A fellow Jewlicious blogger pointed me to this review of David Mamet’s The Wicked Son, by Cynthia Ozick. The piece begins with the story of a 13th century French Jew who decided enough of all that and became not only a Franciscan but an especially anti-Jewish one at that. And why shouldn’t he?

Because gay homophobes need company, self-hating Jews have been around for a good while. There’s a special form of self-hatred that manifests itself as a preference for all others, as though saying anything good about one’s own group, or helping one’s own group in any way, will lead to disaster. That’s apparently the form Mamet concerns himself with in this book.

According to Ozick, Mamet “is explicit in his condemnation of ‘the Jews who, in the sixties, envied the Black Power Movement; who, in the nineties, envied the Palestinians; who weep at ‘Exodus’ but jeer at the Israel Defense Forces; who nod when Tevye praises tradition but fidget through the seder; who might take their curiosity to a dogfight, to a bordello or an opium den, but find ludicrous the notion of a visit to the synagogue; whose favorite Jew is Anne Frank and whose second-favorite does not exist; who are humble in their desire to learn about Kwanzaa and proud of their ignorance of Tu Bi’Shvat; who dread endogamy more than incest; who bow the head reverently at a baptism and have never attended a bris.'”

I’m with Mamet, of course. That said, it strikes me as misguided to equate Jewish religious observance with feelings of Jewish national solidarity. Plenty of observant Jews are anti-Zionist or self-hating, and plenty of secular Jews (well, me, for one) reject nostalgic, shtetl Judaism, yet care deeply about the survival of the Jewish nation. Whatever connection I feel to, say, Passover over Christmas is that one is my people’s holiday, the other is not. I have no more belief in the splitting of the Red Sea than in the Holy Trinity. It’s just how it is. I am not a religious person, am unlikely ever to become one, do not shomer anything, but am proud to say I can, on a good day, conjugate the verb lishmor. While there may not be tons like me among my fellow Fairway shoppers, I’ve heard there’s a country in the Middle East where such a viewpoint might be a bit more common…

But back to the review itself. Ozick at one point refers to the book as Mamet’s “j’accuse,” which is appropruate enough, given that, much like Zola, Mamet apparently provides quite the list of suspects. I have not yet seen Mamet’s book, so I can’t say if I agree with Ozick that it’s “weakly argued,” but the point Mamet makes is a worthwhile one, and Mamet’s, you know, a good writer, so I’ll probably check it out at some point.

But whenever I read about Jews who fit the general idea of what Mamet’s up against, I wonder, why bother? If many Jews, including some of the brighter among us, do not see Judaism as national, worth fighting for, and so on, why not just let it be? If so many among us consider any Yiddish or Hebrew word akin to an umcomforably amusing joke, consider Judaism embarrassing, why defend something so many would reject? Sometimes I do think this, I think, so few of my Jewish friends would agree that Judaism is or should be national, so many are content with neurosis and gefilte fish, so what’s the harm in that?

The harm, of course, is that it serves both to make life more pleasant for the Jews in calm times, and to best defend the Jews in difficult times, for us to acknowledge that we are a nation. Here’s an explanation of why I tend towards caring over not caring. Choosing not to care, really, but still every so often reminding the world of our difference, hasn’t quite worked out for us as a people.

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  • I don’t know, Phoebe. The kind of Jews you are describing exist (though not so much in my neighborhoood, and anyway not quite as extreme as you are describing), but is this so hard to understand?

    I used to resent Jews who are dogmatically universalist to the point of being uncomfortable with any expression of Jewish particularism, both religious and nationalist, but I now accept that this heritage and legacy is quite hard for many secular Jews, who grapple with it in varied ways.

    If someone isn’t a believer, who are we to say that he needs to see personal value in Jewish peoplehood? Maybe this is a logical possible reaction for a non-believer, fueled by resentment of being a part of something (by birth) that is so strange and often controversial.

    Additionally, you conveniently omitted self-hating Jewish far-right-wing Zionists who barely mask their own desire to be true White Nationalists instead of Jewboys with their tough talk and hatred of “galus” Jews.

  • I am grateful for alerting me to this exchange between Mamet and Ozick. From what I read so far I don’t like what either has written, though I do agree with your comments. I object to Ozick’s facile labeling of all critics of the occupation as anti –Zionist and anti Semitic. Yossi Beilin, Meretz and Peace Now are neither. And lumping four very different characters, Chomsky, Finkelstein, Judt and Butler under this rubric is seriously misleading. They have different objectives are must be looked at separately, especially Tony Judt. Ozick has every right to support any Israeli political party she chooses, but to label her opponents as ’anti-Semitism’s Jewish accomplices, nowadays noisome with peace-and-justice sloganeering… All are equally rooted in self-promoting callousness, servile ingratiation and other stigmata of excessive self-love.‘IS JUST OUTRAGEOUS. The long quote from Mamet about Jews ’who envied the black power movement …’ is extremely biased and tendentious, to a point where it is fair to say there are no such Jews in any number.

    Chazal say that the place where a baal teshuvah stands even a tzadik cannot abide. Mamet is the worst kind of baal teshuvah…more religious than the Pope.

  • The state of Israel is the only state in the world which is threatened with annihilation day and night by neighbors and by a good share of the Islamic world. The threat is greater than ever now that a fanatic and clever Iranian leader has made the wiping off the map of Israel a major goal.
    Now these jihadists have new allies in the form of radical secular Leftists, some of whom are Jewish.
    Perhaps Mamet and Ozick are coming out of a common sense of how endangered the state of Israel is. Perhaps they have certain historical precedents in mind in which Jewish communities and worlds were destroyed, and hundreds of thousands, millions even killed.
    So I totally sympathize with their crying out even if I do not agree with every nuance of their respective arguments.
    Basically they are right on the mark.
    As for those Jews who support the enemies of Israel while Israel is literally fighting for its life I have nothing for but sadness, anger and a fervent prayer that they will somehow wake up and try to understand why being part of the Jewish people should be a source of meaning and hope, and not of cowardly shame and despair.