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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.

What Will Happen?

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

I’m going to my first-ever religious Jewish service tomorrow morning — at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, where I’ve performed and improvised a few times.  I called my friend Menachem Creditor, the temple’s rabbi, to ask — among other things — what one wears at a Jewish service.  (Thanks to my late father’s love of church ceremonies and my six years at an Episcopalian choir school, many Christian services are more than familiar to me.)  Our connection wasn’t great — he was about to pick up his daughter from her school bus and I was about to pick up my son from school — but he told me that, if I wasn’t wearing a yarmulke and … something else I couldn’t hear … someone would hand them to me.  He said the service starts at 8 a.m., but usually only “visitors” come then, and that I should plan to arrive at about 10 or 10:15.

Recently I have been struggling with learning about my Jewish heritage, as I prepare for the next stage of development of my show Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews (opening at Theater J in Washington D.C. in March and at The Jewish Theatre San Francisco in April).  Just finished reading David Mamet’s The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews, a book of essays about how assimilated Jewish “apostates” such as myself are engaged in treason against our own race.  Now reading some more of Wallace Shawn’s book of essays (titled, simply, Essays), in which he seems to ally himself with all people, regardless of tribe or nationality — a stance I have long felt myself to hold.  But, spurred by this project and by Mamet’s pugnacious arguments, I am excited to at least think of myself as a member of this ancient tribe.  (And yet, I have to say, whenever Mamet talks about how great and wise the Jewish writings and traditions are, I reflexively think, “But isn’t every major religion and culture — that is to say, every one of long-standing — equally wise and great, albeit perhaps coming at things from different angles?”)

And then there’s the God thing.  I’ve had no experience of God — which, the more I read and listen to theologians, may actually put me in their camp.  People, including Rabbi Creditor (and my atheist father), have described God as something like the full potential of the human imagination.  Even there, I think (perhaps frivolously?), “What about the imagination of animals and plants, and of the vast universe?”  And then I stop myself and think, “Well, that would pretty much be God, wouldn’t it?” (if the universe had an imagination).  And I am reminded (and it makes me smile sometimes) how shallow my thinking is.

And yet I keep wanting at least to move forward.

May I confess that turning 50 has not been as uneventful, emotionally, as I had anticipated?  Possibly this has something to do with the fact that my father had a stroke at 55 and died at 59.  But I think it has more to do with my ambivalence regarding how relatively important or unimportant it is that I am alive.  Is it possible to kind of separate out these two feelings: (1) that I am not particularly important in even the medium-sized scheme of things and (2) that the fact that I am alive — that I have been so unimaginably fortunate as to have a chance to be alive one time — is enormously meaningful?

My stepfather, Frank, a mensch, who has made my mother’s life so wonderful (and the rest of the family’s as well), has been ailing.  He and my mom are both in their 80s (though she’s several years his junior), and so when there are ailments they tend to raise a larger question: Is this part of a serious decline?  My mom is, as she is typically in these situations, remarkably clear-minded about what’s going on; in addition, among Frank’s amazing children is one — Rachel — whose husband, Peter, is either a geriatrician or a gerontologist, depending on what the dictionary would tell me if I were to look it up.  (He’s a doctor who works with old people.)  Rachel and Peter arranged for Mom and Frank to go from Chicago (where they live in a beautiful high-rise on the South Side) to visit with them in Cleveland.  As of Mom’s last email, Frank has been improving greatly; I cannot begin to tell you how hopeful this makes me.

I’m trying to work with time — to accept it, not let it be the enemy, let it just be.  I have a tendency to resort to kind of a willful narcolepsy in response to things that challenge me.  Maybe I’m somewhat depressed most all the time.  The things that make me happy: I’m wildly in love with my family, just really blissed out when I’m with them.  I have friends whom I love.  I love living in Berkeley.  I am a proud American.  I am a proud un-American.  I am proud to be a Jew, and totally confused about what that means.  (I imagine that I would be equally proud to be whatever else I happened to be born as.)  I love listening to music, and reading.

The work I do — making stories on stage and on film — is, in part, the craft of working with time.  Its masters teach me — or try — how to make of my limitations (or, perhaps, the ordered confessions of those limitations) a sort of strength, or at least a living.  For thousands of years Jews have commented in the margins of history, creating pressurized, often indecipherable (at least to many) counter-narratives to the prevailing ones.  At 50, facing the task of fitting my infinitesimal story into the vast tapestry I sense is there, I guess I want to say to myself (and to you) that I will try, very hard, as hard as I can, to be open to any possibilities that present themselves.

And why is it that the prospect of going to temple for the first time arouses these chaotic thoughts in this atheistic, apostate Jew?  I’d give you my usual superficial answer, but I want to try something different this time: I want to have the experience, rather than imagine my way through or around it.  I am, as the great Suzanne Vega song puts it, tired of sleeping.


Venn DiagramEven my lovely and powerful computer is getting fed up with all the multitasking. When I ask it to let me use Firefox, it rope-a-dopes me — asking, in effect, “Do you really need to use Firefox?  Wouldn’t you be just as happy sticking with your email application?”  I need to click on the little Firefox icon a few more times before the machine grudgingly brings up the browser.

I feel my laptop’s pain (something I’m sure we’ve all experienced, though possibly not on our wedding night): There are so many things I’m trying to do right now that I feel myself approaching a sort of fugue state.

On one of my “tabs” on Firefox is an uploading video that my brother Jake and I made yesterday, alerting our supporters at that we plan to shoot the next installment of our new film, Love & Taxes, next weekend — and gently asking for even more donations.

On another tab is the enewsletter-generating program I use: I plan to send out an eblast to my peeps today about a couple of improvs I’ll be doing (towards an expanded version of my monologue Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?) in San Francisco over the next two weeks.  (The improvs — each open to a maximum of 15 audience members, so that few will be able to speak of the chaos and disaster — will be on Dec. 21 and 22 at 8 p.m. at The Jewish Theatre San Francsico; call 415.292.1233 to reserve a spot.)

Another tab holds yesterday’s article from the San Francisco Chronicle detailing brother Jake’s ongoing collaboration with Robert Reich on terrific little videos that give simple explanations of complicated policy issues.  At the same time, I keep checking my email for updates regarding an event that Jake and I are trying to put together: me interviewing Reich on stage at the Berkeley Rep in January, and filming it for use as a pilot for our new interview show, Josh Kornbluth Talks to Strangers.

There are also:

  • Word documents with in-progress contracts, a proposed budget for a possible concert film of my show The Mathematics of Change, my running diary of research and thoughts toward the Warhol piece, thoughts toward a future monologue about playing the oboe and spirituality (working title: Practice), notes from my fellow members of the Berkeley Energy Commission toward a report we’re preparing on local control of our energy production (so we can more aggressively fight global warming), and the text of President Obama’s very interesting Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.
  • My RSS reader, which offers continually updating summaries of all the items on all the blogs I like to follow — DANGER! WILL SUCK UP ALL ATTENTION IF ALLOWED TO!
  • PDF documents with scenes, notes, and schedules for the Love & Taxes shoot.
  • JPEGs of possible locations for the L&T shoot.
  • A complete script, in “Final Draft” software, of L&T.
  • An audiobook, in iTunes, containing an unabridged recording of a complete history of the Jews (I just started it, but I suspect there may be some suffering).
  • A printer utility warning that I am about to run out of cyan-colored ink — which is actually okay, since (a) I will soon vaporize and thus won’t need to print anything and (b) I have no real idea what color “cyan” is, and suspect that few if any of my documents will need to be tinted cyan.

Which is just for starters, and does not take into account the books by and about Kafka, Brandeis, and other “Warhol Jews” that are staring accusingly at me from the bookcase, asking why I have not finished them yet; nor the pile of unsorted papers I brought back from my recent trips to India and Portland (guess which place was drizzlier); nor the fact that my new booking agent has been waiting a week for me to send him the technical requirements for my “smaller” shows (i.e., the cheaper ones); nor many other things that are now rolling around vaguely but impatiently in my head and working their way down to my esophagus, from whence they will eventually try to reflux their way back out into the world …

But really, the idea is to just start with something, right?  Baby steps.  Okay.  Right.

I’ll pee.  Yes, that is what I’ll do first.  I will pee.  Peeing is good.  It also involves stepping away from the computer, which will be a relief for my laptop and myself.  We both need some space.  Too much multitasking.  Too many tasks to be multi-ed.  Go back to a simpler time, when people left their front doors unlocked and movies cost under $10 and one person doing one task on one computer was the subject of worldwide awe and admiration.  That is what I will do.  And it will be nice.

Warhol’s “Minyan,” Paired Up

Golda Meir, the first member of Warhol's minyan, takes a seat and waits for the others.

Golda Meir, the first member of Warhol's minyan, takes a seat and waits for the others.

For his “Jewish Geniuses” portrait series, Andy Warhol ended up choosing 10 subjects — coincidentally (or not?), the number of Jews you need to start a religious service.  (Technically, I’ve been told, a minyan is traditionally 10 men — but as a feminist Jew, I think I’ll just go with a gender-free definition.)  As I have been working on Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?, I’ve found it helpful to pair up the 10 — not for any thematic reasons, necessarily, just as a mnemonic device:

  • Ein/Stein: Albert Einstein and Gertrude Stein.
  • Rhapsody in Lou: George Gershwin and former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
  • Acting Out: Sarah Bernhardt and Sigmund Freud.
  • Metameirphosis: Franz Kafka and Golda Meir.
  • I and Thou (and Thou and Thou): Religious philosopher Martin Buber (author of I and Thou) and the Marx Brothers.

Now, you may notice that — with the Marx Brothers — there are actually 12 members of Warhol’s minyan (not even counting Zeppo or Gummo!).  So, okay, let’s call this a “baker’s minyan.”

Becoming a “Warhol Jew”

josh_kornbluth-copyMuch of my creative focus for the next several months will be on expanding Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? — an hour-long presentation I did in January, commissioned by the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco — into a full-length theatrical monologue, which will debut at Theater J in Washington D.C. in March and then play at the Jewish Theatre San Francisco in April and May.  My director and producer, as they have been (thank heaven) for years, are David Dower and Jonathan Reinis, respectively; I am also working with two of my favorite collaborators, designer Alex Nichols and composer Marco d’Ambrosio.

The original challenge laid down by the CJM’s commission was fairly simple: I was to visit (and, as it turns out, revisit and revisit) their exhibition “Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered,” guest-curated by Prof. Richard Meyer of USC.  The 10 portraits at the center of this exhibit were of famous 20th-century Jews whom Andy Warhol — after what turns out to have been a quite interesting and collaborative process of selection — had committed to silkscreen in 1980.  The collection (which appeared at the Jewish Museum in New York, among many other places) was received at the time with commercial euphoria and, for the most part, critical vituperation.  Hilton Kramer’s 1980 New York Times review is one of the nastiest I have ever read.  Here’s how it begins (as quoted in Meyer’s terrific essay in the recent show’s catalogue):

To the many afflictions suffered by the Jewish people in the course of their long history, the new Andy Warhol show at the Jewish Museum cannot be said to make a significant addition.  True, the show is vulgar.  It reeks of commercialism, and its contribution to art is nil.  The way it exploits its Jewish subjects without showing the slightest grasp of their significance is offensive — or would be, anyway, if the artist had not already treated so many non-Jewish subjects in the same tawdry manner.  No, the Jews will survive this caper unscathed.  So, very likely, will everyone else.  But what it may do to the reputation of the Jewish Museum is, as they say, something else.

Wow — tell us what you really think, Hilton!

I knew nothing of Warhol — and, sad to say, not so much about my fellow Jews (other than what I had picked up via osmosis by hanging out in various delis) — when I began working on this project.  Since then, I have been trying to make up for lost time — chatting up rabbis (well, two), reading books and articles on Warhol and Jews, and listening to audiobooks and watching videos by and about Warhol and about Jewish history.  For a Jew raised about as secularly as possible — and by parents who were no fans of Pop Art, either — this process is a great challenge, both exhilarating and confusing.

In a phone conversation I had with David today (he’s in Washington D.C.; I’m in Portland, Ore., right now), he pointed out that my previous monologues have placed me in various roles — son, husband, father — but have perhaps not actually come to terms with who I am (other than in relation to others).  I find this idea to be quite provocative, and will try to pursue it as I continue my researches and improvisations (assuming, of course, that there is an “I” to do the investigating).  A question that also interests both of us is how much of my parents’ communism may have been derived from the Jewish traditions that they broke away from.  (In my mom’s case, the rift actually came a generation earlier.)

Hovering over all the proceedings — as I study the Jews, as well as the very religious (Catholic) Warhol — is my continuing lack of belief in God (at least, as some sort of supernatural being), which is somehow joined with my lifelong fascination with theology.  (When you’re a Jewish atheist who spends six formative years at an Episcopalian choir school and has a communist father who’s obsessed with Jesus, some weird things can happen, I guess.)

In any case, there’s a lot to chew on here — and as I gnaw away at this juicy material, I will try to share elements of the process in this blog.  Anyone who is interested is invited — nay, beseeched — to join in the process in the “comments” section beneath each entry.  If there’s one thing I already know, it’s that dialogue is good — and not only for the Jews!

Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?

For the past month or so, I have been working on my first ever commissioned piece: Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? Running from — yikes! — Jan. 10-18 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (which commissioned the work), it will be my personal response to one of their current exhibits: Warhol’s Jews: A Retrospective.

I have been delighted to spend many hours at the CJM, hanging out at that exhibit and others — and also, quite often, at their fine café, for a man cannot live on art alone.  Outside the museum, I’ve also been chatting up a number of experts on Jews, Warhol, art, and philosophy.  How much of their collective wisdom will still cling to me by the time my show opens is a very good question.  But if you come and check out any of the performances, I can promise you that they will at least look and sound beautiful — as I have had the privilege of collaborating, once again, with director David Dower, designer Alex Nichols, composer Marco d’Ambrosio, and producer Jonathan Reinis.  Also, after each hour-long monologue, I will turn into a dialoguist and interview a cool expert on one or another issue raised by the show.

You can get tix and info here.  (Your ticket to my show also gets you in to see everything at this wonderful new museum.)  And despite the very silly video preview above, I want to assure you that I will try at all times to maintain the decorum befitting this very august setting.

UPDATE: The original six shows have been starting to sell out, so the museum has scheduled an additional performance, on Thurs., Jan. 22, at 7 p.m.  Go here for details — and to see the list of incredible talkback guests for the whole run.

ANOTHER UPDATE: All the shows — including the added performance on Jan. 22 — are sold out.