On Saturday morning, I woke up late, as I usually do these days. I’d been out driving till about 3:00 AM, wrapping up Friday night much earlier than normal. I was feeling a little sick. That night, I had nightmares, as is still pretty usual. As is the tendency these days, one of the first things I did after waking up was check my phone.
I saw the following update from Facebook: Elizabeth Turnbull marked herself safe during The Fire in Oakland. Elizabeth Turnbull is the married name of a Smith debater who was in the college class of 2004, who only recently moved to Oakland.
My first thought was of how many people I know in Oakland, how many I know in the Bay Area, and how catastrophic a fire would have to be to warrant that level of a safety check. I immediately went to Google News for more. I saw that it was an electronic music show and I immediately thought of Jon. Jon, or just Bernbaum, as I knew him, has been going by his fuller name of Jonathan Bernbaum for years as he became a world traveling highly acclaimed VJ, performing at dance parties, raves, and events of all kind all over the world. This seemed like exactly the kind of event he would be playing, or attending. But almost immediately thereafter, I banished the thought. He was almost certainly somewhere else in the world, anywhere but Oakland, playing in Dubai or Estonia or Shanghai. I went to see his recent Facebook posts.
He’d just returned from a multi-country tour of Asia, playing huge events, a few days before. His latest post, which I suddenly remembered seeing, was about divesting from Wells Fargo to a credit union. Above that, a few comments of concern from friends that he hadn’t yet marked himself as safe. And then I found the event page for the show where the fire had started and saw he was marked to attend. My blood froze. It wasn’t clear whether he’d been performing or just attending, but it looked like he’d been there. I posted on his Facebook page, then that of the Brandeis debate team, hoping someone else knew more, knew better than I did.
Jon and I weren’t close lately. We weren’t totally far, either, but we hadn’t seen each other in person in something close to a decade. This is the nature of the world of social media and Facebook, much like the slow-motion horror that unfolded above and in the 36 hours that followed before it was confirmed that he was among the victims of the fire. You don’t ever lose touch with people, unless you really want to, those connections to people you shared brief important times with can remain, unbroken and open, as you keep up with each other’s lives. We had recently touched base a few years ago when he was headed to Finland for the first time and asked for recommendations and I caught up on his incredible career as a VJ. Even more recently, he’d commented on my post just last month about the election wrap-up. A fellow far-lefty, a borderline (?) pacifist, an anti-establishment comrade, we saw the world in much the same way, both in those college years we shared and so many years down the line.
We met at Brandeis, the fall of his first year there, when he joined the debate team I’d been on for two years prior. He immediately established himself as an uppity novice, a big voice with big opinions who had a way of getting under people’s skin but was deeply committed to improving as a debater. He had bluster, bravado, stubbornness, intelligence, and will. He was, to most, an acquired taste who really grew on you. While he sometimes led with abrasiveness, he was passionately interested in ideas and how they worked, pushing people to their limit to see how they ticked. That spring, after Zirkin and I took a break from our failed TOTY run to try to qual teammates, Bernbaum and I debated together at the tiny Wellesley tournament.
It was a disaster. We went 2-3, one of my only losing records at an APDA tournament. But despite the poor performance, I found I loved debating with Jon. He was bold and brave in his argumentation. He was passionate and excited. He was as enthused for our 2-2 round, when we had no chance of breaking, as he’d been for our opening round, when we had high hopes. He brought his trademark intensity to every speech, every round, every recap of the round. Sometimes that intensity was a little manic, but he was determined to harness it to improve. And he’d earned 4th novice speaker in the process. I vowed that we’d return to another tournament the next year and avenge our record.
It was Amherst the next January where we attempted to fulfill this promise. The mid-sized field of 47 teams sported a veritable murderer’s row of debaters, including three debaters who would go on to win Nationals in the following two years. After a solid first round win, we hit the tournament favorite, that year’s second TOTY (Team of the Year, the annual overall rankings for partnerships on APDA, our debate league), Beth O’Connor and Adam Jed from Yale. Danny Schwarcz, a recent Amherst graduate and star of their team, was our judge. We were Opp and Bernbaum started freaking out a little that our luck from Wellesley was back. I started wracking my brains for what case they’d run against us, since I had hit this team about every other weekend all season. And then I remembered they had a case that many teams ran about eliminating victim impact statements, one they’d never run against either of us. We started discussing counter-arguments to this case.
When Danny got to the room, he asked what we were talking about so frantically and prepping so much since we were Opp. I told him we had a hunch about the case and Bernbaum flashed his trademark evil grin. Danny, to my chagrin, said he thought that case would be really interesting and he hoped they’d run it. We went back to prepping. When Yale returned to the room with their case ready, Danny observed that we’d predicted the case and our opponents immediately said that they doubted this was possible. He said “we’ll let you know when you read case statement” and Beth got up for her PMC. Before she was finished saying “We have an interesting case for you about the sentencing phase of jury trials,” Jon and I had both burst out laughing and Danny was trying to hold a poker face through giving her a thumbs-up. Only mildly flustered, she went on to deliver the case. Emboldened by our preparation, we went on to win.
We dropped round three to the team that would go 5-0 in in-rounds, consisting of Tim Willenken, who’d had only moderate success with his regular partner that year and his novice partner for the weekend, Josh Bendor. I forget who we beat round 4. In fifth round, we proved to be the middle 3-1 team and got pulled-up to hit the top team at the tournament, a 4-0 squad from MIT, who’d dubbed themselves the Ivy League Assassins for the weekend. They were drawing little stick figures of every Ivy League debater they bested that weekend beside their names each round. But, of course, Brandeis is not an Ivy League school.
The team, good friends Patrick Nichols and Phil Larochelle, who would go on to win the 2003 North American Championships as well as this tournament, ran an opp-choice case of whether a rebel movement in a developing nation should use violent or non-violent means to resist an oppressive government. They ran this as a trap, knowing I’d pick non-violent, presuming it to be the much weaker side. Christopher Russo, the ranking dino in experience and age on the circuit at the time, judged. The round was hard-fought and razor-close, but ultimately Jon and I were able to fend off Phil’s onslaught of examples with the notion that just because non-violence had been tried less didn’t mean it wasn’t more effective. I’m not sure I’d ever been in a round where both my teammate and I felt so passionately about a side we were arguing and the importance of its implications. Not only did we win the round, it was the only blemish on the Ivy League Assassins’ perfection that tournament. They won every other round with perfect ranks and finished as tournament champions and the top two speakers.
Despite the two utterly epic victories, Bernbaum and I broke to quarterfinals as just the eighth seed in the tournament, lining up for a rematch with Willenken and Bendor. I remember the round being pretty packed and we were both nervous as we waited, not being able to predict what this Yale team would run against as we had in round two. They ran opp-choice, should we value the letter or spirit of the law when they conflict, a classic LD resolution from prior years. I’m not sure we even deliberated before immediately choosing spirit. Jon was brilliant in the round, citing several instances of old racist and sexist laws whose letter is exclusionary but can be reinterpreted to be more inclusive in our more enlightened contemporary understanding of society. While we lost the round, I’d never seen him debate better and I was so proud to be his partner that weekend.
Later that year, we’d debate together officially just once more, defending the proposed Brandeis boycott of Kraft, the idea that good friend Ben Brandzel had championed as President of the Student Senate. This was in a public debate on campus, one of the first we ever did, and placed us, for the third time in a row, in the position of passionately defending a political position we staunchly believed in. It was practically like The Great Debaters, now that I think of it.
At the end of that year, at our senior banquet, Bernbaum won the Most Improved Debater award, a testament to his dedication, perseverance, and intensity. No one had any doubt that he was by far the most deserving recipient.
Jon stayed on the debate team his junior and senior year, but from what I heard his commitment to the club was variable. He was not always his happiest and most at home in college. While he loved Brandeis and his intellectual pursuits there, he struggled at times with his outlook on life, his weight, with finding a place and direction in his life. When we reconnected in 2005, when he’d graduated and moved back to his childhood home in Berkeley while I lived in Oakland, he seemed restless for his life to begin already. He became a regular at the Big Blue House poker nights, joining our teammate and good friend Zimmy, plus a variety of Seneca and PIRG friends and our landlord. We told old debate stories and laughed and joked and he perfected his wily and cunning poker faces, which were kind of the opposite of poker faces in trying to deceive you not with impassivity but with gregariousness. Such was always his wild, goofy way. That February, he, Zimmy, and Chris Russo took me out for Mexican food for my birthday and talked about everything and I remember it being one of those magical perfect nights of conversation, blending mundane personal insights with grand political hopes and all of us thinking deeply about our role in the universe.
Soon, of course, Jon found his role. His journey to USC to study film, then to Pixar, then to his incredible niche as an artist VJing shows, was a deliberate and chosen path that led him to a cornucopia of friends, accolades, and fulfillments. Like all of his paths, it was not entirely constructed or fully planned, but included whimsy, whim, and just a dash of madness. Simultaneously, he turned the path inward on himself, reshaping how he interacted with the world in drastic and important ways. He excised junk from his diet, losing an enormous amount of weight. He committed himself to pursue only the activities which he felt were valuable and important. Turning down a full-time offer at Pixar to pursue his creative vision to create wild visual displays for enormous parties is something no one saw coming, nor could anyone deny its obvious rightness once we saw his success in that scene. He had found his place, and tens of thousands of people were richer, more enthralled, and more thoughtful for his influence.
If there is a silver lining to this immense tragedy, a minor mitigation to the abyss of our loss in the wake of Jonathan Bernbaum’s death, it is the solace we can take in knowing that he had found his calling and had time to hone and develop it. That he was recognized for his creativity, intensity, and brilliance by so many in his short time here. In that enormous accomplishment, we can all take inspiration.
I have been overwhelmed all weekend by little flashes and snippets of Jon, mostly from the time we shared on the debate circuit. Jon giving a floor speech, cracking good jokes and bad ones, in his characteristic blustery high volume. Jon donning just one black glove, grinning creepily in a staring contest before he burst out laughing just before his opponent blinked. The sheer joy Jon expressed in the car the first time he heard the Barenaked Ladies song “I Know”, an irreverent romp through our cultural inconsistencies that I’ve never since heard without thinking of him.
Here, have a listen:
Beth Mandel and I making the impromptu decision to call the race of extraterrestrial aliens in our crazy new case “The Bernbaums” when running the case at Middlebury in front of Jon’s best non-Brandeis APDA friend, Sam Rodriguez. The hilarity that ensued, not least from Jon himself, who loved it. Some drunk MIT debaters at the epic Fairfield 2001 party asking if they could “haze Bernbaum” while I defended him against their onslaught. At one point, Jon actually said it was okay if they hazed him but I fended the MITers off anyway. Later, one MIT debater, having to be content with hazing his teammates, would stuff beans down the ear of another to the point where the latter would need surgery to remove them. Jon’s love/hate friendship with Zimmy, how the two grew close after college when they were both in the Bay Area, after years of being good but bickery friends. Jon’s penchant for accents, impressions, corny jokes, and arch facial expressions.
More than anything, I am struck by how many people I would be worried about writing this remembrance for, in this way. It’s not always the most flattering picture of Bernbaum, but it was the Jon that I knew. And I know, unequivocally, that he would be more than okay with that. Because he was never untrue to himself or the reality of the situation. He was unflinchingly, bravely honest. He never ever cared what anyone thought of him. He was himself, only himself, and only ever wanted to be himself. The best possible, ever-improving version of himself, but not at the expense of total authenticity. More than anything, this is what I most deeply respect and love about Jon Bernbaum. He was unapologetically himself – goofy and intense, thoughtful and loud, a powerfully emotional intelligent human being.
He’s a human being I wish I’d known better. I wish you’d all had a chance to know him. I hope we can all be a little more like him from now on. I’ll miss you, Bernbaum. You made so many people so happy here. I hope you knew that.