Rites and wrongs
Rare among the defenders of the Jews, Mamet recognizes the romance in the story of his ancient religion.
The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred and the Jews
By David Mamet
208 pages; $19.95
Though Jews are accused of blindly supporting Israel - or perhaps due to those accusations - rare is the prominent Jew who shows solidarity with Israel. Gentile stars who visit Israel create less wonder than Jewish ones, and we are less surprised by the kind words of a non-Jewish pundit than a Jewish one. After all, what Jewish intellectual's reputation has ever suffered for criticizing Israel?
It is thrilling, then, to come across a book with as blunt a title as this and to find its author is a prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (Glengarry Glenn Ross, Boston Marriage, Oleanna) and screenwriter (Homicide, The Spanish Prisoner, State and Main, House of Cards).
David Mamet's The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred and the Jews is a slim volume comprising loosely connected mini-essays on a wide range of subjects, all circling in on his ultimate theme: redemption. Riffing on insights gained through his many years in show business, along with his study of Judaism and psychology, the book doesn't make for sustained argument.
But just as an intoxication with dialogue - the famed "Mametspeak" - has marked Mamet's work from its beginnings, this book makes its mark with a tough recasting of the terminology of the stale yet ever simmering brew of Jewish self-hatred. His broad, while laceratingly vivid description of the contemporary self-loathing Jew - like the wicked son in the title who asks at the Pessah seder, "What is this service to you?" - may become the industry standard:
"To the Jews who, in the sixties, envied the Black Power Movement; who in the nineties, 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 your curiosity to a dogfight, to a bordello or an opium den, but find ludicrous the notion of a visit to the synagogue; whose favorite Jew is Anne Frank and whose second-favorite does not exist; who are humble in their desire to learn about Kwanzaa and proud of their ignorance of Tu Bishvat; who dread endogamy more than incest; who bow their head reverently at a baptism and have never attended a bris - to you, who find your religion and race repulsive, your ignorance of your history a satisfaction, here is a book from your brother."
Mamet is not only their brother in the ethnic sense. He is as sensitive as they to such signature issues of the Left as concern for gay rights and fear of the Christian Right. But that shared progressive outlook doesn't stop him holding to account "apostate Jews whose denunciation of Israel rises past legitimate debate into the realm of race treason."
Mamet doesn't talk specific politics or strategy. Israel is a country, and countries make mistakes. But, he argues, consigning to Israelis and their army nefarious motives crosses the line to racism:
"Do, can, or could the Israelis delight in 'reprisals,' in 'retaliation'? The very words are revelatory, for such actions by the United States are known as 'defense' - a country defends itself; reprisals and retaliation are the actions of a mob."
ALAS, MAMET himself comes in for the same linguistic two-timing, with a New York Times review stating that he sees Israel's flaws as "imaginary" - a claim not once made in the book. In fact, Mamet does not even take his argument a step further and note that if one calls the establishment of the State of Israel a mistake, as writers Richard Cohen and Tony Judt have done on prominent media platforms (greatly increasingly their renown as they pushed the envelope of respectable anti-Israelism), then any military defense by the Jewish state - retaliation or otherwise - is illegitimate.
"It is unlikely that any self-professed antagonist to Israel, and so to the Jews, can be brought by force of outside reason to recognize and correct [their] self-serving apostasy," writes Mamet.
But there can still be a happy ending for the wicked son. Instead of politics, Mamet talks religion:
"The protest movements... are disproportionately peopled by Jews, and, in fact, by lapsed Jews. But the racially ingrained mitzvot persist, in their observance, as do-gooderism, and, in their nonobservance, as guilt and anomie."
Mamet's solution is observance. He belongs to the new stream of tradition minded Reform Jews who take belief and ritual seriously. Interestingly, so does Jonathan Rosen, the editor of the hip Jewish Encounters series, of which The Wicked Sonis the sixth entry (with another 17 on the boards). Rosen is the author of the widely noted The Talmud and the Internet and of the engrossing if unlikely novel about a young Reform woman rabbi, Joy in the Morning.
Ritual and belonging are two primary human needs, Mamet emphasizes. He offers the deracinated Jew the wisdom of the good actor: Say the lines exactly as they're written. Try the religious rite and see where it leads; go to shul and find an enclave of belonging, learning and mutual support.
Just as in Mamet's best stage and screen work, the book is rich enough for repeated readings. However its polemical approach - starting with the title - makes it about as likely to attract his target audience as Woody Allen is likely to throw a benefit for the Jewish victims of the Lebanon war. Nonetheless, shoring up the demoralized is no mean feat, and Mamet has done his people a great service by giving it his best.
And that best can be poetic in praise and not just criticism. Rare among the defenders of the Jews - and of Judaism - Mamet recognizes the romance in the story of his ancient religion and race and finds the words beautiful enough to describe it:
"We are the children of kings and queens, a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. We are the children of a mystery that has not abandoned us and that has come for us; it is both described and contained in the Torah."