Literary Death Match takes a Jewish spin at the CJM

With an offbeat, talmudic-style commentary, comic Josh Kornbluth managed to read between the lines of one of the night’s short-story performances. His conclusion: The author’s reference to underwear alluded to the parting of the Red Sea.

Kornbluth found Jewish symbols in the most unlikely of places all evening as one of three judges in the Literary Death Match at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

Known for his Jewish-themed one-man shows, Kornbluth was charged in the reality-show, judging-style competition with analyzing the “Jewish intangibles” of each performance. He was joined by two other judges at the Nov. 8 competition: novelist and memoirist Ayelet Waldman (“Bad Mother”) and TV writer-producer-director Richard Kramer (“My So-Called Life,” “Tales of the City”).

Celebrity judges (from left) Ayelet Waldman, Richard Kramer and Josh Kornbluth photos/literary death match

The judges heard four Bay Area–based aspiring writers read their own prose for seven minutes or less. In response, like all good reality-show judges, they spit out raunchy observations and one-liners — with an audience of about 50 laughing uproariously.

Like “American Idol” and “The Voice” — with the added influence of a poetry slam — Literary Death Match is an event held across the country and internationally. However, the Bay Area version, subtitled “All Jew Review,” was the first of 49 such events to be Jewish-focused.

While the readings were entertaining, the real performance was the improvisational repartee of the judges.

After his wry opening comments and judgment that San Francisco is “the sluttiest town in America,” founder and event host Adrian Todd Zuniga, who currently is pitching his idea as a TV series, introduced Waldman and asked her to reflect on three literary quotes about redheads. She tossed aside those quotes and instead gave one of her own, proposing that redheads like her have unmatched prowess in performing a certain sexual act. Her remark set the tone for what turned out be a sex-laced literary romp with a Jewish flavor.

The readings got under way after Zuniga shot discs with the names of the contestants into the audience from a plastic gun. Audience members shouted out the names in turn to select the first performers: Jason Turbow (author of “The Baseball Codes”) vs. Suzanne Kleid (co-editor of the anthology “Created In Darkness By Troubled Americans”).

Turbow read a story in which he described his search to find a perfect gift for his wife. He briefly considered presenting to her — as a jewel — the stone their dog swallowed and had removed by a veterinarian.

Suzanne Kleid reads her story.

Somehow, Kornbluth found more veiled Jewish symbolism. “The fact that you kept using the word stone was clearly a reference to walls in Jewish civilization,” he noted.

In judging the two contestants, the panel used absurd, distorted criteria. Waldman, noting that she was stressed out by her daughter’s current college-application process, said she was alienated by a reference to a university in Kleid’s piece about a person without a name.

After Kleid and Turbow finished, the judges huddled. Saying the decision was not an Obama-style landslide, Waldman announced Kleid as the winner of round one.

In round two, Zarina Zabrisky (author of the recently released “Iron”) told the story of her Russian grandmother who breaks Jewish food taboos, declaring that “if you eat pork, eat it greasy.” The grandmother is obsessed with pork, even calling her granddaughter “Little Piglet.”

In the finals, Suzanne Kleid repositions people to unscramble the name Blume.

After her reading, Kornbluth said that his rabbi “always has a little tear in his eye because he will never taste bacon.”

Zabrisky beat out Randall Babtkis (author of the forthcoming “The Originals”) to win round two.

Rather than have Kleid and Zabrisky square off in the final round by reading, the format pitted them in a game show of literary anagrams. They raced each other to unscramble the names of renowned Jewish writers such as Roth, Asimov, Sendak and Ginsberg — with the letters in each writer’s name being held by audience members on stage.

Kleid adeptly repositioned the volunteer letter-holders to form the correctly spelled name, jumping out to a quick 2-0 lead and never looking back. The crown was hers.