Author pho­to by Lone Morch

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.