year. He was kind enough to speak to us before Shabat at WHYY in Philadelphia. Bob Garfield, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GARFIELD: Thank you very much, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BRUBECK QUARTET'S "KATHY'S WALTZ")

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