Adam Mansbach is a dude of many hats. A hip-hop poet that can recite histories old-school and new without missing a beat, especially in his acid satire Angry Black White Boy. An author who lives in Berkeley, grew up in Boston and can freestyle in Brooklyn without weak knees. An intellectual from a long line of East Coast intellectuals who fraternized with bigshots like Alfred Kazin, Bernard Malamud and more. I'm not sure what size head he has, but I know the guy has a big brain.
He uses it with skill in his latest novel The End of the Jews, which marries our 21st century's postmodern overload with the last century's clumsy geopolitical and artistic fumblings, without sacrificing generational sensitivity. I pinned Mansbach to talk about all of the above, and why Israel needs to screw its head on straight before history repeats itself.
From hip-hop whiteboys to the ending of Jews. It seems like a leap, but it isn't for you. Why?
The thing I love about being a novelist is that with each project you invent a new world. You approach it with a different set of aesthetic and structural ideas, and you grapple with a different series of problems in figuring out how to tell the story. And yet there are certain concerns that stay constant. Race and identity are among those for me. In Angry Black White Boy, I wanted to explore whiteness and white privilege in the context of the hip hop generation -- probe the limits of a specific cultural moment and attempt to jumpstart a dialogue on race in this country that I felt had ground to a standstill in my lifetime. The way to do this, I thought, was through a freewheeling, crazy satire about a white kid politicized by hip hop who is so furious about the complacency and hypocrisy of white people that he starts robbing them when they sit down in the New York City taxicab he drives, which ultimately leads to infamy and a call for a National Day of Apology that throws the city into chaos. It was intended to be a book that translated the aesthetics of hip hop to the page, and a remix of the American Race Novel.
On the surface, The End of the Jews, might appear totally unrelated, because I've gone from satire to a multigenerational story about a family of Jewish-American artists from the 1930s to the present. There are some things here that wouldn't be too out of place in Angry Black White Boy -- a grandfather-and-grandson graffiti bombing mission, for instance; a Czech Jewish girl passing for black in America; a scene in which stoned bar mitzvah DJs force everybody to dance the hora to Eric B & Rakim's "Microphone Fiend." But overall it's a more intimate, more emotionally complex book, about things like the slow collapse of a marriage and the incremental betrayals of people who love each other.
The title is grabbing. Where does its marketing power end, and its more philosophical inquiries begin?
I don't even know when its marketing power begins, or if it has any. That didn't occur to me when I gave the book that title. In fact, I was really worried that my publisher would try to make me change it. To me, The End of the Jews -- both the title and the novel itself -- is about the end of pat, uncritical ways of understanding oneself in the world. The end of the communities that one can easily and safely feel a part of, whether they are as small as families or as big as the global Jewish diaspora, the global black diaspora. It's about both the problems and the possibilities that come with a more complex, more tortured understanding of yourself, your tradition and culture, other people's traditions and cultures, where the lines between all of these things begin to blur. How do you sustain yourself when all the old structures people looked to for support -- religion, family, ethnic solidarity -- are crumbling, or feel so false that you refuse to avail yourself of them? What comes next?
The title originates during a bar mitzvah by an old Jew watching pop culture take command of his own culture. How does the book trace those clashes, and is the merge overblown?
You're right that the line about the end of the Jews is in reference to a sort of garish Bar Mitzvah, and is spoken by an old Jewish novelist. But I don't think he's dismayed at pop culture taking over his religion, because he has opted out of most aspects of that religion for decades. He says it with a kind of grim sarcasm: yet another end of the Jews, this time at the hand of our own excess. This character, Tristan Brodsky, has been refusing to give in to the Jewish community's veneration or its ire for forty years; he doesn't want the mantle of Jewish writer when he becomes successful in his 20s, because he demands the right to speak universally, not just for his own corner of the Bronx. This puts him in step with writers from Frederick Douglass to Bernard Malamud, both of whom railed against such assignations. And when Tristan publishes a novel about the voyage of a Jewish owned slaveship to America in the 1950s, right after the war, he is despised. The critics want to know how he can write something so out of step with what the morality of the times demands, and he tries to explain that understanding evil in the world must begin with finding it in ourselves. Acknowledging that the Jews have been the hunters too, not just the prey. Throughout his life, Tristan insists on a kind of complexity and paradox that the world doesn't always want to allow. Sometimes in his quest to feel like an individual he commits major trespasses, particularly since like many characters in the book, he tries to define and authenticate himself by recruiting the Otherness of African-American culture. But he also surprises himself by wielding his own Jewishness like a sword when he needs to.
Is Jewish indentity, or identity itself, a pragmatic mask one adopts to achieve power and relevance? Doesn't ceding too much power to a group identity disenfranchise the individual?
My challenge was to illuminate big issues -- the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation, the weaponization of identity -- through a relatively small lens. I think that by allowing the reader to spend so much time with the characters, to follow their evolution over generations and also see the impact of one generation on another, The End of the Jews is able to delve into these questions in a pretty sustained way. So I see it as a continuation of the conversation Angry Black White Boy started.
When we talk about communities, we seldom discuss the margins. But for every person nestled comfortably in the bosom of a community, there is someone else on the outskirts, feeling ambivalent. Ambiguous. Excluded. Unwilling or unable to come more fully into the fold. My characters are mostly artists, so this novel takes place on those margins; it seems to me that they are where art and creative thought tend to originate, because of the pain of that marginality and also the perspective it allows. The complexities of a Jewish identity - the fact that you can feel culturally Jewish without being religious, or understand yourself ethnically as Jewish but not be down with the dominant politics of Jewish life, and so on - ensure that there are many ways to feel ambiguous and conflicted, so these margins tend to be well-stocked.
I think these tensions are central to understanding the huge Jewish cultural contributions to American art and thought in the 20th century. Certainly, if you look at literature, most of the big names resided on those margins: Bellow, Malamud, Roth, Mailer, Kazin. And attendant to being on the Jewish margins is the question of what it means to be marginal to an already marginal population: is that margin the one closer to the mainstream, or the one farther away?
The title is apt: Prof. David Browmich argues that Israel has outgrown its cultural history of victimization to become the chief oppressor of the Middle East, including a nuclear terror that might invade Iran. Do you feel this fear of a literal end to the Jews raise its head in macro or micro form in your novel?
There's hardly a word about Israel in this novel, although certainly the past specter of an end to the Jews, and the seemingly-perpetual fear of a future one, give the title its bite, make people frown or laugh or shoot me a quizzical look when I tell them what my new book's called. Personally, my Jewish upbringing, such as it was, did not include Hebrew school, which from what I can gather is where a lot of kids first get indoctrinated with the idea that as a Jew you're supposed to love and defend (with words, if not actions) the state of Israel. My family was very secular; my parents sent me to the So You Think You Might Be Jewish Sunday School and Grill out of guilt, and I got kicked out of it for singing "Livin' On A Prayer" by Bon Jovi into a mic at an all-school assembly when I was supposed to read a prayer. This was my way of acting out my anger toward my racist Jewish History teacher, who liked to tell us kids stories about the Great Jewish Exodus. You know, the one from Roxbury in the 1950s, when the blacks moved in.
When the word got out that I was publishing this book, I started getting invited to Jewish conferences, retreats, etc - which was weird, since this is third novel and nobody had ever considered me a Jewish writer before, except for the white supremacists who tried to get all my speaking gigs for Angry Black White Boy canceled, and accused me of "masquerading as white." From what I've been able to discern in the past year or two, going to all these events, the dominant concern among the Jewish generation in power seems to be that young people aren't participating enough in Jewish life, and through apathy, intermarriage, nonobservance, the Jews are going to wither and disappear. It creeps me out to be in a room full of Jews in which racial purity seems to be an agreed-upon goal, though I certainly understand where it comes from.
What bothers me most, though, is the mix of naivete and cynicism with which the young demographic is being courted; the underlying goal seems to be Jewish marriage/procreation/participation, but it's couched in all these other terms, disguised inside all these clumsy maneuvers. It's like, "What do young Jews like these days? Pancakes? Okay, we'll have a pancake breakfast, and hopefully Isaac's hand will brush against Rachel's while they're both reaching for the maple syrup, and we'll get some babies out of this."
Where do you stand on the idea of Israel as a religious homeland for Jews, as well as its geopolitical realities, which are more bloody and less romantic?
I don't claim to be an expert. I haven't been there. But the notion that a Jewish life is worth more than a Palestinian one seems to underwrite so much of what's happening, and so much of the conversation about Israel in America's Jewish community, and that is deeply troubling. The things I read and hear from friends who have traveled in Israel and Palestine leave me with no doubt that an apartheid-like situation is in effect, and that is unacceptable.
I think there's a lot of willing suspension of disbelief on the part of American Jews about the actions of the Israeli military. People don't want to accept that they would do the things they do, so they decide they don't do them, or that they must have their reasons and delving into them isn't necessary -- and this is among the same people who would never dream of giving a pass to Bush, people outraged about Darfur and Gitmo and every other outrageous thing happening on the world stage. To me, one of the strengths of Jewish culture is the fact that everything is constantly scrutinized and discussed and argued over. Questioning and dialogue and vigorous study are the things I connect with: the notion of a Talmud that literally has no margins because every possible inch of space was covered in a multi-century discussion of life and law. So Jewish group-think frightens me; Jewish dogma without counter-dogma frightens me. I think that the Jews should have a homeland, yes -- but I also think it's fascinating that some scholars and rabbis believe that homeland is intended to be a state of mind, that some believe the greatest sin possible is to claim that homeland by force, and that several different homelands for the Jews have been proposed in this century alone. The "if you don't love Israel you're not a good Jew" mentality really bothers me. As does, I suppose, the notion of a "good Jew."
You're steeped in black culture but Jewish. How has the relationship changed over time in your mind, and what do you think having a black president during a time of Israel's geopolitical ascendancy will do to it?
Perhaps no two ethnic groups in America share so unique, intimate, and checkered a past, politically and artistically, as blacks and Jews. I thought it was interesting that Obama touched on the fraying of relations between the two communities in his big speech on race, but I also thought his decision to essentially elaborate on his rejection of Minister Farrakan because of Farrakhan's alleged anti-Semitism was more in line with the reasons black-Jewish relations have suffered than with any attempt to mount new dialogue. It was red meat for Jewish voters. On the Jewish side, the problem with black-Jewish relations is that a handful of ill-advised and highly objectionable statements made by a few prominent black leaders in the mid-eighties have never been forgotten. And they should be. Yes, Jesse Jackson once referred to New York City as 'Hymietown." Yes, Al Sharpton could have conducted himself better during the Crown Heights riots. But these incidents happened twenty years ago.
Not only have Sharpton, Jackson, and even Farrakhan (whose outreach to the Jewish community over the last ten years has been considerable, if seldom-reported) moved on, but so has black leadership. Obama's candidacy and the emergence of hip hop generation leaders and grassroots political organizations prove that the civil rights generation is no longer in the driver's seat. Yet, these figures remain central in the collective Jewish memory - fixed in history, reduced to their offensive comments, and treated as proof of black anti-Semitism. Why? Because it provides an excuse for Jewish disengagement -- emotionally, practically, financially -- from the continuing struggle for equality. It allows Jews to disinvest in the black community and the legacy of progressive work that blacks and Jews once shared.
One of the most fascinating stories of the 20th century, and one that I try to tell in The End of the Jews, is how both Jewish assimilation and Jewish self-identity have relied on the immutability of black Otherness. As the Jews have become whiter and richer, we've also gained the ability to engage in the same kind of complacency and hypocrisy that has long characterized the rest of white liberal America. Jews can now lament racial injustice without either fighting or acknowledging the ways in which it benefits us. The post-World War II Jewish credo has been to 'never forget,' and maintain eternal vigilance against the smallest rustling of anti-Semitism. I understand that. But I also lament that fact that whenever something does happen, regardless of whether the offensive speech or action stems from true malice or ignorance, whether it is repented for or not, the gates come crashing down, and dialogue is considered anathema. I think it's time to really rethink this, especially given the tremendous attacks that civil rights and civil liberties have taken under this president.
Are you voting Obama's way? Are you as done with white people as I am? You don't have to answer that.
I will vote for Obama, enthusiastically; I think his election is the clearest signal we can send to the rest of the world that we understand the last eight years were disastrous and we're ready to turn the page. I think 90-plus percent of the Jews of my generation will vote for him, too, as will a big majority of our parents' give-us-another-Kennedy-before-we-die generation. The concerns over his ability to lock down the Jewish vote seem overblown to me; a good example is the New York Times article of a few months ago in which seemingly the most racist Jews in Florida were sought out and quoted. I did an event with my friend the writer Keith Gessen in Brooklyn, and he made a good point: the older generation of Jews is drifting away from the Democratic party, while the young generation is drifting away from Judaism. They keep telling us to come back, and we should be telling them the same thing.
You grew up around some influential people: Your grandfather and grandmother played interesting roles in the march of history. Is this book a concretization of your memory and their influence, and are you pressured by their legacy, and that of their friends and colleagues?
After my grandmother died in the winter of 1999, I began spending summers with my grandfather so he would not be alone. It was no great sacrifice; since the early sixties, my grandparents had been spending the warmer months in a beach house on Martha's Vineyard, the island to which much of their once-wide and now greatly diminished social circle repaired at the close of each academic year. My grandfather was the kind of man people had theories about, the kind his descendants formed study groups to discuss, as if he were a difficult novel. Some of his accomplishments were matters of public record, though he waved a dismissive hand at them all. He'd graduated high school by fifteen ("soon as you could read and write, off you went"), been the youngest American prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials ("I got there at the end; I didn't do anything") traveled to Panama to mediate between the government and the builders of the Canal ("The headline read 'Kaplan Arrives,' but the real work was done by others"). He'd taught three future Supreme Court Justices during his quarter decade at Harvard Law School, then sat on the bench of Massachusetts's highest court. He was ninety that summer. He would not retire for another five years.
But the facts that most fascinated me were those to which history had little access. The silence he forged into a weapon he wielded for weeks at a time when he felt wronged. The year he'd spent chopping wood in Upstate New York after graduating City College and before beginning Columbia Law School. The way his genius had exempted him from so much in life--turned him into the man in the chair atop the hora dance, passed from one protector to the next, and how that had forged and crippled him. My whole life, he'd seemed almost visibly stooped by the weight of his regrets, lamenting his decision to prioritize work over family and wishing he could do it all differently. And yet day by day, year after year, he did not. That summer, as we sat before a muted television, watching the Red Sox break our hearts again, I asked my grandfather all I could think to. During the days, I holed up in a bedroom seemingly built to avoid the sea breeze, working on a novel about grandfathers and grandsons that had yet to find a reason for existing. I knew only that the generation I was trying to understand would soon be gone, and that when it vanished the world would be stupider and less elegant, absent the force of intellect and character men like my grandfather possessed.
Why he opened up to me, I cannot say. Years before, his four grandsons had partially liberated him from the "do not disturb your father" doctrine that ruled our parents' childhood, barging into his study and demanding his attention--and he had loved us for it. Perhaps this was an extension of that; twenty-plus years later, I still would not leave him alone. He was incredulous at my interest in Bronx stickball rules and his experience of being the first Jew admitted to a Cambridge health club, but as the months passed he reached more willingly into the recesses of his perfect memory, and I learned things no one in my family had ever known. He'd written a humor column for the City College newspaper, for instance: twice a week throughout his senior year. I made a trip to New York to find and photocopy them. We read each one together. My grandfather had believed he'd be a writer then, and with good cause: his language was marvelous. He was funny. Suddenly, his marriage to my grandmother, a poet and a legendary wit, made sense.
Little of what I learned found its way into my novel. But in some larger sense, his story was my book; his story was his generation; his story was me. As we spoke and laughed and sat together in silence, I began to understand why I was writing. I was exploring my greatest hope and fear: that my grandfather and I were exactly alike.
Finally, hip-hop: Things to be turning around. The Golden Age of hip-hop blossomed under the burning of another Bush. This rerun we're experiencing seems to be initiating some sparks of hope that the form's hyperconsumerist ways are changing.
I say yes and no. I just judged the National Teen Poetry Slam finals in DC, and what I saw, for two days, was kids from all over the hemisphere kicking spoken-word pieces about the true essence of hip hop, speaking passionately about the culture and the need to save and protect it. For the most part, that's great. Usually, when I go into a classroom, I have to spend an hour explaining to high school kids that hip hop didn't used to be, and doesn't have to be, the materialistic, misogynistic, bullshit-fest they'd think it was if they turned on mainstream radio or mainstream TV. There's no reason, in 2008, that a casual consumer would think hip hop was a culture rooted in resistance, so it was affirming to see kids taking up the culture as a form of response, a way to claim a voice.
At the same time, rap music has basically sucked for the entire conscious-listening life of a 20-year-old -- especially if you accept my theory that people become serious about music around the age of twelve. So it was kind of weird to see them so passionate about it. Until I realized that they're not. They're passionate about the music my cohort grew up listening to, in the eighties and early nineties. They're the first hip hop generation -- a hip hop generation, in my opinion, spans about six years - to be primarily engaged with the music of the past. At first, that bugged me. It seemed kind of forced; I wondered how deeply they could possibly understand the energy of those times, and what hip hop meant then. Hip hop has always engendered a lot of nostalgia, but until now it's been experienced mainly by people who at least remember what they're pining for.
In terms of the state of hip hop at large, with the exception of a Pharoah Monch or MF Doom, I find the most current inspiration not in the original hip hop artforms of rhyming, DJing, b-boying and graff, but in the second-generation ones. Spoken word, hip hop theater, hip hop literature, hip hop pedagogy, and hip hop political strategy are all vital and vibrant and growing fast. Institutions are starting to recognize them, and even more importantly, it's happening on their own terms. I'm very excited about the theory, the practice, and the possibilities.