Josh Kornbluth didn’t find his Jewish identity the typical way. 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 new-found appreciation of his Jewish roots. ì “Zionism was
the enemy in our house.”
Kornbluth is a writer, activist and former host
of 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
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.
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
“I’ve always been culturally Jewish, but I in no way
connected it to the religious aspect of Judaism, to being a
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
He recalls a trip he made as a teenager to visit elderly relatives
in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. A greataunt served him cold borscht, saying it
was what 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
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
In many ways the show is 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.
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
“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.”
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.
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
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.
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
“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
Kornbluth smiles ruefully, and writes something in his
He has, he says, “a lot to learn.”
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