What to make of the late Philip Roth?

Posted on 06 June 2018 by admin

Philip Roth has finally died. I thought it would never happen, that this quirky genius of American Jewish fiction would just keep on turning out his tart opinions of the world and himself, one after another, forever. But he did pass away, two weeks ago.
I first “found” Philip Roth when I was a religious school teacher of teens. His story The Conversion of the Jews caught my eye, and since I was dealing weekly with a roomful of recalcitrant ninth-graders who were sticking with their Reform temple’s educational program only because their parents insisted — and because the promise of Confirmation and “freedom at last” was on the horizon — how could I not read it? So I did. And I didn’t understand it. I’m not sure I fully understand it yet. But I immediately recognized the writer behind the story — the grown man who, as a boy, had had his knuckles cracked once too often in Hebrew school, and would remain forever conflicted about his Judaism.
There is genius in that tale of a bright young boy in an old-fashioned cheder — and I must assume it was built on a long-ago truth of Roth himself — who dared to face his rabbi/teacher with a forbidden question about God’s power. A few years before I read this, I had been teaching the Confirmation class in an Orthodox congregation where my curriculum included “comparative religion”; there, it was fine with the rabbi for me to include sharing Catholicism and various Protestantisms with my students, but not Reform Judaism. Like the question asked by Roth’s young protagonist, this was foreign territory — beyond the pale, not fit for a traditional Jewish classroom. And yet, aren’t classrooms the places where questions should be asked — and answered? If you haven’t yet read this story — so brilliant, so difficult — please do so.
Most Roth readers, whether they love or hate him, started with his first popular tale, Goodbye, Columbus, in which virtually every facet of young Jewish love is explored in detail. It was also a shocker, but it established the reputation of this brave (or perhaps merely totally uninhibited) young writer who was not afraid to commit every question, every emotion, every problem, to paper for public scrutiny. I continue to believe that all those problems were Roth’s, and that writing them out was the catharsis through which he made peace with them for himself…
…or perhaps merely explored, rather than solved, them. Some problems are beyond solving. In 1969 came Portnoy’s Complaint, the book that drew fury from so many Jews who, after reading it, branded the author a Jewish anti-Semite. (I wonder if those complainers ever noticed how clever its construction is: The entire book is just two sentences. The first is the long, long “complaint” about virtually everything in his life as told by a young Jewish man who — we realize with careful reading — is making his initial visit to a psychiatrist; the second is the doctor, finally asking oh-so-briefly if the two can now start talking.) And almost 30 years later: “American Pastoral,” a masterful telling of the total dissolution of a man who, in his life, seemed to have everything. Again — Roth himself, perhaps? Success doesn’t always guarantee happiness…
An old friend of mine knew Roth when both were students at Bucknell University; looking backward, he says he could see everything that was to come. But isn’t hindsight always 20-20? And I’m also a contemporary, born a mere 16 months after Roth came into the world he’s just left…
If you’re tempted to start reading Roth now, please begin with The Plot Against America. It will rattle your Jewish bones with fear of what might have happened to us had Charles Lindbergh become president of the United States. Then, in the near future, I’ll tell you about his take on the polio epidemic of that same era. But for now: Rest easily, Philip Roth. You deserve it.


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