The CANVAS Compendium: Dispatches from the New Jewish Renaissance
Adam Mansbach has enjoyed a varied career as an author. He’s published novels like Rage Is Back, Angry Black White Boy, and The End of the Jews; humor books like Go the F**k to Sleep and A Field Guide to the Jewish People (co-written with legends Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel); and his memoir-in-verse, I Had a Brother Once. His screenplays include Barry for Netflix and the forthcoming Super High, with Andy Samberg, Craig Robinson, and Common. His new novel, The Golem of Brooklyn, imagines a stoned art teacher inadvertently bringing a golem to life. This week for the CANVAS Compendium, Mansbach discusses Jewish artistry from the margins, and how Reboot (a CANVAS grantee network) inspired him to reinvestigate his identity. — Ed.
Featured image: Adam Mansbach, author. Photo: Susan Chainey.
By Adam Mansbach
I grew up observant only in the sense that I noticed things. My parents and grandparents were either indifferent to the notion of organized religion, or hostile to it. We didn’t belong to a synagogue, but out of some murky sense of obligation, I was made to attend a Jewish Sunday school run out of a junior college in the next town over and seemingly staffed by whoever wanted a captive audience to harangue. I was expelled for sundry creative misbehavior before I could be bar mitzvahed. In the eyes of the Jewish world, I am still a very elderly boy.
My Judaism, then, is something I have had the privilege of figuring out on my own; I didn’t have the luxury or the burden of much received knowledge to build on or cast off. I had a few positive stereotypes that I held dear, mostly based on my maternal grandparents and their friends—the generation who ascended from the Lower East Side and the Bronx to remake America’s artistic and intellectual landscape. From them, I came to believe that Jews, by nature, engaged in rigorous, wide-ranging, good-humored debate about every aspect of life. And that the only reasonable kind of Judaism to practice was not Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, but cultural.
I was disabused of these notions the first time I toured to promote a book that was explicitly Jewish in its content. It was my third novel, but the first time I’d been identified as a “Jewish writer” and invited to present to Jewish audiences. More often than not, I was a disappointment to them, and them to me. What they wanted from a young Jewish novelist was not thorny questions about the weaponization of identity or the complex relationship between Jews and whiteness; what they wanted was uncritical celebration of Judaism. They wanted me to tell young people that Judaism was “cool.” And they wanted those young people to meet at my book talk, fall in love, and have Jewish babies.
I felt deeply discouraged; these weren’t the Jews I was looking for. The Jews I was looking for understood that the best art comes from the margins. They understood that Jewish identity is complex and multi-faceted, that there are a million ways to feel ambivalent and alienated and marginal—because Judaism is the Hotel California of religions, and you can check out, but you can never leave, so instead you stay and mull it all over and make raw, probing art. The Jews I was looking for understood that we are middlemen, liminal women, occupying an ever-changing sliver of space and mastering whatever language or trade will keep us alive, and that our experience of otherness should put us in alliance with all the other persecuted peoples of the world.
Mansbach’s new novel. Image: One World, a Random House imprint.
Then, quite out of the blue, I found exactly the Jews I was looking for. Reboot, an organization I had never heard of, tapped me on the shoulder and invited me to spend a weekend at some ski resort in Utah with a bunch of Jews, talking about what, if anything, it meant to be Jewish. I was skeptical. If you’re playing word association and you say “Jew”*, almost nobody responds “ski resort,” much less “Utah.” But I steeled myself and went to the Reboot Summit in Park City—and what I found there was the incubator for the Jewishness I didn’t know I needed.
What made Reboot unique was the lack of assumptions, the absence of an agenda. The common denominator among the sixty or seventy artists, academics, culture workers, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, and activists who reported to Park City was that we identified as Jewish. What that meant, what it could mean, what we wanted it to mean—that was what we were there to discuss. Not figure out; not resolve. Just talk about. Anybody could propose a conversation about anything, from epigenetic trauma to Jews and hip hop. Nobody had to ski.
This was the margins at its most vibrant, its most bountiful, and it was astonishing how quickly the air crackled with possibility, affinity, connection. At Reboot, an idea like Jewish values or tikkun olam or Jewish humor could be parsed from every angle—theorized, historicized, reinvented. Some of us were atheists; others were rabbis. Some were both. We were Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, Black, Latinx, Asian; it was the most diverse Jewish group of which I’d ever been a part. We were all there because somebody had decided we’d love this. And they were all right. It was also astonishing how much it felt like one of my grandparents’ cocktail parties.
Since then, the Reboot network has remained a vital part of my life, and the sense of inquiry and collaboration I felt so powerfully that weekend has remained at the heart of my intellectual and artistic process. Rebooters have become my rabbinic advisors and creative partners; I’ve made award-winning PSAs with Jacob Kornbluth and Josh Healey, called on Eddy Portnoy to provide Yiddish translations for my new novel, The Golem of Brooklyn, hollered at J. PERIOD to produce a mixtape for the novel before that, and every day I study a page of the Talmud with Natalia Mehlman Petrzela.
Technically, I’ve known Natalia since high school; I nominated her for Reboot because I knew she’d love it, just as I did.
*Which, for the record, you should not.
Read actor/writer Nemuna Ceesay’s piece on how the Workshop, a network for JOCISM artists—Jews of Color, Jewish-Indigenous, Sephardi, and Mizrahi—provided “an open invitation back to Judaism.”
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