As a child of the postwar era in which America towered over the world, Philip Roth grappled both with US exceptionalism and strength and the Jewish experience in America of that expansionist, transitory time. His take on Jews, sex and America – not always in that order – in the post-modern world and irritated traditionalists, Jews and non-Jews alike.
Roth’s generational peer, Woody Allen, similarly critiqued American values by mining classic Jewish tropes of angst and outsiderness.
Allen wasn’t always warmly received either: He was designated a “self-hating Jew,” an epithet reserved for those Jews whose tastes and politics don’t follow the politically acceptable position of the moment. Yet Allen wasn’t deemed a threat to Jewish success and acceptance in postwar America the way Roth was.
Roth let loose his sexual fantasies in a way that some felt invited antisemitism. Rather than exhibiting self-loathing, Roth flaunted his id and his primal urges. In doing so, he presaged and contributed to the Sexual Revolution. He paraded his generation’s secret fascination with non-Jewish women in a manner that threatened not only those outside the Jewish community, but Jewish souls who wanted to enjoy American life and also stay under the radar.The New York Times
obituary of Roth quotes the eminent Kabbalist and scholar Gershom Scholem as saying Portnoy’s Complaint
– Roth’s oedipal howl of unbridled lust – “was more harmful to Jews than The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
Higher praise for a literary work I can’t imagine.
Other pieces cited literary lion Irving Howe saying the cruelest thing one could do with Portnoy was to read it a second time.
Roth’s unapologetic embrace of lust and male sexuality demolished the cringing whininess of Woody Allen and other avatars of American Jewish angst. In that sense, one can anoint Phillip Roth with the olive oil dispensed by the powerful Israeli-type Jew as opposed to the Diaspora Jew; Captain America in contrast to pre-treatment Steve Rogers; or Superman rather than his cowering alter-ego Clark Kent, depending on which superhero created by Jews you prefer.
One can debate the skill with which Roth played the meta-fictional game of doubling his own identity and creating not one but two characters named Philip Roth in Operation Shylock
, a 1993 novel set extensively in Jerusalem. Yet his engagement with Israel alone is one step beyond what most American Jewish authors of his generation managed.
Roth’s oeuvre and subject range were vast. He resisted being pigeonholed as a Jewish author. He overtly asked to be considered an American writer. “I’m not crazy about being described as a Jewish American writer,” he said in a 2011 documentary.
“I don’t write Jewish, I write American.”
Yet his greatest works explored 20th-century American life through a Jewish lens – and a specifically unapologetic one at that.
It’s fitting irony that Roth was likely denied the Nobel Prize in Literature not for being a Jew – five Jewish writers have won the prize since 2000 – but because he was second in line to Bob Dylan, another American Jew.
Roth reached the exalted status of elder statesman of American and Jewish letters in recent years and was embraced by students of high and middlebrow literature alike.
He even stepped outside the orbit of New York literary circles with his 2004 novel The Plot Against America, which added a sheen of respectability and literary credibility to the derogated genre of “alt-history” fiction. The excellent JTA obituary of Roth details how significant segments of the Jewish establishment also welcomed his sharp views in recent years.
In this era of intra-Jewish strife, I choose to celebrate the Roth who strutted across the Jewish-American literary and intellectual landscape with an unapologetic sneer at craven and timorous “get-alongniks.”
I hope the upcoming mini-series based on The Plot Against America
– which is being developed by the estimable David Simon, the Jewish creator of The Wire
– doesn’t overdo easy analogies to Trump and underplay the story’s overtly Jewish angle.
Good literature is supposed to rattle your cage. Roth’s fiction discomfited us, and for that reason he is worth celebrating.The writer is media director of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
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