The last time Bob Garfield performed on stage was in the eighth grade. The show was the classic The Lottery, although the winning ticket was no prize since whoever got it in the small Midwestern town was stoned to death to appease the gods for a good corn harvest.
He hopes no one gets the same idea after seeing him performing his one-man show, Ruggedly Jewish, Sept. 15 and 16 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre to open Philadelphia Theatre Company’s 2017-18 season.
Garfield grew up in Lower Merion, but he hasn’t lived in the area since 1982. He finds it appropriate the show should debut here before going on a national tour that includes Chicago, Seattle and Minneapolis.
“It’s kind of an accident it wound up here first,” said Garfield, co-host of On the Media, WNYC’s nationally-syndicated and Peabody Award-winning podcast carried by more than 450 stations. “But it’s fitting because most of what happens took place in Philadelphia.
“I take three disparate ideas: my cultural identity, my need for self-improvement and the current political climate and have woven them together. It’s like taking three pieces of gimp and making a shoddy lanyard like we used to do at summer camp. That’s Ruggedly Jewish. It’s funny at times, scary at times and also hopeful.”
Garfield, who’s written five books, has had a diversified 40-year career encompassing everything from newspapers like USA Today and The New York Times, to magazines like Playboy and Sports Illustrated, to TV networks ABC, CBS and CNBC.
Yet putting it all together into a one-man show was something new, especially since he didn’t know if anyone would pay attention.
“I spent years dealing with unusual Americans and had a lot of unbelievable things happen,” Garfield said. “I started to write a memoir and, halfway through, I realized, ‘Who cares?’ I’m not really famous and didn’t find redemption from some horrendous fate.
“So this is not just a string of anecdotes. It’s about my fragile identity as a Jew and about the pursuit of happiness of the American dream in the current political moment. We’re at the point where right-wingers have found their identity in their rage and where Jews are taking on the same role as they have for 5,000 years.”
For Garfield, that identity started as a child when he attended Main Line Reform Temple, where he became a Bar Mitzvah. He admitted that while he may have subsequently strayed from some of his Hebrew school teachings, it doesn’t make him any less Jewish than someone who’s strictly observant.
“With Trump and the alt-right and Charlottesville, it made me realize I don’t get to decide who I am,” Garfield said. “Others have done that for me. Like it or not, I’m Jewish, so I might as well embrace it.”
Entering its 43rd season, Philadelphia Theatre Company is attempting to embrace its Jewish following, with Wrestling Jerusalem, the story of one man’s inner struggle to understand the conflict there by visiting both sides, coming next month and others on the periphery.
“We have a lot of Jewish programming we’re eliciting for this year and the following year,” Producing Artistic Director Paige Price said. “In fact, Bob came to me through my husband [Nevin Steinberg] who went to school with the director [Ted Lambert]. He put us together and then I read the script. … I’ve listened to his podcast for years and to find he’s willing to share his personal story on the stage is brave.”
While it may be his story and he’s the one on stage, Garfield emphasized that the story is universal.
“I remind them constantly it’s nominally about me and my experiences,” Garfield said. “Ultimately, it’s about all of us and how we figure out who we are.
“It’s sort of a way to reckon with why you’re here and why it matters. There will be a lot of laughs and a lot of gripping, heart-stopping moments. It’s an odyssey of identity that all winds together. But I’m a journalist, not a performer.”
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