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Jewish Journal

David Mamet has one question—for the wicked son

by Tom Teicholz

November 9, 2006 | 7:00 pm

Writer-director David Mamet. Photo by Peter Power/Toronto Star/ZUMA Press

Writer-director David Mamet. Photo by Peter Power/Toronto Star/ZUMA Press

David Mamet has written a book, "The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred and the Jews" (Shocken/Nextbook), that is by turns bold, courageous, and outrageous -- it is a book that calls Diaspora Jews to the table and asks: "In or Out?" "The underlying premise of the book," Mamet told me recently, "is to all Jews: If you can't say of your fellow Jews ' my people,' get out of my way; I don't want to know you, because our people are getting murdered, and to posit an exemption because of intellectual differences ... is insane."

"The Wicked Son" is one of those books that, as I was reading it, made me think of all the people I would like to send a copy -- a few to friends who would enjoy it, but even more to those friends (or former friends) who might see themselves in Mamet's disquisition on anti-Semitism, including disaffected and disengaged Jews.

Mamet is the playwright who wrote "Glengarry Glen Ross" (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize), as well as "American Buffalo," "Speed-the-Plow," "Oleanna," and "Boston Marriage," among many others. He has directed several movies from his own screenplays, including "House of Cards," "Heist" and "The Spanish Prisoner," as well as writing (and re-writing) many other screenplays. He has published three novels, including "The Old Religion" (about the Leo Frank case), as well as children's books and essay collections. He is currently the co-creator and executive producer of "The Unit," a one-hour dramatic series that airs on CBS on Tuesdays at 9 p.m.

When I spoke with Mamet recently, he explained that he has been pondering the idea of Jewish passivity for 15 years or so (beginning around the time he made "Homicide," a film about a Jewish policeman and his issues of identity and self-loathing).

"The Wicked Son" is a reference to the parable told as part of the Passover seder -- of four sons, one wise, one wicked, one simple and the other too young to even ask a question. As part of the seder we are told how best to answer these four different responses to the story of the Jews' emancipation from Egypt.

In "The Wicked Son," Mamet identifies the many contemporary forms of anti-Semitism, unmasks those who support it or who, passively, refuse to stand up against it. "Anti-Semitism is a sickness, and its playbook is extremely limited," he told me. In "The Wicked Son," he exposes several canards used by anti-Semites of all stripes -- double standards, faulty logic -- demonstrating that the arguments used by today's anti-Semites haven't changed much throughout Jewish history.

Mamet also believes it is self-loathing that animates Jews who don't glory in their heritage, culture and tradition and who, worse yet, put forward the anti-Semites' own arguments.

Mamet writes that his book is directed, "To the wicked son, who asks ' What does all this mean to you?'; to the Jews who, in the '70s envied the Black Power Movement; who, in the '90s, 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 might take your curiosity to a dogfight, to a bordello or an opium den, but find ludicrous the notion of a visit to the synagogue; whose favorite Jew is Anne Frank and whose second-favorite does not exist; who are humble in their desire to learn about Kwanzaa and proud of their ignorance of Tu B'Shevat; who dread endogamy more than incest; who bow their head reverently at a baptism and have never attended a bris. To you, who find your religion and race repulsive, your ignorance of your history a satisfaction, here is a book from your brother."

Making your gift list yet?

In less than 40 short chapters, Mamet presents his exegeses on a variety of topics, with titles such as "The Other," "Bar Mitzvah and Golden Calf," "A Rich Shul and a Poor Shul," "The Apikoros and Gun Control," "Dead Jews and Live Jews," "What Israel Means to Me" and "The Children of Kings and Queens."

The book is challenging not only in its content, but in its style. Mamet, whose plays' profane, expletive-laden, staccato-like dialogue came to be known as "Mamet-speak," here takes upon a more formal style, more Alan Dershowitz than David Mamet, more like an oration or a theorem proof -- you almost expect Mamet to preface his conclusions with an "ergo" or a "quad erat demonstrate" (I think there is a nunc pro tunc somewhere in the book). And yet.... And yet, the effect of one chapter after another is a sort of a series of whacks to the head -- at the end of which you ask yourself: Isn't he right? Even if I quibble with some of the statements or generalizations, isn't the gestalt dead on -- and if so, what is it that I disagree with here?

Mamet is not so much concerned about the reason for anti-Semitism as he is with the fact of it. He frankly acknowledges it, exposes it and confronts it.

"The most chilling thing I have ever seen in a movie is this spectacular documentary, ' One Day in September,' about the Munich massacre," Mamet told me. "There's a scene, a long lens shot of one part of the compound that is under siege -- it's ringed by the German security police -- and inside the ring of the German security police is the building where Arafat's Black September people have kidnapped and are murdering the Jewish athletes. Then the camera pans over ' x' degrees to the right and on the other side of the fence is the Olympic athletes' compound, where you see people swimming in the Olympic pool, diving into the Olympic pool, and playing ping pong and sunning themselves." And that, for Mamet, is the state of world. To this day.

At one point in our conversation, Mamet asked what I thought of the book. I told him that there were moments while reading the book when I wondered if he was crazy (I said crazy, but what I was thinking was "meshugge") but then I would get to the end of the chapter and wonder if he wasn't essentially right.Mamet asked for an example. So I cited the opening of the chapter titled "Well Poisoning." It begins:

"There have always been unstated but universally understood exemptions in human behavior. In this country the poor are permitted adultery and a certain degree of spousal abuse and murder, but are barred from theft; the rich are allowed to steal and take drugs, but are punished for sexual misconduct and physical crime."

Reading this, I asked myself: Is this literally true? Is it even kind of true?

But then I read on:

"Similarly, on the world stage, Moslem extremists may not bomb New York, but rational human beings -- some of them, to their shame, Jews -- hold that they may bomb Jerusalem. These apologists are or pretend to be incapable of differentiating between the lamentable and decried death of civilians in a military reprisal, and the targeted murder of schoolchildren."

And so, the reader must ask himself, as I did: What do you think now?

"Here's the thing," Mamet said of the opening of "Well Poisoning." He explained that he was greatly influenced by such "American free-thinking philosophers" as Eric Hoffer, Emerson and Thorsten Veblen and by Veblen's style of writing in particular, which he described as "say[ing] things that blow your socks off, and you think about them and say, ' Oh my God, that's true.'" Mamet then quoted Hoffer, as saying, "People say the artist has the ability to see the future. That's not true. The artist has the ability to see the present."

"What I'm endeavoring to do [in ' The Wicked Son']," Mamet concluded, "is to tell the truth as I understand it in a responsible way and in a way which is responsible to my understanding of the needs of my people."

Mamet explained that his wife, actress and singer Rebecca Pidgeon, played an important part in strengthening his own connection to Judaism. About 17 or 18 years ago, when Pidgeon was taking an "introduction to Judaism" course, Mamet realized that he had a lot to learn. Pidgeon is a Jew-by-choice, and Mamet said Jews-by-choice set a strong example because, "Jews-by-choice lack conflict" regarding being Jewish. Beyond that, Mamet noted, "my wife and I have been fortunate to study with two great and seminal thinkers in Reform Judaism, Rabbi Larry Kushner and Rabbi Mordecai Finley." ("The Wicked Son" is dedicated to Mordecai Finley and Finley's wife Meirav.)

Finley is the leader of Ohr HaTorah in Los Angeles, a congregation that describes itself, per its ohrhatorah.org Web site, as "a progressive, yet deeply religious community" having "a dedication to Jewish tradition, with an openness to modernity when it brings enhanced meaning and depth to our practice" and as welcoming "all who are spiritually searching; such as unaffiliated individuals or families and Jews-by-choice." Mamet has described Finley as a "spectacular teacher."

Although Mamet writes about Jewish ritual, about bar mitzvahs and synagogues, he wanted to make clear that the point of the book is not to criticize someone's practice (or lack thereof).

"If someone says I'm Jewish, but I'm not that Jewish. Who asked?" Mamet explained. "That's none of my business." He's not interested in what makes a Jew or how much of a Jew you are -- that's between a person and his God. Mamet's point is different. Does anyone ask an Irish American, Mamet asks, how Irish they are? Or a Greek American or a Mexican American? They each love America and they cherish their heritage. Mamet asks: "To what other group do we say: Where do your loyalties lie?"

On the other hand: "If someone says ' I'm Jewish but I'm not that Jewish,' that is in the nature of a confession not a description." Mamet said. "It connotes a sense of shame." In other words, a manifestation of Jewish self-loathing.

"The point of my book is that the disaffected person may consider himself the victim of too much Judaism," Mamet said, "but someone who makes that confession has too little Judaism." Similarly in another passage, Mamet writes, "' Jewish Guilt' is not a side effect of being Jewish, but of being insufficiently Jewish. Buddhism will not cure it, self-help will not cure it, good works will not cure it, A Course in Miracles will not cure it -- all of these, ranging from religion to nostrum, cannot eradicate the lapsed Jew's sense of being lost. For he is lost."

Mamet has been living in Los Angeles for several years now. Although at first he resisted the city, he now says, "It takes some getting used to. It's a different culture. I like it."

He commented on how he found the organic intellectual life of the city as "still growing, still defining itself," in a way that New York no longer was, and how Gore Vidal had called L.A. "the cultural capital of the world." "I've been thinking a lot about that," Mamet said. For the last several years, he has also been studying jujitsu. Mamet has written an article for the December Playboy about the sport and the Gracies -- the Brazilian martial arts family who modernized the sport, went on to dominate Ultimate Fighting Championships and who has a substantial beach head in L.A. (I know this because I do read the Playboy articles -- and because Mamet gave me a copy.)

In the article Mamet confesses to being pugnacious, and certainly "The Wicked Son" is testament to that. In jujitsu, then, I thought I had found a metaphor for Mamet's book and his relationship to Judaism. However, when I pointed this out to him, referring to Jacob who wrestled with an angel and was given the name Israel, Mamet's response was: "Interesting point, but no."

A few seconds later, he relented, saying: "In terms of physical grappling, no; in the sense of spiritual grappling, sure. To wonder about one's self and one's tribe and one's relation to God and the value of one's deeds is not something that keeps one from religion, but it is religion. That's what religion is; it is what the whole Torah is."Perhaps there's also a parallel to be found in Mamet's show, "The Unit," about a group of men, a combat unit, who keep their identity hidden but are loyal to their country, to each other, and who act when called upon, when others are in danger, no matter where in the world. Is this the sort of tribal loyalty Mamet is searching for?

Then I realize why what Mamet is searching for ultimately doesn't matter, as he might be the first to tell you. What matters are the questions he is asking in his book.

We live in a time when anti-Semitism is no longer a matter of quotas or numerous clauses, of Nuremberg    laws, or pogroms. We live in a country where one can say with conviction: It can't happen here. Where one can argue that there has never been a better time or a better country in which to be a Jew. But that doesn't mean that anti-Semitism is not occurring or that Jews are not being murdered in Pakistan (Daniel Pearl), France (Ilan Halmi), or in Israel (I regret that the names are too many to list) for the crime of being a Jew, and that the casual anti-Semitism of certain academics, or in foreign newspapers is as any less pernicious or dangerous than what is being spewed in Iran or in radical mosques the world over. History has taught us that words lead to actions. In times like these, as Mamet might ask, should we be more Jewish or less Jewish?

At times like these, just as our love for our country, America, transcends the actions of any one administration -- or any select individuals serving in Washington, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib -- should those who disagree with individual policies of the democratic government of Israel feel less solidarity with their fellow Jews or more?

I have heard the story of the four sons explained as a tale of the generations of Jews in a country -- the first brings with them the customs and practices of the old country and the old religion; the next (the wicked son) rejects the old ways to make his own path in the new land; the next can no longer understand what the rituals meant; and the fourth generation is so cut off from its traditions that it doesn't even know how or what to ask about them. Is this our future or our present?

The challenge facing this generation, facing every generation since Egypt, is the same: To make of Judaism a living religion; to recognize that assimilation need not mean ignorance; and, in our generation, to foster a Zionism in a post-Zionist era, when moving to Israel is no longer the ultimate goal but standing in solidarity with Israel and its people remains central to our identity and our survival.

Whether you read David Mamet's book or not, whether you find it right on or over the top, whether you buy a copy for your friends to please them or infuriate them, the question, remains:

In or Out?

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week. Tracker Pixel for Entry

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