A funny thing happens when Jewish reporters interview Ira Glass. They often “bagel” him.
For Glass, host of NPR’s “This American Life,” being peppered with questions about his Jewish upbringing, Hebrew school attendance and visits to Israel is familiar. In fact, he told the Chronicle (when this reporter fell into the same trap of identifying references to Judaism on Glass’ award-winning program) that despite being an atheist, he doesn’t mind the Jewish focus at all.
“I did a show in Queens last weekend, and any mention I made of Queens got an insane response,” he said. “It’s like that, like playing to a local crowd. I’m good with it.”
Since 1995, Glass’ recognizably nasal cadences have delighted millions of listeners. Each week, he and his colleagues at “This American Life” tell uplifting, enthralling and somber stories about everyday people. The tales, which comprise an hour-long program, are heard on 500 stations nationwide. But well before “This American Life” became one of the nation’s most downloaded podcasts, or won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for audio reporting, Glass, 64, was just a kid from Baltimore growing up in a Conservative Jewish household.
“My parents, neither of them went to Hebrew school or were raised in very religious homes,” he said. “They moved to the suburbs, and they just thought this would be a thing to do for our kids and gave us the Jewish education that they never had.”
Attending Hebrew school led to taking on Jewish rituals at home.
“Each of my sisters and I went through a phase in going to Hebrew school where we felt like, ‘Oh, this makes a lot of sense.’ We would come home and be like, ‘Why aren't we lighting candles on Friday night?’ And each of us kind of enforced that for like a period, a year or two, and then we would drop it, and then the next kid would age into it and do that for a year or two and then drop it.”
Glass was a regular synagogue-goer through his teenage years. He said he’s basically stopped attending services but whenever he is in shul something strange occurs: “I still know all the words to all the prayers.”
He’s not a fan of some of the changes, though.
“I find it really annoying that Jews feel obliged to change the tunes for ‘Adon Olam’ and ‘Ein Keloheinu,’ and all the other songs that I knew as a child,” he said with a laugh. “It’s like going to the concert of a band, and I know all their songs, but they refuse to play them with the original melody.”
Glass called synagogue attendance “deeply nostalgic and utterly frustrating,” but said there’s a principal reason he doesn’t go: He doesn’t believe in God.
“I don't think that synagogue is there for people to feel nostalgic,” he said. “It's for people to worship God and have community, so shul is not a place for me at all. I know enough about Judaism to know many Jews would contest that and say it doesn't matter whether you believe in God — all that matters is that you follow the commandments and kind of be part of the community — but the not believing in God part kind of takes the wind out of the sails for me.”
Jewish scholars and historians have long analyzed, debated and defined the distance between faith and identity. Glass offered his own take.
“I identify as a Jew in the same way as I identify with somebody who's from Baltimore — like I have no choice,” he said. “It’s like what the writer Richard Rodriguez said: ‘Your cultural identity isn't a suitcase you can lose at the airport.’ Like, I simply am a Jew. So I guess I identify as a Jew, but — I don't know — I don't think it's the most important thing about me or close to it.”
Glass described what he finds important, but only after answering questions about visiting Israel, about his knowledge of Hebrew and about the horrifyingly singular time his grandmother met Adolf Hitler.
“My own life isn’t particularly that interesting,” Glass said. “I don’t have a lot of notable fascinating things happening to me. Things are pretty stable. I’m a person with a pretty secure job that I’ve been doing for years and years and years.”
But that’s part of the important thing Glass wants people to know.
For nearly 30 years, he and his colleagues have created more than 700 episodes of “This American Life.” Since its inception, the program has grown richer thanks to the diversity and expertise of a staff who “push things in weird, different directions that I wouldn’t think of,” he said.
Glass, a self-described “frontman,” will describe the collaborative process and share fun stories about “This American Life” during his March 25 talk at the Byham Theater. Titled “An Evening with Ira Glass: Seven Things I've Learned,” the program is intended to entertain attendees who’ve never heard an episode and those who relish his pregnant pauses.
He said he’d love for people to come to the show before humorously noting that it will be “nothing” like the conversation he just had with the Chronicle.
Glass added that if readers are looking for a takeaway, it’s similar to when the Beatles arrived in the United States and were asked if they had a message to share: “One of them said, ‘Yes. Buy more Beatles’ albums.’” PJC
“An Evening with Ira Glass: Seven Things I've Learned,” is part of the 2023 Pittsburgh Humanities Festival. Tickets available at TrustArts.org/Humanities
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.