Eli Wirtschafter, 27, is a transportation reporter for public radio station KALW and a producer of “Uncuffed,” a program in which Solano State Prison inmates interview each other about their lives. The longtime Berkeley resident is also a co-organizer of the Nigun Collective, a monthly gathering of people who sing nigguns (wordless melodies) together.
J.: You studied theater at UC Berkeley and were active in that world, founding a local theater company, among other things. How did you end up in radio?
Eli Wirtschafter: I was always open to other ways of being creative and being a performer that might not take place inside a theater. I was probably off to a good start in the theater, but I noticed that most theater people also worked other jobs to earn a living. And as someone who wanted to help guide the public conversation in some way, I was more interested in telling other people’s true stories than living in fictional worlds. I think the level of personal storytelling is richer than you usually get in print. It’s also a very creative medium where a reporter has a lot of creative control, so there’s an ownership of the product that I didn’t have when I worked in theater.
J.: Your work on “Uncuffed” grew out of your monthly visits to San Quentin to participate in Jewish services there. How did that come about?
EW: A few Urban Adamah employees who were part of the Nigun Collective had begun making regular visits to San Quentin and invited me and my violin to come along. It felt like visiting a monastery in that here were these [inmates] who had devoted their lives to practicing kindness and meditating and studying Torah, and I was immediately struck by the wisdom that they had to impart to me.
J.: Can you describe those visits?
EW: Playing my violin in a prison is a really powerful experience in that we’re bringing beauty to a place with so much ugliness. It’s a diverse community; there are some people there who were born Jewish and some have gotten interested while incarcerated, while others have no particular attachment to Judaism but are spiritual seekers. They do Buddhist meditation, yoga, sing Christian spiritual music and come to the Jewish services, too. It’s beautiful to see that the tradition has something for all of them, and it’s amazing to be in a space where all of that is welcome, where different paths to Jewish prayer are accepted and normal.
This got me really interested in working more in prisons. The station had applied for a grant to expand our work to Solano State Prison, and my boss asked whether I wanted to be part of that team. It felt very much what I had entered radio to do, to pass the microphone to people who weren’t usually heard as much in the media. I’m seeing how creating art changes the culture of the institution when prisoners and staff can see themselves and each other as human beings.
J.: Has spending time in prison changed you?
EW: It’s definitely given me a deeper recognition of my own privilege, that given other circumstances, I could easily be sitting where they’re sitting. Our prison system is so vast, and yet it’s so hidden from most Americans with privilege. I think that hurts us as a country and as a culture, to not be able to see inside and for them not to be able to see outside.
J.: You’ve lived within a two-mile radius in Berkeley since you were 7. Why have you always stayed so close to home?
EW: Besides the perfect weather and interesting people, I love living near my family, and there’s an exceptional Jewish scene. I always thought I’d go away to somewhere cold for college, but I visited those places, and together with the financial crisis in 2008, I realized with the help of my parents that there was a great university within walking distance that maybe I should check out.
J.: You’ve been on the transportation beat at KALW for three years now. Did you choose it, or did it choose you?
EW: A little of each. I’ve never owned a car, so I feel intimately connected with public transit. Transportation has always fascinated me as the lifeblood of a city. In a world where we have increasingly fewer public squares, public transit is a democratizing space, as are our roads, as everyone has to sit in traffic together. And it touches on environmental and equity issues, which I also care about.