Thursday, March 15, 2007

Book Report

As promised: I finished reading the very polemical The Wicked Son, by David Mamet. It is a deeply flummoxing book.
It is meant as a polemic against American Jews who are so disconnected from their Jewish roots that they root for the Palestinians instead of for Israel, who don't know anything about their own religion and who, according to Mamet, practice antisemitism and self-hate. Obviously an Israel hater like Noam Chomsky comes to mind, but I wonder who else?
There is a lot in the book to inspire serious soul searching, which is a good thing and which I believe is its main purpose. Now, Mamet makes some points with which I am in total agreement.
1. For the most part, the world hates Jews. This is so ingrained, some of the world doesn't even know it.
2. Hatred of Israel is a socially acceptable form of antisemitism.
3. As Jews, we really need to look closely at the reasons why Israel is routinely demonized and we need to identify and fight every instance of intolerable bigotry against us.
But I have several problems with the book. One, it is written in a most peculiar style. Not only is it an authoritarian harangue, but it is by turns logical and inscrutable, peppered with wild pronouncements that seem to come out of nowhere, weird verbs like "cathect" or spellings like "impugnity" (is that the same as impunity?). And there is stuff that I just don't buy.
For instance, Mamet acts as if there is no shading of Jewishness between irreligious self-hatred and his own embrace of Judaism, which if I'm not mistaken, came not too long ago, and with which I have no beef whatsoever. But who, pray tell, appointed him as an arbiter of what's the right way to be a Jew?
Jews like me are not antisemitic self-haters just because we are not religious or because we may fret about the occupation now and then. At least Mamet concedes that you can disagree with some Israeli government policies and this does not mean you are disloyal to the State of Israel; and that there are people of compassion who are not self-haters. But he seems rather authoritarian, indignant and arbitrary in some of his judgements.
The fact (and one of the reasons why we will be forever misunderstood) is that it is indeed possible to be an atheist Jew (See: Me). Judaism is more than just a religion, it is a people with a culture and a history. It is a race? I still don't know. But I don't like to be called names because I choose not to believe in God.
I am, unlike many lapsed American Jews, somebody who was brought up as a Jew with strong traditions. I went to a Jewish school from age 3 to age 18. I speak Hebrew and Yiddish. I lived in Israel for almost 4 years. Three of those in Jerusalem. I gave Israel a shot. I worked several years for the Jewish community in Mexico. And I will be a Jew to the day I die and after that too. I'm not a Jew by choice, a late blooming Jew. I was given the whole megillah from the day I was born, and today I choose to live in a broader world comprised of Jews and non-Jews.
As I have said before, this is probably one of the few and far between moments in history where Jews can live freely in the world. We have to deal with those idiotic antisemitic remarks, but we don't have to live in a ghetto, we are not branded and humiliated and we are free to do whatever we please. It's a darn good feeling as far as I'm concerned and I'm not about to ostracize myself in the name of fear. When it is time to be fearful, believe me, I'll tremble.
I choose to be committed to my history and my culture, but not necessarily to my religion. I love the ritual (sometimes, some of it) but I don't believe in God. This does not make me wicked in the least. What does and would make me wicked, as Mamet rightly points out, is to stand there like a lox and be silent when confronted with antisemitism.
You can be an ultraorthodox davener and this doesn't make you a decent human being, and you can be an agnostic and a very good Jew, a mensch. And a Jew, first and foremost, and this is what my atheist Jewish father taught me, is a mensch. For me, that's where the spirit of Judaism lives, not in God but in human decency.
Judaism is complex and it is splintered. There are fanatically religious Jews, people who follow ancient ritual to a T, people who change the ritual to suit their needs. This I can't bear. Paradoxically, as an atheist, I much prefer the orthodox ritual than the newfangled new agey Reform hodgepodge. I agree with Mamet that p.c mishegoss like yoga shabbos and shit like that is inane. I don't, for instance, believe in Bat Mitzvah. That is an American invention. People should know the real tradition, not what is appealing and convenient for them.
Speaking from his high horse, Mamet decides, because it suits his story, that marrying outside the faith can be the best thing that can happen to a Jew, because that is what happened in his case, to which I say Mazel Tov.
But this is self-serving. I have nothing against his marriage or his wife (except I'm not a fan of her acting) but who are we kidding? There is a dramatic and unquestionable religious prohibition against marrying outside the faith. Where I come from, the threat of intermarriage was, and for many Jews still is, catastrophic. Enough to have parents disown their children, rend their garments, sit shiva, serious drama (like in Fiddler on the Roof). So I'm not buying it. You can marry a gentile and find your way back into the faith, but you can't be holier than thou and marry a gentile. Does not compute.
I don't know what Jews he's been frequenting, but obviously he hasn't been in the synagogues and community centers I used to frequent, where it was repeatedly repeated that the worst threat against Jewish survival is intermarriage. He chooses to believe, it is convenient for him to believe, that the worst threat is self-hating Jews. But intermarriage is one of the main reasons why the wicked sons don't know dick about their own religion, and they shun it, because nobody taught it to them.
This is not mentioned.
Me, I'm of the opinion that you can marry whoever you damn well please as long as they are a mensch. And if you are a Jew and you marry the Dalai Lama it behooves you not to lose your Jewish bearings. But we cannot all of a sudden pretend that intermarriage is allright by the God of Israel because it ain't.
I close the book with the quirky feeling that Mamet is expiating some kind of guilt or trying to make amends with his faith; rather curiously, by bullying others, but even though he raises legitimate concerns, he is not being quite honest with the reader nor with himself.

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