The Wicked Son: Anti-Semi­tism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews

David Mamet
  • Review
By – May 25, 2012

I believe we should be frank: The world hates the Jews. The world has always and will con­tin­ue to do so.” With these words David Mamet, the nov­el­ist and Pulitzer Prize-win­ning play­wright, begins his dis­sec­tion of inter­nal­ized Jew­ish anti-Semi­tism, the anti-Semi­tism of the self-hat­ing Jew, the wicked son of the Hag­gadah who asks, What does this rit­u­al mean to you?”

Clas­sic anti-Semi­tism — the anti-Semi­tism of the Inqui­si­tion, the Pro­to­cols of the Elders of Zion, the Holo­caust — is a giv­en, dis­cussed only in pass­ing. Mamet’s argu­ment is with the Jew who has bought into anti-Semi­tism, who iden­ti­fies as a Jew but who has no knowl­edge of Judaism, who feels oblig­at­ed to learn about Kwan­zaa but not Tu B’Shevat, who admires Anne Frank but not Israelis who defend their home­land, who turns his back on the strug­gles and achieve­ments of his immi­grant grandparents. 

In brief, sting­ing chap­ters, Mamet demol­ish­es the posi­tion of this apos­tate and argues that he will nev­er ful­ly assim­i­late and over­come the hatred of the Oth­er. He will always be out­side, he will always be lone­ly, he will nev­er find sat­is­fac­tion. Then Mamet tacks and attempts to steer the apos­tate back to his tribe. In this dif­fi­cult world, Mamet argues, we all want to belong, to be part of a group that under­stands us, works with us, has a pur­pose greater than our­self and the present. Pro­fes­sion­al­ly Mamet has found this in the the­ater, but he finds it most pro­found­ly in his tribe, his race, and its prac­tice. To the apos­tate — the ever seek­ing, nev­er sat­is­fied— Mamet urges rit­u­al; in rit­u­al we give up our illu­sion of free­dom and, in its name, our pur­suit of one imag­ined ide­al after anoth­er, and let long-test­ed prac­tices force us to sub­mit to the fear­some and inevitable changes that make up our lives. 

Mamet’s lan­guage is strong and his argu­ments cut­ting. Will his angry indict­ment lead the wicked son back to shul to watch and lis­ten, and…eventually receive this or that clue,” lead him to the Torah, to its wis­dom, and to the mys­tery and awe that is our life and our gift from God? Or will the book lay out the argu­ments for those who agree with Mamet? What­ev­er the case, Mamet’s prob­ing and bit­ter exam­i­na­tion of the apos­tate will linger in any reader’s mind. Glossary

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

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