He grew up in a “largely Jewish suburb … and went to public schools that bused in black kids from the inner city.” So when he started rapping and DJing in the mid-’80s, Adam Mansbach — Jewish himself, the grandson of intellectuals who hobnobbed with Bernard Malamud and Daniel Bell — “conflated Jewish people with white people, and I was angry with them, because it seemed to me like they were all hypocrites, checkbook-liberals. Later, I started to look much more deeply at what a Jewish identity meant … but that wasn’t until later, after many years of feeling like a cultural translator, somebody with a foot in each camp.”
Permeating his previous novels Shackling Water and Angry Black White Boy — the latter is being made into a film — these issues are central to his latest, The End of the Jews, a multigenerational tale of tormented artists and those who love them, which he will discuss at Cody’s (2201 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) on April 17. The book’s title came to Mansbach, who now lives in Berkeley, during a “strikingly garish, pricey bar mitzvah” he attended with his grandfather. “Around the time the hired dancers started throwing glow-sticks and oversized plastic sunglasses into the crowd … he turned to me and muttered, ‘Boy, this is the end of the Jews.’ It immediately struck me as a phrase with legs.” In the novel, artists in and around the brilliant Brodsky family yearn for their particular eras’ version of freedom, haunted by each other: Grandfather Tristan, author of “dick-in-the-dirt honest” fiction and friend to dope-fiend jazz genius Albert Van Horn (who gets by with a lot of help from his Okinawan wife Mariko), wrestles with his reaction to the debut novel of tag-master grandson Tris, “the aerosol bandit known as RISK ONE” whose Jewish Czech lover, Nina, has claimed falsely to be black in order to qualify for a fine-arts scholarship.
“I didn’t write the usual multigenerational saga in which the sons are more assimilated than their parents, and the grandkids act like WASPs,” Mansbach explains. “Everybody in this thing is conflicted and ambitious and secular and uses different elements of their identities — sexual or racial or ethnic or class or age or origin — when they need it.” His characters simultaneously betray each other and struggle to redeem themselves. Again and again, African-American culture and Jewish culture (and bodies) intersect. “One of the great — if complicated — stories of 20th-century American culture is the relationship between blacks and Jews as Others, where immutable black Otherness has served as a foil for the mutability of Jewish identity,” Mansbach muses: “a dynamic that binds us together, if uneasily.” 7 p.m. CodysBooks.com