Doh.Norman Mailer died today of renal failure. The prolific author, journalist, playwright, screenwriter and film director died never having written the Great American Novel he always aspired to. Mailer, a two-time Pullitzer Prize winner and winner of a National Book Award, was both widely revered and hated. The Brooklyn-born, one-time nice Jewish boy, was often brash, outspoken and decidedly iconoclastic.

So what of the Jewish identity of the man who died on the 32nd anniversary of the passing of the “Zionism is Racism” resolution by the UN General Assembly? Well, he’s been everything from ambivalent and ignorant to grudgingly respectful. He’s been quoted as saying “I am very Jewish … I have a Jewish temperament, I have a Jewish mind … I am inquiring and fascinated with the dialectic, fascinated with argument, counter argument and the argument that comes out of the counter argument … I am not at all pious, I am superstitious so to that degree I am a little bit of an orthodox Jew but not at all in that I am not close to the ceremonies and I am in no way a formal Jew but in every way I consider myself Jewish.” In a podcast interview with NextBook, he spoke reverentially of his Rabbinically trained Grandfather, but then stated “The fact that I was a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn held me back… There was nothing sufficiently ruthless in me was the way I saw it at the time… ”

He nonetheless stated that being Jewish played an “enormous role” in his being a writer. His last novel, The Castle in the Forest,” was a fictionalized account of Hitler’s early years, narrated by one of Satan’s demons. Ruth Franklin at The New Republic said that it was a “superficial, twisted, and finally just plain stupid vision of Hitler.” The Times concluded that “Regrettably, some of the flicker of intellectual excitement caused by such a novel concept is extinguished by the novel itself.” while the Toronto Globe and Mail‘s review opined that “This is a Norman Mailer book, which means it’s grandly ambitious, another wild swing at the fences, another long, loud, foul ball.” Janet Maslin of the New York Times said that Mailer’s conclusions “turn out to have caca’s subtlety. With 467 pages of repetitive text, this is a big book with a jarring incongruity: its thinking is so small.” The book received many very positive reviews, don’t get me wrong. But what was missing from the book that occasioned the negative reviews cited?

Back to the Nextbook interview, Mailer admitted that his novel never addressed the Jewish issue – this would be something for a future book, because a Jew writing a book about Hitler that addresses Judaism? That’s just crazy, right? Anyhow, this omission was probably a good idea given Mailer’s really flawed concept of Judaism:

The great evil that Hitler did us apart from the Holocaust itself is that he deadened the Jewish mind… all too many Jews now can think of nothing but “Is this good for the Jews?” They have a built in reflex. The moment that anything bad happens that is slightly unfavorable to the Jews, they panic, and we’re not here for that. We’re here to do all sorts of outrageous thinking if you will but certainly incisive fine thinking. If the Jews brought anything to human nature it’s that they developed the mind more than other people did. It was extremely important for them to develop that mind, and to deaden it and stultify it, to flood it with cheap religious patriotism. I consider that part of the disaster that Hitler visited upon us.

And on the recent rise of global antisemitism?

I think we’re partly responsible for it, for this cowardly, panicky reaction all the time… the moment something is bad for the Jews we panic and I find that’s awful.

We’re responsible? Really? Oh gosh. I like to think that if it’s bad for the Jews, it tends to be bad for a lot more other people too. I’m thinking Hitler, Stalin, terrorism, Mullahs with nukes, intolerance, stuff like that. But I’ll shut up now lest the cheap religious patriotism I share with Mailer’s grandfather inspires someone to be antisemitic – especially today, the 69th anniversary of Kristallnacht no less!

Don’t get me wrong. I like Norman Mailer. Over the years he’s made me think a lot; his death is indeed a tragedy and a loss to the world of letters. It’s too bad he never visited Israel, too bad he was never truly at peace with his Jewish identity. Age gives you wisdom and had he lived a little longer and come to terms with who he really was, he might yet have given us that great American Novel.

Arrangements for a private service and burial for family members and close friends will be announced next week. I wonder, who is going to say Kaddish for Norman?

** More on Mailer’s Judaism from the Forward: “Many years ago, I received a translation of the Talmud as a gift, and I have been dipping into it on and off ever since; it has influenced everything I have written.”

Hat tip to Sarah. Again.

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About the author


Founder and Publisher of Jewlicious, David Abitbol lives in Jerusalem with his wife, newborn daughter and toddler son. Blogging as "ck" he's been blocked on twitter by the right and the left, so he's doing something right.


  • “Impressions?”

    I’m impressed you guys refer to each other as dude. Is there an emoticon that represents a high-five? 🙂

  • It sure can be tragic if the hero / protagonist tried to avoid death / his fate, but the death / fatewas pre-determined, hence inevitable, by some higher authority. That’s what tragic actually means though people often use it synonymously for ‘sad’ or ‘unexpected’.

  • BS”D
    One short answer regarding who is going to say Kaddish for him. Chaye Netzach is an organization whose 5000 volunteers say Tehillim and sometimes Kaddish for Jews who have no children or whose children are not conscious of their Jewish responsibility towards their parents. We do it for free out of love for every Jew. If anybody knows of such a Jew he/she can leave the name of the deceased person on our website and we shall bli neder take care of him/her. Norman ben Yitzchak z”l will be added today to our database. If you want to say Tehillim for a lonely Jewish soul you can subscribe on our website. It’s a 100% free service. May we only hear good news for all Jews and for all mankind.

  • Oh please. It’s not like the Mormons doing ex post facto conversions of Holocaust victims. If I want to say a little prayer for poor Norman’s soul, do I have to ask his family’s permission? No I don’t. I think what Chaye Netzach does is fantastic. They don’t ask for a fee and they teach the value of selflessness. And they’re fellow Jews.

  • You missed my point, which is that we don’t know whether any of his children identify as Jews and may already be saying kaddish for him.

  • “Identify as a Jew?” What does that mean exactly? Jews for Jesus identify themselves as Jews, can they say kaddish? Sorry to be a nudnick but Jewish Peoplehood has come up a number of times this week…

  • Oh please. It’s not like the Mormons doing ex post facto conversions of Holocaust victims.

    LOL, you are funny.

  • ck, Mailer’s first wife has a name which would probably be identified as Jewish. Her children might identify as Jews, which would meet your criteria.

    As you know, Reform would consider any of his children Jewish if they consider themselves Jews.

    I don’t think it’s good form, to put it nicely, to say that somehow a group of “real” Jews has greater authority than a Jewish person’s children to determine whether they can say kaddish or not. That’s not to suggest that Chaye Netzach isn’t a worthy organization, they may be. This is a tender time for the family who have just lost their father and husband and it isn’t right to bring this issue up right now.

  • Well it doesn’t hurt for people to say Kaddish and I can say that without going into sticky issues of who is a Jew. We know Norman is for sure. So let Chaye Netzach say kaddish for him, who cares?

  • 1) Mailer espoused and exemplified a love of violence antithetical to basis Jewish values.
    2)Mailer never denied his Jewishness and probably was in one sense proud of it as he seemed to be about anything related to himself- but he also never supported any Jewish communal struggle including those of Israel and those of the American Jewish community.
    3) Mailer was a tremendously courageous and innovative writer, a man whose talents and power of mind were truly extraordinary. But he often used those talents for stupid and even immoral ends. So the last project of his life in which he deepens in interest of the mind of Yimach Shmo, so his work on ancient Egypt in which he revels in the very kind of practices the people of Israel were called upon to deplore.
    4) Mailer was in his collective and communal identity a super-American, a second- generation Jew who proved himself to be more concerned with and more bound up with the essential issues of American identity than almost any other writer.
    5) Despite his strutting his ego-mania, his head- butting and fisticuffs many people said he was a genuinely good and generous person. He had a winsome twinkle that it was hard not to like despite the posturing and the bull-ing.
    6)In a sense he exemplifies a lost second-generation kind of assimilated American Jew. He had the genius but unfortunately he did not use any of it in service of the Jewish people.

  • He did not die of renal failure. He died of old age. All old people die of old age. Please correct that. He did not have kidney disease. His kidneys failed because he was old. We all get old. You will get old one day and die too.

    RIP, Norman. We hardly knew ye….

  • One thing Mailer is right about, Jews have become fixated on the holocaust. Let it go already. No-one is saying to forget it ever happened, however, scaling back the propaganda to a dull roar may just be good for the soul.

  • One thing that some on of you here should look at is all the venomous antisemitic comments about Mailer’s death in blogs worldwide. Blogs and comments. People saying things on Youtube comments like “GOod that Jew dog Mailer is dead!”

    America is a sick sick sad country!

  • sample comment on youtube now:
    “Another poop-obsessed jew gone. Anerica is that much better off w/o him. ”

    go to google blogs and see all the antisem stuff in comments about Mailer’s death. America is a very sick Christian country, I hate to say it. There, I said it.

  • David, for all your talk about toning down mention of the holocaust, your following posts show levels of venemous anti-semitism that cannot help but recall the kind of atmosphere that can lead to a holocaust.

    As for America being a sick Christian country, sre you privy to the beliefs of the posters you are quoting? For example, do you have any knowledge how many of them actually associate with Christianity or whether any of the posters are Muslim or aetheists, etc.?

  • Shy Guy: jim kirk made the comment about the Holocaust, not david allbert. There’s no way of knowing if a persn making a comment on the Internets is a Muslim or an atheist or a Christian. But the sheer volume of venomous rhetoric aimed at Mailer’s Judaism and the tepid response to that is telling.

    As for jim kirk – well, I think using the holocaust and anti-semitism as the focal point of Jewish identity is destructive, like the deification of mass murder – no wonder people are leaving Judaism in droves, it’s just not very compelling, know what I mean? But calling out injustice being characterized as “cowardly?” Saying tha Jews are responsible for anti-Semitism because they confront it? Man did Mailer get that wrong.

  • By the way, Jim Kirk is dead wrong as far as the Jewlicious people here are concerned. I mean any Shoah obsessed person here would already have volunteered to tell me where I went wrong, my Harvard contact thought it was interesting, but was too busy.

  • Yes, the blogosphere is very telling. Whnever there is news about a Jewish person in current news, many many blogs run by white supremacist groups and just average normal antisem Christian brainwashed people, make comments about such people as George Soros, or the rabbi in Brazil who got caught stealing ties in Florida or Mailer or anything related to Jews, and BAM! the commentariat comes alive with the most ugly hatred one has ever seen! Some reporter needs to investigate this. It’s a very very deep sickness of the American Christian paranoid mind, and it comes out loud and clear on the Internut. You don’t see these kinds of comments in non-Christian countries (except for Muslim countries yes), but in Japan or China, for example, posters never attack a person because he was Jewish. Again, I remind you all: America is a sick sick antisem country, and Christianity is a sick sick antisem religion. Don’t believe me? It is true.

  • “America is a very sick Christian country, I hate to say it. There, I said it.”

    You hate to say it so much David, you repeat it. I’m guessing you’ve repeated it many times to yourself before this post, and long before Mailers death.

    Jesus, get a grip. You can find all kinds of kooks on the intertubes if you’re looking for them. America and its ‘Christians” are Jews and Israel’s best friends, generally speaking.