Ari Shapiro reporting in Colombia. (Photo/NPR-Ryan Kellman)
Ari Shapiro reporting in Colombia. (Photo/NPR-Ryan Kellman)

NPR’s Ari Shapiro considers many things, from Judaism to journalism, in new memoir

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For Ari Shapiro, who co-hosts the popular NPR news program “All Things Considered,” Passover helped shape his approach to journalism — and not just because it’s his favorite Jewish holiday.

“The fact that one of the fundamental narratives of Judaism is a narrative of emergence from slavery into freedom, and that in telling the story, we are commanded to do it as though we ourselves were enslaved, is a fundamental act of empathy that is at the center of our religious tradition,” Shapiro said while speaking to J. from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.

He also likes how the seder encourages us to ask deep, probing questions. Expressing empathy and having a curious mind are part of Shapiro’s journalistic M.O.

“There’s a culture of asking questions and not taking things for granted,” Shapiro said of Judaism in general. “That culture of asking and probing and questioning and scrutinizing is something that I bring to my work as a journalist.”

Cover of "The Best Strangers in The World" by Ari ShapiroShapiro, 44, is now an author as well. His new memoir, “The Best Strangers in the World: Stories from a Life Spent Listening,” will arrive in bookstores later this month, and on March 31, Shapiro will be in conversation with Davia Nelson at Book Passage in Corte Madera.

Shapiro grew up in a pluralistic Jewish household in Fargo, North Dakota, where he was one of the only Jewish kids in his elementary school. He remembers going to erev Shabbat services at a Reform synagogue on Friday nights, and then attending Saturday morning services at a nearby Orthodox synagogue because his parents “never wanted to be exclusionary,” he writes. The family moved to Portland, Oregon, when Shapiro was 8, and Shapiro had his bar mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue there.

Shapiro said that many of the qualities that make him a good journalist were instilled in him “through Jewish traditions.”

“When I look at how the person I am shapes the stories I tell, being Jewish is a significant part of that,” he pointed out.

In one chapter of “The Best Strangers in the World,” Shapiro relates the story of what it was like covering the 2014 Gaza war between Israel and Hamas, and the pressure he faced from critics who doubted that a Jewish reporter could fairly and objectively cover the conflict.

“One of the things I wanted to explore in the book was the tension between trying to approach stories objectively while also trying to bring your full self to a story and acknowledge the context in history that we each have,” Shapiro said. “Especially in the chapter about reporting from Israel, I wanted to ask what it means that I’m Jewish. I have history with Israel, I speak a little bit of Hebrew, and also I’m trying to cover the conflict in a way that is responsible, admirable, fair, thorough, nuanced and doesn’t bring blinders to the stories that I’m telling.”

Shapiro also chronicles his journey from NPR intern to one of the hosts of “All Things Considered,” which is carried by 825 public radio stations nationwide and is the most listened-to afternoon drive-time news radio program in the United States, according to NPR.

In one endearing story from early in his career, he describes a short report he did for NPR’s “Morning Edition” about the first sandwich in recorded history. It was “a jaunty history of the sandwich, from biblical times to the military’s efforts to formulate a shelf-stable PB&J that could survive in a war zone,” he writes. And when he returned to his desk, he found a note handwritten on a napkin: “Best in show!” It was written by NPR legend Susan Stamberg.

When I look at how the person I am shapes the stories I tell, being Jewish is a significant part of that.

A second version of that note (he lost the original) sits in a frame on Shapiro’s desk, not far from a kippah that has great personal meaning, as well. He acquired it in 2014 when he was in Donetsk, Ukraine, covering the news that Russian-backed separatist groups had seized government buildings in the Donbas region.

Leaflets were distributed instructing all Jews to come to the occupied buildings and register their citizenship or face deportation. “To anyone with real knowledge of what was going on in Ukraine, the flyer … was just obviously bogus,” he writes. However, many U.S. media outlets reported that the fliers were legitimate and the threat to Jews’  Ukrainian citizenship was real. Aiming to “explain the truth of the situation,” Shapiro visited the Chabad in Donetsk and interviewed the rabbi there. Afterward, he asked the rabbi if he could take a kippah as a keepsake.

Despite being from the Plains, Shapiro has a strong connection to the Bay Area. His father grew up in San Francisco, as did Shapiro’s husband, Mike Gottlieb. Gottlieb is the president of a D.C.-based research firm and worked in the White House as a special assistant to President Barack Obama and as a senior adviser on President Joe Biden’s transition team.

Shapiro and Gottlieb were one of the first gay couples to be married at San Francisco’s City Hall in 2004, when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom began issuing same-sex marriage licenses. Shapiro told J. that a year later, he at Gottlieb had a larger wedding ceremony and reception in Napa Valley for family and friends. Officiants were the late Rabbi Martin Weiner from Gottlieb’s Reform synagogue, San Francisco’s Sherith Israel, and Rabbi Daniel Isaak, Shapiro’s rabbi from Conservative synagogue Neveh Shalom in Portland and a native of San Francisco.

“Gay marriages break rules, every which way,” Shapiro said. “So two rabbis? Why not?”

Shapiro said part of his motivation for writing “The Best Strangers in the World” was to give hope to those who feel a sense of doom whenever they read, hear or view the news these days.

“The book is, in some ways, an answer to the question ‘How do I stay optimistic?’ The people in the pages of the book are the people who keep me hopeful and keep me feeling good about humankind,” Shapiro said. “I thought maybe there would be value in sharing that a little more widely.”

“The Best Strangers in the World: Stories from a Life Spent Listening” by Ari Shapiro (HarperOne, 256 pages). Shapiro will speak at 7 p.m. March 31 at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. $34 ticket includes a copy of the book. 

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Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.