January 23, 2019


Last Monday night, I was sitting on stage at American Jewish University interviewing Tony Kushner, talking Life and Judaism and Big Ideas to a man who is arguably America’s greatest living playwright, when, suddenly, the words of what is arguably the world’s cheesiest bubble-gum song popped into my head:

Torn between two lovers/Feeling like a fool/Loving both of you is breaking all the rules.

It didn’t come to me just as punishment for listening to too much AM radio in the ’70s. It was something Kushner said. He called David Mamet a name. I love Mamet, author of “American Buffalo” and “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Speed the Plow.” I love Kushner, author of “Angels in America” and “Homebody/Kabul.”

I would stand in the TKTS line on any freezing windy gray February day in New York for discount tickets to see anything either man has written — who can afford Broadway at face value? — and here I was, hearing one of them groan at the mention of the other.

Not at the artistry. Let me be clear. Because of the politics. Yes, it was not artist versus artist, but, wouldn’t you know it, Jew versus Jew. Mamet’s name came up because I asked Kushner about how it is that Phillip Roth and Arthur Miller bristle at being called “Jewish writers,” whereas Kushner and Mamet both identify strongly, even pugnaciously, as Jewish writers.

“Yeah,” said Kushner. “He’s definitely more pugnacious than me.” But then Kushner sighed. He is, in person, somewhat slight, with a beautiful looping Jewish nose, a high forehead, a chin veering toward weak, and enough curly brown hair to make a man of 51 look almost inappropriately young. What he said next about Mamet came out with almost a touch of despair. “He’s so butch.”

The audience laughed; it was funny because, to quote Homer Simpson, it’s true.

Mamet is built like a Battle-Bot, he has pecs on his pecs, a close-shaved head and in between writing lines like the opener to his book “The Wicked Son” — “The world hates the Jews. The world has always and will continue to do so.” — he practices jiu-jitsu almost every day — with his rabbi. That’s not just butch, that’s shtarker.

As a fellow artist, Kushner offered nothing but adulation for Mamet’s work. “I’m hugely indebted to him as a playwright. I think Mamet invented a new kind of stage language that everybody in America [has followed]. I certainly couldn’t have written Roy Cohn … had I not listened to Mamet. He’s a big influence. And I say that just gasping in horror at a lot of things he says politically.”

In “The Wicked Son,” Mamet’s non-fiction book of essays about Jews, he takes off after members of Kusher’s beloved New York Upper West Side Secular Left for their collusion with “Israel-indicting bodies,” their “blame the victim mentality” and their “idiotic, immoral cant.”

For Mamet, equivocation or hesitation when it comes to anything but the quick, sharp defense of the Jewish state is a sign of capitulation at best, apostasy at worst.

But Kushner embraces uncertainty. “I have very mixed and complicated feelings about the state of Israel as a Jewish American,” he said on Monday evening, “and I’m furious at being represented as this kind of marginal crazy who’s plotting to destroy the state of Israel. I think everybody harbors their own secret doubts, or at least most of us do, and everybody’s afraid to say them, because the orthodoxy is policed with such violence and vituperation.”

Kushner and director Steven Spielberg endured a wave of criticism from some within the Jewish community who felt their film “Munich” stretched too far in trying to humanize Palestinian terrorists, or in trying to insert moral quandary into the minds of Israelis assigned to kill those terrorists.

I asked Kushner why Mamet, among others, finds his position so unpalatable. “It’s because they’re trying to defend the indefensible,” Kushner said. “It’s trying to uphold the reality you can’t uphold. It’s a cartoon version of Middle Eastern politics that almost no one in the state of Israel recognizes. There’s easily 50 percent of the Israeli population that’s progressive.”

I’m not sure of that number, especially in the wake of the Hamas takeover of Gaza, but Kushner was clearly still feeling the sting of “Munich.”

“I can’t feel neutral about the state of Israel because I’m a Jew,” Kushner said, “and I would like to see Israel survive and prosper. I absolutely don’t believe in single-state solution. I believe in a two-state solution. I’ve never anywhere on earth said I believe Israel should be forced to give up its identity as a Jewish state … that obviously wouldn’t work. It would be the end of Israel.” But Kushner attacked those who disagree with what he considers his more thoughtful approach to Israel’s conflict.

“[Mamet’s] view really almost goes to neighborhood street gang turf war, the people on the hill and the people in the valley. It’s like that Billy Jack anthem. You can’t talk in those terms.”

“I understand we have a history of horrendous persecution and oppression,” Kushner said. “The Holocaust was only 60 years ago. Anti-semitism is everywhere in the world today. It’s scary to be a Jew. You’d be stupid not to be scared. So I get the fear that’s behind it. But, you know, being a minority is hard, because you’re outnumbered. So you have to start asking yourself really grown-up serious questions about how do minorities survive… and there are lots of interesting answers, and one of them is nationalism, and one of them, the one I prefer, is the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, a pluralist democracy.”

And so, my two favorite playwrights find themselves on opposite sides of a longstanding Jewish divide. “All sound creative art is rooted in a ghetto,” the critic Ludwig Lewisohn once wrote. Once out of that ghetto, the roots bifurcate, and we Jews have fashioned two strategies for survival. For the Mamets, salvation lies in toughness and certainty, the People of the Butch. For Kushner, our promise is in compromise and doubt.

“People say the artist has the ability to see the future,” the writer Eric Hoffer once said. “That’s not true. The artist has the ability to see the present.” But what happens when their prophesies collide? I know my answer: you try to live somewhere in between.

To hear of the Kushner interview, click on these files:

Kushner on Mamet
Kushner on parental influence
Kushner on Jewish identity
Kushner reads ‘Prayer’
Kushner on Israel