Longtime San Francisco comedian Nathaniel Green, who recently moved to Brooklyn to start work as a writer on the FX show “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell,” was 11 years old when his parents first sent him to a synagogue. Susan and Jim Green, both schoolteachers and left-wing refugees from Chicago’s North Side, had found that their newly adopted city lacked much of the Jewish community they had come to take for granted back home. Susan Green especially missed the sight of families walking home from shul on Shabbat, the sound of her grandmother’s voice praying over the candles on Friday night — and, of course, the food.
“There wasn’t a good Jewish delicatessen,” she says today. “You could get a corned beef sandwich, but it wasn’t good.”
More important was the lack of spiritual sustenance. After devoting several high holidays to searching for an organization that would reflect the family’s progressive values, she chose Temple Emmanuel, San Francisco’s biggest Reform synagogue, so that young Nathaniel could prepare for his bar mitzvah. Unfortunately, Nathaniel — or Nato, as he would come to be called — had just read Phillip Roth’s story “The Conversion of the Jews.”
“He wound up getting in arguments with the assistant rabbi about whether or not there was a God — and making claims that the only purpose of religion was to make money for the rabbi,” recalls Nato’s father, Jim Green, who worked as a high school teacher in the San Francisco public schools and later as a principal.
The Greens pulled their son out of Temple Emmanuel and sought out a more suitable spiritual mentor. They found one in the form of a lawyer named David Cooper, who described himself as an atheist Jewish mystic, which seemed to suit young Nato just fine.
“Nato would say to him, ‘Well, I don’t believe in God,’ and David would say, ‘That’s OK, I don’t either,’” says Jim Green.
According to Susan Green, her son’s knack for comedy began early; his bar mitzvah incorporated a Samson comic book and a recitation of several passages from the Holy Book of Lenny Bruce, and it was the first ever held at the city’s famous gay synagogue, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. Green himself claims that his own earliest memory is sitting on his father’s shoulders at one of the gay pride rallies that was later dramatized in the movie “Milk.”
“We were clearly fringe in the Jewish community,” says Jim Green.