Born in 1894 to a Jewish family in the Galician town of Brody—once famous for training kabbalists—Joseph Roth moved to Vienna as a young man, where he launched his prodigious literary career. He went on to write fifteen novels, along with numerous short stories and hundreds of essays. Right up until his untimely death in 1939, he remained committed to the Austro-Hungarian empire, defunct since 1918, which is the setting of most of his fiction. Joseph Epstein, in a survey of Roth’s career, writerly abilities, and literary output, addresses Roth’s attitudes toward the Jews, exposed in a “strange little book,” published in 1927, called The Wandering Jews:
What Roth valued in the Austro-Hungarian empire was the fluidity it allowed its subjects, who could travel [among its many lands] without the aid of passports or papers, and its discouragement of nationalism, [a force that] worked against the Jewish people. . . .
Never other than unpredictable, Roth, that most cosmopolitan of Jews, valued the shtetl Jews of Eastern Europe above all. He valued their Jewish authenticity and felt that those Jews who had taken up the assimilated life in Germany and elsewhere and pretended to a patriotism that ultimately was [turned against them], “those rich Jews,” as he wrote in [his 1927 novel] Right and Left, “the ones who want more than anything else to be native Berliners” and who “go on celebrating their holiest festivals in shamefaced secrecy, but Christmas publicly and for all to see,” these were the Jews most deceived and hence most to be pitied.
The real subject at the heart of The Wandering Jews is the distinctiveness of the Jews. “Of all the world’s poor, the poor Jew,” Roth writes, “is surely the most conservative . . . he refuses to be a proletarian.” The difference between the Russian and the Jewish peasant is that “the Russian is a peasant first and a Russian second; the Jew is Jew first and then peasant.” Roth underscores the intellectual cast of the Jews. “They are a people that has had no illiterates for thousands of years now.” Not wishing to fight other people’s wars, “the Eastern Jews were the most heroic of pacifists. They were martyrs for pacifism.” . . .
Zionism was the best answer to the Jewish question for Roth, “for it is surely better to be a nation than to be mistreated by one.” The Jews “are forced to be a ‘nation’ by the nationalism of others,” and “if one must be patriotic, then at least let it be for a country of one’s own.”
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