Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The good Jew? Ozick reviews Mamet

I typed an hour's worth of ruminations, lost by a finger's slip. So I will suffice to say that these comments intrigued me, caused me to examine my own hybridity (word du jour for the lit crit crowd and Bob in his "social construction" doctoral studies), and reflect upon the status of religion as shown in the play "Doubt" seen last week by Leo and me at the Ahmanson. A fittingly named venue, after the philanthropist family of Home Savings savings who converted from Judaism to evangelical Christianity. The play's a bit ham-fisted and I wish that Fr. Flynn had been allowed to remain more ambiguous as to his guilt in molesting the off-stage and a bit too righteously abused and African American 1964 first in the Ital-Mick rosters who does not there belong boy, but Cherry Jones' acclaimed performance as the nun sniffing something rotten in the 1964 parish of St. Aloysius does, even if full of scenery- chewing, manages to fill the vast spaces of the too-large theatre full of 1900 kids and a few shepherds of the flock like me. It does offer a memorable justification by the Sister of her mission (from God?): "In the righteous pursuit of wrongdoing, one may step away from God." So argued those crusading against the Tribe, or Cromwell burning Drogheda.

Which I will lead efficiently back to the Ozick on Mamet review from the LA Times last Sunday. Mamet's rare among assimilated Jews in justifying the right of Israel to simply survive. Despite his own two marriages to shiksas, he calls for the perpetuation of the tribe. Eating bacon sandwiches as he once was in an interview I read a decade ago, he insists on the cultural legacy that he defiantly asserts in the face of the goyim. Surely, therefore, representative of the type of Jewish people that we have gotten to know in the past fifteen years in our markedly secular shetl on the slopes above a nominally Catholic city.

I guess, being a willed hybrid, I can compare the fate of the next fifty years' worth of Jews ready to define themselves as such with the plight of those speaking Irish. Nobody grows up unthinkingly identifying themselves in our Americanized and anglicized (here lingually, there culturally) society solely as Jewish faithful or Irish-speaker. Now, what of the hasidim, or the gaeilgoiri? Well, both of these are modern reactions to the loss of these traditional signifiers, people who consciously set themselves, a "stiff-necked people" or "fossilized fanatics", against the tide of conformity, homogenization, and elimination. We all, these days, have to choose our faction. More of us--Leo, Niall, and me in our mischling blend and Layne in her own fleischig fashion--must also contend with not wanting to discard one suit once worn by our fathers for a dress that bedecked our mothers, so to speak.

How this wraps back into Nicholas Donin and all those today who, descended from Jews, probably even with all the mitochondrial DNA that genogeographers can rescue, do not know there origins does make for humbling postures. Despite xenophobic gestures from Chosen People who resisted four thousand years of blandishments by temple prostitutes (word of the week thanks to Niall and Leo debating why one of their versions of Gilgamesh labels happy Hurri such and the other keeps her demure if admittedly a party girl) and Republican Gaels who never mixed with the Gall. Why? As we all intermarry and mate and mingle in ways unfathomable by ancestors who in Galway never met perhaps but one or two members of the Jewish persuasion in their lives, and I'm guessing not even that given that no Jews lived in the West that are at least recorded in the admittedly incomplete and now irretrievable data. The symbolic destruction of the British archives of centuries of taxation of the natives and of profits by their "betters" when the Four Courts was bombed at the start of the Irish Civil War, ironically of course post-(partial, there's the rub)independence does make me lament as well as shrug with futility about how much eludes forever even the most determined geneticist when it comes to unearthing the sleeping past and those beneath the earth we all tread but to fall upon.

Donin, where are you now? Which side did you claim on your flea-bitten deathbed, surrounded by halitoxic priests? Any "mental reservation," any pressure to renounce what you had announced-- if not from without, for no rabbi would have been near, but within your soul? Each side, Catholic and Jewish, allows an out at the last moment, two strikes, bottom of the ninth. We all must one day have to swing for the fences, but it is ourselves who will be lifted up, into who knows what bleachers, to land in what hands, to be grasped or fumbled or dropped into the eternal sky.

The good Jew

Cynthia Ozick assesses David Mamet’s call for soul-searching.

By Cynthia Ozick

October 8, 2006

The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews
David Mamet
Nextbook/Schocken: 190 pp., $19.95

In the middle of the 13th century, in the town of La Rochelle in northern France, a Jew named Donin — learned both in scripture and in the homiletic commentaries, debates and morally centered scriptural interpretations that constitute the Talmud — underwent baptism, joined the Franciscans and began to style himself Nicholas. The condition of Jews in this period of church dominance was untenable. To live as a Jew was to live under a continuing death warrant. Crusader pogroms slaughtered 3,000 Jews in Brittany, Pitou and Anjou. Fanatical monks and bishops heaped calumny upon calumny against Jewish populations.

It was in this mercilessly oppressive climate that the new Franciscan Nicholas sought to become chief among the calumniators. In a malicious spew of preposterous fabrication, and in the face of his own knowledge, he asserted that the Talmud insulted Jesus, the Virgin and the church; that it blasphemed against God; that it declared deceiving and killing Christians lawful. As a result of Nicholas' exertions, 24 cartloads of Talmuds were burned in Paris, by papal decree, in 1244. And the Jews of France, defenseless under the heel of a church determined to destroy Jewish life, were found guilty of a dangerous wish to destroy Christianity.

Nicholas Donin's world is not ours; we neither inhabit nor recognize it. Medieval Christianity is not contemporary Christianity, earnestly pledged to familial harmony with Jews. But what of Nicholas himself? Why did he do it, why was he drawn to promulgate the very lies that were certain to threaten the safety of a small and helpless people — his own? At a distance of seven centuries, we can only speculate. Say that he did it out of opportunism, to stand with the powerful against the weak. Or that he did it out of fear, to escape the stigma of inferiority, the inexorable consequence of his Jewish birth. Or out of cowardice, or spite, or obsequiousness, or ingratiation, or self-aggrandizement. Or even (but this is satire) out of a kind of utopian universalism, a yearning for all peoples to be as one, without difference or dissent. Say any or all of these things, but do not say that Nicholas Donin's character — or, as we call it nowadays, his mind-set — is, like the culture that accommodated him, dead.

It is this strangely recurrent mind-set that is David Mamet's salient preoccupation in "The Wicked Son," a loose sequence of reflections on the nature of anti-Semitism and its fractional offshoot: hostile Jewish estrangement. The title refers to the lively liturgy of the Passover Seder table, which, like much Jewish discourse, plays with interrogating itself. One questioner (the "wicked son"), by evading the "we" of fellowship and addressing the gathering as "you people," proves not only that he has departed psychologically from his historic inheritance but, more emphatically, that he intends malice. Though marginal to the majority, he is the most noticed and the noisiest. And in identifying the wicked son of our own time, Mamet — preeminent playwright and filmmaker, Pulitzer Prize winner, showbiz celebrity newly awakened to Jewish faithfulness — turns to an ancient term redolent of communal and especially religious betrayal: apostate.

But in the American experience and generally in the mainly secular West, Jewish flight into conversion is no longer an expedient, or relevant, means of self-erasure; nor was it ever, even for Nicholas Donin, the crux. Harmful estrangement meant self-serving politics then, and, in a different guise (usually touching on the state of Israel), it remains self-serving politics now. In asserting this thesis, Mamet is sometimes blunt and sometimes circuitous, given to dubious analogies. Yet his grit is unfailing, and he stands nearly alone among his colleagues, in theater and Hollywood, who have shown a failure of nerve. Easy enough to slap down the street slurs of Mel Gibson, but it requires a stiffer spine to counter the far more insidious, and pervasive, defamation of the anti-Semitism that calls itself anti-Zionist.

Mamet, though, has even broader (and in some respects lesser) charges. He is explicit in his condemnation of "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 might take their 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 Bi'Shvat; who dread endogamy more than incest; who bow the head reverently at a baptism and have never attended a bris."

The mention of Tu Bi'Shvat, the Jewish Arbor Day, a post-biblical minor holiday charmingly dubbed "the New Year of the Trees," tips off Mamet's orientation: He is alert to heritage and spiritually conscientious. Still, the current widespread recrudescence of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel scurrilousness is a nervous issue even for the many Jews who are apostates in Mamet's sense — the non-observant secular agnostics who are not synagogue-goers and who are apathetic toward both the minor and major holidays, who are personally unscarred by Holocaust wounds and whose citizenship in a nation founded on democratic institutions is spiritual gratification enough. What causes uneasiness, including among the most religiously indifferent, is not only the daily trumpeting of genocidal intentions by the jihadist leaders of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah, the last of which has massacred Jews as far away as Argentina. A wishfully accepted facade — "land for peace" in a merely territorial dispute — now discloses its enduring and deadly marrow: The Jewish nation's "right to exist" is called into question or denied outright, an utterance no sane person would dare to apply even to the life of a dog or a horse.

What has hastened Jewish anxieties are the jihadists' abettors, sympathizers and apologists who are active in more civilized societies, especially the dogmatic "progressive" elites in the press, on the lecture circuit and in the universities. It is no longer possible, if it ever was, to pretend to distinguish between open anti-Semitism and ostensibly political movements such as divestment and boycott. That there are Jews prominent in these movements, and indefatigable in identifying with defamatory zealotry, ultimately leads Mamet to his j'accuse.

"The Wicked Son" sets out to plumb the inmost nature of the apostate, particularly through social parallels (and parables) and through anthropology and Freudian psychology, and also, regrettably, through certain eccentric or inappropriate tics of language. The very word "apostate," for instance, tends to cast the argument in a religious mold yet mixes it oddly with the therapeutic. Apostasy, Mamet is persuaded, can actually be cured. How? By diligent ritual observance and devotion to Torah learning, until the apostate finds that "the habit of investigation, of study, of curiosity, has supplanted what he will now be able to recognize was the habit of apostasy." The italics are touching. Does Mamet imagine that sending Noam Chomsky, say, or Norman Finkelstein or Judith Butler or Tony Judt to yeshiva will undo their practiced enmities?

He is also prone to a confusion of terms. An "apikoros," a Greek-derived word defined in the book's glossary (which Mamet apparently neither compiled nor consulted) as "[a] heretic, one who is learned in Judaism but rejects it," is not the same as Mamet's apostate, whom he consistently faults for "knowing nothing of Judaism except the slander of its opponents." But an apikoros is not necessarily a slanderer (Nicholas Donin excepted), and many a skeptic has been seen turning up at Sabbath services, whether for the familiar pleasures of the liturgy or simply out of solidarity.

More perplexing is Mamet's adverting throughout to "the Jewish race," a questionable phrase acceptable perhaps in the 19th century but genetically false and permanently tainted by Nazi racist fabrications. Yet another wayward usage is "tribal," here possibly intended sociologically, nevertheless always smacking of backwardness and denigration. It is hard to know whether these recalcitrant terms were chosen straightforwardly or with a kind of tough in-your-face defiance emblematic of Mamet's gutsiness in addressing his nasty subject. The frequent Freudian lingo — "the trauma of the clan," "resistance is the neurosis," anti-Semitism as sadomasochistic fantasy, and all the rest — is, it seems to me, more the product of stale psychoanalytic fashion than new-minted thought.

But most extraordinary of all is Mamet's strange notion of Judaism as "a secret society, similar in the public imagination to the Rosicrucians." I believe he means this playfully (if perilously: "Secret society" inevitably suggests the fraudulent Protocols), and I hope he also means it ironically; otherwise, he would be overlooking a blazing yet commonplace truth — that nothing on earth is less arcane than Judaism, which, for better or worse, has given birth to two world religions and whose scripture undergirds innumerable literatures and cultures.

Anti-Semitism has often been attributed to any number of widely recognizable ills found in all societies, such as scapegoating, bias against difference, group-versus-group hostility. But Jew-hatred does not take easily to ready-to-hand rational comparisons. It is close to being a metaphysical disorder and exists even where there are no Jews; it has a profound affinity with a belief in demons and other phantasmagoria (an affinity from which the most sensitive, cultivated and sophisticated minds are not always barred). "What is the fear the Jew engenders?" Mamet asks. "Perhaps it is caused by his historical, absolute, terrifying certainty that there is a God." Here is a conjecture wholly off the mark. The most ferocious anti-Semites and Jew-killers alive today are the jihadists who affirm God with, in fact, a terrifying certainty. And again: "The cure for the Jew is neither assimilation nor conversion, but religion." Nazi Germany built a national identity on an anti-Semitism that incinerated, without distinction, the assimilated, the converted, the believing and the unbelieving, and Daniel Pearl was not beheaded because he was an American stand-in for Western globalization. The anti-Semite is no "normal" bigot. This is why any attempt at finding analogies to anti-Semitism in this or that historical experience or pariah status or sexual disturbance or childhood trauma or political affront has no logical force. Human histories, even horrendous ones, are not interchangeable.

Yet Mamet diligently looks for parallels and origins, frequently inapplicable and at times grotesque — "the unresolved race memory of slavery"; "the child's need for security and for powerful and moral parents"; advocates of Francis Bacon as the real Shakespeare; gays, veterans and the disabled; the "high school car wash"; "[t]he confederation of the shamefaced," including members of Reform synagogues and amateur writing groups; and more. That Mamet supposes these scattershot disparities to be analogous to, or suggestive of, anti-Semitism is both confounding and dismaying.

"The Wicked Son" is a weakly argued work in the service of a pair of powerful indictments. The first points to an intractability: the persistence of anti-Semitism from generation to generation, a kind of cross-gender mental hemophilia endemic to the brain that carries and transmits it. The second charge is lodged against anti-Semitism's Jewish accomplices, nowadays noisome with peace-and-justice sloganeering and often mistakenly accused of self-hate. But the craven motives that spur Mamet's inauspiciously named "race treason" are no different from Nicholas Donin's 13th century opportunism. All are equally rooted in self-promoting callousness, servile ingratiation and other stigmata of excessive self-love.

As it happens, two scrupulously documented current books take up these themes far more intelligibly and comprehensively than Mamet, for all the stinging wisdom of his intuition, is able to do. Mamet himself cites "The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege" by Kenneth Levin, a psychiatrist and historian who anatomizes in depth what he terms "Jewish self-reform and self-effacement in conformity with leftist tenets." "The Jewish Divide Over Israel: Accusers and Defenders," edited by Edward Alexander and Paul Bogdanor, consists of meticulously supported essays on the pathological careers of leading Jewish antagonists. (For the record, six pages of my own are included in the latter.) These volumes are, for the moment, definitive. But if Mamet's passionate yet sometimes idiosyncratic analyses do not always satisfy, his resoluteness in standing against the defamers and their apologists is as needed as it is rare among his peers.

Monday, October 9, 2006

My Big California Adventure

We celebrated Niall's eleventh birthday; the little hobbit went to Disneyland's southern annex-- my wife insisted that I would not find it as bad as anticipated. Well, the Downtown D-land part that divides the old park from the new stretches from the hotel across what was an immense parking lot and is now a promenade lined with chain stores akin to Universal City Walk. Nothing that exciting, but the cleanliness is quite noticeable when compared with the litter strewn and graffiti-scarred real-life counterparts of the California Adventure's inspirations. Unlike the week before, when I threw up at the gates of the same park necessitating a ride home and unrelenting guilt for ruining Niall's birthday. But, as I observed chipperly on Layne's MySpace blog, at least we saved the $11 parking fee. Whose lack may have barely covered the gas, being stuck on the 5 Northbound a couple of hours on the way home, nearly none of which I recall.

Back to Anaheim. Gay Days '06 in hundreds of red and pink tank-tops and t-shirts among as many more rubicund garments displayed by men of all ages and about three woman as far as I counted. Layne reminded me of Disney's historically early and generous encouragement of the gay community in its own creative and occupational endeavors. I recall her telling me long ago of the coke-fiend guys responsible for animating the Pink Elephants on Parade sequence from Dumbo. The other most common sighting in this habitat were Aussie migrants. I guess it's summer vacation for them; it seemed half of the pinker shades of the Caucasian persuasion we passed were declaiming with twangy brays. I told the kids how strange to think that once Disneyland had a strict dress code for entrance; the part-time punks and determinedly swishy strollers in their respective plumage did show how even the happiest place on earth had to let in those who wished to proclaim their own conforming non-conformity, to present a giddy or sullen demeanor befitting their sartorial choices. I thought of Enid in Ghost World on why she did not want the cool old 50s jalopy to drive: then you'd have to get the clothes, and match everything you did to the car.

We went on the Condor Rides, as if floating above various California beauty spots, nearly free of tract houses except the one over a golf tourney in Palm Springs. A classy ride, although Leo did not like it ending up flying over the Magic Kingdom as fireworks burst. Unfortunately, Tinkerbelle was not splattered on the windscreen of whatever craft soared over this climactic panorama, this Buena Vista.

The weather, not too hot but very sunny and no breeze and therefore an accumulation of exposure that does wear me down after a couple of hours outside unless I am in (missing Santa Cruz) a sylvan glade (is there any other type of glade? dell? lea?), did just that: wear me down. Still, frequent interior escapes and shady respites helped. Poor Niall was tuckered out after perhaps one too many rollercoasters, and lay on the concrete planter's buffer next to me (trying out the IPod I inherited from my generous and/or tech-challenged wife; those ear-buds are impossible to fit into the cavity and I have no idea who on earth has ears shaped so to invite such entry) as we waited for our Fast Pass time to enter the Tower of Terror, a fine re-creation of the Roosevelt Hotel in haunted Hollywood. The TT turned out to be a gravity-defying drop, that let you down just enough for a moment or two of g-force weightlessness in your seat. We even have the picture to prove it--my face looking so long that it makes Jay Leno's look round. Niall pulled himself together, and we all enjoyed the silly ride of a few seconds, so it seemed.

Speaking of round, at the Animation Academy we all took a cartoon quiz that matched our faces, personality preferences, and I suppose sheer randomness to find our appropriate character. They did fit well, Leo being madcap Timon from what in his innocent youth was his favorite flick, The Lion King. Niall found his mate in the dependable clockface Cogsworth in Beauty & the Beast. Layne proved to be Cinderella herself. I on the other hand became the doppelganger for the fearsome misanthrope Shere Khan from Jungle Book. Then, off to ESPN Zone where the Dodgers, down 2-zip in the division playoffs as the wildcard team set against the champion Mets, sought to stay alive. We had to wait an hour or so. Leo and I went to a tiny imitation of a Barnes & Noble simalacrum of an old-tyme indie bookstore. The latte vendors, it being an imitation and not the venerable merchant of tomes, wore a black apron with "Compass: the West's oldest independent bookstore since 1851." Wait: wasn't this the long-departed Hunter's motto? I guess some other indie bought out that indie.

The pickings slim, nowhere to sit inside and read. I bought Leo a latte and he thought that term meant it was cold. I explained that it meant milk in Italian and not a temperature. The chai was boiling hot; he got a cup of ice to put in it, but then the flavor dissolved into a mundane liquid faintly tasting of fake spice. Seeing his interest in a book, a rarity too long, I offered that he could pick out a title for a room of his own. He chose one of the guides to Lost, with my help as the two competing ones, while good, were more spiritually oriented--one by Orson Scott Card, the other on the religious and critical contexts behind the show. They actually made the series sound intellectual. Leo took the one that gave a more chronological account of each episode. Anything to get him to read.

The ESPN Zone set us center floor in front of a massive screen surrounded by eight smaller "feeds"; the game had just begun and already it was 3-0 Mets. Happy to find Fat Tire Amber ale on draft, the Big Daddy 25 ouncer was mine. Repeated, since it was a slow game. The bar food, chicken wings, sliders, and a surprisingly good pile of onion rings, did my regimen of watching my intake no good, but in the spirit of the evening as well as being plain hungry, I even added a rum carrot cake--a fine combo even if I could not finish the last few bites. Angered by the presence of Mets fans behind us and off to the side in the form of a snide young man who ostentatiously clapped and cheered at the enemy's victory, we managed to keep up hopes as the 3-0 became a 4-3, or was it 5-3, lead in the 5th or 6th. But, the Mets soon rallied and the 9-6 score sealed the Blue Crew into a doom of their own hapless making once again. Even our heroic Nomar Garciaparra, hobbling up for one at bat that was very key, failed to pull a Kirk Gibson miracle play with the bases loaded. Niall wept after he ate his dessert. We saw the bitter end upstairs as he pitched (37! 42 mph!) at a sheet in an ersatz batting cage, and Leo indifferent as ever used up Niall's game card on air hockey and some intense folderol.

The evening by then allowed me a so far rare chance to wear my own mighty fine b-day gift, a blue-gold letterman jacket vintage -- so old that it said made in the USA --with John O stitched on the front (almost my name, and the O is the start of the Irish, so) and San Francisco Conservation Corps on the reverse. It had aroused some cutting remarks when I put it on after a Dodger game last summer, but in Angels turf I suppose it was neutral ground. Layne liked her dessert of angel food cake and berry sorbet, Leo is keeping admirably to a non-four foot diet, and Niall, well, we tried our best to comfort the bereft boy who would not get to use his tickets for the playoff game the next day.