A book about Jewishness by the playwright David Mamet, you might expect it to be personal, even confessional. Here’s a statement from page 134: “To me, real life consists in belonging.” That is direct and sincere.
It’s the only time. The rest of the book, the author is behind a curtain. He does not speak about his personal religious observance, or his path to it, at age 58. He’s a Reform Jew, he drives to synagogue, he has looked into Kabbalah—these points come out. But the book’s not about him; it’s a screed aimed at his nemesis, people like myself—lapsed Jews who criticize Israel, or as he puts it, “lost” Jews, “self-loathing” Jews, Jews who “think their people stink,” tattooed Jews, “wicked” and treasonous Jews, Jews who are going in for “Japanese drum beating” and “yoga.”
Fifty years ago, Joe McCarthy self-destructed when he said people were wicked and treasonous and did Japanese drumming; he self-destructed because he wouldn’t name names, just a bunch of numbers. Mr. Mamet has fallen into the same trap. He fails to cite any examples. If you’re going to accuse a large portion of American Jewry of treason and yoga, you’d better name names. But the few citations in this book are always vague: a man at a relative’s bar mitzvah who took off his clothes as a joke, “two wealthy Jews of my acquaintance,” a “disaffected Jew,” a Jew who walked out of a seder in dudgeon, an “independent ‘ex-Jew.’” The point of researching a book is that you don’t have to rely on anecdotes from a friend’s bar mitzvah.
We do get one name: Noam Chomsky. Mr. Chomsky continues to “debauch the young with his filth.” Mr. Chomsky says the state of Israel “is a crime.” Mr. Chomsky doesn’t object to Arabs’ “incitement to genocide.” Mr. Chomsky feels exempted “from the need of further investigation, explanation, or defense of his position.”
I asked Mr. Chomsky if he said these things. He wrote back, “I am sure no sources are given, because the statements are all pure lies, as Mr. Mamet knows. He’s not an imbecile.” Mr. Chomsky is right: No sources are given.
MR. MAMET HAS ONE MEANINGFUL IDEA HERE. It’s that religious tradition has formed us psychically, and when people abandon their rituals, they fall back into pagan emptiness, full of anomie. Sometimes he writes beautifully:
“Each human being has a certain amount of awe that must be discharged. It can be discharged only through ritual. If he does not engage in existing religious ritual, the individual will seek out or invent other avenues for his submission to powers greater than himself …. Instead of worshiping the wind and the water, fortune and fame, do you have the courage to stand in awe of that which gave rise to them, to you, and to your human urges?”
This idea is islanded by venom, so that it’s impossible to feel at all improved or educated by The Wicked Son. More like being vivisected by a crazy power-tripping author. “What if tattooing were viciously punished, or fatal?” It is “true” and “natural” to stay in the tribe; it’s “forbidden” to leave.
What about people for whom “belonging” is not everything? What about Jewish shape-shifters like Lewis Namier, the Zionist and historian who became Christian? Or Spinoza, who refused to drink the Kool-Aid that we are the chosen people? Or Mortimer Adler of the Aspen Institute, who needed to become an Episcopalian?
Mr. Mamet won’t bend: The apostate Jew is a “fraud.” “The world hates the Jews,” and so “his delusion of freedom to choose sentences him to a life of disappointment.” He “muddles toward community and calls it yoga, self-help, agnosticism, Buddhism.” Or he tries “sports,” and “college tutoring,” and will pay outrageous sums for “an inert white cream that has been suggested to reverse the aging process.” He is “deluded” to think he can integrate into “society at large.” He thinks the Holocaust “was not tragic.”
What a pity that Schocken, publisher of Franz Kafka, Hannah Arendt and the Zohar of the Kabbalah, has provided a platform for such bizarre racial invective. And sloppy. Three times Mr. Mamet writes “impugnity” for “impunity.” I can see his editor missing it once. Three times?
More significant are the errors. I will fasten on three. No. 1 is Mr. Mamet’s claim that the lapsed Jew who criticizes Israel and desires to assimilate does so among Jews, for he’s more comfortable with Jews. Again, no names. Myself, I feel most comfortable criticizing Israel and playing Japanese drums with my liberal Protestant mother-in-law. She’s been to the West Bank too, and knows exactly what I saw when I went there. She smuggled sheets into a Bethlehem hospital. Also, if I’m wrong and American gentiles start murdering Jews, I know that she’ll hide me.
No. 2. Mr. Mamet states flatly that to describe Israel as “colonial” is to be a racist and anti-Semite committing the “blood libel.” He cannot be aware of the members of the Labor Government in Israel who, in 1967, when the first illegal settlements took place, argued that Israel was becoming colonial just as the rest of the world was leaving that era behind (per Gershom Gorenberg’s book, The Accidental Empire). Their fears came to pass. Are those Israelis guilty of the blood libel?
No. 3. Mr. Mamet says twice that Ariel Sharon’s walk around the Temple Mount in 2000 was not “provocative” to Muslims. It did not, “in any way, offend Moslem law or custom.” To say that it did is, again, “the blood libel” and anti-Semitic. Those who say as much “bear some responsibility for the deaths in the cafes of Tel Aviv.”
This is insane. At the time of the walk, the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, was considering a compromise with the Palestinians over Jerusalem, and Mr. Sharon was indicating to the world that the right wing intended to maintain sovereignty over this holy shared site. “What happens at that one spot [the Temple Mount], more than anywhere else, quickens expectations of the End in three religions. And at that spot, the danger of provoking catastrophe is greatest,” Mr. Gorenberg wrote in The End of Days, published before Mr. Sharon’s walk. Even Alan Dershowitz, who blames the Palestinians for planning the Intifada, says of Mr. Sharon’s walk (in The Case for Israel), “[I]n my view it was a wrong-headed provocation that provided an excuse—even a trigger—for the violence.”
Mr. Mamet, it seems, was too lazy to read even one book. He accuses me and my ilk of abandoning our “intellectual heritage, the Jewish love of learning, and reverence for accomplishment.” What a lie. Those Jewish values have transformed Western society, yet Mr. Mamet fails to honor them in this work. You have to wonder how many of these crazy charges weren’t aimed at himself.
Philip Weiss writes MondoWeiss for The Observer’s Web edition.