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[My] parents and coterie and, perhaps, to a large extent a slice of their generation had really wanted to be Americans. They didn’t want to not be Jews, but they wanted to be Americans. They were the kids of immigrants; they’d been poor. They lived through the Depression. They lived through World War II and found out about the Holocaust. And through it all they wanted to succeed at what they’d been told it’s possible to succeed at: being an American, being part of a large nondenominational community.br> Ira Nadel’s recent illuminating biography, David Mamet: A Life in the Theater , relays a more complicated scenario. The Mamet home, Nadel writes, was “adjacent to the second-largest Jewish area in the city but the parents sought an assimilated life,” which, oddly, included Mamet’s mother’s refusal to react to the anti-Semitic violence and taunts her children regularly endured. Young David’s Bar Mitzvah was held in a private room, Nadel reports, unbeknownst to his mother, with only his father, sister, and secret tutor present for the ceremony.
It should come as no surprise that under the circumstances Mamet, as he told a San Francisco audience during a City Arts & Lectures appearance, “didn’t see a lot of upside” in his cultural/religious heritage until he grew older. “I was a nice Jewish boy, and I think I probably am a nice Jewish boy, and I wanted to be anything but a nice Jewish boy,” the playwright told NPR’s Terry Gross in 1994. “I wanted to be Jack Kerouac. Or Jack London. Or someone named Jack.”
He eventually ended up more like Bobby Gold (Mamet regular Mantegna), the tougher-than-thou cop of Mamet’s 1991 rumination on identity, Homicide, a proudly assimilated Jew who slowly begins to ache for a connection with his heritage. For Gold, the spark is the investigation of the murder of an elderly Jewish candy shop clerk who once ran guns to Zionist forces in the Israeli War of Independence and whose life story subsequently inspires Gold to join forces with an underground Jewish Defense League-type group. Mamet’s prompt was a little less dramatic: while attending his niece’s Bat Mitzvah, it dawned on him that he hadn’t been in a synagogue in decades.
Homicide ends on a tragically ambiguous note, with the Zionist group encouraging Gold to blow up a back-room neo-Nazi print shop, only to use photographs of him setting the bomb to blackmail him into tampering with evidence, and he soon finds himself abandoned and betrayed by both his cultural and professional cohorts.p>Mamet’s reacclimation, under the tutelage of a Reform rabbi named Lawrence Kushner with whom he would eventually co-write the 2003 book-length Torah commentary Five Cities of Refuge , was much less rocky, if a still profound experience. As in all other things, Mamet came out of his religious studies swinging. “The way to combat anti-Semitism, religious abuse, or his own neglected Judaism,” Nadel observes, “was to become more Jewish.” In the mid-1990s, in the moving novella Passover , Mamet wrote of the pogroms his family suffered, but the truth of Nadel’s statement is nowhere more boldly advertised than in the playwright’s at times shocking 2006 polemic,