One of America’s foremost 20th century novelists, the enigmatic Philip Roth (1933-2018), who died last week, was renowned for his unique introspective viewpoint about the broader conflict between contemporary and traditional morality, with a particular emphasis on Jewish-American values. His fiction is marked by its intensely autobiographical character, its philosophical blurring of the line between reality and fiction, and its characteristically original technique.
Because his prolific career – some 30 major works spanning seven decades – ranged from extremes of low slapstick to high art, pundits still fight over his legacy, some viewing him as an obscene and childish provocateur with an exaggerated and undeserved reputation, and others regarding him as a literary genius. One of the most honored writers of his time, he was awarded two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle awards, three PEN/Faulkner Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel, American Pastoral.
Roth, whose parents came to America from Kiev and Lemberg, attended Hebrew school – which he hated – and had a bar mitzvah. However, as he once explained in an interview, though he never personally experienced direct anti-Semitism, he nonetheless grew up in Newark, New Jersey with the idea that Jews are objects of derision and contempt whose existence has been marked by oppression and torment.
Little surprise, then, that he was a devout atheist who proudly proclaimed, “I’m exactly the opposite of religious, I’m anti-religious. I find religious people hideous. I hate the religious lies. It’s all a big lie,” and “It’s not a neurotic thing, but the miserable record of religion…It’s not interesting to talk about the sheep referred to as believers.” Even more trenchantly: “When the whole world doesn’t believe in G-d,” he said, “it’ll be a great place.”
In fact, Roth’s work – if not the author himself – was so hostile to traditional Jewish observance that in an infamous incident at Yeshiva University, he was shouted down by an Orthodox crowd condemning his literary affronts to Jews and to Judaism. That incident apparently cut deep; he characterized it as “the most bruising public exchange of my life.” And yet, consistent with the pattern of opposing views on virtually every aspect of the author’s life and work, the Jewish Theological Seminary awarded Roth an honorary degree.
As to the title question, what was Roth’s own favorite work: When the editors at the Quality Paperback Book Club invited fiction writers, essayists, poets, playwrights, and cartoonists to choose and comment on their best work, the result was This Is My Best, a landmark literary anthology which included selections by a veritable “Who’s Who” of contemporary literature and popular culture, including Arthur Miller, John Updike, and Joyce Carol Oates. In a noteworthy and original “Authorization to Publish the Work,” exhibited here, which he signed and initialed several times, Roth selected pages 39-50 from his seminal Portnoy’s Complaint to be used as a representation of his best work to be included in the book.
The publication of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), which earned Roth both broad commercial and critical success and a supreme level of ignominy, is a graphically explicit and coarse first-person narrative of a farcical “oedipal howl” by an obsessed young Jewish man who, while “putting the id back in Yid,” confesses his revolting, yet comedic, story to his psychoanalyst. Many critics and much of the public considered the work to be puerile and disgusting, while others acclaimed it brilliant satire and referred to it as “an extended Jewish joke.” As one commentator defending the novel argued, “the tribe’s perpetually endangered state is no reason for a serious humorist to stay his hand,” and described Portnoy as simply “a hilarious lampoon of the Jewish tribe which should vex only the overly nervous Jewish bourgeoisie.”
Significant debate continues to this day as to whether the book is anti-Semitic. Many pundits argue that Portnoy is not an anti-Semitic novel but, rather, merely expresses Roth’s utter contempt for American Jewish life. Others vehemently disagree, including the distinguished Kabbalist and scholar Gershom Scholem, who opined that Portnoy’s Complaint “was more harmful to Jews than The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” In one of the famous Nixon Oval Office recordings, chief of staff H.R. Haldeman says “I never read Portnoy’s Complaint, but I understand it was a well-written book but just sickeningly filthy.” The president responds “Roth is, of course, a Jew.”
A similar debate raged regarding Roth’s first novel, Goodbye, Columbus, which was also polarizing and controversial. While many saw it as an irreverent and inspired exposition on the values and morals (or lack thereof) of middle-class American Jews in an era of cultural assimilation and upward social mobility, others viewed his depictions as insipid at best and hateful at worst. Nonetheless, throughout his long literary career, Roth continued to examine, criticize, and disparage Jewish-American values and mock their aspirations and achievements, which infuriated literature purists, cultural traditionalists and, of course, many Jews.
Though Roth passionately rejected categorization as a “Jewish-American writer,” it is indisputable that a primary focus of his work was to brazenly, even defiantly, explore American life through a distinctly Jewish lens. His work almost always features Jewish protagonists who understand their true selves in secular terms, undoubtedly a reflection of the author’s own self-image.
Characterized by many as a “self-hating Jew” with a pessimistic and fatalistic attitude toward his own faith – and there is ample support for this proposition – his themes invariably involve idealistic and thoroughly assimilated secular young men who take on the repugnant bourgeoisie, labor to distance themselves from Jewish customs and practices, and fight to free themselves from the stifling influence of parents and religious leaders.
The stark dichotomy of views regarding Roth’s attitude toward Judaism may perhaps best be illustrated by example. According to one observer:
In Philip Roth’s fiction there is hardly any Jewish philosophy, Jewish tradition, mysticism, or religion, and there is no discussion of who is a Jew or what is a Jew…. Roth’s Jews are Jews without Judaism.
The American dream, or nightmare, was to become a Jew without Jews, without Judaism, without Zionism, without Jewishness.
Another astute analyst put it this way:
It is the monotony of Roth’s gross, mean Jewish world, peopled largely by cheats and vulgarians, that is offensive. That he presents his cast with homey touches of local color ranging from appetizing Jewish delicatessen to hilariously mimicked dialogue only serves to make his caricatures more convincing and consequently more vicious. I, for one, recognize the matzoh balls but not the diners.
Roth himself almost seemed to support this idea:
I was brought up in a Jewish neighborhood and never saw a skullcap, a beard, sidelocks – ever, ever, ever – because the mission was to live here, not there. There was no there. If you asked your grandmother where she came from, she’d say, “Don’t worry about it. I forgot already.”
However, other reviewers expressed their admiration for Roth’s skill in offering liberating insights into the Jewish psyche. As one critic wrote:
Roth was among the very first to see how difficult it was for the Jew to be a Jew, amidst the affluence and the urge to be like everyone else…. Roth would assure his audience that the future of the Jew in America would be anchored by both the past and the future.
Still others argue that Roth’s writing evolved over time:
Early in his career the issue and goal seemed to be to tell the truth about Jews, not to repudiate or belittle, but for that traditional reason: to teach.… In the more recent work, he has added to the idea of telling the truth about Jews’ more philosophical questions, including “What is the truth?” and “What is a Jew?”
Roth was by no means a Zionist, and he often wrote critically about Israel. For example, he voiced protests against Jewish settlements in the West Bank; in Sabbath’s Theater, he proudly concluded his protagonist’s obituary with “Mr. Sabbath did nothing for Israel;” and, in one of the of the most bizarre stories in the history of American literature, he urged the end of Israel as a Jewish state while alleging that he served as a Mossad agent.
On a visit to Israel in the 1970s, Roth decided on a whim to attend the trial of John Demjanjuk, a.k.a. the sadistic “Ivan the Terrible,” who murdered tens of thousands of Jews at Treblinka. The result was Operation Shylock (1993), in which the protagonist, one “Philip Roth” – eroding the lines between novel and biography was a constant Roth theme, which he prominently manifested through his many novels involving Nathan Zuckerman, his celebrity doppelganger/writer persona – attends the Demjanjuk trial and goes on to serve as an undercover Mossad agent. He is tasked with a case involving a conspiracy by wealthy Jews who, acting out of Jewish guilt, are transferring funds to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
As the novel’s narrator, “Roth” spouts “Diasporism,” an anti-Zionist philosophy pursuant to which authentic Judaism requires living in the Diaspora, and argues that the only way for the Jews to survive the impending Arab and Palestinian Holocaust is to abandon Israel – which was never more than a temporary and expedient artificial construct to begin with – and return to their European countries of origin.
Roth (the “real” one) later declared that Operation Shylock was actually a “true confession” and that he had only used fiction as a literary device because, just as “Philip Roth” is told at the end of the novel not to disclose his involvement, Roth was advised by a Mossad agent that writing the tale as a true story risked disclosing important Mossad strategies and maneuvers and, said Roth, “I’m just a good Mossadnik.”
Finally, Roth had long considered burial next to his parents in a Jewish cemetery in Newark, but when he couldn’t find a plot next to them, he chose interment at Bard College Cemetery next to Jewish authors and friends because, as he explained, he wanted to be buried near Jews so he “can have someone to talk to.” Roth will continue to “talk” to Jews through his books, but the outstanding question remains whether any of them will be listening.