October 9, 2006
Cynthia Ozick assesses David Mamet’s call for soul-searching.
The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews
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. Cynthia Ozick is a novelist and essayist. “The Din in the Head” is her newest collection of essays.