David Mamet, Scold


Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews
By David Mamet
208 pages. PublicAffairs. $19.95.

I count myself among the prolific David Mamet’s many fans, mostly for his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Glengarry Glen Ross, and for his (Jewish) cop film, Homicide. But I hasten to add that he has also written a generous handful of other plays, three novels, children’s books, and essay collections. He knows his way around a scene, a screenplay, a paragraph. All of which makes The Wicked Son such an odd, uncharacteristically Mamet tome. In just under 40 short op-ed–like chapters, he takes on American Jews and finds most of them woefully lacking.

The book’s title derives, of course, from the Passover seder. (Mamet talks about the four sons, and especially about the wicked son who asks “What is all this to you?”) Most Jewish Americans find ways to celebrate a seder, not only because the holiday brings the family together but also because it is flexible enough to accommodate whatever politics are currently blowin’ in the wind, from the Civil Rights movement or the plight of Soviet Jewry to the feminist orange that has made its way onto many seder plates. As Mamet writes, “Passover became a pretext for discussion of geopolitics in which, shamefully, the State of Israel could be castigated for supposed crimes against ‘the deserving poor.’”

Many, many years ago, a friend told me that she had badgered her father into conducting a seder (of sorts) but he insisted that pitchers of martinis replace bottles of kosher for Pesach concord wine. There was a good deal of talk against the war in Vietnam, which somehow was correlated to Jewish slavery in Egypt, and, of course, about the continuing need to feed the hungry, who were, as the ritual declares, welcomed into that home that night. And, yet, even in this very free-form seder, mention was made of the “four sons”—this before they were transmogrified into the “four children.”

I wonder what Mamet would make of this odd evening. True enough, a fly-by-the-seat-of-its-pants seder was performed, so my host was not perhaps as self-loathing and “race betraying” as are many of the wicked sons Mamet is out to pillory. But this guy, with his pitcher of martinis and ignorance of Hebrew, is a wicked son nonetheless. He is, in a phrase that repeats throughout the book, a “kosher style” Jew who doesn’t want to be “too Jewish.”

Interestingly, I could have imagined many of this tome’s shrill paragraphs emanating from my very Orthodox grandfather, a man who never passed up the opportunity to lambaste anybody in the family who ate treyf, drove on Shabbos, or spoke too much English. And that was only the beginning, for Grandfather was aware, even if he could not have expressed it exactly this way, that America stood for freedom and Judaism stood for the fences of Law. Which genuine Yankee Doodle Dandy could understand that God, and God alone, decides which foods are permissible and which are not—quite apart from health issues but entirely about submitting to what God requires of us?

The Wicked Son is a blunt, take-no-prisoners book. “The world hates the Jews. The world has always and will continue to do so,” he declares. And then later: “The wicked son is, largely, a product of twentieth-century America.” The tone—and the point-of-view—is absolutely clear.

David Mamet is a more-than-credible writer, but I can easily imagine the subjects of his withering criticism shouting back at him, “Who died and made you king (or perhaps God)?” One could remind them that Mamet belongs to a prophetic tradition given to launching exactly such jeremiads to backsliders. But that, of course, would require explaining who the prophets were and what a jeremiad is.

I have my quarrels with The Wicked Son, as well as with the wicked sons he takes to task, but I also feel that Mamet’s book will ignite a firestorm of discussion at synagogues and Jewish community centers. That cannot be entirely a bad thing.