Who died and made Mamet the High Priest?

Review Judaism

December 03, 2006|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to the Sun

The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred and the Jews

David Mamet

Schocken Books / 189 pages / $19.95

In the late 20th century, according to Pulitzer prize-winning playwright David Mamet, "a laudable disposition to open-mindedness decayed" into "the cant of freedom," with its "corrosive, indeed, destructive" illusions of choice and autonomy. What Allan Bloom called "the closing of the American Mind," Mamet believes is a "sickness," marked by anxiety, purposelessness, loneliness and loss. American Jews, Mamet maintains, are especially vulnerable to this modern malaise.

The Wicked Son takes its title from the child who removes himself from Jewish traditions and at the Passover meal appoints himself the judge over "those who would study, learn and belong."

A medieval rant against assimilated Jews, Mamet's book forsakes information, qualification and reasoned argument in favor of ex cathedra judgment.

The Wicked Son contains more unwarranted generalizing than a banana republic. And more name-calling than a high school graduation ceremony. Mamet's (always anonymous) apostates repudiate Jewish religion - and hate their history and culture. They feel either self-loathing or arrogant self-assurance. The Holocaust, to them, "was not tragic but intellectually inconvenient." Seeking a "ticket of admission" to majority culture, Mamet writes, they weep at Exodus but sneer at the Israeli Defense Forces; are curious about Kwanzaa but ostentatiously ignorant about Tu b'Shvat; select Anne Frank as their favorite Jew and have no runner-up.

Mamet acknowledges that "it is possible to support the Palestinian cause without being an anti-Semite." But the "people of goodwill who do so" are nowhere to be found in The Wicked Son.

After a brief interlude of sympathy for Jews after the Holocaust, he suggests, there has been a regression to the anti-Semitic mean in the United States and around the world. The "happy assignment" of wicked motives to Israeli citizens, soldiers, and politicians, he proclaims, is a modern instance of the libel that "Jews delight in the blood of others."

And the assertion that Ariel Sharon incited the Palestinian intifada by desecrating holy Muslim sites is the contemporary equivalent of the "charge of well-poisoning and the murder of Christian babies." The "crimes" of Israel, Mamet insists, are as "imaginary" as the alleged rapes committed by African-American men in the post-Civil War South. And he offers the equally simplistic claim that since 1948, Israel has offered peace to the Arab world - and has received in return war, terrorism, and threats of annihilation.

In their desperate attempt to identify with the "illusory, inert, supposedly moral, wider world," Mamet adds, assimilated Jews seek solidarity with Palestinians. Even though - or perhaps because - a Palestinian state would mean the end of Israel. When Palestinians murder their own children, these apostates blame the Jews, much as they attributed the violence at Columbine High School to irresponsible parents and after Sept. 11, 2001, bemoaned the bad behavior by the United States that prompted the al-Qaeda attack.

In the fantasy confected by self-hating Jews, Mamet repeats, the Palestinians are perfect victims, "a mythic race so put-upon that they are empowered, limitlessly, to kill." And the unwillingness of Israelis to cooperate with the fantasy by dying serves only to strengthen it.

The urge to belong is real, Mamet believes, "it is, in most, irresistible." Having rejected the blood ties to their people, modern, assimilated Jews seek "community, wisdom, and solace piecemeal - much of it purchased - from a congeries of spiritual and semi-spiritual, and merchants of hokum." But modern civilizations, which replace awe with morality, cannot answer the fundamental question: Who gave rise to wind and water, fortune and fame? And, inevitably, the stimulation of the search gives way to pain and guilt - "the pain of abandonment and the guilt of desertion."

Apostates refuse to realize that the "deeper, less conscious motive" for their lack of interest in the language, symbols and rituals of Judaism is fear of intimacy. And that when the hammer falls - Mamet thinks that pogroms may well come to America - only their fellow Jews will protect them.

According to Mamet, reasoned arguments will not help free assimilated Jews from their apostasy. "Only enforced participation" in religion, he concludes, "can begin to overcome" a self-hatred that insulates them from self-knowledge. The Jew who gets to synagogue and makes the investment to stay in his seat a few hours a week, Mamet suggests, may well find the service beautiful, the religion good, the Torah teaching relevant. "Little by little, he will find that the habit of investigation, of study, of curiosity, has supplanted what he will now be able to recognize as the habit of apostasy." And soon he will recognize, revere and respect the "actual sovereignty of Another."

Nonetheless, Mamet seems more interested in condemning than reclaiming assimilated Jews. In The Wicked Son, the playwright has become the rigid, self-righteous Prophet (Moh)Mamet. I much prefer Glengarry Glen Ross. And I don't plan on seeing or reading another Mamet production any time soon.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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