Pulling no punches, down to The Wire

David Simon, creator of the HBO series, discusses his Jewish upbringing, his characters, and his motivations.

November 16, 2010 05:31
David Simon, creator of HBO's 'The Wire,' 'Treme'

David Simon 311. (photo credit: Stewart Johnson for JFNA)

NEW ORLEANS – David Simon is not an easily intimidated man. Before creating The Wire, one of the most highly acclaimed television series of all time, he was the crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun, covering the city’s meanest streets. In the druginfested parts of the inner city known as Murdaland and Bodymore, he got to know the hoodlums and hustlers, cops and killers who served as inspiration for his crime drama that won over the hearts of critics and viewers, including US President Barack Obama, who called it his favorite TV show.

But when he was invited to speak at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in New Orleans last week, Simon approached with caution: The idea of addressing a room full of Jewish professionals had him feeling outside his safe zone. After all, this was the old stomping ground of his late father, Bernard Simon, a Jewish professional who passed away in April. Their relationship was marked by habitual arguing and disagreement, so when he got on stage, he apologized in advance.

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“I’m sorry if I offend anyone with my speech,” he said. “If my father were alive today, he would say, ‘Davie, please, don’t tell them what you really think.’”

Then, Simon, being Simon, went ahead and said it anyway.

“The pledge of $28 million [raised by the federations] to help New Orleans recover is great, but there are people who need more help right now,” he said. “It is not enough, we have to do better.”

After his speech, Simon agreed to an interview with The Jerusalem Post. For the next half hour he spoke about the profound effect his father and upbringing had on his career path – his focus on society’s downtrodden and disenfranchised, first as a journalist and later as a screenwriter.

“My father made us political in that he was engaged in the political,” he said. “He started with the Anti-Defamation League and he was involved in getting out the message of these Jewish service organizations, which at the time were huge – 500,000 members – and not only on policy in the Mideast but Jewish-American life and Jewish-American political life. The house was full of books, we took the Washington Times, New York Times, Washington Star every day. Your argument was prized. It was sport and it was never taken personally, so we all learned how to think and argue, my brother, my sister and me, and it’s this great gift.

“Of course, the thing about him was that he’d been a professional Jew. He was with B’nai B’rith his whole career. (Bernard Simon was the organization’s PR director for more than 20 years.) He was working with service organizations and it was pretty benign stuff. But the world sort of changed.

“Post-Vietnam, post-Watergate journalism became much more aggressive and much more skeptical about government and things like that, so I often found myself later in life in these moments where he’s like, ‘Are you going to print that? Are you going to say that? Is that what your article says?’ And I’m like, ‘Dad, I think it’s true. I’ve done the reporting.’ And he would say, ‘Don’t say that; it’d make people mad at you.’ He actually said that, and I’m a journalist so I said, ‘I hope so.’

“That was the place where I realized that my father, while he loved ideas, he was not so good on confrontation. That was not his forte. He was a more gracious man than me. He would not have come to the federation and said it’s not enough to give to the Jewish communities; there is desperation in the non-Jewish community and there’s another America which isn’t really affecting the community in the same proportion and now is the time to step in. Tikkun olam means to fix the world, it doesn’t mean the Jewish community, it means fix the world.”

SIMON WILL consciously quote the Talmud and use the odd Hebrew or Yiddish word, but he’s no Woody Allen – far from it. There’s a confidence and pugnaciousness about him which defies the stereotype, and his short, broad build could easily be mistaken for Irish-American rather than Jewish. Nonetheless, his world view seems to be rooted in his heritage to a significant degree.

Through his father’s work, he knows all about the organized Jewish world, and for someone who’s never been to Israel, he knows a lot about the country.

“My father was responsible for running the first major convention in Israel in 1952,” he said. “In fact he won the Silver Anvil for it, which is like the PR Pulitzer. They got 2,000 delegates from the US, South Africa, Europe and Latin America to Israel in 1952, and it was like a 22-hour flight. You had to stop in London and Rome and there were not enough hotels at the time. I mean the Algerians and Moroccans and the Jewish influx, they were living in tents. So they were putting people up in private houses. He was proud of that.”

He said he would like to visit someday, but that his one concern is that maybe a few of his opinions might not go down well with some of the locals.

“For the last 10 years I was in arguments with my father over the settlement policy,” he explained. “I believe in a Jewish homeland; I also believe in a Palestinian homeland. Politically, I find myself to the left of my father once again. So we continue to have pretty vibrant arguments after he passed away.”

SIMON’S WORLD is an egalitarian one, or at least he believes it should be. No one gets a free ride, even if they are members of the tribe. Case in point: Of all the murderous gangsters, corrupt politicians and crooked cops in The Wire, one of the least savory characters is Maurice “Maury” Levy, an overtly Jewish lawyer who’s driven by boundless greed. Time and again, he manages to get the most despicable criminals and thugs off by manipulating the law, pocketing a neat profit in the process.

Was Simon worried that Levy, who is prone to pepper his speech with Yiddish and kvetch when his Sabbath is interrupted by a call from a policeman, would strengthen negative stereotypes of Jews? “I wasn’t scared because I was Jewish,” Simon said. “I’d have never done that if I wasn’t Jewish. But the single most destructive force – and some of them were disbarred so I’m being empirical about this – were lawyers in the ’80s, ’90s and the last decade [in Baltimore].

“Everyone in Baltimore knows who they were and for me to walk away from that when I’m making drunken Irish detectives and I’m making black gangsters and I’m making Turkish-Greek drug importers; if at that point I pull my punches and I say, ‘I’m not going to do a character based on reality; I’m going to walk away from it because I’m worried about how it will be perceived,’ then I’m dishonest. Then what I’ve done is I had no right to do it to people who are not from my tribe, and yet I did, so at this moment where I show where the interaction is of this ethnic dynamic I got to play the cards right.

“A lot of people go, ‘I hate him and he’s so obviously Jewish.’ Is that a message to some members of the defense bar in Baltimore who are members of my tribe? Maybe, but maybe it was heard. I don’t know.”

AFRICAN-AMERICAN SOCIETY features prominently throughout Simon’s fiction and non-fiction. Historically, blacks and Jews in America have had their ups and downs. Relations between the two groups were good when they were both fighting for equality from white, Protestant America. But in the 1970s that alliance acrimoniously fell apart.

When in 2008 an overwhelming Jewish majority voted for Obama, some hoped the tortured history was left behind. But Simon believes that wound is yet to heal.

“I can show you parts of Fulton Street, which is a major thoroughfare in Baltimore, whose shops were all owned by Jews,” he said. “So there was this mercantile connection which was both good and bad.

“Good in the sense that there was camaraderie, but it was bad in that they were always the landlord. So there was both resentment and affection, but somewhere around 1970 the city became very violent, drugs took over. You can point to every single store on Fulton Avenue and someone was robbed and/or wounded and/or killed in a robbery within a two-year period. That’s the history of urban America defined, and now all the shops are Korean. There’s no Jewish connection downtown and everyone’s out in the suburbs.”

Realism is everything in The Wire and Treme, Simon’s latest TV project. However, whenever something is broadcast on television or screened in cinemas, it often begins to change. Take Treme, the historic black neighborhood in New Orleans, famous for its brass bands and black culture. Ever since Simon began shooting his most recent HBO series here, there have been some signs that change is in the offing. While the neighborhood is still predominantly black, on a visit last week, hipster types – one of the harbingers of gentrification – passed by on a bicycle every so often. “Property is more diverse since the show came out,” an employee at the local African-American museum confirmed.

Simon said he regretted that his show might alter the reality he set out to capture, but added that he had no control over it.

“I don’t want that, but you send these things out into the world and what happens, happens,” he said.

SIMON’S REPORTING days are long behind him, but you can’t take the reporter out of him entirely. He said he would like to enlist the help of Israeli readers to help him solve a mystery which has been bugging him for years.

“There was a guy from Baltimore, Julius Salzburg, he disappeared in 1970,” he recalled. “He was a good guy, a numbers person, he took bets; he had the whole betting and numbers operation in Baltimore. He wasn’t violent. He had a wife and three daughters. He had a burlesque club. Anyway, the government decided to go after him. This was in 1970, so drugs were already coming. They decided it was a big deal and they got him for 15 years on an interstate charge. The day before he has to report for prison, he disappears.

“He bought a bunch of Israel Bonds in the ’50s and ’60s, so that would have been my guess as to the first place he had gone. Now, he never showed up again and there was a lot of talk in Baltimore, ‘Yeah he went to Israel.’ He would not be extradited – at least I don’t think so – even though he was a fugitive. It was an interstate gambling charge, no violence. Not a gangster, looked like your or my uncle. He’s long dead now; he couldn’t possibly be alive.

“I’m dying to write the story because it’s a Baltimore story that has no end. And to this day I ask journalists from Israel if somebody knows.”

So, dear readers, if you have any information that would shed light on the unknown fate of Julius Salzburg, a onetime Baltimore bookie said to have made aliya, you are hereby invited to write to the newspaper, and we’ll pass on your information to Simon.

AFTER NEARLY half an hour of bombarding Simon with questions, and although I had many more to ask, I felt like it was time to let him go.

But just before we parted, the creator of one of the most praised television series of all time asked me a question which made him seem vulnerable. “Do you think I offended the delegates?”

I told him that I didn’t, but I felt like nothing I could say would entirely calm his fears – perhaps justifiably. I later read quite a few people disliked his comment that African-Americans were undergoing a “Holocaust in slow motion.” In honesty, I missed that remark.

In any case, I thought his question and the tone in which it was asked illustrated how, for all his bluster and bravado, here was a man who cared deeply what the Jewish community thought of him. And a man, too, who worried that his straightforwardness and opinionated views might cause offense to some proud and perhaps somewhat oversensitive Jewish professional in the audience; someone not entirely unlike the late Bernard Simon.

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