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Radio host Jonathan Goldstein wrestles with the mysteries of being

Thursday 17th, March 2016 / 02:02
By Maya-Roisin Slater
Jonathan Goldstein in the studio at CBC Montreal. Photo: Tyrel Featherstone

Jonathan Goldstein in the studio at CBC Montreal.
Photo: Tyrel Featherstone

VANCOUVER — Calling from his agent’s brother’s small penthouse apartment in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Jonathan Goldstein is about as Hollywood as it gets for a Canadian radio host.

Goldstein started his career reading essays on air, moving on to produce for National Public Radio’s wildly popular show This American Life, eventually leading him to host his own program for the CBC, a little thing called Wiretap.

“I used to do magic as a kid, which I think in a lot of ways is sort of like telling jokes. You know, there’s a punchline at the end, the surprise of some sort of magical affect. But I wasn’t a very good magician, my hands would get sweaty, I would drop all the coins or the balls. That is to say I think I come at it maybe not as a native storyteller, but as someone who needs to structure his thoughts on paper. I guess I came to it as a writer, as someone who was trying to figure out how to tell good stories that wasn’t very good at it in real time,” says Goldstein of his abilities as a storyteller. Though he doesn’t classify himself as one, with three books and hundreds of hours of anecdotes on tape, a storyteller is what he is.

In his book, I’ll Seize the Day Tomorrow, Goldstein discusses the existential anxieties he experienced in the 52 weeks leading up to his 40th birthday. He asks himself: “With so little to show for it, is it possible to even call myself a grownup?” Both in person, on page, and on the radio, Goldstein is an eloquent and extremely detailed storyteller, but the defining quality of his work, which sets him apart from the other witty NPR-types, is that all his stories are drenched with some sort of existential dread. The thesis of each harrowing tale seems to be a statement on the cosmic joke.

Jonathan Goldstein

Jonathan Goldstein

“I was recently having this conversation with my wife about this feeling of continuity with the person you were as a child, and the person you were at all the different stages of your life. I feel pretty much always the same. Whereas it seems she, and a lot of other people the more I talk about it, don’t really feel that sort of kinship with who they were. And maybe because of that kinship I have a harder time getting over things, because I’m not able to feel the same objectivity and say ‘oh well that was just me as a kid,’” he says. It’s this connection with the injustices of infancy that gives Goldstein his special power, the ability to speak from the voice of childhood, when he was just a sweaty-palmed amateur magician and a comedian afraid of punchlines. In speaking from this voice he strikes the chord of that nervous kid still hidden deep in all of us.

With a healthy balance of childlike wonder and cynicism, in July of 2004 Goldstein broadcasted his first episode of Wiretap. Wiretap was a surreal radio show that ran for 11 years on the CBC. Some episodes were fictional, others non-fictional, but all played with the concept of reality and introspection. Without the extensive resources that were at his fingertips while he was acting as a producer for This American Life, in the beginning Goldstein had to rely on his imagination to fill in the gaps. “There wasn’t really anything like that at the time on the CBC. Radio was considered a very newsy medium and everyone took what they heard at face value. Initially people would believe things they heard on the show, and then as time wore on that began to change. There was a kind of formlessness to it that, over time, became a format. I wanted to speak with people I found interesting. I also wanted to be able to write fantastical stories that had an element of magical realism and flights of fancy. I also had people in my life I wanted to share with the audience, like my parents and friends, so it encompassed that element too,” he explains.

Wiretap saw its end last year, marking the beginning of a new era for Goldstein, who is now in the process of challenging himself with a new show. This new show, which will be put out by New York-based podcasting company Gimlet Media, will encompass many of the same sensibilities as Wiretap, but in the real world and with more reporting. In doing so, Goldstein hopes to unapologetically make a deeper dive into longform storytelling.

Jonathan Goldstein

Jonathan Goldstein

In the downtime before he unleashes the program on us, he’s travelling around to festivals telling his stories up close and personal. He will be joining us in Vancouver on March 31 as part of Chutzpah! a Jewish arts and culture festival that has been running in the city for the past 15 years. Judaism has played a big role in Goldstein’s life, or at least his past life. As a senior in high school he was very seriously considering joining Yeshiva, a Jewish institution where students go to intensively study religious texts. “One of the stories I’m working on right now, in fact when we get off the phone I’m going to be working on it, is a story about my near entrance into Yeshiva when I was a teenager, and kind of trying to go back and re-trace what went wrong, why I didn’t end of devoting my life to religion,” says Goldstein. Though he chose the less devout of two paths, he still feels Judaism has helped shape his way of processing the world and, in turn, his way of telling stories. “This is something that I’m still working on, but I think what I’ve learned has to do with the balance between being revenant of the mystery that we’re all living inside of and surrounded by a kind of good spirited sense of humour. I always described it when I was growing up as a Jew’s relationship with God is one of wrestling. Like you’re always wrestling with the truth and the things that you’re supposed to do. You’re duty bound to observe, it’s a questioning faith, which is why there’s all this sort of exodus and talmud. At the same time personality-wise, I think there’s something about questioning authority that makes me uncomfortable. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to writing, because I do my questioning behind people’s backs, because questioning authority to their face seems kind of awkward or nervous making. Basically, I’ve learned from it to bear the mantle of a human being that wrestles with the mysteries of being,” he explains.

As a storyteller Goldstein will continue to embody these lessons he drew as a child from faith. With each new tale, whether real or fantastical, he recounts moments of people wrestling with the mysteries of being. The mysteries of almost being 40, the mysteries of family dinners, the mysteries of forlorn child stars from the 1970s. It is often in plain sight where the biggest mysteries lie, Jonathan Goldstein applies a voracious curiosity to the mundane, trying to solve the puzzle of existence one story at a time.

Jonathan Goldstein will be speaking on March 31 at the Norman & Annette Rothstein Theatre (Vancouver).

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