Hip-hop Jew

'The End of the Jews' is not really about a definitive end, says writer.

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(photo credit: )
'The End of the Jews, rather than being any kind of definitive end, [is really more] an end to an identity that is uncritical, that fits easily," says Adam Mansbach of the title of his new book. "It stems from the uneasiness and the struggle of finding some way to inhabit either Judaism or family or artistry or any of these." Mansbach, 31, speaking to The Jerusalem Post by phone following the book's release, describes his Jewish upbringing in Boston as secular, without much of a connection to traditional Judaism. He recounts how he dropped out of Hebrew school before his bar mitzva after a confrontation with a vocally racist teacher, and how he moved naturally toward the hip-hop scene. "I grew up as a rapper and a DJ and graffiti writer and was very much involved in hip-hop culture, and my politics were largely formed through those experiences," he says. Like several of his characters, he was a jazz roadie for a number of years, traveling all over the US with a jazz band. "I had more black friends than white," he says, adding that his family "didn't really have a problem [with me] listening to hip-hop, particularly since I think they understood that it made me want to educate myself. They understood the connection between me listening to a Public Enemy song and then me going to my father's bookshelf." His Jewish background, he says, didn't have "a direct impact on my work until I started working on this book." Nonetheless, "a lot of my favorite writers were always Jewish - I read heavily, particularly 20th century Jewish American writers: Roth, Bellow, Kazin, Malamud." Much of his Jewish cultural experience came from spending time around his maternal grandparents and their friends. "He was a judge and she was a poet, and they had a very wide circle of friends who were writers and academics, judges and lawyers... In retrospect, those folks were all first-generation New York Jews who went to City College or went to Hunter and had traveled a well-worn path from the Bronx to the Lower East Side to academia and success." However, he dismisses the notion that The End of the Jews is semi-autobiographical. "I wouldn't say that. There's very little in the novel that actually happened to me or to members of my family. I think it's a novel certainly influenced by lives of people I know - usually, if not always, taken in very different directions. I'd almost say that a lot of the writing I do is anti-autobiographical, in that it explores directions my life didn't take, perhaps might have, or opposite reactions to situations, opposite sentiments regarding crossroads-type experiences." He does, however, see some part of himself in each of his protagonists. For instance, "the way Tristan grapples with the relationship between work and life is something I'm very familiar with as a writer myself... [And] a lot of the dynamics between the black and Jewish communities, whether it's through Tristan, through Tris, or through Nina, are things that I've thought about and dealt with myself... A lot of the stuff in the book is me in a sort of alternate universe, trying to figure out things about my family, and my grandparents in particular, so there are elements of them, in a sort of transplanted way." Regarding whether he considers himself a "Jewish writer" - a question Tristan Brodsky asks his future wife in the book - Mansbach responds, "Yes, among other things. On the one hand, I feel like artists, for decades if not generations, of all religions, of all races, of all orientations, have been struggling to make the world understand that they can speak universally, rather than just for their own particular, marginalized group, whether it's Jews, blacks, gays, women. So on one level, being Jewish is an element of who I am as a person and a writer, but there are other, just as important ones. "I would say, yes, I'm a Jewish writer, but I'm also all of these other things - I'm also a male writer, I'm also a hip-hop writer, I'm also a socially concerned writer, I'm also any number of other categories that have to coexist and form something bigger than just a single kind of identity... [And] even within that designation [of Jewish writer], there are all of these potential different meanings, as there are in identifying as Jewish in any sense - is it a religious, or cultural, or historical, ethnic relationship that one has? For many people, it can be one or any or all of those." The title of the book, he says, "came from something that my grandfather actually said to me some years ago at a bar mitzva that we were attending. A distant family member had one of these really over-the-top bar mitzvas with the hired dancers and the smoke machines and all of this pageantry, and my grandfather, in the midst of it all, turned to me and just shook his head and said, 'Boy, this is the end of the Jews.'" However, Mansbach avers that in writing the book he had no set social agenda. "I think, more than anything, I just wanted to tell the stories of these characters," he says, adding that he was mainly interested in and concerned with the people who are "on the margins" of the community. "I think those are the people who really do the creative thinking and who become artists ultimately, because of the distance they have and the perspective that it gives them, and the pain involved in that," he maintains. "And I think that for Jewish folks, those margins are particularly well-populated because of the ambiguity of a Jewish identity - there's a lot of [room] for alienation. When I look at the pantheon of writers like Roth, Malamud, Mailer, Kazin, Bellow, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce - I feel like these margins are where these people really are at." Oddly enough, says Mansbach, his grandmother's poetry was a point of connection with hip-hop for him. "She wrote verse that was rhyming, the wordplay was incredible, and it was satirical and it was political... So when I came across hip-hop, the closest parallel to it, in a funny way, was my grandmother's poetry. So in a lot of ways, I really didn't have to reach that far outside of my own experience to understand hip-hop. [But] I think I did have to reach out of my community in the sense that the music and the culture was not mainstream at the time, and you had to seek it out where it existed, which was black communities, so I was in a literal sense, getting out of my own world."