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‘The Wicked Son’ by David Mamet

Posted by archangelinamerica on July 17, 2007

David Mamet wicked sonFor several months, I have intended to write some type of commentary on David Mamet’s (relatively) recent non-fiction: The Wicked Son. For many of the standard reasons, I did not get to it as soon as I would have like to. But L’Chaimlover’s recent post (Jewish: To be or not to be) inspired me to get on task. “Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred and the Jews” is the informative subtitle and puts the proper title in great context. And Mamet’s response to the question of Jewish identity is made clear. Mamet allows that birthright makes one nominally Jewish but doles out a harsh judgment upon those who do not embrace their heritage. Though he is not Orthodox, he insists that we must embrace our culture with pride and engage in some type of ritual practice. He hurls a venomous assault upon those who seek to identify as “Jewish, but not too Jewish,” and claims that fear is one of the primary causes of such a claim. This fear is what drives the apostate or apikoros (terms frequently used in the book) whom he cleverly addresses as “The Wicked Son.” This reference to the Passover Haggadah is used because the Wicked Son seeks to make himself a stranger to his own family. Mamet attempts to find the reason why Judaism’s wicked sons choose to adopt such an identity in the face of a community usually eager to embrace them. He also states that he has written the book for our wicked sons (and daughters…not to neglect the women who may read this). “To you, who find your religion and race repulsive, your ignorance of your history a satisfaction, here is a book from your brother.” I couldn’t help but think: You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Not that I begrudge Mamet his style. But I do feel that the book was written as an assault upon the Wicked Son and an encouragement to Jews to embrace their culture and religion as part of their identity.

Having some familiarity with Mamet as a playwright and author of acting books, I was surprised by the language of some of this book. Previous books I have read by him have a much grittier tone and lots of foul language. This book used more scholarly language. However, it did seek to engage the reader in a conversation as much as it could. And it argued by persuasion. It also had a direct style and uncompromising tone that is reminiscent of some of his other work.

David Mamet portraitWhile a complete analysis of the book is not possible in a single entry, I will hit on one salient point. Mamet opens with a frightening but powerful claim. “The world hates the Jews. The world has always and will continue to do so.” Rather than attempt to dissect this hatred or search out the origins of anti-Semitism, Mamet chooses to force the reader to face the fact of Jew hatred in all its forms. He goes on to state that this hatred is irrational. As such, it cannot be logically explained. Nor can the anti-Semite be won over with arguments, persuasion, logic or love. The hatred is by its very nature illogical but must none the less be accepted as a challenging aspect of life. The temptation and desire in many of us may be to look for the fault in ourselves. The logic being that they must hate us for a reason. This notion is exposed as not only a useless folly, but a dangerous idea that ultimately aids the hater and not the hated. It is doomed to fail because it attempts to use a logical method to argue an illogical feeling. At the same time, it legitimizes the feelings of animosity in the eyes of the anti-Semite.

Fear of not fitting into society at large is what drives the wicked son to reject his heritage. He hopes that if he minimizes his familiarity with Judaism, he will be spared the hatred of society and perhaps rewarded with membership in a larger society of humanity. This is also unlikely to be successful, because one cannot deny the fact of one’s parentage and the logical attempt to distance one’s self will not matter in the eyes of the irrational Jew hater. Furthermore, he notes that, “the sad truth is that the world hates a turncoat.” The great sadness of the wicked son is that he seeks a sense of belonging everywhere but in his own family that wants to embrace him. The desire to belong is so powerful that it cannot be ignored. The practice of ritual is necessary for the health of a community. Mamet goes on to argue that the commitment of the apostate to abandon his traditions is basically adolescent in nature. The child is angry at the parent and seeks to establish its independence from the family. In so doing, the child vilifies its family and imagines the rest of society to be nobler and blames its parents for a low birth. Unfortunately, the angry child is often mistaken. We are indeed of a great family despite being reviled. The wicked son is exposed to be seeking for something he already has in essence and rejects in order that he may search for it elsewhere, where it will be denied him.

Mamet discusses many other topics and themes in this book which I have not discussed here but are very worth reading and definitely piqued my curiosity. One particularly noteworthy one (which I may analyze another day) was his musing on the “poor shul” and “rich shul.” I generally enjoyed this book though there were some didactic parts and some arguments that were difficult to follow. I doubt Mamet will win over any wicked children with this book. They would be unlikely to read it in the first place. And if Mamet’s thesis holds up, the assimilated Jew cannot be logically persuaded to embrace his culture. In fact, Mamet claims the only hope for the wicked son is for him to be forced to participate in Judaism in order to see all it has to contribute. I don’t know if I entirely agree with him, but I did enjoy most of what he had to say. And if you have ever questioned your commitment to Judaism, this book helped me feel proud to say “I am a Jew.”

9 Responses to “‘The Wicked Son’ by David Mamet”

  1. minsky said

    Your review is engaging, spruced up by the occasional glossa dropped here and there. Something literary, a bit of high-brow, a drash on ‘2b or ~2b a “*.*”


    I want to know more. Particularly, what is Wicked Son worth from a historic perspective? I haven’t seen it, and your review makes me want to do so, but how much more will I learn than from lets say, reading Theodore Lessing?

    I also want to hear your opinions. Being into drama, you are aware of the London apikoros theatre company (www.apikoros.co.uk)? What do you think of the proposition of being self-assertive by diving back into Judaism? How far does assertion need to go to get a nod from the David Project, or fellow “*.*”s, and isn’t there a point where joining the ranks of apikoros = self-assertive “*.*”?

  2. Oyster said

    Provokative points, Minsky!

    What’s up with your regular expression notation (“*.*”) for the notorious J-E-W?

    A point where one’s hyper-Jewish assertiveness might drive us right into the arms of those that we despise the most might be in the realm of overzealousness. The story of the Maccabees, so driven to re-establish the Jewish kingdom that they kill their fellow Jews and forge an unholy alliance with Rome, definitely comes to mind… not to mention Parashat Pinkhas (aka Holy Human-Shishkabober, Batman!).

  3. ArchangelinAmerica said

    Perhaps my comment on the scholarly nature of “The Wicked Son” is a inaccurate. The style of writing is more scholarly, but the book itself is not. By that, I mean that it is more of Mamet’s feelings and arguments on the subject. The arguments it presents are not supported by any data or research other than Mamet’s own experience. Actually, now that I think about it, he is being a little indulgent since he has enough popular influence to write such a book without making more well supported claims.

    Embarassingly, I am not familiar with Lessing or the Apikoros theatre, but I will educate myself and try and form a better response.

    However, I can comment on a couple of points. Mamet himself is far from being orthodox and I don’t believe he wants us all to become Haredim. I think he is trying to get us to embrace our culture and heritage and engage is some form of traditional Jewish practice. One point he makes is that the greed of an ailing society encourages us to look for happiness in other communities and groups. The feeling of dissatisfaction comes from within though and therefore cannot be healed from outside. He also notes that dissaffected Jews ultimately seek out each other, thus, in a way, tentatively reaffirming their Judaism. He comments that the way we should identify ourselves should be by what we feel ourselves TO BE rather than what we feel we ARE NOT. (If that makes any sense here?) He grants that a Jew may convert to Christianity if he likes. Then he would be embracing a new community that he identified with. The Wicked Son however has made no such move but none the less, defines himself as not being Jewish or as non-practicing, or secular, or unaffiliated or whatever.

    I don’t know the degree of self assertion that is necessary. But the action must be whole hearted and cannot be tentative.

  4. minsky said

    Interesting. Let me know what’s out there for T. Lessing… I generally find his works in print, not digital.

    As for apikoros. Some suppose the name originates with Epicurus, implying a-religiosity as central to the apostacy charge.

    The “*.*” I thought it cute, especially following the To be or not to be post. I clearly enjoyed the post, but asking whether one can or can not be jewish, is like asking if one can chose to be or not be black, or white. Maybe if you happen to be mulato, and regularly commute from the Ghabon to Iceland? Otherwise you get into wattered down, politically correct notions of identity, which may as well be represented with a wildcard. I know its an abrasive line, and I wish it wasnt.

  5. lchaimlover said

    Well to say the least, I went out and bought this book. I’ll read it and get back to you ArchAngel. Thank you so much for bringing up this awesome topic. I don’t like Mamet, but I’m ready to plod through this.

  6. Friar Yid said

    I should also finally check this out. I had a post on it way back when it was first being discussed in the blogosphere, but it was based on general impressions and blogo-coverage.

    A question for archangel and anyone who’s read the book: does Mamet actually engage with “Wicked Sons” and offer them any positive reason to be Jewish? Or does he simply attack them for decisions he disagrees with?

  7. ArchangelinAmerica said

    He does engage, albeit in a frequently antagonistic manner. He does elaborate on the value and strength of Jewish tradition.

  8. […] ‘The Wicked Son’ by David Mamet […]

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