Philip Roth’s Newark and Its Jews

June 13 2017

Last fall, the writer Philip Roth bequeathed some 4,000 books to the public library in his hometown of Newark, NJ, which figures prominently in over a dozen of his novels as well as in many of his short stories and essays. The city, once a prosperous center of manufacturing and commerce, now symbolizes urban blight and decline. Drawing on Newark’s actual history, Steven Malanga analyzes its role in Roth’s oeuvre.

The Jewish neighborhoods that Roth knew in the 1930s and 1940s . . . were peopled by the great wave of East European immigrants who arrived from the early 1880s through the mid-1920s—some two million Jews, largely from Russia and Galicia. Perhaps as many as 50,000 of those sojourners made their way to Newark. They lived initially in tenements . . . in the city’s old Third Ward. Among the residents: Roth’s paternal grandfather, who worked in the tanneries to put food on the table for seven kids. . . . [A]s the immigrants’ children assimilated, they gradually moved west, forming a lower-middle-class ethnic stronghold at Newark’s edge—some 58 streets of apartment buildings, small houses, and bustling shopping thoroughfares known as Weequahic, an Indian phrase meaning “head of the cove.” . . .

[T]o the immigrants of Newark and their descendants, those neighborhoods offered a safe harbor, a place where they could grow up surrounded by familiar faces and with shared mores, even as they began to assimilate. Roth commonly describes Weequahic and Newark as a haven or an enclave. In his 1988 nonfiction book, The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, he writes: “Our lower-middle-class neighborhood of houses and shops . . . was as safe and peaceful a haven for me as his rural community would have been for an Indiana farm boy.”

Jews had even more of a stake in such enclaves than did other ethnic and religious groups. Italians, Irish, Germans, and other immigrants came to America largely seeking economic opportunity. Many maintained ties with their homelands; by some estimates, as many as 60 percent of immigrants from the Great Migration returned home. But most Jewish immigrants were fleeing persecution and political chaos in central Europe; they had no homeland or waiting families back in the Old World. His grandparents, Roth writes in The Facts, left Europe “because life was awful; so awful, in fact, so menacing, or impoverished or hopelessly obstructed, that it was best left forgotten.”

Roth acknowledges that act of forgetting as something that separated Newark’s Jews from many of its other immigrants. . . . This reality helps explain why assimilation was so important for the Jews of Newark, even as they struggled to retain an ethnic identity. Roth describes this tension in American Pastoral as “the contradiction in Jews who want to fit in and to stand out, who insist they are different and insist they are no different.”

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More about: American Jewish History, American Jewish literature, Arts & Culture, Philip Roth

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