PHILIP ROTH---GOOD OR BAD FOR THE JEWS?
PHILIP ROTH---GOOD OR BAD FOR THE JEWS?
When King Ahab met with Elijah the prophet, in ancient Temple times, his frowning, troubled greeting was "Is that you, thou troubler of Israel?" Fast forward almost two millennia and we have Philip Roth, the profound troubler of the American Jewish establishment, continually sticking his literary thumb in the eye of the Jewish psyche with his irreverant fictional antics, mocking Jewish parents and the Jewish establishment for their hypocritical mouthing of standards and platitudes not in their actual manual of living. And, as the New York Times article of the very recent past reveals, continuing to be very prosperous with this enfant terrilble irritating approach—at the age of 73 in splendid isolation in his large Connecticut estate devoting all his time to his literary pursuits and now readying his 21 or 22 book for publication and no doubt with a pre tax bankable income of over one million dollars annually. (Somewhat different than poor Elijah, who had to run for his life after denouncing Ahab and his pagan wife Jezebel). Of course that article—which preceded the very recent Nobel Prize for literature award of about $1,300,000 to Harold Pinter—shows Roth smiling rather contentedly, and not the usual Roth scowl of preoccupation or out right discontent.
But even this post Nobel Prize disappointment leaves Roth with much literary prestige to smile about. He is now only the third living author to be elected to the very elite Library of America; Saul Bellow and Eudora Welty being the other two, when they were well past their creative lives, in their late eighties. Roth is only a mere 73 and still striving for his true identity, constantly reinventing himself. And he has already been the recipient of innumerable awards over the years and elections to many very prestigious literary groups. Now the first two volumes of the Library of America editions of his works have been published in their customary very handsome black jackets. Six more volumes over a period of several years, and Roth’s output then will occupy sightly less space on the shelves than Henry James, who has the most--- 14 volumes. The last volume, ---we should all live and be well!!---- is scheduled for Roth’s 80th birthday in March 2013.
Nobel, Schmobel---!!!#%. We all know he can’t win because he’s Jewish and American and that idiot Bush is still in the White House., a triple whammy. During the peaceful "interregnum" when both Israel and the United States were world wide shining lights, from the sixties thru most of the rest of the century, 6 Jews won the Nobel Literature Prize---Joseph Brodsky, Elias Canetti, I.B.Singer, Saul Bellow, Nellie Sachs and S.Y. Agnon.
I have my own fond retrospective bond with Roth and his books. Just like other great artists are fond of throwing in some visual autobiographical foot note of themselves in their work, as Hitchcock and Renoir do in their pictures, Roth almost always mentions the Weequahic section of Newark as his somewhat idyllic original nesting place, and it recalls to me my own fond memories of that same place in a what must be almost the same time frame. I used to date a charming young lady who came from that section of Newark—Weequahic---with some degree of reqularity, but I always picked her up at Penn Station. So while I have no physical contact or nostalgic warmth for that part of Newark I do have fond nostalgia for that era of my life now long past and even the possibility that I discussed Roth’s early work with this fine young lady from Weequahic among the several other aspects of our tender relationship.
And from the very beginning, with Goodbye Columbus, there were irritating things to discuss. That initial book was a novella, Goodbye Columbus, and several short stories, none calculated to warm Jewish bosoms. The novella, if memory serves, was made into a successful picture, and probably started Roth on his many successful trips to the bank. Middle class Jewish philistinism was the core of Roth’s Jewish angst; Jewish newly minted money and its ostentatious display at societal family events. But some of the short stories were perhaps of greater import and impact. "Eli the Fanatic" was the story of young, aspiring middle class Jews in suburbia and their discomfort with refugee orthodox Jews living in the community. They are somewhat apart, on a semi isolated hill, but one of their group walks through their almost immaculate post World War II town daily in his black ankle length garb and long bearded visage and knotted sidelocks (payess) protruding from his black hat. While this strange figure is quietly and in the most unobtrusive fashion possible going to seek provisions for his group, his presence loudly resonates in the social spectrum that the younger, mostly Reform Jews of the town perceive as their reality. This black specter becomes, in classic Yiddish terms, a shonda for the goyim ---an embarrassment before the non Jewish neighbors. And Eli Peck, an aspiring young lawyer looking for clients in new suburbia, at first is the happy recipient of his Jewish neighbors dismay. " ….Eli,the greenie, he walked right past my window, and he nodded. He’s my friend, now …." "Someday, Eli, it’s going to be a hundred little kids with little yamalkahs chanting their Hebrew lesson on Coach House Road, and then it’s not going to strike you funny…." The heart of the story is Eli’s visit to the residence of this threat to the Jews of the area. Once there Eli realizes their very dire situation; impoverished post holocaust Jews trying to recapture the truth of their traditional Jewish heritage.
Eli becomes sympathetic, and tries to work out suitable compromises about the black garbed and black hatted man walking thru town. The townspeople are impatient until Eli gives the group several of his precious Brooks Brothers suits and the townspeople call Eli to tell him of the success of this maneuver; they have seen the former embarrassment for the local modern Jews now walking around in a strange manner, heisitantly, awkwardly, but now looking almost like Eli Peck, at least superficially. But Eli realizes something deeper is amiss with his own inner self. For that night at his doorstep there is neatly deposited the black suit and hat of the orthodox Jew, as if in payment for Eli’s suits. And after some bemused heisitaton, and half in curiosity and also with some feeling of atonement Eli puts on all the discarded black clothing and walks openly thru the modern streets of downtown Woodentown. He is soon forcibly admitted to the hospital for tranquilizing injections and pyschotherapy for his "nervous breakdown". Roth has a peculiar prescience at times, and this story resonates today if only to listen to the cries of alarm of all modern Jews today when the Chassidic Jews make like they are interested in becoming part their previously sacrosanct, modish non Chassidic turf. Foaming at the mouth is a minmal way to describe it.
In his earlier work, Portnoy’s Complaint—his third published book-- stands out as the most anti Jewish parent book he has written. His love hate relationship with his parents takes up most of the book as he lies on his analyst’s couch spewing forth a mixture of angry guilt over the question that he imagines is on every one’s lips in Newark "WHEN IS ALEXANDER PORTNOY GOING TO STOP BEING SELFISH AND GIVE HIS PARENTS, WHO ARE SUCH WONDERFUL PEOPLE, GRANDCHILDREN?" And why, of course, do his parents, in their mostly subtle innuendoes bring this up constantly, that they have to perpetuate the name, put down roots in this third generation phase of family life in America. And that he should stop already with shiksas and extraneous sex, and find that nice Jewish girl. (Portnoy, in his confused heated response to his parents conventional attitude, does a lot of masturbating as well as conventional sex, which is why he ostensibly is on the psychiatrist’s couch).
But several books later, we see a completely different Roth, in the fictional alter ego writer Nathan Zuckerman and The Counterlife, which is certainly one of Roth’s masterpieces, a marvelously, intricately plotted book written almost 20 years ago but which also resonates with today’s prejudices and misbegotten attitudes. Initially the story deals with Henry Zuckerman and his conversion to militant , orthodox Judaism, his renunciation of secular American life and his going to a live a rigorous, fundamental existence in the Israeli desert settlements of the haredim, the profound exemplars of orthodoxy. His brother, Nathan, the very model of secular, sophisticated, almost debonair, non religious Judaism, goes there at the behest of Henry’s wife and children to ascertain Henry’s true state of mind. There we see, through Nathan’s eyes, the extent of the fanaticism of the settlers and their defiance of existing pro Arab settlement claims, and the support for any compromise which may have been acceptable among more liberal Jews and among some of their fellow countryman in Israel. But further on Nathan experiences profound anti Jewish feelings among upper class British people which affects him personally and his relatively neutral stance changes dramatically.
He is engaged to be married and lose his inveterate bachelor status to lovely upper class Maria, who is placidly free of prejudice, but brings with her, Zuckerman discovers, much surrounding upper class British anti Semitism, indeed even in the form of Maria’s mother and sister, and several other close friends. She is also pregnant with Zuckerman’s first child, and suddenly, instinctively, Zuckerman, the famous rational, sardonic, secularist insists on circumcision if the child is a male heir. They have many discussions , Maria and Nathan, but Zuckerman remains adamant. "…….Circumcision makes it clear as can be that you are here and not there, that you are out and not in—also that you’re mine and not theirs. There is no way around it: you enter history through my history and me. Circumcision is everything that the pastoral is not, and to mind, reinforces what the world is about, which is not strifeless unity…..Circumcision confirms that there is an us, and an us that isn’t solely him and me. England’s made a Jew of me, in only eight weeks…….a Jew without Judaism, without Jewishness, without a temple or an army or even a pistol……"
There is no straight undeviating line toward typical Jewish bonding with Roth, however. One of his later books, American Pastoral, is a masterpiece of fiction delineating the mid century turmoil of American family life during the Vietnam war. Swede Levov is literally the Jew without Judaism, who is blond, tall, a great athlete, but also quiet and unassuming. The personification of the All American young man who continues into adult life on a golden path of material success. While he is Jewish his Jewish upbringing is purely secular and no fuss is made over his intermarriage with Dawn, whose Protestant antecedents go back many generations and they move to Old Rimrock, a bastion of old wealth and Protestant culture. They have one daughter, Merry, who becomes caught up in the adolescent anti Vietnam frenzy and is implicated in bombing the local post office. Most of the rest of the book details Merry’s flight from justice and the growing parental strain this causes. Swede Levov’s secular paradise finally collapses when he realizes that his wife has been having an affair with one of their gentile neighbors, undoubtedly known to most of their friends for some time.
If, in Roth’s mind this totally secular (goyisch) path yields no ultimate rewards, his latest book The Plot Against America, is a strong Jewish affirmation of character and purpose in the face of dire foreboding. We are in the midst of Roth’s fanciful Lindberg interregnum of U.S. rule, when anti Jewish persecution was becoming the lifestyle of the country. This is all seen through the eyes of young Philip Roth who slowly begins to sense the fear and insecurity that anti Semitism brings. But his mother and father steadfastly keep the family together in the facing of rising hardship. Author Roth depicts anti Semitic acts rising through out the country and his very young namesake in the story (Philip Roth at the age of eight) telling how his father and older brother heroically take the family car deep into middle America to rescue one of their neighbor’s kids, Seldon, who had been "deported" to Kentucky in one of the Nazi like moves of the fascist Lindbergh administration. And how his mother, at home with young Philip and several Jewish boarders, grimly but successfully manages the homefront in the face of local rising anti Semitism in Newark. A bit of a stretch in surreal story telling but as you read author Philip Roth you feel real concern for their unhistoric but "genuine" fictional plight, you know-or hope-- he is juxtaposing his version of what the Jew could or should be and not the somewhat sordid or trivial but actual Jew that many times lands on his writing desk.
That he is taking his text or template from Exodus 19 where God told the Jews He was making of them a holy nation, prophets and teachers, a lamp unto the nations. And that the Jews, then as now, foolishly and arrogantly, accepted this impossible burden and are still trying to aspire in this upward though seemingly impossible task.
So we continue to pay close attention to Philip Roth and his literary machinations!! May he long continue to trouble the soul of Israel and the diaspora. But we must amend the saying from "With friends like God we don’t need enemies" to "With friends like God we still need Philip Roth"!