‘The End of the Jews’ II

On Monday, I interview Adam Mansbach about his new novel, "The End of the Jews." Here’s part one. Here‘s the audio.

Luke: "How did your white peers react to your interest in black culture?"

Adam: "They were the ones who gave me s— about it. They were the ones who wanted to make fun of me and let me know that they thought this was strange. A lot of kids in junior high called me "Mansblack." When some of the black kids I was hanging out with, some of the black mentors I had in high school, heard that they called me that, they thought it was hilarious and they started calling me that. What started out as a derisive nickname became a symbol of acceptance by this other community.

"This abuse was pretty minor. I don’t want to give the impression that I suffered greatly from my junior high classmates. I was somebody who didn’t care much what they thought and I realized quickly that I’d be somebody who’d navigate different worlds. More often than anything else, I was asked to play the role of a cultural translator. There are a lot of white people who are intrigued by other cultures but don’t want to approach somebody from that culture and ask them but will approach this crossover white boy. I’ve become used to fielding questions from white people about black culture. Sometimes it would be ridiculous. ‘Adam, why is the black community so angry?’"

Luke: "What has been your attitude towards the Jewish tradition?"

Adam: "I was raised by very secular parents who were the children of very secular parents. We didn’t go to synagogue. Out of a vague feeling that I should know something about Judaism, they sent me to a Jewish Sunday school at a junior college. I got kicked out of that school because I had this overtly racist old teacher who I got into big confrontations with. It came to a head when I sang ‘Living on a Prayer’ into a microphone at a school assembly instead of the prayer I was supposed to read.

"Because the community I was growing up in was pretty Jewish, I conflated Jewish with white as a kid. I was very critical about what whiteness meant, the historic economic social and judicial privilege of whiteness. I didn’t want much to do with either one of those traditions. It wasn’t until I got to college that I started thinking more deeply about what it meant to be Jewish, what the unique strains of that tradition looked like in terms of religion and culture and also a tradition of progressiveness and social justice.

"It was in the course of writing ‘The End of the Jews’, I worked on the book for about seven years, that I started thinking more deeply and in a sustained way about Jewishness… How was I to understand my grandfather? Part of understanding him was understanding that religion. I set out to write a book about his generation and mine."

Luke: "One thing that struck me with your book. There’s the title ‘The End of the Jews.’ Then I read the book and none of the characters have much of an interest in the Jewish tradition."

Adam: "Yeah. That’s true. Everybody in the book is relatively secular… One of the things I tried to deal with in the book is how identity for all of these characters is constantly in flux. At times the characters wield Jewish identity as a weapon and at times they try to distance themselves from it. For Tristan, being Jewish is central to his life and writing, but in a way that is particular to him and doesn’t have much to do with religion. As he goes through various stages of being accepted and rejected by the Jewish community and is asked in various ways to adopt the mantle of a Jewish writer, it emerges as something important to him…"

Luke: "I was struck by how all the protagonists in the book work hard at their heart yet they expend no serious effort to grapple with their tradition. They don’t try to learn Hebrew or study Talmud or live in Israel. They don’t work at it one tenth as much as their art."

Adam: "Yeah… The people who live on the margins and who don’t want to come into the fold, those are the ones who become artists. The position engenders a lot of perspective and a lot of pain and it gets channeled into art. You look at the pantheon of 20th Century Jewish-American writers (Bernard Malamud, Alfred Kazin, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce), you see people who occupy those margins. It’s the tortured relationship to the religion and to everything else…that allows people the space and the energy to create art. It might be to work against the tradition, to define the tradition for themselves, but it’s probably not going to come from these traditional forms of identification."

Luke: "Do you feel obligations to the Jewish tradition?"

Adam: "What do you mean?"

Luke: "You may not eat shrimp because you feel obliged, you may have an instinctive protective reaction towards Israel, you may feel obliged to know some Yiddish or Hebrew, do you feel commanded in any way by any part of the Jewish tradition?"

Adam: "The way you phrase it is interesting and is making me unsure of how to answer it. I wouldn’t say that I feel commanded. I’m having trouble working out the idea of being commanded by a tradition as opposed to being commanded by something in yourself that seeks knowledge or inclusion or something. There are things I react to in a certain way because I’m Jewish, because my entire family is Jewish, because most of them got wiped out in the Holocaust, but the thing I connect to most strongly is not a prohibition against eating shrimp and certainly not a desire to protect Israel uncritically, to me the crux of the tradition, or the crux of what connect with, is the notion of questioning. The notion that the Jewish tradition is one of constantly discussing, arguing, trying to resolve the unresolvable."

Luke: "Challenging the status quo."

"What have you loved and hated dealing with the Jews once this book came out?"

Adam: "I feel most frustrated by the way most events are a smokescreen for getting young Jews together to marry each other and have Jewish babies…

"If you are convening a panel to talk about community service or Jewish books, those topics…shouldn’t be an excuse to get this population in a room to meet each other. It’s been frustrating for me to be invited to some of these events…

"Some of my frustrations mirror some of the characters frustrations in the book. The idea that one is always supposed to lead with religion and is reducible to it and should only be concerned with, ‘What’s good for the Jews?’

"I’ve been struck by the conservatism and defensiveness and skepticism of the older Jewish generation when the topic turns to things like black-Jewish relations. It’s probably stupid of me to go to a JCC and speak to a bunch of people in their seventies and eighties about Jewish disinvestment from the civil rights movement and how it is time to get over being mad at Farrakhan… Someone will raise their hand and say, ‘What about Jeremiah Wright?’ I will say, ‘What about Jeremiah Wright?’

"’Well, he said some anti-semitic things.’ I’ll be like, ‘What did he say?’ And no one would be able to answer. And I’d start to realize that in the imagination of this audience any black leader who said anything controversial and was in hot water must automatically be anti-semitic. You can feel frustrated when you put together a talk and people are only interested in finding out why you talk the way you do."

Luke: "How much of a driving force in your life is the desire to affect social change?"

Adam: "It’s a big desire. One of the struggles of writers is to justify what we do. Writing books take a lot of time, time spent in a room alone, and in a way it’s one of the most self-indulgent things you can do. If you care about social change, and you want to be a writer, you have to think that your books can play a role. It’s something I struggle with — should I be in this room writing this book or should I be knocking on doors and handing out flyers and organizing marches. The writing always wins out."

I read Adam these excerpts of an essay on blacks and Jews by an academic historian and Orthodox Jew, Edward S. Shapiro:

…If support for blacks is an ineluctable result of Jewish values, then one would expect that the most Jewish of American Jews — the Orthodox of Brooklyn — would be the most sympathetic towards blacks. The exact opposite, however, is true. Secure in their Jewish identity, they do not require close relations with blacks to define it. Their Jewishness rests on more substantial grounds.

…If the most Jewish of Jews are the least receptive to blacks, the Jews most supportive of blacks have often been alienated from Jewish culture and religion. (pg. 240)

…Jews needed blacks to authenticate their image of themselves as liberals, but blacks did not need Jews to authenticate their image of themselves as blacks. (Pg. 243)

Blacks have resented Jews not because they did not do enough for them but because they did too much. (Pg. 244)

In academia there is not one black scholar, apart from Julius Lester, a convert to Judaism, whose major field of interest is Jewish studies.

Adam: "I think it’s interesting. There are a couple of logical fallacies.The first is cause and effect. If the least Jewish of Jews are the most likely to be receptive to blacks, what is the cause and what is the effect?"

"The writer is defining Judaism as a matter of adherence to religion and to traditional ritual. It would not be a definition accepted by the people he’s talking about. He’s bringing a set of assumptions that the people he’s trying to analyze would object strongly to."

"What makes one group of Jews more Jewish than another group?"

Luke: "Do you think the Orthodox are more Jewish than you?"

Adam: "They’re certainly more religious than me. I couldn’t be less interested in deciding who’s more religious or claiming any level of Jewishness and asserting my right to be as Jewish as somebody else… Everybody in my family is Jewish and my blood is as Jewish as their’s. I’m not religious in the ways they would define it. They would probably view me as not Jewish.

"I can’t walk through an Orthodox neighborhood without thinking about whether I am being viewed as Jewish or not. Rather than think about the people I’m looking at, I’m thinking about what they would think of me. That’s the case for most secular Jews. Our judgments of the Orthodox end up getting deflected by our assumptions of their opinions of us."

Adam mentions his secular writer-friends such as Peter Orner, Sam Lipsyte, T Cooper, Keith Gessen, Darrin Strauss, Lauren Grodstein, Danny Hoch, Elisa Albert). "They are also publishing works considered Jewish literature. ‘The End of the Jews’ is my third novel but it is the first time somebody put me in the category of Jewish writer. I doubt that Sam Lipsyte does a lot of Jewish writer gigs."

"This time out of the box I’m doing these talks at synagogues. The Jewish community didn’t ask me to come talk about ‘Angry Black White Boy,’ my previous novel. Even though I’ve written a book on topics related to Judaism, I’m pretty sure they won’t invite me when my next book is published.

"A.J. Jacobs did a lot of Jewish-related stuff with The Year of Living Biblically, but I doubt he was doing it before that.

"Peter Orner did a bunch of [Jewish] stuff with his first book, but when his novel came out, his phone stopped ringing with Jewish programmers on the other end. T. Cooper did some Jewish book fairs for his last novel, but for his first one, nothing. T. and I co-edited a book of short stories, A Fictional History of the United States With Huge Chunks Missing (Akashic, 2006). That’s two Jewish writers co-editing a book of short stories with a decent number of Jewish writers in it but it wasn’t directed at or made visible to Jewish communities, so there was nothing.

"It seems to be on a book-by-book basis that the Jewish community on a formal level, the Jewish book circuit, the synagogues, the JCCs, there doesn’t seem to be a sustained interest in the careers of young Jewish writers except when those writers are talking about Jewish subjects."

Luke: "When you encounter somebody who says, ‘I’m a proud Jew,’ what do you think?"

Adam: "I don’t think I’ve encountered people who say that… I’m frustrated with the way that Judaism has been marketed. You go to these festivals marketed at young people and there’s all this ‘rah-rah, It’s cool to be Jewish’ stuff going on. ‘You should be proud to be Jewish. Jewish is cool.’ Why should it be cool? Cool shouldn’t enter into it. It’s a flimsy reason for wanting to do anything. If it’s cool this year, then almost by definition that means it is not cool next year. You’re talking about a fashion statement or an album. For me it would depend on what that pride is based on. If it is based on somebody telling you it is cool to be Jewish, then it is meaningless. If it is based on something more deeply felt, deeply understood, deeply studied connection with the religion or culture, then great. I’d also ask, is this the only thing you are proud of? Is it the only element of your identity?

"How does that pride translate? How does being Jewish inform the way you see yourself in the world?"

We talk about the absence of black scholar in Jewish Studies departments.

Adam: "The scholars I know who are black and do stuff that is totally unconnected to blackness are constantly having to answer for it. A good friend of mine is at Yale Divinity School. His work is on Kant and Erasmus. He constantly has to explain why a 38-year old black man studies those things."

Luke: "There seems to be much more of an eager need on the part of some Jews to be embraced by blacks than blacks feel to be embraced by Jews."

Adam: "Not necessarily."

"Jews are a sub-set of white people. They are seen in the world predominantly as white and have the privileges endemic to that. That has to do with validation that semantically divorces you from privilege so you don’t have to feel guilty. If black people accept you, then you don’t have to grapple with what it means to have all these unearned inherited privileges granted to you by society. That’s been the dynamic of my generation, the hip hop generation, that constant affirmation from black people…is a way to divorce yourself from privilege instead of confronting it and seeing how it might be dismantled."

"I can’t even tell you how many black Jew-aphiles I know, how many black friends I have who said, ‘I wanted to be Jewish when I grew up.’"

Luke: "Is there anything about your new book that I should’ve asked you and haven’t asked you?"

Adam: "Probably. It’s always interesting to me that any time I get talking to somebody ostensibly about my book, particularly someone smart and interesting like yourself, we always end up totally far afield. Sometimes I yearn to talk about craft and sentence structure and the book itself in some sustained way instead of using it as a point of departure for a whole other conversation."

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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