Monday, April 8, 2013
Husband of NY Times Jerusalem bureau chief brings Seinfeld to the Holy City
by Allison Kaplan Sommer
As the man behind Jodi Rudoren, who holds perhaps the most scrutinized job in American journalism, it helps that Rudoren is no stranger to improvisation, either in comedy or in life. He has brought his Jewish, New York humor with him to Jerusalem.
For Gary Rudoren, a funny thing happened on the way to Jerusalem. A longtime Chicago comic who moonlights as an architect by day, Rudoren is now director of the Jerusalem English-language comedy troupe Hahafuch. But he’s perhaps better known for being the husband to one Jodi Rudoren, Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times.
As the man behind the woman holding perhaps the most scrutinized job in American journalism, it helps that Rudoren is no stranger to improvisation, either in comedy or in life.
Sitting in a Tel Aviv cafe, his is a dry, sardonic New York humor, devoid of slapstick or goofball antics − more George Costanza than Kramer.
“From when she first discussed the possibility of Jerusalem with me, I was in favor of doing it,” he says of his wife’s job, and the move that came with it. “I knew it was important to Jodi − it was an opportunity to be seized − and I am a portable person. I can write and stay in touch with the theater world, and spend time with my kids.”
Rudoren is bearded, bespectacled, and earnest. His wife’s demanding career, and the moves that have come with it, he says, haven’t been a problem for him. “Maybe because I’ve got good self-esteem, maybe because I married when I was older. We’re not a traditional couple,” he says.
The Rudorens are used to doing things differently. Even their name is something slightly radical. Now the parents of 5-year-old twins, the couple met online in Chicago, where Jodi was working as the Times’ Chicago bureau chief. At the time, his last name was Ruderman and hers was Wilgoren.
Until then, Gary Ruderman had been engrossed in his career, dating rarely. “I had been giving my mom theater reviews, but no grandchildren,” he says. Their relationship survived the 2004 campaign trail, when she covered Howard Dean and then John Kerry, whom she’ll now have a reunion with as Secretary of State. “Kerry lost, and we got married a month later.”
He was 40 and she was 32. Rather than following tradition and having his wife abandon her surname in favor of his, they decided to merge their two former names into one new, shared one: Rudoren.
“It’s just a made-up moniker, but it is made up of our commitment to equality, with a nod to family history and a dash of out-of-the-box creativity,” Jodi Rudoren wrote on February 5, 2006, in a New York Times column entitled “Meet Our New Name.”
Shortly afterwards, Jodi was named deputy metro editor and then education editor for the Times and the couple moved to New York. Her appointment to the Jerusalem bureau would come next.
Rudoren knew coming in to Israel that his wife’s new assignment would be much more demanding than her previous posts at the paper. But there was no way to predict that in less than a year, she would come under missile fire in Gaza, and cover both a national election campaign compressed into three months, and the Obama visit.
In the midst of all of it, after a high-profile kerfuffle which sparked an international discussion of how freely journalists should share their opinions on Facebook and Twitter, she was also assigned a “social media minder” by the Times.
Gary has adapted quickly to his new environment. The Long Island native has thrown himself into Jerusalem’s theatrical scene, and so far has directed two shows for Hahafuch that have played to sold-out crowds. And back in the U.S., a revival of his play “So I Killed a Few People...” is opening at the Annoyance Theater in Chicago on April 25.
When Rudoren’s not writing or rehearsing, he’s busy entertaining his primary audience − his twins Lev and Shayna, as well as working on ongoing projects in the U.S. and like the rest of us, maintaining his social media presence.
Online, he’s best known for the popular Twitter account called SeinfeldIsrael, which features 140-character episode summaries of what the Seinfeld gang would be up to if they were located in the Holy Land. (“Elaine embarrasses herself at a mikva. Jerry & George brag to the wrong people about eating traife. Kramer enrolls in an off-beat yeshiva.”)
He and Jodi were tested, however, by the trial-by-fire that was Operation Pillar of Defense. In November, as they were still settling into life in Jerusalem, Jodi was sent to Gaza City to report on that side of the war. Gary was left at home, single-parenting the twins while missile-warning sirens sounded in Jerusalem.
He wrote a blog post reflecting on the experience, “Wife During Wartime,” and it made it into The New York Times.
“I feel blessed to have fairly typically self-absorbed 5-year-olds who have no idea about the war or that Mommy hasn’t been able to sleep a lot because of the sounds of bombs not too far from her hotel room in Gaza,” he wrote. “If my kids were older and smart enough to be scared, this would be a whole different situation. For now, though, their iPad usage is spiking because I’m not being the awesome color-with-me-please-right-now dad that I aspire to be as much as I am the dad trolling for stories and updates about the war.”
When the missiles stopped flying, the couple returned to the routine of their life in Jerusalem, where the twins are settled in school and they are members of the Reform congregation Kol HaNeshama, their local equivalent of their synagogue back in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood.
For the comedy players of Hahafuch, which was founded in 2009 and has been the English-speaking comedy presence in the capital ever since, Rudoren’s arrival in Jerusalem was a godsend.
“Having Gary join our group as the director has been an incredible opportunity,” said Molly Livingstone, a co-founder of the troupe. “To be guided by someone with his years of experience in the industry and direct our shows has really propelled the group. He listens and challenges us. We are so lucky that he is here.”
The feeling appears to be mutual. “My motto has always been that I like creating things with nice people. They’ve been nice and I’m enthusiastic about our doing good work together,” he says.
Like any newcomer to Israel, overcoming the language barrier has been his biggest challenge.
“I had thought that everyone speaks English here and of course, that’s not true. I’m working on the language and shooting for more than just getting by, I really want to know more. It’s a humbling experience when something simple like buying a container of gas for a barbecue is so difficult. I got lost looking for the place to do that − it was tucked away somewhere in Talpiot. I asked directions from a guy who didn’t speak English and it turned into an elaborate game of charades.”
Sometimes, it seems, improvisational comedy turns out to be a useful skill.