Not Quite White


By Adam Mansbach
320 pages. Spiegel and Grau. $23.95

It seems that we’ve been lamenting the decline of the secular Jewish novelist for quite a while now. Bellow, Malamud, and Roth, some readers have argued, devoured their literary offspring through the unmatched power of their prose. Yet those paying closer attention have noticed that our Jewish novelists keep at it, and impressively so. We still have, for example, our Jonathans Rosen and Foer, our Thane Rosenbaum, our Elisa Albert, our Edward Schwarzschild, our Aryeh Lev Stollman, our Gary Shteyngart, our Dara Horn, our Allegra Goodman, our Steve Stern, our Melvin Bukiet, to name but a few. In every generation, a new cohort of writers seems to rediscover, and reimagine, ways of being (and writing) Jewish in America.

Adam Mansbach's audacious new novel, The End of the Jews (2008), exemplifies the sheer resilience of the Jewish novel in America. With unparalleled artistic energy and intellectual rigor, Mansbach creates a riveting story through which he explores the intersections of black and Jewish culture in America. The Jewish characters in Mansbach’s novel, across the generations, demonstrate a strong affinity for black artistic expression, specifically. And it’s worth noting that the various artistic modes detailed in the novel—toward which Mansbach’s Jews are drawn—might be seen as expressions of black liberation. The improvisational quality of jazz music, that is, flouts the disciplined boundaries of classical (i.e., white) music, just as the black graffiti artists hereburst the borders of the rectangular canvas through painting across the broader, mobile spaces of subway and freight car. All this, of course, comes at a fascinating moment on the political scene, as well, given the ascent of Barack Obama and his recent call to restore the historic (but frayed) black-Jewish alliance in this country. Mansbach's novel, in fact, curiously anticipates Obama's suggestion that the fate of blacks and Jews in America, despite escalating tensions between the groups, remain fundamentally intertwined.

"It is a fat, frenzied, polemical novel, broad-ranging and morally messy," our narrator describes a book written by one of the novel's principal characters, Tristan Brodsky. The capsule description aptly describes Mansbach's novel, as well. The tacit anxiety that secular Jewishness in America has played itself out—an anxiety which lurks between the pages of much contemporary Jewish-American fiction—serves as Mansbach's explicit muse in this sprawling, vertiginous, and often maddening book. Through imagining three generations of secular Brodskys, Mansbach examines what it has meant, and means, or might mean, to be a secular Jew in contemporary America. The novel opens with Tristan Brodsky, "the pride of the Jews," a brilliant and street-smart aspiring novelist living in the hardscrabble pre-war Bronx with his family. In short order, Mansbach evokes Tristan's Jewish Otherness in racial terms as the aspiring writer enters an upscale bar in Manhattan, the unlikely site of his City College English class:

Tristan's footfalls grow heavy. His tongue and fingers engorge to the size of uncooked sausages.... his hair grows a foot and mats over his ears. A gnawed woolly-mammoth drumstick appears in his left hand, a Torah in his right. Tristan is a swarthy Jewish caveman, eyes twitching in the sifted light.

Between the blue-blooded Professor Pendergast and his "exquisitely groomed mustache" and the black Jazz musicians at the bar, Tristan casts his lot with the black musicians, claiming an affinity with these other Others, as it were. He forges a lifelong alliance with one of the musicians, Albert, and accompanies him to a Harlem rent party in this early scene. In Harlem, however, it becomes clear that Jewish racial Otherness is much more provisional and tenuous than black Otherness. "So what are you, anyway?" a young black woman his age inquires at the party.  While Tristan assumes that his Jewishness is visually obvious, his acquaintance suggests that matters are otherwise, at least in Harlem. "A little imagination a few moments back," it seems, "and Tristan could be a goy right now; footloose and fancy-free." But not so fast, Mansbach suggests. For just moments later, a black male party-goer crashes the scene, identifies Tristan on the spot as Jewish (mistaking him for a wealthy Jewish landlord) and the two have it out in a brawl. The ongoing identification and misidentification of characters as Jews is something of a running joke in The End of the Jews. Have I mentioned the maddening quality of this novel?

The slipperiness of Jewish identity, its threshold position between conventional notions of black and white, imbues the more thoughtful, perspicacious Jews of this novel with a heightened awareness that to a certain extent we are ever performing identity and race—that, consequently, such boundaries are permeable. Mansbach's Jews thus claim access to a rich black culture (the novel explores black contributions to music, photography, literature, and graphic art) that non-Jewish whites do not enjoy to the same extent. Nina, an aspiring photographer in 1980s Czechoslovakia, who will later join the Brodsky clan through her romance with Tristan's grandson, is readily embraced into the black fold by a Jazz trombonist, Devon Marbury, Jr. "You look like you Creole or something," the trombonist observes. "I know you got some black folks in your family someplace. I see it in your face." Marbury takes Nina to America where she cultivates her art under the mentorship of the band's official photographer. Tristan's grandson, also named Tristan, likewise adopts an African-American sensibility, and vernacular, rejecting the vacuous materialism of the leafy Jewish suburbs in Connecticut for the ethos of social protest embodied in hip-hop and graffiti art. When Nina and young Tristan (aka RISK) finally meet and Tristan tells her that she looks to him just like a "nice Jewish girl," she contends that her genetic heritage doesn't matter, that "I'm more black than Jewish anyway."

The novel mischievously ponders whether performing blackness might represent, ironically enough, a morally viable articulation of secular Jewishness in contemporary America. When Tristan's grandfather, for example, writes a novel shortly after the Holocaust that depicts a Jewish slave ship's voyage to America, Jewish readers and book critics pillory him for what they deem self-hatred. Put simply, he refuses to perform conventional Jewishness and performs blackness, instead. In case this weren't clear enough, Tristan claims an affinity with Ralph Ellison, excoriated by the same Jewish critic who lambastes his novel. (Readers familiar with Irving Howe will appreciate the verisimilitude of this scene.) The episode simultaneously reinforces the Jewish affinity for the black narrative of enslavement and liberation (given this shared legacy between our two groups), and owns up to the shameful complicity of the Jews during the more recent, black enslavement. We are left to consider whether Tristan has, possibly, written a more Jewish novel than the morally complacent "Jewish" works lauded by readers."[H]ow can we understand evil," Tristan argues, referring to his fellow Jews, "if we can't recognize it in ourselves? Why do Jews applaud me when I'm exploiting and exposing their weaknesses—when my fiction is nothing more than a crude account of the experiences of a kid from the shtetl—then turn around and stone me when I train an eye on history's greatest cruelty?"

Still, performing race is a tricky business, Mansbach suggests. Unscrupulous racial performances abound, even within the conventional racial boundaries. Blacks in this novel, that is, occasionally perform blackness toward unsavory, manipulative ends, and Jews perform Jewishness in the same fashion, or even unwittingly. Tristan the elder fears, for example, that he has carelessly performed Jewishness all along for the likes of Professor Pendergast through affirming his WASP notions of Jewish coarseness, thereby amplifying the professor's privileged whiteness. Unsurprisingly, cultural borrowing and appropriation across racial lines emerges as a particularly dangerous territory, rife with moral land mines; for if Mansbach dramatizes race as social construct, the narrative simultaneously recognizes the biological imperatives that ultimately hold sway in contemporary America. Given these realities, authenticity is ever an open question. It may be okay, for example, even laudable, for Nina to adopt an African-American sensibility, but it is not okay, the narrative suggests, for her to accept a university scholarship honoring "Black Achievement in Photography." The younger Tristan's embrace of a hip-hop ethos in Jewish suburbia also borders on farce. Tristan the elder's affinity with black culture—given his Bronx and Harlem roots—comes off as more authentic than his grandson's forcefully willed appropriations in Fairfield, Connecticut. Illustratively, it is Tristan the elder's novel on urban graff art that succeeds, not his grandson's novel on the same theme, even though it's the younger Tristan who introduces his grandfather to the art form. But even Tristan the elder, for his part, must contemplate the moral legitimacy of his cultural appropriations, wondering whether in his books he "is wielding blackness as a scare tactic, a shock technique, a weapon."

These stubborn biological boundaries, however permeable, go a long way toward explaining, perhaps, why Mansbach stops short of merging Jewish and African-American identity, altogether. Jews, significantly, marry other Jews in this book. Moreover, as secular as this novel may be, the narrative insists upon the retention of essential Jewish rituals, a bris and the Shema, specifically. These are rituals (performances, let's say) to which Jews can most unproblematically lay claim. Biology, to a very real extent, is still destiny in Mansbach's America. It's a bracing vision, as many of us—tired, perhaps, of the identity-politics that held sway in the 1980s and 90s—have somewhat too casually celebrated our "post-racial" zeitgeist.

So how does this novel imagine the end of the Jews in contemporary America? Mansbach adamantly, and appropriately, refuses to offer clear-cut prescriptions. The thesis is the province of the essayist, after all. As novelist, he's much more interested in evoking the moral quagmires that accompany various modes of secular Jewish existence. All the same, appearing at a time in our history when Jews seem to have embraced "whiteness" in all its permutations—and have been fully embraced by white America—the narrative, at the very least, seeks to reclaim that longstanding Jewish affinity with the disenfranchised, the non-white. "It's the end of the goddamn Jews," the elder Tristan exclaims once he hears about the lavish Bar Mitzvahs in Connecticut. "I'm of the lumpen proleteriat," he later contends. "That's for me." This seems to be the governing ethos of the novel, as well. To be a secular Jew may be many things, but it is decidedly not to be a fully assimilated, affluent white American, "footloose and fancy-free," a la Professor Pendergast. If young Tristan's cultural appropriations smack of farce, it's just as true that Mansbach valorizes Tristan's impulses (his spiritual alienation in the leafy suburbs, his sensitivity toward bigotry in all its forms, his affinity with modes of social protest) as distinctively Jewish. The hope for the Jews, perhaps, lay in this unshakable ethical humanism.

It's the kind of Jewish vision that in its expansiveness, its picaresque treatment of the Jew across the broad racial landscape of America and Europe, harkens back to the spirit of Malamud, Bellow, and Roth, and offers a refreshing contrast to what I'd describe as the insular quality of much recent Jewish writing. (Please, no lectures on the virtues of Jewish particularism, of which I'm aware; Cynthia Ozick's shofar metaphor is well taken, but only gets us so far.) At its extreme, Mansbach's brand of ethical humanism may veer dangerously close to valorizing weakness, itself, and will surely drive the likes of Alan Dershowitz crazy. But, to my mind, Mansbach's novel just might herald a fruitful new start, rather than portend the end, of the Jews in America.