A lot has been said about Philip Roth since his death at age 85 last week. Let me share a few thoughts about the man and his relationship to the Jewish community.
Early in his career, Roth drew outrage with his sometimes stinging depictions of Jewish life, as well as his graphic portrayal in his breakout 1969 novel “Portnoy’s Complaint” of the protagonist’s sexual desires. Although his early “Goodbye, Columbus” won the National Book Award, older Jewish leaders objected to its portrayal of a conflict between a stuck-up, well-to-do Jewish family in New Jersey and a young working-class Jewish man from Newark. A short story in the collection — “Defender of the Faith” — was about a Jewish army officer’s conflict with Jewish soldiers trying to avoid combat duty. Jewish leaders’ outrage at Roth peaked a decade later with “Portnoy’s Complaint” and its exploration of lustful Jewish paranoia. Some worried that his work would endanger American Jews, providing fodder for anti-Semites. “What is being done to silence this man?” an American rabbi asked in a 1963 letter to the ADL. In one notorious incident, Roth was shaken by a hostile reception he received at a 1962 literary symposium at New York’s Yeshiva University. Recalling being shouted at by hostile students after the event, Roth vowed to “never write about Jews again” — a promise, of course, that he did not keep.
“There is a certain amount of poetic justice, an aesthetically satisfying irony, in Philip Roth’s beginning his career with a brouhaha at Yeshiva University and ending it with an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary — an honor perhaps more significant than the Nobel Prize that eludes him,” Michael Kramer, associate professor of literature at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, wrote in 2014. “Would Roth himself have imagined such a plot? His endings tend to the tragic.”
Indeed, in addition to winning nearly every literary award for writers in English, over time Roth was also embraced by the Jewish community. Three of his books were honored with the American Jewish Book Award, and in 1998 he won the Jewish Book Council’s Lifetime Literary Achievement Award. And, in 2014, JTS awarded Roth an honorary doctorate at its commencement ceremony. “From enfant terrible to elder statesman. Time heals all wounds,” Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles remarked. At the time, the seminary’s chancellor, Arnold Eisen, himself a sociologist, called Roth the “greatest sociologist on American Jewish life, without doubt.”
Two thoughts, maybe even contradictory, from my perspective. Roth’s relationship to his Jewishness is not simple and might give one pause. He often demurred when it was suggested that he be defined as an American Jewish writer. In one essay he wrote, “I did not want to, did not intend to, and was not able to speak for American Jews; I surely did not deny, and no one questioned the fact, that I spoke to them, and I hope to others as well.” And now we see that Roth is not being buried in a Jewish cemetery, rather in the cemetery at Bard College. So, was he “all in” with his people? Maybe not, and maybe his critique of American Jewish life would have been different if it came from a place of love and connection.
One the other hand, anti semitism didn’t grow because of Roth’s writings. And, as Eisen put it, “We are a community that treasures someone who holds up such a penetrating and insightful mirror to who we are and reveals the dilemmas and contradictions and aspirations of the community. We are grateful for the mirror even if not everything you see in it is easy.” On this count, we need to have thicker skins.
Ponder all this and have a good rest of the week. Bill Rudolph