David Simon, creator of the series The Wire, infuriated Jewish groups last fall by likening the plight of the country’s inner cities to a “slow-motion Holocaust.” As his latest show, Treme, enters its second season, he explains how his choice of words was no accident.
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.
Literary lives: as the Seder nears, books by tale-tellers, praiseworthy and otherwise