Interview with Ari Hoffman
A Conversation with Ari Hoffman, Assistant Clinical Professor
Tell me about your family and how its dynamic shaped you.
My dad is from Rochester, New York, my mom is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I was born in San Francisco at Mt. Zion when it was still a community hospital. I am the eldest of three boys. My parents divorced when I was 7 and my dad subsequently remarried several years later so I have a stepsister who’s older than I am, so we became four. We joke that we collect family because my sister married a Colombian so we inherited a big Colombian family and my brothers’ families make us a big collection of siblings. Of the original three boys, we are all very different and scattered about. My middle brother is an orthodox rabbi who has been living in Jerusalem, went to yeshiva there, and just moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where he is setting up a Hillel-type structure with the University of Indiana. I just moved back from Uganda where I had been living for a year with my wife through the Global Health Service Partnership. All three of us had been living separately on different continents but now two of us are temporarily living in the house we grew up in, a two-level house that our mom owns; my wife and I are moving downstairs. Everyone lives in the Bay Area so it’s nice to see everyone and be together again. How my family shaped me is probably more than I’m aware of but one thing was a changing family dynamic that grew over time. The motion probably made me more flexible and adaptive, more a “go with the flow” type of person. The family always instilled in me that focus should be our health, education, and love for one another.
What is the first thing you notice about a person’s environment and what does your own reveal?
The first thing I notice is more of a feel than a single item. You know how you go into some houses and they look like a museum, and you feel like you can’t touch anything? The feel is cold, not warm and welcoming, while other places are, and it feels like there is an interaction between their physical space and mental space. I respond to how welcoming a space is. Our own space is transitional at present but it is colorful, not matchy-matchy, it’s neat and functional and, I think, is warm and welcoming, the kind of place you could drop by and be welcomed.
Who would you want to interview for an oral history or wish you had?
My mother’s parents were both Holocaust survivors and that was big piece of our historical identity. My mom recorded Bubbe’s and Zaide’s stories for the Shoah Project but I heard more of my grandmother’s story than my grandfather’s and got to go the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC with her. He was from Poland and had a wife and two children who died, and then he fled to Stalinist Russia, was captured, and was in a work camp. Both grandparents were the sole survivors of their families and met in post-war Russia and then were refugees in a displaced persons camp in Germany, where they finally got papers and came to Pittsburgh. It was a completely clean slate.
What everyday object would you just as soon toss in the bay? What is something that you feel the world would be better off without?
Television. I think television is a pretty worthless object. I’ve definitely enjoyed plenty of it but, most of the time, I think it’s a complete time-suck, a waste. It’s not interactive, keeps you up, and I get stuck in it even when it’s bad and I find it strange that I don’t even enjoy it but will stay up watching—it’s bizarre! I just don’t think that it’s good for us. I don’t have a TV. So, television and dog Panini makers; a friend of mine bought one to make Panini treats for her dog, another useless thing to plug into the wall, a complete waste.
Have you ever been mistaken for a celebrity and would you like that person to portray you in a bio-pic?
The only one I can come up with is Dermot Mulroney, who one person told me I look like.
What energizes you and what relaxes you?
I am a true extrovert. People energize me. When I am around people, talking to people, and having conversation, I can stay up forever. In a room by myself, I can fall asleep immediately; only people keep me energized. To relax, it’s the opposite. I have to find that time to be quiet. I like to read, I like to exercise outside, running, playing soccer, and I like cycling a lot. I bike to work from Noe Valley, which is a great commute because there’s nothing going on, I’m not looking at my phone, it’s just me on my bike. It’s also the start of the day and a way to decompress on the way home.
Which is better: a photograph of a special moment or its memory in your mind?
I love a good photograph but taking one can be intrusive of the moment. I love taking photos when we travel, especially since a photographer friend gave me a good SLR, and I love the good ones, to edit and to make prints—it’s fun and part of the creative art process. Photos jog memories. The reason I still travel is because the photo is not enough. You can’t show me a photograph of Angkor Wat or the night fish market in Stonetown, Zanzibar; you have to smell it, feel it, taste it . . . the feel of a place is never the same as just its photograph. The places that stand out in my memory are the places that outlive their imagery. But the cool thing is that you have to have been there to take the picture so it’s all tied together.
In biking around San Francisco, I’ve been hit by a car twice. The first time, I was going to REI in SOMA and was cutting left when a driver turned his car right without looking. I hit his front right fender, flipped over, and went flying over his windshield. I landed on the driver’s side and his window was open—I bounced up, had no idea what I was doing but caught myself leaning into his window, and caught myself as though I was about to hit him. I didn’t of course and immediately found myself apologizing, but it was certainly reactive. It was just this wild survival instinct and I think some probably not-so nice words came out of my mouth. Most of my friends would not think of me a calculated speaker. I think they think that I don’t have much censor. I certainly say what I think.
I’m glad about that. Thank you, Ari.
- by Oralia Schatzman