SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (JTA) – Jews have never considered Norman Mailer one of their own as they have Bellow, Malamud, the once pariah Roth or even the skeptical Woody Allen. I think they are mistaken.
Mailer was a deeply religious writer. Like Hawthorne and Faulkner, he was concerned with God and the Devil, Good and Evil. While not particularly concerned with Jewish matters in general – he never visited Israel – he obsessed over the implications of the Holocaust.
It plays a prominent role in “Advertisements for Myself,” written in the mid-1950s, and in his final novel published earlier this year, “The Castle in the Forest,” which deals with the Devil’s machinations in the birth of Hitler. This final novel probed the world almost the way a medieval mystic might. Writing it seemed to bring Mailer back to his Jewish roots, not in practice, but to an acknowledgement of his past in a way that embraced it with new warmth and understanding.
Mailer succintly encapsulates his attitude toward Judaism in an interview he gave earlier this year to Nextbook.
When asked, “What role has your being Jewish played in your being a writer,” Mailer replies emphatically, “An enormous role.”
He picks two aspects of the Jewish experience that influenced him – the sense of history that makes it “impossible to take anything for granted” and also the Jewish mind.
“We’re here to do all sorts of outrageous thinking, if you will … certainly incisive thinking,” Mailer said. “If the Jews brought anything to human nature, it’s that they developed the mind more than other people did.”
Mailer continues in the interview to bemoan the loss of this ability due to what he terms “cheap religious patriotism,” suggesting that Jews have become distracted by an obsessive, hard-line approach to Israel and anti-Semitism rather than staying focused on broader intellectual pursuits.
None of these ideas surprises me, nor will they any reader of Mailer’s work, as they have always been part of the core of his philosophy.
Mailer’s ideology, as an American writer and social commentator, stems from the activist or prophetic side of Judaism. Despite the sometimes outrageous subject matter and highly charged sexual content, Mailer’s novels and essays reflect a highly moral approach to life. His concerns for the individual override all else. Like a Jeremiah, he rails against the capitulation of modern man to the demands of the mediocre.
I first met Mailer in the spring of 1978. I began reading him in earnest while preparing for my doctorate at the University of California, Santa Barbara. My field was American Jewish literature, in which Mailer plays a very small part, but soon I was so enthralled that his work took over my thesis.
In my thesis, I used the ideas of his near contemporary, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – that through performing mitzvot, or holy actions, one comes to a fuller spiritual knowledge of oneself – to explore the mindset of Mailer’s protagonists.
Through a friend, I got Mailer’s home address and wrote to him about my ideas. He replied almost instantly, welcoming my theory, and so began our correspondence. Mailer did not like writing letters and although they were brief, they encouraged further contact.
Eventually we met in New York. Ironically, we looked a little like each other: stocky Jewish types, about the same height with curly hair – his a grizzly version of mine. He greeted me warmly and I discovered that contrary to the newspaper reports, he had an ingratiating personality, was quick to laugh and did not hold himself with any airs.
The rapport was instant. We spoke of many things, including his Jewish upbringing, his grandfather who was a rabbi and his distance from the faith, though he had never written anything negative about Judaism, as he had promised his mother he would not. At heart he was “the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn.”
When the time came to part, Mailer told me he got a good feeling from my letters and now our conversation, and that “we would be friends for life.” He was true to his word. Our friendship lasted from that day until his death last Saturday.
Over the years, we met whenever I came to New York or he visited L.A.. There are wonderful memories: a seder I conducted in his then-home in Brooklyn Heights, where he still remembered enough Hebrew from his childhood to read a few words. Seeing him with his children – eight from six marriages – was to see a person so different from the public persona. He truly was a family man.
The marriage to his sixth wife, the artist Norris Church – they were married by a rabbi – that lasted 27 years till his death was an unending love affair.
I was not the acolyte at the feet of the master. Our friendship was a two-way street. He encouraged my literary pursuits, found me an agent, read my manuscripts and put me in touch with several of his literary and non-literary friends. Mailer told me that I was his unofficial rabbi.
He even initiated a correspondence between myself and the murderer Jack Abbott, who for a time considered converting to Judaism. Attracted by Abbott’s literary style and bravado, Mailer advocated for his release from prison. A few weeks after he was freed, Abbott murdered a waiter. Mailer always regretted this debacle.
As happens over the years, when he moved to Provincetown, Mass., and I visited the East Coast less frequently, our contact dissipated, though at my birthday I always received one of his hand-drawn self-portraits.
Knowing that time was short, I went down to L.A. in March when Mailer came to discuss “The Castle in the Forest.” By then he was weak, walked with two canes, was hard of hearing and could not see well. But the mind was as astute as ever.
Mailer spoke like he wrote – in ornate, somewhat opaque sentences, the ideas probing deep into the psyche of America. He kept us enthralled for more than an hour. Afterward I went up to greet him.
“Hello Norman,” I said.
“Who is that?” he asked, like the aged Isaac in the Bible when Jacob comes for a blessing.
“It’s Mashey,” I said, leaning in so he could see me clearer.
Mailer grabbed my arm and held on.
“Mashey, Mashey, how wonderful, how wonderful that you came,” he said. His eyes glistened with tears; mine did, too.
We talked for a few minutes and made plans to meet in October, when I was to come to Provincetown for the annual meeting of the Norman Mailer Society, one of the few such societies devoted to a living author. Alas, it was not meant to be. He took ill a few days before I arrived. And now he is gone.
Mailer, writing on Henry Miller, once noted that “a writer of the largest dimension can alter the nerves and marrow of a nation.” I think it is an apt appraisal of Mailer’s own contribution to America’s literature and consciousness.
Like a true prophet, Mailer was not always appreciated in his own time – he was dropped by the Norton Anthology of Literature in its latest edition – but he will always be someone whose work speaks to what it means to be an American. I will miss my friend dearly.
Mashey Bernstein teaches in the writing program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Some of Mailer’s letters to Dr. Bernstein will be published next year in the “Collected Letters of Norman Mailer.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org