The Jewish Mailer

Norman Mailer wrote about Jews and possessed a Jewish sensibility.

norman mailer 224.88 (photo credit: Travis Willmann/ flickr / Creative Commons / jta)
norman mailer 224.88
(photo credit: Travis Willmann/ flickr / Creative Commons / jta)
I must take issue with Richard Pyle's assertion, in his Associated Press dispatch on Norman Mailer's death, that "unlike many of his literary peers, such as Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth, Mailer never wrote on explicitly Jewish subjects" (Jerusalem Post, November 11, 2007). Two of the main characters in The Naked and the Dead are Goldstein and Roth, Jewish (of course) members of the 14-man platoon whose fortunes Mailer describes in realistic detail. In Barbary Shore, the main female protagonist, Lanny Madison, has vivid flashbacks of Nazi round-ups of Jews, and in An American Dream, his half-Jewish hero, Rojack, responds to a hardly veiled anti-Semitic crack by noting that his ancestors "never hurt anyone particularly." In Advertisements for Myself, Mailer quotes verbatim a hasidic story he gleaned from Martin Buber's Tales of the Hasidim, and Denise Gondelman, the female protagonist of one of his most intriguing stories, "The Time of Her Time," is most assuredly Jewish, as are two prominent characters in The Deer Park, Charlie Eitel and Herman Teppis, the archetypically noble and the ignoble Jew, even as their slightly altered roman a clef identities (Elia Kazan and Sam Goldwyn) hover in the background. Their Jewishness is not at the forefront, but their Jewish names and positions in the film industry offer a silent commentary on assimilated Jewish life. Finally, one cannot help but note that The Gospels According to the Son, a rather late novel, portrays an exceptionally well-known and still quite controversial Jew of two millennia past, and The Castle in the Forest, a massive penultimate tome on which Mailer lavished 10 years and most of his remaining literary strength, delves into the psychic formation of the world's foremost Jew-hater. THUS, PYLE'S remark that Norman Mailer never wrote on explicitly Jewish subjects strikes me as somewhat disingenuous. It's likely that Pyle has in mind a narrower definition of what constitute a Jewish theme than mine. At any rate, had Mailer not written at all about Jews, he certainly possessed a Jewish sensibility, with a special feel for dialectic and self-inquiry. As he was often the subject of his own writing, that adds up to one thoroughly examined Jewish character; but as I have shown, there were many more. Some of them, whether identifiably Jewish or not, are stand-ins for Mailer, representing damaged or undeveloped aspects of himself, which he attempts to exorcise. One is Sanford Carter, the put-upon army cook in The Language of Men, who salvages his honor by standing up to the soldiers who taunt him; another is Sam Slovoda, the disappointed intellectual and writer manqué in The Man Who Studied Yoga, whose struggle to live up to his self-image ennobles him, no matter how short of his goal it falls. AS FOR Mailer never having visited Israel, in contrast to Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, his contemporaries and rivals, and even to James T. Farrell, an elder, non-Jewish mentor, I think his own words on the matter reflect an accurate anticipation of what such a visit would have meant: "Being Jewish is such a deep matter that I have the feeling that if I go to Israel, I'll be diverted from the books I want to write for several years. I'll get obsessed with it." Coming to terms with modern Israel would undoubtedly have diverted his attention from the work he planned to do and perhaps have permanently displaced those plans from his agenda. It was a risk he chose not to take, feeling, I suppose, that he had too much unprocessed material to work through first. I don't judge him for that. Another famous Jewish Brooklynite, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, never visited Israel either. And then, of course, there's the date of his passing - 29 Heshvan, 5768 (November 10, 2007) - the Shabbat on which Parashat Toldot was read and studied. In this Torah portion we read about the rivalry between Jacob and Esau: between the quiet, guileless, wholesome man, dwelling in tents, and the wild man, the hunter and conqueror. What more perfect image of the famously conflicted writer and man of action could there be? In himself, Mailer sought to embrace both. HE WAS born on January 31, 1923, a Wednesday, the day before Tu B'Shvat, in the week of Parashat B'Shalach and Shabbat Shira. The fourth aliya, the one that corresponds to Wednesday, yom revi'i, describes the flooding of the Red Sea, covering Egypt's pursuing chariots and horsemen, and includes the triumphant Song of the Sea in praise of God's power, in which the Holy One is actually called "a man of war"! Another perfect metaphor - and explanation - of Mailer's preoccupation with war, with battle, and with the conflict between good and evil, surely a theme that has absorbed and even obsessed our people since we first acquired a Jewish identity. That Mailer's final book, On God: An Uncommon Conversation, is a radical and iconoclastic speculation on the nature of the Deity, clinches the deal. Norman is one of us. The writer, a poet, essayist, and story-teller, lives and works in Safed. [email protected]