February 28, 2008
Books: The end of many things, but not of the Jews
Adam Mansbach was at a "garish" family bar mitzvah with his grandfather some years back when somewhere between the bad '80s music and kitschy dance floor games, his grandfather turned to him and said sardonically, "This is the end of the Jews."
The novelist filed this great phrase away in his writerly head, only to have it re-emerge when he started writing his third novel, an epic drama about a Jewish family of artists from the 1930s to the present, due out in mid-March.
"When I picked that title, I thought that someone at some point would make me change it," said Mansbach, 31, by telephone from his Berkeley home. "But the publisher loved the title, and thought it would get attention."
Attention is probably an understatement for the kind of scrutiny that will be paid to a book with such a hyperbolic appellation. Is it really a book about the end of the Jews?
"In terms of an apocalyptic moment? No," said Mansbach, who will be speaking this weekend at Jewlicious 4.0, a festival for young, hip Jews taking place Feb. 29 through March 2 in Long Beach. (For other performers/participants, see Calendar, Page 38.)
"I wanted to explore the end of a lot of things -- the end of a sustainable community, the end of family structures that sustain us, all these ways of understanding oneself and one's work are thrown into question in the book by the collective action of the characters," he said. "It's the tension between freedom and individuality, between the need to feel you're part of something bigger -- there's a freedom when these things are central to our lives but at a central cost. At the beginning of the book there's a lot of people for whom these things have already been destabilized who are striving for new forms of community based on art, memory, love and family, and it gets ugly in the process."
"The End of The Jews" is a literary family saga built around three narratives in different time frames, opening with Tristan Brodsky, "15 years old, the sum total of five thousand years of Jewry, one week into City College, a mind on him like a diamond cutter."
This son of Bronx Jewish immigrants is eager to escape his talmudic roots by studying literature and writing at City College in Manhattan. Escape Brodsky does, to become a famous writer whose own grandson, Tris (or RISK, his graffiti moniker), follows in his footsteps, to his grandfather's ultimate dismay.
"I didn't set out to write about Jewish identity," Mansbach said. "I set out to write a book about people in this family -- about a writer and another writer whose ambitions butt up against their loyalties." But as he researched and wrote the book, the Jewish part became a significant factor. Part of Mansbach's research included spending summers with his grandfather, a lawyer and a judge.
"He's always fascinated me," Mansbach said, "and I spent a lot of time trying to excavate his memories and learn all I could about him -- not purposely, for the book -- but I was talking to him, and a lot of the book does revolve around me figuring him out."
The novel is hardly autobiographical, he said, even though there are some similarities, such as a grandfather-grandson relationship, a grandmother who was a poet, a young writer who writes his first novel about hip-hop.
For example, Mansbach's second novel, "Angry Black White Boy, or The Miscegenation of Macon Detornay" (Crown, 2005), a satire about race, whiteness and hip hop, tells the story of an Afro-centric white kid who grew up on a diet of hip-hop in the late '80s and develops an anger toward white people and later becomes a cult hero. But "Angry Black White Boy" was critically acclaimed and is taught in curricula around the country, whereas Mansbach's character RISK's book on hip-hop is panned, because he can't transcend race.
Other stories have their basis in real life, such as when the fictional RISK leaves Hebrew school after "Mr. Pearlmutter: two hundred years old, a staunch Zionist, the kind of guy who spent his Sundays educating the youth because he liked the idea of a captive audience," said the Jews never turned their backs on their communities and the blacks did. In the book, RISK tells his father, and his father berates the teacher and the kid doesn't go back.
In real life, Mansbach actually waited until a Hebrew school assembly where he was supposed to recite a prayer -- but read the lyrics to Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer" instead.
"It was mutually clear to us that neither I nor they wanted me at the school anymore," he said.
That's how Mansbach, a disc jockey who grew up in the hip-hop culture, uses reality -- selectively, alternately.
"In some ways, a lot of the writing I do is anti-autobiographical: it explores directions I could have gone and didn't," Mansbach said.
The Jews don't really end in his novel either -- but that's not the point. "There's always some notion of 'the end of the Jews' -- it might be assimilation and intermarriage that people seem preoccupied with right now, it might be destruction from outside forces -- it seems to be on their minds a lot and it shouldn't be."
Mansbach grew up in Massachusetts in a Jewish family that was secular for generations, and he is reluctant to make any proscription for the Jews -- even as he attends conferences like Jewlicious, REBOOT and Professional Leadership Project.
"I think some of what is going on in those spaces is interesting, whether it's [REBOOT's] Guilt & Pleasure magazine, and meeting those cool people, and looking at Judaism as this common denominator, and what -- if anything -- it means to anybody in the room," he said. "I think that the notion of connecting to Judaism in cultural ways makes sense to me; it makes sense to me to understand it through the lens of what I do."
As for the continuation of the Jewish people, he said, "It matters to me, but I wouldn't say I'm worried about it."
Adam Mansbach will be speaking/performing at the Jewlicious 4.0 Festival, 9 p.m. Fri., Feb. 29 and 2 p.m. Sat., March 1 at the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach.
For more information, visit http://www.jewliciousfestival.com.