Religion Can Divide. Joking about It Can Help Unite.
Faith is absurd — let’s embrace the comedy in that.
Adam Mansbach is a novelist, screenwriter, cultural critic and humorist. He is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Go the Fuck to Sleep, which has been translated into forty languages, named Time Magazine's 2011 "Thing of the Year," and sold over two million copies worldwide. The 2014 sequel, "You Have to Fucking Eat," is also a New York Times bestseller.
Mansbach was recently nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and an NAACP Image Award for his screenplay BARRY. The film premiered to rave reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was acquired by Netflix. Released as a Netflix Original on December 16, 2016, BARRY was directed by Vikram Gandhi and stars Devon Terrell, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ellar Coltrane, Ashley Judd, Jason Mitchell, Jenna Elfman, and Avi Nash.
Mansbach's novels include The End of the Jews (2008) which won the California Book Award, and the cult classic Angry Black White Boy, or the Miscegenation of Macon Detornay (2005), which is taught at more than eighty schools and was adapted into a prize-winning stage play in 2008.
Mansbach also writes in several other literary genres. His debut thriller, The Dead Run was published by HarperCollins in 2013, and the sequel, The Devil's Bag Man, in 2015. The first book in a middle grades series co-written with Alan Zweibel and entitled Benjamin Franklin: Huge Pain in my Ass, was published in September 2015 by Hyperion.
Mansbach is the recipient of a Reed Award, a Webby Award, and a Gold Pollie from the American Association of Political Consultants for his 2012 campaign video "Wake The Fuck Up," starring Samuel L. Jackson. He was the 2009-11 New Voices Professor of Fiction at Rutgers University, a 2012 Sundance Screenwriting Lab Fellow, and a 2013 Berkeley Repertory Theatre Writing Fellow. Mansbach lives in Berkeley, California, and is a frequent lecturer on college campuses.
Adam Mansbach: For me as a writer across all kinds of genres and disciplines, whether it’s screenwriting or literary fiction or obscene fake children’s books, humor is always one of the most important tools in my palette.
There are things that you can get people to come to the table on if you make them laugh that they’ll never sign on for if you don’t. It’s always a problem to be too pedantic, to hit people over the head, so things like satire and absurdity are both important ways to engage and start a conversation, and also fundamentally at this point critical ways to look at the world.
And I think all of those things are heightened when you’re dealing with faith because it’s so divisive, it’s so important to people, and at the same time feelings and tensions around it also run incredibly high.
So, for me, you know, with “Haggadah” in particular and some of the other work I’ve done in the past around faith, around Judaism, around religion as an identity and something that gets weaponized and something that people pick up and put down as they see fit and as they need to, you know.
The Jewish community, the Jewish faith is an interesting one because you can be Jewish without being religious. You can be Jewish without believing in anything. You find Jews who say shit like, “I’m Jewish, but I’m Buddhist.” Like Episcopalians don’t say shit like that. Do you know what I mean?
For me as somebody who grew up culturally Jewish but in a very secular family and household and community, Judaism in particular has margins that are wide and very well-populated in the sense that there are many ways to be like alienated from the faith and yet not want to separate yourself entirely.
And in my mind that’s really where all the good art comes from, is the margins of any community, the people who feel like they have one foot in and one foot out. The people who feel invested yet not entirely accepted, et cetera.
When I look at the Jewish artists in particular that I connect with, who resonate with me, you know, I find folks like Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer. None of these people were like hardcore in the bosom of Judaism. They all felt that sense of marginality, of alienation, and that’s where the pain and thus the art come from.
So I think humor plays directly into that. You have to have a sense of humor about it. You have to explore the fissures and the ways in which faith is observed, the ways in which constructing any community on this arbitrary set of ancient principles that folks may or may not even invest in in the current day and age. There’s something hilarious about that.
And the part of the Jewish tradition in particular that I connect with is the idea of arguing about everything incessantly forever, and the sensibility and the humor that have allowed folks to persevere through a lot of horrible shit throughout the centuries and maintain some grace in the face of all that. So for me ultimately Judaism comes down to the jokes.
With something as sensitive as faith, humor isn't just a handy way to bring people of various religions together, it's an essential tool for social cooperation. Adam Mansbach finds plenty to laugh about within Judaism, the faith he grew up in, and believes that being on the margins of that community provides an incredible vantage point to witness how modern people try to squeeze themselves into the mold of millennia-old faith doctrines. A lot of creative talent has come from that uncomfortable squish: Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer all had one foot in the faith and the other foot out. Mansbach is Jewish, but he's not you know, "Jewish". And that is another absurd duality that is unique to Judaism. You can be Jewish and Buddhist — but if you are, put on a light suit of armor, because the comedians are coming. Adam Mansbach's most recent book (co-authored with Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel) is For This We Left Egypt?.
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