This Sunday begins David Simon’s latest appraisal of a badly wounded American city: the second season of Treme, the HBO series about post-Katrina New Orleans. Though there’s little overt hint of it in his shows, Simon brings to his work a devotion to a distinctly Jewish brand of social justice that he picked up in part from his father, a career B’nai B’rith official. Simon’s own relationship with the American Jewish establishment turned rocky last year when he accused the federations of all but ignoring the desperate need of the inner cities. As Treme’s new season was filming in New Orleans, I caught up with the screenwriter to discuss the state of the American city, his family, and his beef with American Jewry’s central institutions.
“Look, I’m not self-hating,” he told me over a dinner of gumbo and crab po’ boys during a break from shooting his show. “I have a great deal of cultural pride and sense of people-hood as a Jew. But until organized American Jewry turns itself to the places of greatest need in this country, we cannot pretend to be a light unto the nations.”
Simon is best known as the creator of The Wire, HBO’s sprawling but intricately intertwined saga of crime, justice, politics, and the press in a terminally decaying Baltimore. A former Baltimore Sun crime reporter, Simon left journalism in the mid-1990s to write for Homicide, an NBC series based on a nonfiction book he published in 1991. In 2000, he adapted another book he authored into The Corner, an HBO mini-series focusing on the dealers, addicts, and civilians enmeshed in the drug market of a West Baltimore street. That netted Simon three Emmy awards and was the seed from which The Wire’s five-season run grew. Though the show never drew a huge audience, critics swooned over its complex structure and nuanced portrayal of the lives of those cast off, forgotten, and screwed over by the post-industrial American economy, from petty drug dealers to inner city schoolteachers to laid-off dock workers. Treme is in some ways a similar meditation on New Orleans after the storm, but it’s not another cop show. Though police, drugs, and prisons figure into its several, occasionally connected story lines, the show’s central concern is New Orleans’ unique culture of musicians and what they signify.
“This show, if we do it right,” said Simon, “is an argument for the city, for the idea of American urbanity, for the melting pot, for the idea that our future can’t be separated from the fact that we are all going to be increasingly compacted into urban areas, though we’re different in race and culture and religion. And what we make of that will determine the American future.”
Much of Simon’s work focuses on the troubles of low-income African Americans, be they heroin dealers or trombone players. It’s a preoccupation he shares with a long line of American Jewish social activists and cultural figures, from early abolitionists to the Jews who helped found the NAACP to the Jewish Freedom Riders murdered in the early 1960s. When I bring that up, though, Simon brushes aside the comparison. “The Freedom Riders and NAACP founders were doing something far more substantive, and in the case of the Freedom Riders, risking far, far more,” he says. “I wouldn’t put myself in that category under any circumstances.”
Nonetheless, he’s very conscious of that history. To him, it’s a proud legacy that the American’s Jewish federations have walked away from, to their shame and their peril.
He recently told them so in person. Last November, he gave a speech in New Orleans at institutional Jewry’s biggest annual conclave, the General Assembly. Simon raised the hackles of many of the 4,000 assembled machers by upbraiding them for not doing enough for poor urban blacks, who he said, in calculatedly agit-prop phrasing, were suffering “a Holocaust in slow motion.” The response was not exactly exuberant.
Simon was asked to speak about the good work the Jewish Federations of North America has done with the $28 million they raised to help post-Katrina New Orleans. But Simon was appalled to learn that most of that money was spent on restoring and rebuilding the city’s Jewish community—“right down to the point where if New Orleans was not your home and you’d never been here before and you had no connection to New Orleans but you were a Jewish professional or college graduate, they would subsidize your move here and pay your JCC membership and synagogue dues,” he said.
“At the point when they were doing that, tens of thousands of New Orleanians were still living elsewhere and couldn’t get home,” Simon said. “The average income of a Jewish family in New Orleans was $180,000 a year. The average income in New Orleans, $30,000 a year. And you’re subsidizing the Jews? That hyper-segregation of the Jewish community from the problems in the world, that alienation from tragedy that isn’t tribal is one of the most disappointing things to me as a Jew.”
That feeling took root during his three years on the streets of West Baltimore researching The Corner. “Everywhere I went, every single institutional endeavor on behalf of the most damaged and vulnerable citizens was being assisted by the Associated Catholic Charities,” he said. “The soup kitchen, drug outreach, job training. Jews were nonexistent. The kids that I wrote that book about, I was the first Jew they ever met. They were like, ‘What does that mean, a Jew? Does that mean you’re not white?’ ”
Simon had raised this issue with Jewish communal leaders before, and in response, he said, “they go to the anecdotal. I’m like, ‘Listen, I’m talking systemically. Don’t give me your anecdotal bullshit that you went and sang with some Baptist choir or you had some Baptist choir come to your synagogue. Or that you guys had a day where you took canned food down.’ Come on. There are lives in the balance down there. This is the community where the people are the most vulnerable, where the desperation is profound.”
“I understand all the dynamic that happened in the ’70s and ’80s,” he said, referring to the rift that opened up between Jews and blacks, once closely aligned on the issue of civil rights, over a series of issues from Louis Farrakhan to Jewish opposition to quota-based affirmative action. “I know the whole history, and I don’t care. The Jewish community has the resources to help. It should do so aggressively because there is real need, and the desperation transcends old scars and wounds. Or should.”
Simon acknowledges that there are plenty of independent Jewish groups and Jewish-funded charities doing good work in America’s ghettos. His gripe is not with the community at large; it’s with the federations, which are supposed to represent mainstream Jewry.
Simon has rounded features and an ursine frame. He’s garrulous and engaging without exactly being friendly. He deploys his formidable intelligence aggressively, strafing his listener with historic and cultural references and high-flown, occasionally hyperbolic flourishes.
It’s a rhetorical style that was shaped at the family dinner table. Simon grew up in a comfortable Washington, D.C., suburb, in what he calls “a liberal household of New Deal people.”
“We argued for the joy of it,” he said. “Your ability to maintain an argument in my household was a sign of worthiness. Friday night was a time to bring the week’s events to the table and show your prowess as a thinking person.”
Simon’s father, Bernard, was the national public relations director of B’nai B’rith, the venerable advocacy organization, where he played a role in the campaign to win Soviet Jews the right to emigrate. (He occasionally got even closer to the action: In 1977, he was one of dozens of B’nai B’rith staffers briefly held hostage by an Islamic extremist group.) Bernard brought Israeli visitors to the family’s Sabbath dinners all the time and introduced a young David to the likes of Elie Wiesel and Teddy Kollek.
Though his parents observed the major holidays and sent David and his brother to Hebrew school until their bar mitzvahs, the family was not particularly religious. “We ran the gamut from agnostic to atheist,” he said. “I’m willing to concede that if there is a God it’s probably a monotheistic entity. But I’m not sure it matters. I certainly don’t believe in an interventionist God. That’s a hard case to make in the modern age. And we certainly had no belief in chosenness. We were with Spinoza on that one, excommunicated though he was.”
Given all that, I’d wondered why the only Jewish character I’d noticed in either The Wire or Treme was Maury Levy, the blithely amoral lawyer for The Wire’s drug dealers.
First off, Simon told me, he was careful to include two other, more upstanding lawyers with Jewish surnames in the show. “But you ask why Maury Levy is Jewish, and the answer is simple,” he said. “The four biggest drug lawyers during my years of covering Baltimore were all Jewish, one of them quite observant. Should I have pulled the punch and made them Gentile? What would that have said about me? That I was willing to depict black gangsters, Greek/Turkish drug suppliers, drunken Irish detectives, but when it came time to create an appropriately Jewish character of poor morals, I ducked the moment? I owe it to every other ethnicity not to punk out when it’s my own ox being gored. The Wire was about all of us being complicit in the same rigged game. The Jewish writer does not get to self-censor that theme when it comes to that particular place in reality where some very talented and very ambitious Jewish lawyers did their city a real disservice.”
After my return from New Orleans, Simon and I continued our conversation through a series of emails. In one, I pointed out that when the federation system was originally developed a century or so ago, it was intended largely to provide charitable help to Jewish immigrants—the urban poor at the time. Given today’s realities, it’s perhaps understandable that the federations have shifted their emphasis toward “Jewish continuity”—the effort to keep an increasingly assimilated community Jewish.
Simon replied: “The preservation of the Jewish faith and people-hood, while an essential task, says nothing to any other nation beyond our own, especially if we preserve ourselves for no purpose other than the perpetuation of one branch of monotheistic thought. Surely, the world needs the Jewish mind and spirit for something more fundamental than that.”
“Until there is a hard moment of real self-reflection here,” he continued, “younger and more secular Jews like myself—who were raised in the tradition and who still are proud of their Jewishness—are going to be increasingly abandoning organized Jewish giving and going directly at the actual problems.” (Count Simon’s son Ethan among them. For his recent bar mitzvah, Simon and his wife told well-wishers not to send the usual checks, but to give instead to Habitat for Humanity or other charities working in New Orleans.)
OK, so there’s a case to be made about Jewish responsibility to the urban poor. But what’s with throwing the word “Holocaust” into the argument? Why poke that most sensitive of nerves? Can you really call what happens in America’s ghettos “genocide”?
“I used the phrase ‘slow-motion Holocaust’ knowing how provocative it was,” said Simon. “But I used it with precision and thought.”
Of the seven boys aged 14 and 15 whom he followed while researching The Corner, he said, the results are as follows: three shot to death, one a heroin addict, one a homeless alcoholic, and one in prison. Only one has a job, working in a nursing facility.
“None attended a college. None ever held a job with benefits,” said Simon. “None were educated in a school system that did anything but raise them as fodder for the corners. America had no use for these lives. We considered them extraneous to our version of society.”
It’s that proximity to and intimate knowledge of the deaths of so many people from one particular group that gives Simon both an authoritative voice on the subject and to some extent diminishes his objectivity toward it. When you’re that close to the trees, it’s hard to say exactly what kind of forest it is. I covered the Bosnia war for a time, I tell him, and it always struck me as inaccurate to call that conflict “genocide.” In Bosnia, the goal of warring Serbs, Croats, and Muslims was to drive one another out of their respective territories. In the process, they slaughtered thousands of people. But the killing was a brutal side-effect, not the actual objective. For the Nazis, on the other hand, the killing was the whole point. They prevented Jews from fleeing German-controlled territories because they wanted to massacre every last one. That was real genocide: the deliberate attempt to annihilate an entire race.
That doesn’t diminish the horror of Bosnia, nor of West Baltimore, but it does, I think, make them something that requires a different label than “genocide.” It’s something like the difference between premeditated murder and manslaughter. They’re both horrible crimes that result in death, but one is an ethical shade darker than the other.
Simon doesn’t buy this at all.
“Perhaps you’ve found a distinction in the Bosnian experience that is eluding me,” he said. “Because all I’m seeing is the net results: bodies piled in the ditch with bullets in the back of their heads.”
“No, there is no barbed wire around West Baltimore. No, there is no political imperative to segregate them from the greater society, or ultimately, to murder them en masse. That would be a Holocaust at normal speed. Instead, we have simply participated—either tacitly or actively—in constructing a national economic model that throws away 10 to 15 percent of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens. There is no work for more than half the adult black males in Baltimore. Other than the drug corners, of course. Can anyone argue that the percentage of human destruction among adult males of color in these neighborhoods has not for generations approached the genocidal?”
“I know there were people at that federation gathering who resolved not to listen to me because of the Holocaust reference, self-righteously claiming a higher perch on the pyramid of collective martyrdom. That’s the corruption of holding the Holocaust experience to be something beyond any possible point of comparison for other collective tragedy. We like to tell ourselves that we are educating the world about the extraordinary nature of the Shoah, that we are sensitizing them to the breadth and depth of the horror. In fact, the opposite occurs. By holding ourselves aloof from the rest of human tragedy, by denying any possible points of comparison, we desensitize ourselves. And we only manage to alienate the rest of the world from their natural commonalities with the Holocaust experience.”
Vince Beiser is a Los Angeles-based writer. His work has appeared in Harper’s, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Wired and Mother Jones.