The Wicked Witch and the Straw Man

By Lawrence Bush

Published September 22, 2006, issue of September 22, 2006.
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The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-hatred and the Jews By David Mamet Schocken, 208 pages, $19.95.

The world of Jewish identity is a buyer’s market. Those of us who “do Jewish” for a living or as an avocation (rabbis, writers, editors, artists, organizational pros, philanthropists) know that half our audience is only half-interested, while the rest have a fortune’s worth of Jewish resources from which to choose. We try to cajole their attention with nostalgia and humor, intellectual acuity, spiritual fervor, ethical teachings, political activism, personal charisma, free trips to Israel, nimble variations on Kabbalah.… And then David Mamet steps in with a whip and a sneer, to line up those recalcitrant Jews and shove them into synagogue. Mamet’s new book, “The Wicked Son,” consists of 37 brief essays on three major themes: the ineradicability of antisemitism; the rich appeal of Jewish peoplehood for those able to get with the program, and the sickness of assimilated, cosmopolitan, “self-hating” Jews. All that really holds the book together, however, are Mamet’s teeth, sinking again and again into the psychic flesh of that “wicked son” —

Who is this… freethinker, newly convinced Episcopalian, detractor of Israel, and whose approval is he courting? Does he think that his brave assertion of his racial taint, coupled with a repudiation of his people’s history, traditions, and religion, is going to win him friends anywhere?

Indeed, “The Wicked Son” might better have been titled “The Wicked Witch.” Not since the flying monkeys attacked Dorothy and her crew has a straw man been set upon with such vehemence. “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… find ludicrous the notion of a visit to the synagogue… to you, who find your religion and race repulsive, your ignorance of your history a satisfaction, here is a book from your brother.”

More like, “here is a book that your brother is hurling across the table at your ugly face!” Mamet’s brotherly scorn extends way beyond his self-hating straw man to the entire liberal American Jewish landscape. Jews who support gun control, for example, do so, in his view, because they are unable to reckon with their “real position” in a “world [that] is not fond of the Jews.” By implication, the classic liberal belief in government as a civilizing and protective force represents an “abandonment of Jewish heritage, solidarity, and religion” in favor of “a confraternity of the reasonable… in spite of all evidence to the contrary of its nonexistence.”

Jews who turn their Seders into “an expression of enlightened liberal sentiment” on “the issue of the day” are “neurotics.” Jews who write their own marital vows (“writers-group, journal-keeping gibberish”) rather than using the “thousands-year-old formula” of Judaism are “Epicureans.” Jews who support a two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Arab world are seeking “the end of Israel.” The secular Jew who attends the local Yiddish discussion group but not the local synagogue is “a turncoat.” Jews who marry non-Jews are… whoops, wait a minute, this one’s kosher! “[E]xogamy may come to aid” the wicked son, Mamet writes, for the “non-Jewish spouse may, in her love, correct his error.” Although he gives barely a glimpse of his own life in these essays, can we safely guess that Mamet’s two marital experiences are responsible for this rare note of compassion in his Halacha?

Weirdly, this most modern of playwrights and film directors writes like one of the pioneering Zionist theorists of the late 19th-century. He repeatedly describes Jews as a “race”; he romanticizes Judaism as a “six-thousand-year-old tradition”; he deplores his people’s attraction to “the Irresistible Other”; he is revolted by the very Jews whom he seeks to redeem. He even traffics in 19th-century science: “Incalculably ancient race memory of dinosaurs,” he writes, “persists to this day, transformed as an affection for the dragon.” (Even if we calculate on Methuselah’s time scale, human beings fall short of encountering dinosaurs by millions of years. Is evolutionary theory also a betrayal of authentic Judaism?)

“I’ve spent most of my life in show business,” Mamet writes self-effacingly, and for sure, “The Wicked Son” is a wicked entertainment, full of psychological theories and swaggering assertions. There are some good midrashic moments, too, although his most interesting comment — that the Jews who worshipped the golden calf were “overcome by the imminence of revelation, terrified of loss of autonomy” — so delights him that he repeats it in four different essays.

Beyond this, though, Mamet offers no distillations of Jewish philosophy or religious insight to spark the interest of assimilated Jews. Belonging, not believing or behaving, is the only aspect of Jewish identity to which Mamet truly testifies (“There’s no place like home”). Nor is there much Jewish worldliness in these essays. He says nothing about Jewish outreach-to-the-intermarried programs, about the upsurge of a new bohemian Jewish culture, about creative innovations in Jewish religious practice, about any of the numerous programs that have sought to release Jewish life from the forces of fossilization. Mamet simply does not believe in innovation: Jewish “self-loathing,” he writes, “will not be overcome by revelation…. Only habit will suffice.” Nor does he ever seem to have met an affirmative secular Jew — let alone an Israeli who advocates a two-state solution.

Perhaps some straw men (“If I Only Had a Brain”) will be pushed into a guilty repentance by all this brutal eloquence. For the rest of the Jewish crowd, however, Mamet is simply a heckler.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents magazine. His book, “Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of an Atheist,” will be published next spring by Ben Yehuda Books.

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