Monthly Archives: May 2018

Philip Roth


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



Boker Tov. Events on the Gaza border are upsetting me as much as anyone, but not for the same reasons as everyone. I hate to see the loss of innocent lives, but most of the lives lost on the Palestinian side were not “innocent.” Even Hamas, who rules the Gaza strip and insists on Israel’s destruction, admitted midweek that almost all of Monday’s dead were their operatives. But the Post was quick to assume – the major front page story the next day – that Israel was killing innocents who just wanted to see what life is like on the other side of the border. Trust me, Hamas isn’t trying to breach the wall or enter through tunnels to deliver meals on wheels. So I wrote the following letter to the editor, which has not been published surprisingly enough. Only kidding – they rarely publish letters supporting Israel unless the writer also says that Israel is mostly wrong. One condition for submission is that the letter hasn’t been published anywhere else, but I now feel free to share it with you.

Letter to Editor
Your front page story about Monday’s Gaza violent protests must have been welcome reading among Hamas leaders in Gaza City. They got your reporters, and then your readers, believing that the recent weeks of violent demonstrations were a reaction to the move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem. What about all the years we saw thousands of rockets launched from Gaza on civilian targets or terror tunnels built under Israeli border communities?
The goals of the current protests are three: break down the fence to get Hamas operatives into Israel so they can kill or abduct soldiers or civilians, lacking that suffer lots of casualties so the world would be more sympathetic to their plight, and at the least divert popular discontent with Hamas. Goals two and three achieved. Hamas thinks a dead Jew is the best Jew, so it’s fortunate that goal one was not achieved.
Hamas diverts much of the international aid for Gaza to its own payrolls or to build more tunnels. The people of Gaza were finally wising up to this, and discontent growing. Your reporters say, “The demonstrations have proved to be a welcome distraction for Hamas.” That is surely true, but Hamas orchestrated them, and they are not dummies and they don’t much care how many die on either side. Israel is not perfect, but let us not be naive about what it faces. 
  [End of letter]

The only consolation for us in D.C. is that the Times is worse. That doesn’t mean we have to sit on our hands. The IDF tries harder than any army in history to do the right thing. We should support it, and Israel. Not blindly, but not with blinders when it comes to reading the paper.

I hope that Shabbat and Shavuot are a chance for some peace and quiet for all of us, as we celebrate the gift of Torah.     Bill Rudolph