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

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

by David Mamet

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Part of the Jewish Encounter series

As might be expected from this fiercely provocative writer, David Mamet’s interest in anti-Semitism is not limited to the modern face of an ancient hatred but encompasses as well the ways in which many Jews have themselves internalized that hatred. Using the metaphor of the Wicked Son at the Passover


Part of the Jewish Encounter series

As might be expected from this fiercely provocative writer, David Mamet’s interest in anti-Semitism is not limited to the modern face of an ancient hatred but encompasses as well the ways in which many Jews have themselves internalized that hatred. Using the metaphor of the Wicked Son at the Passover seder—the child who asks, “What does this story mean to you?”—Mamet confronts what he sees as an insidious predilection among some Jews to seek truth and meaning anywhere—in other religions, in political movements, in mindless entertainment—but in Judaism itself. At the same time, he explores the ways in which the Jewish tradition has long been and still remains the Wicked Son in the eyes of the world.

Written with the searing honesty and verbal brilliance that is the hallmark of Mamet’s work, The Wicked Son is a scathing look at one of the most destructive and tenacious forces in contemporary life, a powerfully thought-provoking and important book.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Despite centuries of rational rebukes, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head. David Mamet's The Wicked Son uses the Haggadah story of the Wicked Son to expose the depths of contemporary Jewish self-hatred, which he believes is fed by negative images of Jews in the modern world. The Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright and novelist decries the unwillingness among his co-religionists to affirm the traditions and wisdom of Judaism.
Publishers Weekly
The world hates the Jews. The world always has and will continue to do so." So says celebrated playwright and novelist Mamet in this new entry in the Jewish Encounters series, as he sets his sights on both anti-Semites and apostate Jews, whom he refers to as "the Wicked Sons." Mamet marshals his passion and mastery of language to argue that only religious observance is an authentic, non-self-hating expression of Judaism. Organizing that argument coherently, however, doesn't seem to be a priority, as he moves from discussions of the State of Israel to excoriations of assimilated Jews and contemporary culture and back with no apparent order. The tone is that of the condescending expert: alternately Talmudic scholar, academic, psychoanalyst and anthropologist. But nowhere is Mamet's expertise proven; he provides no source materials to back up his pronouncements on everything from Santa Claus to gun control to religious observance. The implication of this bombastic text seems to be that anyone who disagrees is a coward, an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Playwright, novelist, filmmaker and essayist Mamet (South of the Northeast Kingdom, 2002, etc.) angrily preaches an emphatic sermon to anti-Semites-Jewish anti-Semites in particular. The world hates the Jews, his discourse begins. Mamet wrestles with this persistent hatred by addressing co-religionists who distance themselves from their brethren. Those Jews, he says, are embodied in the person of the wicked son who separates himself from the group in the old Passover story; they are apostates and race traitors who do not know what they have forsaken. Mamet prescribes corrective medicine in many small doses. He instructs on what may have escaped those he scorns. He would heal the patent error and evident anomie of the ignorant with discussion of various matters, including myth and reality, sex, lies, superstition, shul management, the beset State of Israel, bar mitzvahs that encourage adoration of the golden calf and Santa Claus. His text is, of course, an angry jeremiad, and his classification of Judaism in terms of race could, in some quarters, be provocative. But, like Jeremiah, Mamet also preaches return and redemption. His bravura syntax scatters parentheses, dashes, footnotes and commas in abundance; his orotund vocabulary encompasses words like "miching," "uncathected" and "benignantly." Clearly, this isn't the Mamet who transfixed us three decades ago with American Buffalo. And yet his argument is worth close attention and his book worth rereading. It is an admonition to "adversary intellectuals," as Eric Hoffer termed them (In Our Time, 1976), and a rebuke to those who heedlessly reject an ancient heritage. Anyone wishing to better understand the condition of Judaism today mightlearn from the author's flamboyant screed. Mamet scolds and laments in this provocative addition to the Jewish Encounters series. Agent: Andrew Wylie/Wylie Agency
From the Publisher
"A bold and blistering attack on all aspects of this enduring phenomenon, and a probing analysis of its root causes and some of its more insidious manifestations."
Chicago Sun-Times

“Like everything Mamet does, [The Wicked Son] is blunt and bracing, honest and provocative, original and gutsy.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Rare among the defenders of the Jews–and of Judaism– Mamet recognizes the romance in the story of his ancient religion and race, and finds the words beautiful enough to describe it.”
The International Jerusalem Post

“[Mamet’s] clarity, insight, and passion . . . can be both devastatingly witty and scathingly angry.”
The New York Post

The Jewish Observer

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Jewish Encounters Series
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Random House
File size:
263 KB

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Read an Excerpt

The Four Sons of the Haggadah
The rebbe was plagued by mice.
The mice were eating his books,
and nothing could dissuade them.
He searched in vain for a deterrent.
Until, reading the Shulkhan Arukh,
he came across the statutes governing Passover.
The Shulkhan Arukh unequivocally states
that nothing may be eaten after the afikomen.
So the rebbe crumpled the afikomen
and sprinkled the crumbs over his books.
But the mice were smarter than the rebbe;
first they ate the Shulkhan Arukh,
then they ate the afikomen,
and then they ate his books.
—As told by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner  
In the section of the Passover Haggadah called “The Four Sons,” we find “What are the laws, the ordinances and the rulings which Hashem has commanded us?”   
The answer being, “You should inform this child of all the laws of Pesach, including the ruling that nothing should be eaten after the afikomen.”   
Passover Haggadah, the Feast of Freedom, the Rabbinical Assembly.  
The wise child asks for information, and, in my Haggadah, he receives information, humor, which is to say, welcome to his tradition. His desire to learn and participate is rewarded with love—the other sons present their requests as if information were going to cure them of their anomie. Estrangement, hurt, rancor, alienation from the world, can, in the other-than-wise, be misinterpreted as, and assigned to, a failure of their tradition.
The second of the four sons, the wicked child, asks “What does this ritual mean to you?”
He is wicked in that his question is rhetorical—it is not even a request for information; it is an assault.
The wicked Jewish child removes himself from his tradition, and sets up as a rationalist and judge of those who would study, learn, and belong. Here is a joke for him.
The Minsker apikoros met the Pinsker apikoros. “I challenge your claim to preeminence,” said the Minsker; “defend your excellence as an apikoros.
“I’m not sure I believe in God,” said the Pinkser.
I’m not sure I believe in God,” replied the Minsker. “And I eat pork, I work on Shabbos, and I never go to shul.”
“You aren’t an apikoros,” said the Pinsker. “You’re a goy.”
The third son is the simple son, who asks simply, “Ma Hu?” or “What is this?”
We are told to tell him, “It is with a mighty hand that Hashem took us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
A borscht belt joke: Why did the Jews wander forty years in the desert? Because they wouldn’t ask directions.
This is good, accurate ethnic humor; but it is not true that the Jews wandered forty years. They spent five weeks journeying between the Sea of Reeds and the Jordan River. Where Moses sent out the scouts. The scouts returned and said that the giants inhabited the land, that the scouts looked to themselves as grasshoppers and that they felt that so they must seem in the eyes of the giants.
Rabbi Finley teaches that this sin, of lack of faith, this inability to change, kept the Israelites in the desert, until God saw that the generation of the desert had died off, that time had killed the sin of acceptance of Slavery.
A new generation had been born that had never seen Egypt, and these people were educable and simple enough to ask, “What is this?”
The fourth child is he who does not know how to ask. For him, one is supposed to open the discussion.
To the wicked son, who asks, “What does all this mean to you?” To 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—to you, who find your religion and race repulsive, your ignorance of your history a satisfaction, here is a book from your brother.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

David Mamet is a Pulitzer Prize—winning playwright. He is the author of Glengarry Glen Ross, The Cryptogram, and Boston Marriage, among other plays. He has also published three novels and many screenplays, children’s books, and essay collections.

From the Hardcover edition.

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