Jeremy Kahn has been cast in a bunch of Jewish roles — including as the character of the writer Jonathan Safran Foer in a Berkeley theater company’s upcoming presentation of “Everything Is Illuminated” — and says he owes some of that success to his last name.
But the Oakland actor, whose father is Jewish and mother is not, had a secular upbringing with neither Hebrew school nor a bar mitzvah. So he’s actually formed his Jewish identity in large part through the roles he’s played.
“I don’t have a lot of conditioned cultural identity as a Jewish person, so I had to make it up along the way through these plays,” he said, citing shows such as “The Fantasticks,” “Bad Jews” and “It Shoulda Been You.”
Trying to understand the Jewishness of Foer, who wrote the book on which the play is based, is part of the challenge facing Kahn in his current role with the Aurora Theatre Company.
“Everything Is Illuminated” is a vaguely autobiographical tale by Foer in which he travels to Ukraine seeking the elderly woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis during the destruction of the shtetl town of Trachimbrod.
The book, as well as the 2005 movie (starring Elijah Wood) and the play based on it, actually encompasses two stories that feature an imaginative writing style that incorporates fantasy and absurd plot twists.
The first is a whimsical account of Foer’s journey through Ukraine with a young English-challenged translator, the translator’s grandfather (who claims he is blind but is the chauffeur) and a dog named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr.
The second is a fictional tale about Trachimbrod and Foer’s supposed ancestors, one of whom has a saw blade embedded in his skull as the result of an accident at a flour mill. Religion, marriage and community customs all are fair game for Foer’s abstract wit in this retelling.
People who are fans of this story, they lean into the ambiguity and the strangeness of it.
Trying to figure out how much of the real Foer is reflected in his character is left to Kahn, who studied videos of the author to pick up tics and mannerisms, such as touching his face a lot when he talks.
Published in 2002, “Everything Is Illuminated” was Foer’s first novel.
“He might have been writing an idealized version of himself and also the ugliest parts of himself. I’m using what’s useful to me and throwing the rest out,” Kahn said. “I had to fill in some of the gaps about what his behavior is like.”
Kahn grew up in Oakland’s Dimond District and moved back there after getting his acting degree from DePaul University in 2009 and living in Chicago for a while. He attended Skyline High School, the alma mater of Tom Hanks.
Though he has performed from Connecticut to Southern California, he said he’s happy to be making a living as an actor — including TV commercials and corporate videos — in the Bay Area at places ranging from the Aurora’s intimate 150-seat theater in Berkeley to TheatreWorks productions at the 600-seat Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
“I had the notion that you couldn’t make it here, that it’s not an acting market. I had been brainwashed into this mentality you had to live in New York or L.A. to do this work,” he said. “I was delighted I was able to live in this area and work.“
Kahn said he realizes “Everything Is Illuminated” has an almost cult-like following, which presents challenges as well as opportunities.
“One of the amazing things about this book [and the movie] is that everywhere I go, somebody says, ‘Oh my, that’s my favorite book,’ or, ‘That film was amazing.’ There’s something about this book that seems to get to the heart of some people,” he said.
“It’s certainly been scary to approach something I know people have such strong feelings about. People who are fans of this story, they lean into the ambiguity and the strangeness of it. And that gives me some permission as an actor to make some choices and not fear they’re going to be criticized as being wrong.”