Adam Mansbach: Appreciation or appropriation?


Kind of weird last Tuesday night listening to Adam Mansbach, a nice Jewish boy from Newton, MA, tell a bunch of white Jews at the San Francisco JCC he was a dope emcee who grew up listening to hip hop.

Sure, Jewish kids are fascinated by black culture, said the 32-year-old Berkeley author of “The End of the Jews,” his third novel about race, hip-hop, and alienated young Jews trying to find their place in the world. His second book, “Angry Black White Boy,” is taught in more than three dozen universities, and is in development as a feature film.

Mansbach talks fast, in a rhythmic, jazzy kind of patter that prompted one audience member to ask why he “talked black,” a suggestion Mansbach dismissed. “What does that even mean?” he asked.

“This book is about margins,” he told the crowd. “If we look at the Jewish community of the past, those artists we value most highly occupied those margins. That’s where creativity happens.”

Mansbach spoke about his own early attraction to black culture, when he’d ride the bus that brought black kids to his heavily Jewish suburban school back to their African American neighborhoods to hang out and listen to the music that meant more to him than the Hebrew school he was thrown out of. In a world where chain stores use hip-hop to sell everything from computers to running shoes, he wondered, where does one draw the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation?

Oh yeah, that scary title. Once he was at a bar mitzvah with his grandfather, a retired law professor and judge from the Bronx whom Mansbach calls “brilliant, a heavy dude.” The gentleman surveyed the scene, with the Mexican hats and the over-sized sunglasses and the cheesy games and the extravagant buffet, turned to his grandson and muttered, “it’s the end of the Jews.”

It’s not, of course. But it makes good cover copy.

An audio segment of the author in conversation with Dan Schifrin, writer-in-residence at the soon-to-open Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco, follows:

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