A fitting end?

The title may sound forbidding, but Adam Mansbach's 'The End of the Jews,' is as full of life as it is of devastation.

Adam Mansbach 88 (photo credit: Matthew L. Kaplan)
Adam Mansbach 88
(photo credit: Matthew L. Kaplan)
The End of the Jews By Adam Mansbach Spiegel & Grau 320 pages; $23.95 The End of the Jews - a multigenerational family drama that probes the bounds between human relationships and artistic devotion - begins in 1935 with 15-year-old Tristan Brodsky, "the pride of the Jews," the Bronx prodigy who chooses to funnel his mental gifts into a writing career amid the protests of his family. A night's adventure cutting class to hang with jazz great Lester Young's up-and-coming band at a Harlem party sparks an exploration of both his own artistic and cultural identity and the lesser-seen links between the Jewish and black worlds. Meanwhile, half a century later, unaffiliated Czech Jew and struggling teenage photographer Nina Hricek starts her own journey into identity crisis as she joins up with a jazz octet to escape the Iron Curtain. Making her way as a woman among men, a not-quite-white girl on the jazz scene and a Jew with no connection to her past, Nina finds herself trapped in a relationship with a married man who shares her artistic passion. And as she wrestles with these trials, Tristan's grandson, Tris Freedman, evolves from a graffiti artist who DJs bar mitzvas into a young novelist frustrated by a world that denies him the right to the only cultural heritage he wants to call his own: hip-hop. His search for inspiration leads him into a relationship with Nina, and his ambition pushes his relationship with his family into conflict with his art. Betrayals, abuses and moments of truth unfold as each character sets him- or herself up for success, failure or both. It must be said, straight out: Mansbach's prose is a pleasure to read. Witty, gritty, often melodic, it rolls unapologetically through a well-sustained balance of crass and polished, real and imaginary, dramatic and humorous. Tristan spews liberal profanity and toilet-bowl metaphors even as he reflects deeply on what it means to do so, and swishes shrewd social criticism around his mind like the whiskey he goes through like water. Tris's slang, meanwhile, is offset by an almost unexpected eloquence, and self-reflective ruminations by various characters run comfortably into Ally-Mcbeal-style fantasy scenarios. This self-reflection permeates the narrative, which never takes itself too seriously but still strikes truths both illuminating and heartbreaking. The characters in the novel are round, rich, complex and intense. They are characters you can trust to come out of their battles intact, displaying their open wounds and their subsequent scars - many acquired through their interactions with each other - in their inner observations. And Mansbach's physical depictions of the numerous non-white characters are effortlessly and refreshingly descriptive, rather than classificatory, revealing a natural color blindness in both author and characters that should not seem as unusual in white-written literature as it does. The book takes frequent potshots at Jewish social phenomena such as over-the-top bar mitzvas, the widespread impression that Hassidim "do it through a bedsheet" and the Jewish public's tendency to brand any Jew who implicates his people in historical tragedies as "self-hating - an adjective that rolls so easily into Jew that it seems built to modify it." However, this last - Tristan's response to the almost parodic criticism of his book on Jewish-owned slave ships - is followed several chapters later by the loaded statement that African Americans' "holocaust, if one wishes to compare such things, and I do not, outhorribles even our own." To judge by, at the very least, the trend in on-line talkbacks, it would not be surprising if this reflection from Tristan's interior monologue prompted similar self-hatred accusations against Mansbach. But Mansbach and his Jews cannot be cornered and labeled so easily. Even as he mocks the American Jewish establishment - its social hierarchy, its racial prejudices, its insecurity with its dual identity - there is a sensitivity in his portrayal of Jewish life that shows more than a glancing familiarity with mitzva observance. He is not out to buck Jewish tradition - only, perhaps, its transformation into soulless ritual. This book, as Mansbach himself points out in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, is the first in which he focuses on his characters' Jewishness; in previous books and short stories, the Jewish aspect was sometimes present, but not emphasized. Here, the Jewish characters represent varying degrees of adherence to, and appreciation for, their heritage, which is a factor in the book only because it is a factor in each of their lives. In truth, Mansbach pays as great a tribute in this book to jazz and its adherents - and shows as much sensitivity and depth - as he does to Jewish identity. This book, ultimately a story of art, family and personal integrity, offers Jews a chance to do two of the things we do best: laugh at ourselves and contemplate our place in the world. As a provocative, masterfully written exploration of cultural identity, it rightfully earns itself a place on shelves and coffee tables worldwide. Readers can decide for themselves whether this is indeed a fitting end for the People of the Book.