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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.

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