Thoughts on Philip Roth: America, Jew, Male

[Editor’s Note: Please read the afterword by Rabbi Michael  Lerner with another  and somewhat critical reflection on Roth after the bio of Shaul Magid below]

Why did it matter so much to me and so many others like me that Phillip Roth has left this world? When I first heard the news in the early hours of a late spring morning, I felt a kind of shudder like a window had closed suddenly and the air quality changed just a bit. He was, of course, a gifted writer and an American literary icon, but why does it really matter more than when other great literary figures leave this world. But there was something about Roth for anyone who really came to life in postwar America that is different. He often said he hated the term Jewish writer and always denied he was one. He identified simply as a writer and said “If I am not American I am nothing at all.” And yes, and yet. His use, manipulation, parody, obsession, subversion, and yes even diabolical love of Jewishness and Judaism made him one of the great Jewish writers in the past century at least. He is equal in my view to Shalom Aleichem or Shai Agnon, although painting a different world, for different people, of different Jews.

His Jewishness reminds me of what Hannah Arendt said she was asked what she thought of being a Jew, she replied, “Well, I can’t think of being anything else.” So while Roth may have denied being a Jewish writer, he was a writer who spoke to Jews in a way that was similar but different than the way he spoke to everyone else the same way that Toni Morrison speaks to blacks in a way different than the way she can he heard by whites. But for both Roth and Morrison it is all in the context of being an American, quintessentially so.

But what was Roth really saying to us…about being Jewish. First, it is that in today’s America, there is nothing to hide about being Jewish. He believed in America and he believed Jews were deeply a part of America. In the early 60s when Goodbye Columbus was first published he claimed he was booed at Yeshiva University, after being invited to speak there, and rabbinic leaders there tried to use their muscle to derail his literary career by writing to his publisher. One of the rabbis said, “In the Middle Ages they knew what to do with people like Roth.” (Steve Zipperstein’s May 28th essay in The Forward “Phillip Roth’s Forgotten Tape” writes that the reception at YU was not nearly a negative as Roth portrayed it). Gershom Scholem said of Portnoy’s Complaint, “This will be worse for the Jews than the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” And yet, the way in which Jack Kerouac or Normal Mailer or Truman Capote or Tom Wolfe  meant something to the emerging counter-culture in the 1960s, Roth opened up a way for Jews in those years that they no longer needed to be in hiding. Yes, we had Malamud, and Howe, and Bellow, and Singer, but Roth was more subversive and more tempting. Roth pushed the boundaries in different and arguably more disturbing ways. The unveiling of Jewish neurosis for all to see, the queering of stereotypes to make them comical and then fascial, and then banal. The ability to laugh and feel suddenly naked, and then laugh at that too, that was a gift Roth gave us.

In an early defense of Roth, Rabbi Dan Isaac wrote, “Goodbye Columbus marks the successful working of a significant theme: the rejection of Jewish life, not because it is too Jewish, but because it is not Jewish enough, because it is so dominated by and infused with the American ethos that it partakes of the same corruption, offering no significant alternative.” This suggests that Roth was holding a mirror to the avalanche of Jewish assimilation, not by rallying against it (his rabbinic critics were doing that, largely unsuccessfully) but by making it the work of fiction and parody, by making the very process of assimilation American and Jewish at the same time. Assimilation was part of being Jewish in Roth’s work, not to erase being Jewish but part of Jewishness itself. The assimilated Jew, the self-hating Jew in Roth’s novels always remained a Jew. Even against their will. The gentile was always the “other” that the Jew longed for and detested at the same time. Jewish “Gentilism” before Edward Said’s “Orientalism.”

And then there is all the playing with boundaries, Jew and goy, black and white, America and Israel. The chilling moment in The Human Stain when Coleman Silk, a black professor at a small New England college who has passed most of his professional life as white (and Jewish), is suddenly brought up on charges of racism against blacks for something he inadvertently said in the classroom. When you try to hide too much, you pay. You will become the enemy against yourself. To be safe you have to expose yourself, something that was dissonant for many Jews who preferred to face their demons in the privacy of the Jewish home or synagogue, away from public view.

So Roth gave us a way to see ourselves as a people at home in America. He deals with the complexity of Jewishness and Israel in The Counterlife when his brother becomes a baal teshuva settler. And of course the whole premise of The Counterlife, Roth’s only novel where Israel plays any real role, as being a case of stolen identity says a lot about Israel in the American imaginary (one can recall that great line when his brother the baal teshuva begs Roth to “come home” [to Israel]. Roth’s character Nathan Zuckerman responds, “But our family is from Bialystok, not Haifa.”). But Roth never leaves home, either the beloved Newark of his childhood or rural New England life. And as hard as he sometimes tried, he never left the Jews. Or his own Jewishness.

In an earlier version of these remarks on Facebook there was considerable discussion on Roth’s depiction, or lack thereof, of women in general and Jewish women in particular. This is certainly true. Roth wrote from the male gaze, and a particular male gaze. Women were viewed as objects. There is no doubting that. But what do we as consumers of his writing do with that? One person who posted drew a comparison to Shlomo Carlebach. I think that is misplaced. As far as I know Roth was not accused of sexual misconduct but only offering us a misogynist rendering of women in his creative work – that is, in his fiction. He was also not a religious figure and not a social leader. That is, he was not claiming to be an exemplar or producer of social norms. He was an artist and he used his craft to offer his reader a particular view of the world. It was a male centered world. And it was often not pretty, or edifying. Another person challenged my use of the word “us” in describing Roth’s influence to Jews. She claimed that for women (and Jewish women in particular) there is no “us” in Roth’s work, only men who look upon women either as sexual objects or mother’s who take care of them . That too may be true. But this begs the question; can there be an “us” that lies beyond any specific “I.” For example, Toni Morrison is a black woman who writes mostly about and for black people. I consider her a major American writer and I include myself in that “us” that is her audience even though she doesn’t write for me. And she doesn’t write about me. I am an outsider in her fiction but when I read Morrison but I can love and appreciate her language, her ideas, her view on life. In this moment of high intersectionality with its interlocking systems of race, power, and gender, can we still be part of an “us” that doesn’t include us or even degrades us? This is a serious question. I think art offers us a way to see the world that is beyond our ken, even rejects who we are. I still read T.S. Eliot even though I know what he thought about Jews. I even once heard a prominent rabbi quote him from the pulpit. And I read the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish even though I am often the “enemy” in his poems.

The question of gender in Roth’s work will be debated for decades. And it should be. But in my view to exclude him from the annals of literary genius, or relevance, for Jews especially, of both genders, would be unfortunate. Art is one form that should not, by definition, serve a utilitarian purpose, not of gender sensitivity or communal cohesion (one person posted he didn’t like Roth because he didn’t promote a Jewish future as if art must serve a utilitarian purpose). As Arendt put it, it should be an instance of thinking “without barriers.” (Arendt thought that about philosophy). And we should remember that was not necessarily Roth who had a “woman problem.” It was the society, and the Jewish sub-culture, that he depicted in his fiction that did. And still does. The same is true of Roth’s view of the gentile. If Roth can be useful, as opposed to simply being a great artist, it is that he put us in front of the mirror naked (yes “us”). A male body but a male body that was nurtured by a Jewish mother, a brother to Jewish sisters, and a husband to Jewish wives. The deracinated Jew come back to life as a literary trope, sometimes even as an anti-Semitic cliché. But a true American, and a Jew, from top to bottom, at his best and at his worst. American Jewry was ripe for that honesty. And Roth dished it out in large and spicy portions.

He was really the anti-rabbi of postwar American Judaism. Alexander Portnoy, Nathan Zuckerman, Eli the Fanatic; the rabbis worst nightmare. And Roth knew that and he loved it. It was a subversive time and the Jews were becoming more American as America was becoming more Jewish. He was to American Jews what Mario Puzo was for postwar Italian-Americans (except Roth was a much more brilliant writer in my view). He told the story of the postwar American Jew as it was unfolding, in real time, without blinders and without paying much attention to the suspicious glance of the gentile.

And yet in all this raucousness he wanted us all to remember that there is a tragic prequel to this American success story that is depicted in the lives of his characters. His late novel The Plot Against America is a historical novel about America if Charles Lindberg won the presidency against Roosevelt in 1940. What transpires is the slow seeping almost invisible anti-Semitism that he begins to be put into place. And yet here tragedy is averting. That may have been for me the most uncharacteristic part of The Plot. Happy endings are not common in Roth’s novels but in The Plot Against America it ends well for the Jews. The Jews are saved without a miracle. That is (Roth’s) America.

Roth’s passing means something for most of us, whether we know it or not. We are in a way living in Roth’s world. The rabbis at YU back in the early 60s, at least from Roth’s depiction, were the losers here even though their world is flourishing because their world is flourishing in Roth’s Jewish America. Roth re-set the clock on the many ways one can be Jewish in modernity just as modernity was coming to a close. Others like Bellow, maybe his closest competition, spoke from the Jewish mind. And brilliantly so. But Roth spoke from the Jewish psyche. He was never afraid of it, he was never intimidated by it, he was never ashamed of it. As Arendt said about herself, it may also be true if Roth was asked what he thought about being a Jew, “I can’t think of being anything else.” That kind of Jewishness, equal parts nostalgia and rebellion, neurosis and genius, comedy and tragedy, is one of our generations great contributions to the chain of Jewish tradition. Roth was an important voice in that moment, he My even have been a maestro of that moment. May we be comforted on the loss of on our own creative geniuses.

  • A version of thee remarks were delivered at The Fire Island Synagogue on Shabbat Naso, May 26, 2018

Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at Indiana University and rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue. In 2018/2019 he will be the Brownstone Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. He is the editor of Jewish Through and Culture for Tikkun magazine.  He is presently writing a book about Meir Kahane.


Afterword from Rabbi Michael Lerner:

Philip Roth’s short stories and novels have given me and many others endless hours of pleasure. Yet at the same time, I’ve always felt a discomfort, and slightly dirtied by his take on reality. The seemingly endless expressions of appreciation given when we all began to learn of his death are well earned. Yet a more complex story needs to be told about his writing..

I graduated Weequahic High School in Newark, N.J. ten years after Roth, and the consciousness of the 60s, already developing in the late 50s in response to the courage of the Civil Rights movement,  was a gift that Roth never received.

A novelist has no obligation toward reality, and Roth never presented himself as a chronicler of the times.  Still,  I wished that he had portrayed women in a more empathic way, helping us to understand what was going on for them rather than seeing them primarily as props to explore male needs and sexual fantasies and exploits. He did do that for Jewish men in the CounterLife, but that sensitivity was absent in his portrayal of the many women who often seemed more like stereotypes than real people. Having grown up in the midst of Jewish assimilation into capitalist values, I recognized those kinds of Jews immediately in Roth’s writing.

Yet I understood in a deeper way than Roth portrayed the trauma of Jewish suffering and then the Holocaust, and how it made sense that many Jewish women and men would seek the security of fitting in and “making it” in American society as their path to self-protection. It is not a path I wanted to follow, and my own rebellion against it was intense when my parents sought to lead me in that direction, yet I could empathize with those who took that path.

Similarly, I often felt betrayed by Roth’s portrayal of Jews, because in all of his writing he never presented:                                                                                                                              1. A seriously religious Jew, though by the end of the 60s there had already begun a powerful re-igniting of the spiritual dimension of Judaism both in Hasidism but also in neo-Hasidism that was rooted in the teachings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, Zalman Schachter Shalomi, Arthur Waskow (and its theology was developed in part in my book Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation).                                          2. A social justice and/or peace and/or environmental sanity activist, though there were hundreds of thousands of these in the years from the end of the 60s through Roth’s writing career.

Roth’s portrayal  of American Jews avoids both the religious and political activist Jews, women and men, who in both arenas who were creative and shaping ways of being Jewish that are given no acknowledgment in his work. I was chair of Berkeley SDS from 1966-68, and became a strong critic of the Weatherman faction and others who advocated violence. Yet Roth’s portrayal of the activist young woman in American Pastoral is such a caricature, with nary a  moment to stop and try to understand what might have been moving her besides inner pathologies, which is to say, what might create a legitimate motivation even though it led in a destructive direction.

Like many who grew up in America in the 1940s or earlier, Roth simply shows no understanding of what led to the radicalization of many serious, smart, and ethically sensitive young adults. Roth knew what was wrong with the war in Vietnam and with American racism, but he was never able in his public writings to think his way into (and then present to us, his readers) the struggle inside many of those who became activists in the New Left, a struggle between self-preservation and moral outrage, between a secure career path and a challenge to the very establishment that their parents had hoped they would enter and secure their future. Nowhere that I know of does Roth ever present those activists who took nonviolence seriously. You wouldn’t know from Roth about the impact of people like Abraham Joshua Heschel, Father Daniel Berrigan, Martin Luther King, jr., Cesar Chavez, Betty Friedan, Shulamit Aloni, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Marge Piercy, or Herbert Marcuse. Whoever Roth was in his personal life–and Sidra Dekoven Ezrahi in Ha’aretz wrote a piece revealing her personal experience and it seems as though he was a very sensitive and caring person–his public writing exhibits a blindness that may have been inevitable for many in his generation. So this amazing and brilliant novelist unintentionally and subtly (and dare I say, possibly unconsciously) supported the pessimism about human reality that is the lynchpin of all who teach that we must learn to reconcile with “what is” rather than struggle for “what could and should be.–a tikkun olam.




One thought on “Thoughts on Philip Roth: America, Jew, Male

  1. As a woman, a Jew, and a writer, I’ve tried for the days since I learned of Roth’s death to parse the grief I felt at that moment. It comes down to the repeated shocks of joy I felt on first reading “Portnoy” in 1969, before the very different shock of Second Wave feminism had carried me down different paths, although never away from appreciating his work.

    In fact, I think, it was feminism that enabled me to articulate what “Portnoy” had achieved: Roth had revealed, as no one before him had, the ways in which so many men of my demographic saw women—the Jewish American men of my generation, good men, men I had admired, loved, even married. As everyone has already noted about Roth’s work, I didn’t see myself mirrored in it. The so much smaller proportion of published works by women throughout most of Western history—combined, of course, with the profound differences in experience between the genders in a gender-divided world—has always made it hard for us to find ourselves mirrored in the literary canons.

    So no, I didn’t see myself reflected in Portnoy. But I saw men I knew. They were exaggerated, of course. I was pretty sure that no one I knew had ever fucked his own family’s dinner, although I rolled on the floor laughing when I read Alex Portnoy’s confession of having done it.

    That’s what writers do. We don’t create real people, God does. We create people who feel real, for the purpose of telling a story. There’s never been a literally real Alex Portnoy, or a literally real Mr. Micawber or Constance Chatterley. (One of my worst arguments with my father in our lives was when he told me how well D.H. Lawrence understood women and I demurred.)

    Roth wrote great stories. Like what’s still the preponderance of the canons, they were about men, about what men think and feel and experience, including their experiences of the women in their lives. I’m glad there are more women being published now, glad our stories are being told. But I’m also glad Roth was here to write the ones he wrote.