Accidental Fireman from East Bay pens odyssey from Ivy League to life on the line

When Zac Unger decided upon a career, he called his grandfather to break the news.

“It’s certainly a different kind of choice,” his grandfather said. “But will they even hire a Jew?”

“This is California,” Unger told him. “I don’t think they care.”

Unger’s chosen profession? After coming from two generations of teachers and doctors, he had decided to become a firefighter.

And now that he’s got some experience beneath his belt, he’s coming out with a book about his career choice. “Working Fire: The Making of an Accidental Fireman” will be published in March by Penguin.

Unger, 30, grew up in Rockridge, on the Berkeley-Oakland border, and now lives with his wife and daughter in Berkeley. The son of a psychiatrist and a professor of women’s studies, he described his upbringing as slightly unconventional, though not particularly so for the Bay Area (for a time, his family lived communally with another family).

“My parents are very intellectual people, active in the community,” he said.

His mother has worked with middle-aged women entering college for the first time, and his father works with low-income patients.

While the family did not belong to a synagogue, Unger said he grew up with a strong Jewish identity, attending Camp Kee Tov, a day camp run by Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El, for 10 years.

“It was something that was always part of my life,” he said. “It was important that I know I was Jewish.”

Unger attended Head-Royce School in Oakland and Deep Springs College (a two-year, all-male ranch near Bishop with just 26 students) before graduating from Brown University. While working toward a master’s degree at U.C. Berkeley in range management — Unger jokes that he has a master’s in cows — he saw a bus-stop bench advertising openings in the Oakland Fire Department, and something just clicked.

“I had done well in school, but I didn’t want to sit behind a desk,” he said. “I had this image of becoming like a Paul Bunyan working for the Park Service, as I wanted to do something outside but on the academic track. But then I realized I didn’t want the academic track at all.”

While a fireman is certainly a far cry from the doctor or educator he could have become, Unger believes he is following in the family tradition of helping others.

“Firefighting is the clearest form of social service imaginable,” he said. “Most of the guys don’t think of it that way, but I really do.”

How does he figure?

“If you call 911, a half-million dollar fire engine with four guys will show up at your door to take care of you,” he said. “This is the closest thing to universal health care that we have. This is very much a job taking care of people.”

Unger never set out to write a book. A friend of a friend hooked him up to write a week’s worth of daily dispatches for the Web magazine Slate on the life of a firefighter. More than a few literary agents saw it, and he was urged by a couple to write a book.

Of course, someone of his background does get treated differently by his co-workers, all of whom share a blue-collar background. “The other firefighters call me the professor,” he said, as he prefers reading novels over watching sports on television.

One once joked, “Your mother must be so depressed, she must cry every night that she spent all this money to send you to Brown.”

But that co-worker was wrong. Unger’s parents are proud of him.

While Unger’s Jewish background isn’t emphasized in his book, the chapter on his wedding is revealing, in that he got married in a Unitarian church.

“In Berkeley, that’s what nominal Jews like me do when they marry nominal Christians like Shona,” he writes, referring to his wife.

“And besides,” he continues, “the Unitarian church had such a beautiful space … that I decided not to let myself be bothered by a couple of New Testaments that I saw stacked on a table in the corner. I did, however, assure myself that there wasn’t a crucifix in sight and tried as often as possible, to get everyone to refer to it as the Unitarian ‘Place.'”

COVER STORY: Ignited by Judaism: Peninsula firefighter finds passion, pursues rabbinate

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."