Josh Radnor, star of the hit CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, unpacked his interest in spirituality and his journey to his career in theater in front of a full Statler Auditorium Wednesday night.
Having starred in the Pulitzer Prize–winning Broadway play Disgraced two years ago, appearing in numerous TV shows and writing, directing and starring in two feature films, Liberal Arts and Happythankyoumoreplease, Radnor was invited to speak at the year’s first event of the Cornell Hillel’s Major Speaker Series.
Throughout his talk, Radnor described growing up in a Midwestern Jewish family and attending an Orthodox Hebrew day school.
“I never thought much about being Jewish because I was so saturated in it,” he said.
However, as he grew up his relationship to his Jewish background became more salient, which became critical when deciding where to go to college. He describes a spiritual calling that pulled him away from Cornell, where he was accepted, to Kenyon College.
“I was driving home from school one day and I heard this voice one day and it said — ‘if you go to Kenyon, you’ll be an actor,’” he said. “Then I was fully intoxicated by the theater.”
Radnor then attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts to pursue an MFA in acting, where he took a “transformative” trip to Israel that left him doubting his chosen path.
“I was seized with this idea that being an actor was a narcissistic or solipsistic thing,” he said. “I couldn’t locate anything altruistic in wanting to be an actor and I just couldn’t figure out if I really wanted to be one.”
Quieting those doubts, a rabbi in his campus Jewish community reminded him that being an actor did not have to be antithetical to Judaism. Years later, Radnor has discovered that his show business has become intertwined with his spiritual identity.
“Reading a play and reading the Talmud are exactly the same,” he said. “You’re reading the surface words and digging underneath them.”
Growing up Jewish also gave him a “minority perspective” on American life, which he said gave him the valuable writing skills of watching and observing as a “perennial outsider.”
As he continued in his career in Hollywood and TV, he has continued his spiritual searching that stemmed from his Jewish background.
Around the time Radnor finished his final season on How I Met Your Mother in 2014, he said, he has tried to meditate and pray every day.
“I’ve been saying this Jewish prayer that I learned as a kid every morning,” he said. His prayer translates to: “Thank you for returning my soul to my body.”
Amid events like the anti-semitic protests in Charlottesville and continuing violence in Israel and Palestine, Radnor has become more motivated to pursue comedy shows while focusing on living “ethically.”
“I like the ability to transform pain to humor,” he said. In times of hostility, “I look to Judaism and I look to all sorts of traditions — but one of the things I keep getting into is the central thing of mystery, uncertainty. In that humility of saying ‘I don’t know,’ I feel there’s something powerful.”