[Marxism] David Mamet takes the Susan Sontag Memorial Thruway

jayroth6 jayroth6 at cox.net
Tue Oct 13 21:24:20 MDT 2009

"....despite Mamet's biting irony, the Orthodox and lovers of Israel who might fear this book should breathe a deep sigh of relief."
Mamet takes on 'unaligned' Jews
By Susan Ellman
Special to The Chronicle

"The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews" surprised me. I hardly recognized it as the work of David Mamet, whose angry characters I've seen shouting profanities at each other across the theater stage.

Instead of the rapid fire dialogue I have come to expect from Mamet, he writes in compound complex sentences that often require a second or third reading, employing an arcane vocabulary that requires the frequent use of a good dictionary, sentences not unlike this one in fact, making the 189 short pages feel more like twice that many. 

Yet this controversial, thought provoking book, which I thought would remind me of Isaac Deutscher's "The Non Jewish Jew," contained ideas I would sooner have expected in a book by Shmuley Boteach. 

I recognized the David Mamet whose indictment of his childhood Reform Judaism, "A Plain Brown Wrapper" appeared in Tikkun in 1988. In other words, despite Mamet's biting irony, the Orthodox and lovers of Israel who might fear this book should breathe a deep sigh of relief.

Mamet discusses the "unaligned Jew, the Jew only by an interesting quirk of heredity - that Jew who refers to his forebears much as a wealthy man might allude to an ancestor who was a horse thief." 

He addresses the book to this same reader, whom he claims was the subject and intended recipient of the Torah itself: the apikoris, or the rasha ("Wicked Son") of the Haggadah who excludes himself from the Passover celebration:

Mamet speaks to the "Wicked Son," who asks, "What does all this mean to you?" To the Jews who, in the 60s, envied the Black Power Movement; who in the 90s, envied the Palestinians; who weep at Exodus but jeer at the Israel Defense Forces; who nod when Tevye praises tradition but fidget through the seder; who might take their curiosity to a dogfight, to a bordello or an opium den but find ludicrous the notion of a visit to the synagogue," he writes in the introduction.

"To you who find your religion and race repulsive, your ignorance of your history a satisfaction, here is a book from your brother."

Ever the artist with words, Mamet carefully crafts his argument, founding it on the premise that the world hates Jews and that that hatred is irrational. He builds his case in short essay-like chapters with such titles as "Jewish, but Not Too Jewish," "You Can Just Be Nothing," "Bar Mitzvah and Golden Calf," "A Rich Shul and a Poor Shul," "What Israel Means to Me," and "The High School Car Wash." 

His subjects, he says, have abandoned the heritage the world has taught them to despise, identified with their oppressors, and transferred their fealty to the stronger group from which they wish to gain acceptance. 

Yet they can only seek comfort and community among their fellow Jewish apostates, happy to announce their ignorance of tradition, to denigrate Jewish observance, and to berate Israel. Mamet says these Jews, even if they don't realize it, are deeply troubled people. 

The remedy he prescribes for this modern Jewish anomie? The Wicked Son should come back and rejoin the community he rejected. He should go to shul. He should study the Torah he derides. 

He should rediscover the value of belonging to the Jewish people and living his life according to the strictures of Jewish tradition. "Only the recognition of [God] will set him free to reason," Mamet writes.

In places, Mamet's analysis is creative and incisive. He criticizes the emptiness and purposelessness of modern American society in which we excuse the poor for murder, but not to theft, and the rich for theft but not murder. He argues that the disaffected Jew, ignorant of his people's ways, suffers a deeper malaise that may hinder his moral and intellectual growth. In some families the modern bar mitzvah has become, like the Golden Calf, a celebration of the death of Judaism. 

Elsewhere, he provokes charges of excess. He claims our society loves victims for their entertainment value and finds them picturesque and colorful, but only as long as they are subdued. 

"In my lifetime," he writes, "Jews have mythologically served the cause of soft pornography. The world weeps at our being killed. What fun."

I agree with Mamet that Judaism has critically failed to address and appeal to the Wicked Child. He might be the writer who could succeed where so many rabbis and other community leaders have failed. 

I would like to think this is the book that will magically solve the problem. I would consider giving it as a bar mitzvah gift, along with my old favorite, "The Sabbath," by Abraham Joshua Heschel. The exercise of reading it alone and looking up so many of its words would boost a bright teenager's SAT score by 50 points. 

Yet I wonder whether disaffected Jews born in the 1980s will accept Mamet's basic premise that the world hates us, whether the atheist or harsh critic of Israel's policies will want to make the leap of faith he asks them to make. 

How effective and persuasive the book might be in reaching readers half Mamet's age or less remains to be seen. It should, however, provoke some important discussions. 

Susan Ellman. MLS, taught history before she became the librarian at Congregation Emanu-El B'ne Jeshurun. 

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