An excerpt from the The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews, the latest in Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters Series
To me, real life consists in belonging.
I’ve spent most of my life in show business, and I never have walked through the stage door, or onto a movie set without the thrill of belonging. On the stage or set, one is surrounded by like-minded people speaking a common language, having a common goal. This group is not opposed to the world but a world-within-the-world—small, contained, cohesive, mutually responsible.
I never served in the military, and regret it. Dr. Johnson wrote that every man thinks more meanly of himself for not having been a soldier. I attest to his observation, but have always felt graced in the other hermetic groups to which I have belonged.
What have I found in them? Filial piety, humor, language, a responsibility to learn and to instruct, a sense of timelessness and history: “so-and-so’s father was one of the key grips on Love in the Afternoon, his father worked for D.W. Griffith—do you know what happened on the set yesterday?” (this introduction followed by an anecdote which may or may not have happened yesterday, and equally, could have been set—as it was equally likely—in the silent era).
This vertical and horizontal community creates incredible solidarity. On the shoot everything is taken away or is about to be taken away: sleep, health, family, comfort—everything except a sense of shared purpose.
Show business people share a soft pity for those who would like to join but cannot or have not. For we have, in the dream of the ten-year-old child, run away to the circus, and the poor wistful souls on the outside stayed home.
The Talmud compares the love of the Torah to that of a “wife with a narrow womb” —a fairly graphic description.
Life on the set eschews wealth and position as beside the point. The powerful may, mistakenly and unfortunately, exercise prerogatives, but those actually involved in moviemaking understand that such behavior deprives the offender of the chiefest joy of participation, which is immersion in the community.
Knowledge, courtesy, good-will, stoicism, wit, these moral acts and observances enlighten and spiritualize the set. Each day, the involved, which is to say, observant, goes home having learned a lesson. It may be in mechanics, it is, at least as often, in ethics: how to behave in a difficult situation, how to control fear, anger, sloth—indeed, lust or greed. These lessons—in the larger world, difficult—are made salutary by the respect and approval bestowed by the group on their mastery. Small acts of helpfulness, forbearance, or even silence, are endorsed.
It is, to me, that tribe of which one dreams, which many seek in this or that confected enterprise: sports bar, sports rooting, paintball, “bonding” expeditions. The opposite of this tribal life is a life of anxiety, loneliness, and loss.
Analgesics include consumption, power and the quest for power, envy, grievance, hatred, as we, in each case, compare ourselves and our state to that of others, and end the comparison either in arrogance or loathing. Or in grief.
This love of belonging, as the wife with the narrow womb, impels one to service, attention, and consistency. It prompts one to greater understanding. How wonderful to have such an object of devotion.
When I was a child I played the piano. How good, I thought, to know all one could know about the instrument: how to play it, how to write for it, how to repair it, how to build it. And some, in life, are lucky to have such a love. One fellow collects pocketknives. He finds romance in collector’s magazines which are mere columns of figures: “Case, 6265/1.” Ah, he says.
Gun collectors, stamp collectors, aviation enthusiasts, gardeners, golfers, these know the meaning of zeal. Collectors see each other at a swap meet, looking for that missing piece. And as we search we are drawn, we are awakened to other possibilities, vertically, across the spectrum of interests, and horizontally, back through time, and forward to the similarly devoted. As our collection takes shape, we muse on or plan a completion, a bequeathal, and rejoice at the discovery or induction of an acolyte.
And yet, what is it? The stoics say, “Of what is it made?” The collector’s object of love is only a bent piece of steel, a stamp, a scrap of shaped wood, a colored plate. Ah, but, we say, the romance is not even limited to the actual object. Are we not moved to a similar state of bliss by mere contemplation of its ideal, its description, model number, recipe.
It is said there are three happy states of the collector: discovery, possession, and dispersal, each of which, during its period of sway, is supreme: to thirst after, to enjoy, to share; until the burning desire, in the perfected state, is clear of attachment either to the thing itself, or to its contemplation—devotion, over time, having been blessed with a repletion of gratitude, sufficient unto itself.
And yet. This love of community, this love of knowledge, this joy of immersion in history, this thirst for group approval, for moral perfection, this endless variety of vertical and horizontal connection, these are all open to the Jew, both his right and his responsibility, and Judaism goes begging.
In The Lost, Daniel Mendelsohn excavates some unsettling truths about brotherhood, betrayal, and the Book of Genesis.