Jonathan Goldstein is a radio producer and author. A frequent contributor to This American Life, Goldstein also hosts WireTap, a show on Canada’s CBC Radio One. His forthcoming book, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible!, takes a tongue-in-cheek look at familiar biblical stories. RELEVANT talked to Jonathan about his foray into the Bible, his Jewish faith and how the Bible stories from his childhood have mingled with pop culture to create stories we can all relate to.
What drew you to write Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible!?
A big motivation was being asked that very question and then getting to see an exclamation mark followed by a question mark. How often do you get to see such a thing, outside of superhero comics and notes passed in junior high?
But seriously, it mostly comes out of childhood—my fascination with the Bible stories as learned from Bible Hero Action Comics, made for TV movies, Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Holy Moses. All of these things as much as Bar Mitzvah lessons, Free Hebrew classes and evening classes with my rabbi. They all sort of combined into this one universe of the spiritual and the slapstick, the divine and the vaudevillian. It felt partly like a chance to reconnect with old friends and partly like playing with the Bible action figures of youth. I guess what I’m saying is that it was part a chance to play and part a chance to wrestle with my own biblical beliefs. I remember learning as a kid that a Jew relates to God by wrestling with Him. We’re a wrestly people.
Were you familiar with the stories growing up?
I was, but again, not in their purest incarnation. My “mishna,” my extrapolation, exegesis, etc. took pop-cultural forms like movies and TV shows. I probably first learned about Jonah and the Whale—or really actively thought about the whole predicament—while watching an episode of The Flintstones where Fred and Barney get swallowed. Maybe that was Hanna and Barbera’s version of wrestling with their own understanding of the Bible.
And then, like the son in the book’s preface, I was “taught” a lot of these stories by my dad, who would sort of fill in the details as he went along. Funny enough, though, while writing the book I found myself doing a lot of biblical reading—feeling like that’s what a writer should do. But in the end I ended up mainly focusing on the stories I remembered from my childhood, the ones I had read in my Children’s Bible and such. It was like memory had acted as the perfect curator. Because they still resonated for me all these years later, I felt like they’d be the best ones for me to explore and write about.
Was spirituality a part of your upbringing?
I’d say it was. But in an unconventional way. Again, like the family in the book’s preface, we were “kosher-style” as opposed to “kosher.” Kosher-style was like the apartment across the hall from Kosher. We were traditional, had the Jerusalem napkin holders and the commemorative plates of the Wailing Wall.
But my dad did have a philosophical bent and we did talk about spiritual matters all the time, not always framed in the most philosophical terms, though. It was more like, “What do you think Heaven’s like?” That kind of thing.
There came a time in my adolescence where I became more religious and seriously considered going to rabbinical college rather than regular college, and that was a little distressing to my parents. I guess like most parents, they want their kids to be like them.
The personality you’ve brought to the characters definitely makes them more identifiable. Which character did you most identify with?
Again, as a kid I guess I identified with David on a couple counts. One detail I remember learning was how, as a kid, he avoided fights by pretending he was insane. Back in those days this did not involve $400 track pants but merely a willingness to drool. The image of David walking past his enemies and drooling while they laughed and pointed made an impression on me. It seemed smart. Smart and cowardly. I liked that.
We ate at a restaurant that had a big mural on the wall of David slaying Goliath. As I pounded back fist-sized matzo balls, I looked at the scene and daydreamed. What would it be like to be up against a giant? Just thinking about it again is making me hungry.
Though I didn’t get into this in the book, I was also very admiring of David’s friend Jonathan in how he gave up his right to the throne so the better man could rule. I guess I was always attracted to decency over outright heroism.
Which biblical character and/or story did you find the most difficult to come to terms with?
Samson and Delilah. How anyone could fall for the same trick over and over never made sense to me. As I wrote it and thought it through it became more and more a story about that feeling of being in love and being so willing to self-delude and self-destroy. Because what’s the alternative? Admitting that the one you love can’t be trusted and is out to get you is just too annihilating a thought to allow into your heart.
That was a story that was hard to find a real moral center in, a take-away lesson. I guess that’s as close as I came to getting to it.
What was the most surprising thing that you gleaned from writing the book?
How easy it was to project myself and amalgams of people I knew into those ancient, far-away scenarios. And perhaps also how little my inclinations and interests have changed since childhood.
How has the project changed the way you view the Bible?
That’s a really hard one. I guess it’s made me feel how much the Bible is about the interpretation of the Bible. How it really comes alive once you engage with it. I was surprised to see how so many stories like, say, the Tower of Babel for instance—stories that loom so large—were only like a sentence or two. They were compressed into these perfect little conceptual hard diamonds that survived the centuries and interpretations of generations. Retelling them was like pulling a huge deflated pool toy out of a shoe box and watching it magically fill itself with air. That’s a dumb analogy, but I’ll let it stand.
What lessons do you hope people take way from the book?
More than anything I want people to laugh. That’s the borsht belt hack in me. I don’t think that’s so bad. I’ve known a lot of very funny rabbis. After that, I hope that maybe they can see themselves in it a little.
What do you think Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! has to say to those who don’t view the Bible as a sacred text?
That maybe it’s an approachable text? That it’s human, and that this is one person’s way of grappling with it and they can find their way to interact with it. Maybe not by writing a book, but by talking about it with friends, going to church or anything. I don’t even mean it in a religious way. I just think that for a lot of us these stories have lodged themselves deeply into our brains, whether we’re religious or not. I wasn’t raised religious, but these are still the first stories I remember hearing. Before the ones on TV, even. So what I mean is, they’re fundamental to who we are—warts and all—and figuring them out or figuring out what they mean to us allows us to figure out who we ourselves are.
What about to those who are already quite familiar with the stories?
Again, I hope it offers some laughs. I also hope some of these laughs are laughs of recognition where you say, “Yeah, I also wondered what a person does in a whale all day? What drove a whole lot of people to give up their weekends to build a Babel? And why was Samson such a shmenrick?”