Wednesday, August 5, 2009

David Mamet's "The Wicked Son": Book Review

Mamet's brief defense of Jewish pride against his fellow Jews preening their self-loathing meanders, yet, as with much of his drama and film, his barbed messages prickle your complacency. He argues that the sadly familiar figure of today's secular Jew delighting in demeaning Torah, mocking synagogue, and defying tradition is rooted in the "wicked son" who challenges the family, the tribe, at the ritual recital of the Seder. He suggests that the Torah itself's addressed to such a skeptic or rebel.

He wonders about the Jews whose favorite role model's Anne Frank, with nobody in second place. The Jew that idolizes a Japanese tea ritual but who cannot bother to remember if Rosh Hashanah precedes Yom Kippur. The Jew who tells the anti-Jewish joke while insisting on telling it to the Jews he claims to separate himself from, but with whom he's impelled to keep parading his childish nonconformity.

He challenges those denouncing the IDF's "reprisals" and "retaliations" to come up with a better plan of defending an entity the size of Vermont against a billion who are taught that Zionism above all can be blamed for all evils against Islam. He links the pro-forma leftist denunciation of Israeli actions to the "blood libel"-- that Jews "delight in the blood of others" peddled for so many centuries. (11)

Mamet's on less firm ground when it comes to psychological explanations for Jewish self-loathing. Who else would take in one who hates his own family, his own tribe? This commonsensical question leads him into tangents about Santa Claus and solstice sacrifice of children, as he struggles to understand the "conflicted winter Jews" who celebrate their apostasy. He sees this as part of "a universal desire to revert to paganism" that shows why Chanukah bushes are invented to imitate Christmas trees. He muses: "Religion came into being to supplant the anomie and excess of paganism." (29) He finds religion, Christianity or Judaism, to each his own, battles this regression to the pagan with the comfort of the tribe, the people, the ritual.

He finds many of his fellow Jews lost. He wonders poignantly if in five generations, as people may with a great-great-grandmother who was Cherokee, our descendants will reflect on "Jewish blood" way back in their assimilated, probably secular or Christian, family. Yet, for now, he figures Jews are far too close to their five thousand years of observance "for any lapsed Jew to feel anything other than self-loathing of its Doppelganger, arrogant assurance of his escape." (46)

From this Jewish heritage, he finds solace and strength. "Judaism, as a spiritual, ethical, or social practice, has at its core a mystery so deep that not only is its existence hidden from the uninitiated but its very practitioners are hated and scorned, reviled and murdered as necromancers. What is the fear the Jew engenders and that manifests itself as hatred? Perhaps it is caused by his historical, absolute, terrifying certainty that there is a God." (60)

This passage shows Mamet at his best. The short chapters, however, roam about the self-hatred analysis without coming to much more of a resolution than this eloquence. Maybe it's impossible to go further into the mystery. The remaining two-thirds of this short book has its moments-- Mamet's great at showing the conviviality of the film set and how membership has its privileges in a common pursuit-- but the topics then blur and scatter.

He often puts down yoga-practicing, life-coach employing, analyst-addicted, Buddhists once Jewish. I'd add gently-- as Rodger Kamenetz in "The Jew in the Lotus" and "Stalking Elijah" (both reviewed by me last month here and on Amazon US) reports-- that many Jews can combine meditation and mystical pursuits with an eclectic, Orthodox-tinged or Renewal-affiliated, version of Judaism that works for them. One need not adhere to Mamet's analogy of the AA meeting-- "you go because you want to go; you go because you don't want to go"-- to sitting in shul and making yourself like it despite the fact you may not. I agree with his defense of attending temple for those wishing to reconnect, but there are many temples and many ways Jews can practice beyond the ossified norms. He, given his chapter about the poor shul by the freeway or that about his rabbi who refused to put up donors' names on plaques, needs to be aware that many of his fellow Jews are bored by the conventional service, and may seek other venues as they adapt Torah to contemporary mindsets.

Still, this section from "Well Poisoning" deserves sharing. He wonders why "Moslem extremists may not bomb New York, bur rational human beings-- some, to their shame, Jews-- hold that jihadists may bomb Jerusalem. The apologists are or pretend to be incapable of differentiating between the lamentable and decried death of civilians in a military reprisal, and the targeted strategic murder of schoolchildren." Subsequent events in Lebanon and Gaza only repeat this scenario of what the critics if not Mamet label "moral equivalency" or "proportionate response" against terror.

He continues: "This license is precarious, for the Palestinians, raised by unsettled Western thought to superhuman status, enjoy that status only as a counterpoint to the bestiality of the Jews. Should the Palestinians choose, in their uncontrollable sorrow and extremity, to bomb New York, they would find their license revoked." (145) One wonders about this alternative storyline.

This assault against complacency reminded me of two books I reviewed this week here and on Amazon US, Oriana Fallaci's post-9/11 "The Rage and the Pride" and Bernard-Henry Levy's "Left in Dark Times." Like Fallaci and Levy, Mamet rises to what's become among the media and the chattering classes and opinion-makers and professoriate an unpopular cause. His book, like the two others, will probably incite many to lash out against them and anyone who agrees with a modicum of their liberal discourse in the name of tolerance and defense of "tough Jews."

But, such voices deserve an audience, and one finishes this book not knowing much at all about why Mamet shifted, apparently, towards a more assertive embrace of his heritage. This will reveal nothing personally about his choice-- I recall reading when it came out an interview with him conducted with a Jewish newspaper as he ate a bacon sandwich. Out of such idiosyncratic gestures, perhaps the restive Mamet creates his own way of being Torah-true for today, if not by tradition.

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