Beginning of the End

Had he been born 100 years ago, Adam Mansbach might have been a habitué of Harlem jazz clubs. Born 60 years ago, he might have been a Freedom Rider during the Civil Rights era.

Instead, born 33 years ago, Mansbach became a hip-hop DJ and a novelist who writes about race. And Jews.

Though his newest book, “The End of the Jews,” includes few characters who know anything about hip hop, the Berkeley-based author says the musical form deeply informed his approach to writing.

“My aesthetic as a novelist is influenced by many things, and hip hop is one of them,” Mansbach says, adding that he pondered “the transfer of a hip-hop aesthetic to the page, and what a hip-hop novel might look like.”

Not that he wrote about African American youth culture. His new novel is a humorous epic about one New York Jewish family, the Brodskys, spanning several generations.

The title is not as apocalyptic as it sounds. Mansbach took it from a real-life conversation he had with his grandfather while the two attended one of those pricey, Vegas-like bar mitzvahs.

His grandfather looked around at all the glitz and muttered, “That’s the end of the Jews.”

Mansbach’s characters grapple with big issues: art, literature, community, Jewish identity and race relations. But if there’s one trait Brodsky clan members share, it’s a sense of living life on the margins.

“He’s a man who stands apart, on his own, in conflict of what role community of any kind is going to play in his life,” he says of the elder Tristan Brodsky, the swaggering family patriarch. “He’s cognizant of his own otherness. Part of his creative engine relies on this distance.”

It’s a feeling Mansbach understands well.

“I have thought about the outskirts of community and the ways in which those margins are important,” Mansbach notes. “They are where art is created. People on the margins have this critical distance. Out of the pain comes a lot of great art.”

Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow, Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce fit his bill as examples of Jewish artists on the outside looking in.

He might have included himself in the list. Brought up in Boston in an artistic, secular family, Mansbach remembers being thrown out of Jewish Sunday school after accusing his teacher of racism.

As a kid he discovered rappers like LL Cool J and Run-DMC, thanks largely to the African American kids bused in to his middle-class, mostly white school.

“The kids would bring hip-hop tapes from Roxbury,” he says, referring to one of Boston’s black neighborhoods, “then I would go back with them to Roxbury to the record stores. You couldn’t just be a fan. It was utterly participation based. I started rhyming when I was 11.”

He never had a bar mitzvah, but he did hire himself out as a hip-hop DJ for more bar mitzvahs than he can count.

Mansbach sees — and addresses in his novel — the long and complicated connection between Jews and African Americans.

“Both Jews and blacks deal with a disapora that comes out of exile or slavery,” he says. “There have been incredible moments of collaboration and moments of tension. It’s true that Jews were in the civil rights movement, but it wasn’t everybody. There’s a desire on the part of a lot of Jews to disinvest in the black struggle.”

He points to incidents such as Jesse Jackson’s “Hymietown” remark, or Louis Farrakhan’s incendiary anti-Semitic speeches, as moments that “get frozen in amber and used as an excuse to pull back from this alliance. These things are still playing out.”

Mansbach examined these issues in his last novel, “Angry Black White Boy,” named a Best Book of 2005 by the San Francisco Chronicle. Today, he said, more than 40 universities and high schools include the book on their literature syllabi. For the author, that’s a high honor.

After a decade working in New York, Mansbach and his Swedish-born girlfriend decided they needed a change of latitude. The couple moved to Berkeley four years ago, and Mansbach is glad.

One of the connections he made here was with Jewish actor/playwright/hip-hop artist Dan Wolf, who has worked on a musical stage adaptation of “Angry Black White Boy.”

Perhaps a big-screen version of “The End of the Jews” isn’t far behind?

Before he can answer that question, Mansbach has a book tour to finish. Though all those public meet-and-greets, readings and book signings might wear down most mere mortals, Mansbach enjoys the feedback from readers.

Besides, says the author, “It’s always nice to get out of the house.”

 

Speaking dates

Adam Mansbach will make several local appearances in the weeks ahead.

He speaks 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 10 at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. Admission is free. Information: (800) 838-3006.

He will also appear 7 p.m. April 17 at Cody’s Books, 1730 Fourth St., Berkeley. Information: (510) 559-9500.

Mansbach will read and sign copies of his book 2 p.m. April 26

at M is for Mystery, 86 E. Third Ave., San Mateo. Information: (650) 401-8077. Also 7 p.m. April 29 at Rakestraw Books, 409 Railroad Ave., Danville. Info: (925) 837-7337.

 

“The End of the Jews” by Adam Mansbach (304 pages, Spiegel & Grau, $23.95)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.