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Jewish Journal

What Hath Roth Wrote?

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

May 27, 2014 | 6:34 pm

I'd like to imagine that the famous writer had the last laugh, but I suspect that he's far too much of a gentleman for that.

I am referring to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America awarding an honorary doctorate to Philip Roth last week. http://www.jta.org/2014/05/23/life-religion/sacred-and-profane-philip-roth-onetime-enfant-terrible-gets-seminary-honor-2
At eighty years old plus, Roth has said that he is not only retiring from writing, but also from public life. So it seemed like the right time for the Conservative movement’s flagship academic institution to take note of a man whose work has spanned decades, and who is arguably the preeminent Jewish literary voice of his generation.

It is ironic, of course, to picture Philip Roth standing to plentiful accolades at the Seminary. Imagine the voices of all of those JTS graduates who thundered against the youthful Roth in the first decade of his writing career – first, with Goodbye Columbus in 1959, and then ten years later, with Portnoy’s Complaint. They called him a self-hating Jew. They called him a pornographer.

“Self-hating Jew:” has there ever been a more devious way of shutting down debate, a more sobering epithet to throw around gratuitously when you simply want to delegitimize your adversary?

I cannot say that those accusations hurt Philip Roth. But in one of his most brilliant works, The Ghost Writer, Roth’s literary doppelganger, Nathan Zuckerman, imagines that the only way that he can possibly redeem himself in the eyes of his parents and community would be by marrying (the oddly-still-alive) Anne Frank.

I have an entire bookshelf dedicated to nothing but Roth’s work. Knowing that this year marks the 55th anniversary of the publication of Roth’s first collection, Goodbye Columbus, a novella and five short stories, I re-read the book. Perhaps it is also because I have just completed my second year of living in South Orange, New Jersey, and I wanted to re-experience what the Bard of Essex County had to say.

I couldn’t put it down.

“Goodbye, Columbus,” the novella, is a love story, or rather, a story of failed love. There is that moment when the working class Jewish protagonist, Neil Klugman, drives from Newark to Short Hills for his first date with Brenda Patimkin. He describes “the hundred and eighty feet that the suburbs rose in altitude above Newark,” and he imagines that the trip is bringing him closer to heaven.

“Goodbye Columbus” was a soft indictment of nouveau riche propriety. Its title is a pun on the Yiddish curse, a klug zu Columbus, which Jewish immigrants used to curse Columbus for having discovered an America that, as yet, had not fulfilled its promise to them. (Hence, Neil Klugman is a “cursed” man). As a photograph of a particular moment in American Jewish sociology, as a young man’s (Roth was twenty five at the time) finger-wagging at Jewish self-satisfaction and anti-intellectualism, it is almost without parallel.

Or, re-read “The Conversion of the Jews.” Ozzie, a questioning young boy, takes to the roof of his fading urban synagogue. He threatens to jump off the roof unless the rabbi admits that it is conceivable (ouch) that God could have made Mary pregnant without sexual intercourse. After all, a God Who could split the Red Sea could just as easily make a virgin conceive. It was a cunning theological move. Why are miracles only limited to the Jews?

“Promise me you’ll never hit anybody about God,” young Ozzie implores. The ensuing decades would make it even clearer: you should never hit anybody about God.

And, finally, there’s “Eli the Fanatic.” It is the story of a group of assimilated Jews in a leafy Westchester suburb who hire a Jewish lawyer named Eli Peck to drive a yeshiva of Holocaust survivors out of their community.

“A yeshiva!” one of Eli’s neighbors screams. “If I want to live in Brownsville, I’ll live in Brownsville…this is the twentieth century. Now it’s the guy with the hat. Pretty soon all the little yeshiva boys will be spilling into town.” (And spill, they did, over the next few decades – in numerous suburban communities all around the New York area and beyond. It was a demographic shift that no one could have predicted when that short story first appeared).

“The guy with the hat” is one of the Orthodox survivors. At issue is not only the presence of the yeshiva in the community, but the traditional ultra-Orthodox garb in which this man dressed when he came into town to do business.

Eli prevails upon the man to dress differently; he gives him one of his Brooks Brothers suits to wear – and the survivor responds by giving Eli one of his black suits. At the end of the story, close to a nervous breakdown, Eli dons the black garb and fumbles with the key to his back door.

One of his friends calls him, “Eli, there’s a Jew at your door.”

“That’s me,” said Eli. “That’s me.”

A self-hating Jew? Philip Roth? Hardly.

An iconoclast? Yes. A struggling Jew? Yes. A Jew who wrestles with the very essence of what it means to be Jewish? A Jew with some very serious, pertinent questions?

Absolutely.

Philip Roth forced us to ask ourselves: how do we, as modern Jews, respond to the Jew that is knocking at our doors?

Thank you, Dr. Roth.

Thank you.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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