November 9, 2006
David Mamet has one question—for the wicked son
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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."