David Mamet's Jewish Turn

Wednesday, November 1, 2006 - 16:15
This piece ran in the November 3, 2006, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

By Donald Weber

Devotees of David Mamet will be in for an unsettling shock when they read his incendiary rant against assimilation, The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews. Even Mamet's shrewdest interpreters--like John Lahr in the United States and Michael Billington in England, major critics who continue to champion his work--will, I suspect, find Mamet's blistering jeremiad about the psychic and emotional costs of alienation from the (Jewish) tribe hard to like, perhaps even impossible to fathom.

The Wicked Son-- the latest volume in Nextbook's Jewish Encounters series, published in association with Schocken Books -- represents the latest in what might be called Mamet's Jewish turn, his vexed encounter, especially over the past 10 years, with the complex fate of Jewish identity. From the beginning, Mamet has drawn on his experience of growing up unhappily in 1950s Chicago, in an assimilating family indelibly marked, he recalls in essays like "The Decoration of Jewish Houses" (Some Freaks, 1989), by "a feeling of tenuousness" linked to a bland, shame-ridden Reform Judaism. In early plays like The Disappearance of the Jews (1982), later incorporated into the 1997 trilogy The Old Neighborhood and Goldberg Street (1985); in the movie Homicide (1991); in other occasional essays like "A Plain Brown Wrapper" (Some Freaks) and "Poor but Happy" (in Jafsie and John Henry, 1999); and in the novel The Old Religion (1997), Mamet returns to themes that tend to haunt the imaginative landscape of Jewish American culture: the claims of memory and tradition; the ache of displacement; the disabling power of shame and self-hatred; above all, the pathology that, in The Wicked Son, Mamet identifies as "the panicked drive to assimilate."

Speaking about the fate of Jews displaced from a bounded religious community in a 1997 interview on the Charlie Rose show, Mamet related his own need, as a Jew, to feel connected to a living tradition of faith and practice. (In this respect, Mamet's subsequent collaboration with his Boston-based spiritual mentor, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, on a 2003 book of biblical commentaries, Five Cities of Refuge, reveals his serious commitment to Jewish learning.)

"To cut oneself off from one's identity," he reflected, "is a terrible, terrible thing. ... People who are assimilated, I think, can feel lonely. And, if there are pangs to rejoin or to rediscover or to embrace that from which one came, perhaps it's easier to -- to still those pangs by scoffing at them, which has got to make them, got to create a certain bit of self, of self-hatred."

The Wicked Son is the latest incarnation of Mamet's scalding lament over what he variously calls "lapsed Jews," "fallen-away Jews," "opted-out" Jews, or "conflicted winter Jews" (Jews divided over whether to observe Christmas or Hanukkah). The title itself refers to the Passover Haggadah, the ritual retelling of deliverance from bondage. In rigid, alienated response to the Passover story, the wicked son asks (as quoted by Mamet), "What does this ritual mean to you?" In Mamet's pointed reading, this "wicked Jewish child removes himself from his tradition and sets up as a rationalist and judge of those who would study, learn, and belong." The Wicked Son thus represents the culmination of Mamet's own journey -- in art and, it now appears, in life -- away, as he phrases it in The Old Religion, from "the self-loathing ... of the displaced" and toward a vision of imagined group wholeness ("this tribal life"). In that respect, Mamet intends The Wicked Son as a form of shock therapy, "a book from your brother," in filial solidarity, offered with tough love.

The Wicked Son may also shock those devotees who have either discounted or ignored the political implications of Mamet's Jewish turn. As in his recent mocking response to Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic ravings, Mamet has of late become a self-styled defender of the faith, accusing all defamers of Israel of being racists in their flagrant anti-Semitism. Indeed, he feels that any criticism of Israel "is to me simply a modern instance of the blood libel." (I wonder, in this respect, how someone like Harold Pinter, a key literary influence on Mamet and longstanding supporter -- even director -- of his work in England, will react to Mamet's unalloyed Zionism.)

Above all, however, The Wicked Son seeks to trouble disaffiliated Jews out of their treasonous apostasy, their debilitating bad faith. For Mamet, the costs of assimilation are measured in anomie and anxiety, shame and self-hatred, in "fatigue, sorrow, loneliness, and self-doubt": a litany of emotional wounds that haunt the Jewish self in flight from the groundedness of "authentic" religious identity.

"Jews feel more comfortable in the community of Jews," Mamet claims. "Who can deny it? Freed from either the scorn or the 'understanding' of the non-Jewish world, the Jew can be himself."

"To me," Mamet posits elsewhere in this fiery book of provocations, "real life consists in belonging." Indeed, "true cultural identity, as familial identity," Mamet asserts, "comes from absolute commitment." Its rejection can only issue in "anxiety, loneliness, and loss."

For making such an absolutist claim, Mamet, I suspect, will be accused of a range of heresies, above all spouting what academic theorists call "essentialist" notions of race and identity. That's an astonishing turn by the author of the much-produced anti-PC exposé, Oleanna (1992), directed by Pinter himself.

For students of Jewish culture, however, Mamet's Jewish learning -- despite his Talmud study with Rabbi Kushner and, more recently, with Rabbi Mordechai Finley -- will no doubt appear thin, and his breezy assertions about the psychology of Jewish self-hatred will register as either self-evident or simplistic. Describing Mamet's intellectual style, Michael Wood, the Princeton University comparative-literature professor and book and film critic, correctly observes that Mamet "is drawn to the analysis of whatever knowledge he's got"; "he likes to turn his experience, any experience, into maxims."

In that respect, The Wicked Son recycles, even as it apparently ignores, a rich cultural history of relevant Jewish studies, including Kurt Lewin's seminal "Self-Hatred Among Jews" (1941), Maurice Samuel's The Great Hatred (1940), and Sander L. Gilman's Jewish Self-Hatred (1986). Mamet doesn't mention key works by the sociologists Norbert Elias and Talcott Parsons, by Sartre, and by Cynthia Ozick (see her skeptical review of Mamet, "newly awakened to Jewish faithfulness," in the October 8 Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review). And it fails to nod even to important novels by Arthur Miller and Saul Bellow -- Jewish American writers whom Mamet deeply admires -- that explore the psychological vicissitudes of anti-Semitism: Miller's Focus (1945) and Bellow's The Victim (1947). Mamet might have benefited most of all from his near-contemporary, the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who offered profound reflections in The Imaginary Jew (1980) about "the majority of lost and isolated souls who, like me, harbor the impotent dream of assimilating back into their original culture."

Ultimately, however, The Wicked Son continues Mamet's own journey, as a self-vexing Jew (to borrow a phrase from the Anglo-Jewish novelist Howard Jacobson), into the fraught landscape of American Jewish experience. He sounds its anxieties, relishes its comedy (early in his career, Mamet worked at Chicago's Second City improv club and eventually adapted old-school Jewish comic styles in his 1972 play Duck Variations), and analyzes his own previous disabling shame related to the assimilating urge. Above all, The Wicked Son demonstrates what the New York Times theater critic Richard Eder, an early Mamet enthusiast, recognized in the 1970s as Mamet's attentive "ear for heartbeats."

Reviewing a 1981 revival of Mamet's signature play, American Buffalo, John Lahr captured perfectly Mamet's linguistic-aural achievement: "He hears panic and poetry in the convoluted syntax of his beleaguered characters trying at once to fathom and to hide from the realities of the sad life around them." Mamet's now famously scatological verbal flow records, Lahr recognized, "a restless, rootless, insecure society which has no faith in the peace it seeks or the pleasure it finds."

In his earlier work, Mamet's originality as a dramatist was his ability to transcribe emotion (as did his mentors, Pinter and Beckett) in the form of tense, staccato, overlapping exchanges between characters, now styled "Mametspeak" and too easily parodied. Interestingly, in his current Bible study with Rabbi Kushner, Mamet is "delighted to find the Hebrew punchy, colloquial, and magnificent -- the transcription of the oral traditions of a voluble people."

In more-recent work, Mamet's need to sound the panic masked by shame-driven assimilationist desire shapes his most "Jewishly" themed movies, plays, and other writings:

  • Detective Bobby Gold in Homicide (brilliantly played by Joe Montegna) begins as a self-hating Jew; at the end, bent and wounded, he finds himself exiled from both the gang of tough Jews he seeks to join (in plotting revenge on neighborhood anti-Semites) and the tribe of cops he once claimed as "my people." Banished from both worlds, Gold is in mute exile, no longer the precinct's "mouthpiece," famous for his empathic (i.e., "Jewish") verbal art of hostage negotiation.

  • Bobby Gould in The Old Neighborhood, perhaps Mamet's most personal play about memory and regret, listens to the mournful longings of an old friend, Joey (who, feeling ungrounded, dreams about how perfect life would have been in an Old World shtetl); an unhappy sister, Jolly (filled with nostalgia for their childhood); and a former lover, Deeny, who tries, therapeutically, to help Bobby see beyond "looking at regret."

  • Raking over the raw memories of their troubled family life, Jolly invites Bobby back to an imagined past that perhaps never was: "We could go back. ... And we would sit in the window in the den, and Dad would come home every night, and we would light the candles on Friday, and we would do all those things, and all those things would be true and that's how we would grow up."

  • Mamet in "A Plain Brown Wrapper" interprets the 1950s Charles Atlas body-building vogue as the shameful symbol of Reform Judaism's "desire to 'pass'; to slip unnoticed into the non-Jewish community, to do nothing which would attract notice, and, so, the wrath of mainstream America." The brown paper wrapper embodies gentile America's knowledge of Mamet's secret -- wanting a stronger physique. And that very wish for a stronger physique exposes his Jewishness in the eyes of non-Jews. "That was also my experience of Reform Judaism," Mamet says. "It was religion in a plain brown wrapper, a religion the selling point of which was that it would not embarrass us."

Has Mamet's Jewish turn proved creatively enabling for his more-recent work? The answer, alas, is no, to judge from the critical response to (for example) The Old Religion, his 1997 novel inspired by the Leo Frank case. It conjures the figure of Frank as an assimilating Jew afflicted with "anomie, an existence consisting of nothing but panic." Alfred Kazin called it "a terrible work of Jewish jingoism." Critics were similarly unimpressed by Romance (2005), an anti-PC stage farce that seeks to overturn, as it exposes, the inane language of ethnic and sexual stereotypes.

For Mamet -- perhaps for any artist -- the embrace of "tribal" identity may prove disabling. As Philip Roth's Coleman Silk in The Human Stain (2000) comes to understand, there are limits to the dream of belonging. Shamed, consumed by resentment, injured by fashionable identity politics, Coleman embraces the position of "singularity" itself: "Never for him," Roth's narrator acidly observes, "the tyranny of the we that is dying to suck you in, the coercive, inclusive, historical, inescapable moral we. ... Instead the raw I with all its agility. ... The singular animal. The sliding relationship with everything. Not static but sliding."

Mamet's attentive ear for American -- and now Jewish American -- panic was shaped in part by his own shame and self-hatred, in part by his substantial powers of empathy. "I understand your anxiety," the Jewish defendant in Romance cries out. It's an apt description of Mamet's own cultural office: the Jewish "mouthpiece" who feels our anomie and yearning for connection.

There are, however, as Finkielkraut recognizes, "other itineraries of Jewish life," another "way of being in the world that is Jewish without being automatically religious." It may be that, in his alienated, self-vexing relation to the tribe, the wicked son, as Philip Roth well knows, proves a better artist. Sometimes panic nourishes the creative soul.

Donald Weber is a professor of English at Mount Holyoke College and author of Haunted in the New World: Jewish American Culture From Cahan to "The Goldbergs" (Indiana University Press, 2005).