Have you ever stalked a corpse, or been haunted by a memory that never existed? Sarah Kornfeld’s narrative non-fiction book The True is an unflinching examination of all the little lies we tell ourselves, and the disappointments of daily existence. It’s the story of why we do the things we do — date the right people at the wrong time or the wrong people all the time — until we end up in a psychic fracture. The question — how does one allow oneself to believe the con? — is less important than the art and theater of the con itself. Or maybe the notion that art is itself a con and we women have been conning ourselves all along.
While narrating the history of radical theater artists, Kornfeld also explores Judaism — her father’s natal religion — during the era of AIDS and in Romania where the ghosts of antisemitism linger. As she searches for her dead ex-lover, also a Jew with complex ties to his identity, she probes the role of art and artist in a country still emerging from beneath the heavy boot of Nicolae Ceaușescu where, in order to survive, one necessarily had to rely on artifice. She interrogates what it means to be a Jew and woman in our world of choose-your-own adventure spirituality. All the characters in The True long to make their mark somewhere, anywhere, yet they remain on the fringe. Their failures and desires resonate as palpably and painfully as Kornfeld’s seeming “naivete” for following her dead ex back to Romania in the first place. Why do we do the crazy things we do? What makes a Jew, a Jew and what makes art, art?
Emily Stone: A lot happens in this book! So many angles. But I am going to focus on my favorite: Did Judaism play a role in your household growing up?
Sarah Kornfeld: Religion and spirituality played a big role in my family — but in an odd, mash-up kind of way. My dad was raised Jewish (he is from Brooklyn) but he was stationed in Dachau during the Korean War and was deeply traumatized by that experience. He returned home to New York in the late 1950s and ran away from Brooklyn to Greenwich Village where he joined the downtown art scene. My parents got married in 1963 at Judson Memorial Church in the Village when my mother was in training at Union Seminary as a theologian. My dad had a nickname for my mom and her friends, “The Uptown Gods” —it was his way of teasing them — though he respected her and her friends because their take on Christianity fell directly into the Civil Rights Movement (of which she was a member) and he felt those in the movement were “safe Christians.”
My father’s great uncle was Rabbi Joseph Hertz the Chief Rabbi of the British Isles. I was told throughout my life that we have the “Rabbi” gene, and so I thought that meant I was biologically Jewish. The story my mom tells us is that the moment she held me after giving birth she thought out loud, “She is Jewish.” She says she just knew I was Jewish. And so, I was never baptized. I was not made to choose.
I always felt different, and it never crossed my mind to believe Jesus was the Messiah. Here’s an example: I said to my godfather when I was little, “Poor Uncle Al, you can only believe in Jesus. I’m related to him!”
ES: I noticed in your book, The True, that there’s a lot of emphasis on Judaism and the theater in downtown New York where you grew up. Was the collision of those two worlds some kind of secret spiritual alchemy?
SK: The downtown New York theater scene of the later 1950s and 1960s was a mashup of intersecting tribes of Jewish people — believers and non-believers. My dad joined the Living Theater after he returned from the army. He then became the Managing Director to Julian Beck and Judith Malina (co-artistic directors) both of whom were Jewish. The Living Theater was one of the truly rebellious theaters of its time with a profound belief in art as a liberator for people. I’d say that the men of that generation (in our downtown world) distanced themselves from being identified as Jewish, though culturally that is completely who they were! The women carried the tradition. Judith Malina (whose dad was a Rabbi) held seders and was incredibly progressive spiritually and acted as an anchor for many people. But, during those times, there was still a backlash against the “bourgeois” upbringing many had had in Jewish America, and so they rejected their parent’s Judaism and created a new form of Jewish, creative expression.
My father left The Living Theater and joined Judson Poets Theater housed in Judson Church on Washington Square Park. The theater was housed in a building that used to be part of the Underground Railroad. Anywhere you looked you could find the themes that Jewish life centers around (and liberation Christianity has adopted): the search for freedom, exploring old texts in a new way, and creating authentic community.
Anywhere you looked you could find the themes that Jewish life centers around: the search for freedom, exploring old texts in a new way, and creating authentic community.
ES: How did this all lead to Alexandru Darie and his secret about being Jewish?
SK: I met Alexandru Darie (nickname “Ducu”) in the summer of 1990 at the Royal Court Theater of London. He was a Romanian director who had just been liberated from the terrors of the Ceausescu regime. The revolution had just occurred in December, and he was finally free to direct anywhere in the world. I was coming from a decade of horrific death in my theater community due to AIDS. We had lost close to one-hundred friends to the epidemic, and my mom had shifted her clerical work to being one of the first members of multi-faith clerics to care for AIDS patients (both in the theater world and with the homeless). I felt gutted, the world of the theater literally died before my eyes by the time I was twenty-one years old. These two realities, that AIDS had killed the art scene of my community and the liberation of Eastern Europe, were very tightly bound and I made decisions based on this tug of war: death and freedom.
When I met Ducu he was a breath of fresh air (because he was so excited to be free) and we struck up a friendship, then a love affair. He and I initially connected as two “theater brats.” But what I did not understand then was that his mom (Consuela Rosu) was Sephardic, and due to the antisemitism of the Soviet rule, she and Ducu did not actively disclose their Jewishness.
ES: Why do you think he never left Romania?
SK: You know, I think he so wanted Romania to become all that he hoped she could become that he just stayed in it for the long run. Why do we stay in our countries even when they are not what we want them to be? Why do we go all in when our country betrays us? He simply felt he could not leave, and given that Romanian theater has a remarkable work ethic and heritage, why should he?
I know many of us struggle even now with our place in America. Given the rise in antisemitism, we are outsiders again, looking in at a country at war with itself. My book tries to take the reader on a ride through different cities and nations in search of a home, in search of what is true at a time when all that we wish for in our countries of origin seems to be slipping away.
ES: What compelled you to return to this locus of heartache and connection after his death?
SK: I guess I was just a glutton for pain? I mean…why do we return to love that is lost, or could have been? Some have read the book (particularly men) and thought perhaps I didn’t know Ducu very well; that’s an interesting read — though I fully accept that I idealized him! I knew him so very well, and we talked all the time, but in the end, when we die or those whom we love die, we are left with the deep question of “Was I known?” or “Did I know her/him?” This was what I wanted to explore in the book, and the mystery I am looking for (why he died) also connects to this bigger question: who really knows us?
I know many of us struggle even now with our place in America. Given the rise in antisemitism, we are outsiders again, looking in at a country at war with itself.
ES: Is this why is was so important to write about Maria, Ducu’s wife?
SK: Not to give away the ending, but I believe Maria is the true hero of the book. I spent thirty years feeling a great deal of shame having been with Ducu when he was (still) married to Maria. And so, given that I have decided to tell the raw truth of my experience, I felt it was imperative to write about her, and about how my shame played a role in my delusion in the con. I think facing your true history is very Jewish, and I believe that Exodus is not just a story of cultural transformation, but also finding God within ourselves and certainly in others. In the end, being seen and known by Maria is like coming out of a long desert journey. In the end, it is she who holds the Talmudic power of redemption.
ES: How does a person get trapped in such a big lie? How did the fact you were getting conned escape you?
SK: Here’s where I have landed on this matter — I just lost a connection to God. Now, that sounds a bit high-minded, but I had back-to-back personal (and collective) trauma that totally kicked my ass. In 2016 Trump was elected on a Tuesday, that Sunday my parents were in a near-fatal car crash and my mother was rendered quadriplegic. Then, a month to the day of the accident I was diagnosed with cancer. Then came the cancer treatments. Then Ducu was said to be dying. Then Covid arrived and I could not get to Friday services with my community. I was stuck in my house with my pain, and it was a doozie and I stopped praying.
By the point Covid rolled in, I was feeling like my dad’s generation — what did a God need from so much human pain? I was alone, I was isolated, and I did not have the tactile presence of Jewish practice to give me strength. I think Jewish practice is one of the cleverest forms of inverted “power of positive thinking” ever invented. You explore and re-explore stories of people who are pretty messed up but who, through resistance against despair, and the repetition of joy found in language and song, find a way through.
I was cut off from this source, and I was an easy mark. Though I must say, once I woke up to being in a con, I had deeper respect and understanding of Parsha. I felt more connected to the stories of our past and the people who followed either fully alert or blindly, those who led them to a “promised” land.
ES: I read that this book has different endings depending on the language in which it was published. Can you tell me why?
SK: Once the book was in manuscript form, I could finally see how lost I had been. And I could also see how I had been lost in translation — I had not been reading the signs of the con, I had not understood the language differences between me and an entire country (Romania), and I had loved a man who eluded me completely. So, when my publisher (Costel Postolache) said, “Could you consider writing different content and slightly different endings?” My whole body said, “YES.”
So that’s what we did. In Romanian the story centers on the experience of the con, in the English version there are twenty extra pages about Ducu in New York, and in the French version there are twenty pages of whimsy about how I dreamed of France as THE place I thought Ducu and I could thrive in the 1990s.
ES: What are you working on next?
SK: I’m working on a novel set in Budapest in the 1900s that explores what my grandmother (Lillian Friedman Kornfeld) and her three sisters could have been if they had never left Hungary to assimilate into America.
I’m also working on a non-fiction book with the researcher Cate Riegner about the current state of artists around the world, how they are developing the “creative economy” and how the impact of new economies (like NFTs and the blockchain) will change the way we see artists and impact the economy itself.
We keep writing in the chaos to make art out of it, or simply to make sense of it all — that’s what we do, so on we go.
Born in New Orleans and raised in Brooklyn, Emily Stone is the author of Did Jew Know? (Chronicle Books).