It was pop artist Andy Warhol who sparked the process that brought the successful San Francisco Bay Area performer, now 52, to discover Torah, synagogue — and, in a few months, a bar mitzvah in Israel.
“I was raised orthodox – orthodox communist!” Kornbluth said as he sat down with JTA over a plate of bacon and eggs to discuss his newfound appreciation of his Jewish roots. “Zionism was the enemy in our house.”
Kornbluth is a writer, activist and former host of the “The Josh Kornbluth Show” on TV. But he is best known for his one-man shows, where he offers pithy, highly personal witticisms on history and the human condition.
Sometimes he assumes other personae, as in his performance piece about Ben Franklin. But his real genius comes through in his autobiographical monologues, especially “Red Diaper Baby,” a bit about growing up as the son of New York communists that he later turned into a book, and “The Mathematics of Change,” which chronicles his failed attempt to become a math genius at Princeton University.
It was his most recent one-man show — “Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?” — that activated his pintele Yid, the Jewish spark that the kabbalists say lurks inside every Member of the Tribe.
“My humor has always had a Jewish sensibility, but only recently have I come to terms openly with my Jewish identity,” he told an audience at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco during a recent discussion onstage of his Jewish journey. “I’ve always been culturally Jewish, but I in no way connected it to the religious aspect of Judaism, to being ‘a Jew.’ ”
Kornbluth grew up in New York shuttling between the homes of his divorced parents, both card-carrying members of the Communist Party. In the 1970s, when his Jewish friends were demonstrating on behalf of Soviet Jewry, he mocked them — something he’s not proud of today.
“But at the time, I was so in love with the ideals of communism as transmitted to me by my parents,” he says.
He recalls a trip he made as a teenager to visit elderly relatives in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. A great-aunt served him cold borscht, saying it was what the poor Jews ate in the Soviet Union.
“I said, but there are no poor Jews in the Soviet Union!” Kornbluth recalls. “I can only imagine their bemusement.”
Kornbluth says he knew “nothing at all” about Judaism when he got a call in 2008 from the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco asking if he’d put together a talk for an upcoming exhibit of “Warhol’s Jews,” 10 portraits the artist made of famous Jews in history. Eventually the talk became a full-blown monologue that Kornbluth opened at Theater J in Washington, then brought back to the Bay Area for a sold-out run and now hopes to take elsewhere.
In many ways the show was typical Kornbluth. The lights go up to find him standing on the stage — a portly, colorfully dressed fellow whose continually startled eyes peer out from behind wire-rimmed glasses — gazing at a wall displaying huge reproductions of Warhol’s Jewish portraits. He begins working his way through the pictures, interweaving his own personal history of coming to terms with his Judaism as he explores what each character stands for in world Jewish iconography.
Golda Meir and Jewish pride. Sigmund Freud and self-examination. Louis Brandeis and commitment to social justice. With each portrait he delves deeper into the Jewish psyche — and his own.
In preparation for the piece, Kornbluth wanted to learn more about philosopher Martin Buber, and was referred to Rabbi Menachem Creditor, a Buber aficionado and spiritual leader of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom. Kornbluth had met Creditor some years earlier when he performed a one-man show at the synagogue as a benefit for Darfur, and the rabbi in gratitude offered him a family membership.
“Going to temple wasn’t anything I contemplated doing,” he says. “My fear was that I’d go in the coat room and have to check myself, that I wouldn’t be able to be me.”
As he worked on the Warhol piece, Kornbluth spent more and more time in Creditor’s office. The talk turned from Buber to what Kornbluth calls “the big issues: God, the meaning of life, Israel.” Kornbluth found himself opening up to new ideas about his own heritage.
“I told him that I’d never experienced the supernatural God and didn’t believe in it,” Kornbluth says. “If that’s a requirement for being a Jew, I can’t do it. Then Menachem told me his definition of God, as the collective potential of the human imagination. That stunned me. The idea that this is his notion of God, and he’s as devout as he is, made me want to go to a service, to see.”
Kornbluth went. And went some more. His discussions with Creditor turned into a class at the synagogue that was open to the public. The class is serving as Kornbluth’s preparation for his own bar mitzvah, which he will celebrate in Israel in July as part of a synagogue trip, also open to the public (the deadline for sign-up is April 15).
It will be his first trip to the Jewish state, and he’s a bundle of nerves.
“It’s very deep, very complex for me,” he says.
Since the Warhol project, Kornbluth has been reading voraciously about Israel, beginning with the early Zionists and working his way through the country’s 20th-century history up to the current political situation. He’s studying Torah, midrash — whatever he can get his hands on. He keeps a notebook close at hand to record new facts, creative thoughts — anything that can help him construct his newly emerging Jewish identity and bring it into line with the rest of his beliefs.
In doing so, he seems willing to turn everything he thought he believed on its head.
“I’d always felt an affinity to Israel as a country set up by ‘my’ people, a place I could always go if something happened, but I’d never thought of actually going,” he tells JTA.
Kornbluth also has always supported Palestinian rights, as well as the rights of non-Jews in Israel. That hasn’t changed, he says; his horizons simply have expanded.
He’s finding his brave new world somewhat unsettling.
“When I started the Warhol piece, I really started looking at myself as a Jew,” Kornbluth says. “And as a Jew I feel a responsibility and a desire to participate in what is happening in Israel, which I didn’t feel before. I want to engage, to find out as much as I can, and to be on the side of justice as much as I can.
“It was always easier for me to see the Palestinians as ‘my’ people. That was my upbringing. Now they’re both my people.”
Kornbluth smiles ruefully, and writes something in his notebook.
He has, he says, “a lot to learn.”