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I

I and Thou, in Passing

I was trundling down the street here in Berkeley late last night.  I’d just flown in from a gig, so I had a big rolling suitcase and a knapsack.  I was also balancing a pizza box on my hip, as I’d picked up some long-awaited dinner.  A woman was coming towards me on the sidewalk, moving slowly, on crutches.  Maybe she had a garbage bag over her shoulder.  (It was dark.)  Intent on getting home, I rushed past her, narrowly averting a crash into a garbage can as the suitcase and the pizza box threw off my balance.  I suppose I also was mildly worried that the woman would ask me for something, like my pizza.  I just wanted to get home.  From behind me, I heard her voice ring out: “That takes talent!”  I laughed.  She had reminded me of our humanity.

Beginning to See the Light

Rabbi David Jonathan Cooper

Rabbi David Jonathan Cooper

I think maybe — maybe — I’m starting to pick up the faint outlines of what my new piece, Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?, wants to be.  A lot of this has to do with the fact that my director/collaborator, David Dower, has been focusing on it the past few days, and we had a nice talk on the phone about it recently.  (You can join part of our collaboration, via Twitter, by following warholjew and WarholDir.)  Also, I had a great, long conversation with my producer, Jonny Reinis, yesterday about Warhol and Jews and Martin Buber (one of the 10 subjects of Warhol’s “Jewish Geniuses” portraits) and Existentialism — you know, the usual stuff performers talk about with their producers.  And I’ve been having some fascinating exchanges with two brilliant and freaky Berkeley rabbis, Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom and David Jonathan Cooper of Kehilla Community Synagogue.  Plus I’ve been reading lots of cool stuff, including a book that I just happened to find in the Judaica section at Half Price Books in Berkeley: Martin Buber: An Intimate Portrait, by Aubrey Hodes — the first account I’ve discovered that actually conveys Buber’s ideas in what I could firmly call the English language.  Not to mention that, despite my stark fear that I would bum them out on a celebratory occasion, I managed to do an improv towards the Warhol piece at a Berkeley Hadassah benefit last weekend.  And you could toss in the long conversation I had with my mom yesterday about our Jewishness (or lack of same) — which included her delivery of this classically Jewish-type sentiment: “Well, I thought they should have founded Israel in South America — but no one asked me!

But I’d have to say that mostly, it’s this: For the first time, really, as I try to explore Buber’s concept of “I and Thou” and relate it to my own experiences, I’m thinking about not just the “thou” but also the “I.”  Who is he?  What does he want?  What’s he so afraid of?  The next step, I suppose, is to track him down.  If I make any headway, I’ll let you — or thou — know.

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Warning: Improv Ahead

I briefly stick my nose above the surface of Buber-reading and script-doctoring to mention that I’ll be doing an improvisation this Thursday, March, 26, at 7 p.m. at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.  It’ll probably last one hour, and may or may not be in the gorgeous, asymmetrical “Yud” room.  Click here for details.

This event is at the invitation of the CJM’s Writer In Residence & Director of Public Programs, Dan Schifrin, who both commissioned the Warhol show I did there recently and also came up with the title (Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?).  So at this point, when Dan comes up with wordings for things for me I just try to run with them.  His suggested title for this improv: “I Brake for Buber.”  And his event description runs as follows:

Join monologuist and talk show host Josh Kornbluth for an early improvisation towards his next piece, which may or may not include reflections on philosopher Martin Buber, why Josh can’t drive, and a brief but heartfelt oboe solo.

So I guess that’s what I’ll try to do.  I may be entering a phase in my life where I allow my decisions to be made by a higher power.  At least, higher powers named Dan.

In preparation (if you can call it that) for this improv, I am reading (or at least starting to read) Martin Buber’s I and Thou.  At this point I’m still in the long — and, I must say, thrilling — introduction by the book’s translator, Walter Kaufmann.  This intro is one of those pieces of writing in which every sentence has been pared down to what feels like an essential thought.  Which can be exhausting: you almost hope for a flabby paragraph or two, just to ease the delicious burden of having one’s mind continually blown — but to no avail.

A bonus, for me: I’m alternating my Buber reading with the pursuit of my first-ever job as a screenplay-doctor.  This task terrifies me, as all writing does — but making it worse is that I’m not writing about me, in my voice!  Which has been my specialty.  And even for this task (okay, not script-doctoring but translating — still, it’s close), Kaufmann has a wise passage:

As a translator I have no right to use the text confronting me as an object with which I may take liberties.  It is not there for me to play with or manipulate.  I am not to use it as a point of departure, or anything else.  It is the voice of a person that needs me.  I am there to help him speak.

Okay, Walter — noted.  I’ll try.  In the meantime, though, I’m going to finish your introduction (so I can get to the actual Buber stuff), then grab a DMV booklet from the library and go home and practice my oboe so I can maybe work in all the things Dan so cavalierly thought up for me to improvise on.

Perhaps from Buber I will learn the answer to that great theological question: Is there someone up there even bigger than Dan?

I & Thou

Langston HughesI’m sitting at a terrific, progressive-minded bookstore/restaurant/café in Washington D.C. called Busboys and Poets. It was just rainstorming outside — typhoonishly — and it was so cool, and comforting, sitting inside this lovely place (which is named in honor of the great writer Langston Hughes, who once worked as a busboy in town) and watching the torrential downpour through the huge windows. They’ve created a wonderful community here, at the confluence of several neighborhoods, and the clientele are a chatting/sipping/Internetting mixture, racially and (from what I can tell) economically. Jazz is playing on the sound system; I’ll be staying with my friends David and Denice; life, for the moment, feels as good as it can feel, given that I’m desperately lonely for my wife (whose birthday this is!) and son.

It’s been a whirlwind of a last few days: I performed two pieces in San Diego — then, immediately after my second performance (on Thursday night) I rushed to the airport to take a red-eye flight to Washington-Dulles. When I got to my gate area, the food choice was McDonald’s. I hadn’t partaken of Mickey D’s in a long time, but — after eating only half a bag of cashews all day, to that point — I enthusiastically ordered a super-sized Big Mac dinner (with Diet!) and brought it on the plane. As soon as we reached altitude, I wolfed down the whole meal in like five minutes. And after that I felt very strange. I felt much as Dr. Bruce Banner must feel when he’s about to transform into the Incredible Hulk: toxic, unsettled, out of control. I honestly worried that I might explode. Maybe they use gamma rays when they cook that stuff. Never again. Till next time.

I made it, intact, to the storied Lincoln Theatre, where last night I did an excerpt from Citizen Josh at a gala event celebrating the Arena Stage‘s upcoming season. (I’ll be performing the piece at Arena this fall.) [Interstitial note: It's storming again outside -- very dramatic! And two young women next to me at this long table -- law-school students, clearly -- are quizzing each other regarding "third-party plaintiffs" and "third-party defendants"; I have the pleasant sensation of being an uninvolved fourth party.] There were lots of other performers on the program, and I got to do something that, incredibly, was a first for me in 20 years in the theater: I actually shared a dressing room! That’s never happened before! My friend, the genius comedienne Marga Gomez, has a joke that goes something like, “You know the worst thing about being a solo performer? The cast parties.” And there’s some truth in that. For once, I was in the middle of a community (that word again! [And coincidentally, David just joined me here and said, "Ah! You found the community table."])! Actors teasing one another, telling jokes, comparing leads on day jobs, making sure that a young boy performing with them had his collar done just right — it was a joyful thing. At one point I apologized for being so bleary and slow-on-the-uptake, explaining that I hadn’t slept in a couple of days; an actor sitting next to me patted me on the back, saying, “You don’t have to apologize to us, Josh — you’re one of us!” Then he and I spent the next half-hour swapping proud stories about our respective sons. [David -- who is David Dower, my theatrical director and collaborator -- is now poring over the Citizen Josh script, looking for ways we can improve it for upcoming runs.]

One cool thing that came up during this trip was that I found someone who shared my interest in “I and Thou.” I was chatting with San Diego Rep Associate Artistic Director Todd Salovey, and he asked me what new theater stuff I was working on, and I told him I was focusing on two subjects, which may or may not end up in one piece: playing the oboe, and the “I-Thou Relationship.” He seemed unaffected by the oboe mention (many people cringe), but got all excited about the second topic. Turns out Todd is from a very prominent rabinnical family line, and he’s been really into theological explorations in recent times.

And [change of scenery here -- I'm now at David and Denice's: it's even nicer!] theology is of the essence in this I/Thou stuff. “The I/Thou Relationship” was the title of a doctoral dissertation that a friend of my dad’s wrote at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. That friend, Chuck, a Presbyterian minister, passed away several years ago, and he left me his dissertation and supporting documents, in the hope that I would bring them to Union Theological and that they’d be put in the library there. With my typical alacrity, I haven’t done this yet: the documents currently sit in a storage unit in Richmond. But lately, especially, Chuck has been much on my mind; he was such a dear friend of ours, and such a big influence on me. And I feel as though if I can transport his stuff, as promised, and also even try to get a handle on “I/Thou,” I may be able to get a little closer to Chuck, even as his actuality recedes with time.

Martin BuberI and Thou is the title of an influential book by Martin Buber (1878-1965), a Jewish philosopher. Based on my quick reading of Buber’s Wikipedia entry, he led a fascinating, passionate, exemplary life. In his philosophy (I read) Buber distinguished between two different kinds of relationships, which he called (respectively) “I-It” and “I-Thou.” From what I can make out (and from the sound of each phrase), “I-It” refers to more limited, materialistic attachments, while “I-Thou” enters the realm of the spiritual and (perhaps my incorrect addition here) political. But given my obsession with democracy, I find very suggestive the notion that Buber was looking at how we are all connected (whether we realize it or not). And in one telling sentence, the very well-written Wikipedia entry brings Buber right into my wheelhouse: “The generic motif Buber employs to describe the dual modes of being is one of dialogue (Ich-Du) and monologue (Ich-Es).”

That’s my big question for myself! How can I, a monologuist, truly engage in a dialogue? How am I connected with my audience? With you? [With David, who is silently typing at his own computer a couple feet away from me?] This Buber guy sounds like he’s definitely someone I should check out. If you have some knowledge and/or leads in this area, please let me know: I am always thrilled to hear from Thou! [And the sun just came out. And birds are tweeting.]