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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Read more at City Journal

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

Europe-Israel Relations Have Been Transformed

On Monday, Israel and the EU held their first “association council” meeting since 2012, resuming what was once an annual event, equivalent to the meetings Brussels conducts with many other countries. Although the summit didn’t produce any major agreements or diplomatic breakthroughs, writes Shany Mor, it is a sign of a dramatic change that has occurred over the past decade. The very fact that the discussion focused on energy, counterterrorism, military technology, and the situation in Ukraine—rather than on the Israel-Palestinian conflict—is evidence of this change:

Israel is no longer the isolated and boycotted outpost in the Middle East that it was for most of its history. It has peace treaties with six Arab states now, four of which were signed since the last association council meeting. There are direct flights from Tel Aviv to major cities in the region and a burgeoning trade between Israel and Gulf monarchies, including those without official relations.

It is a player in the regional alliance systems of both the Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean, just as it has also become a net energy exporter due to the discovery of large gas deposits of its shoreline. None of this was the case at the last council meeting in 2012. [Moreover], Israel has cultivated deep ties with a number of new member states in the EU from Central and Eastern Europe, whose presence in Brussels bridges cultural ideological gaps that were once much wider.

Beyond the diplomatic shifts, however, is an even larger change that has happened in European-Israeli relations. The tiny Israel defined by its conflict with the Arabs that Europeans once knew is no more. When the first Cooperation Agreement [between Israel and the EU’s precursor] was signed in 1975, Israel, with its three million people, was smaller than all the European member states save Luxembourg. Sometime in the next two years, the Israeli population will cross the 10 million mark, making it significantly larger than Ireland, Denmark, Finland, and Austria (among others), and roughly equal in population to Greece, Portugal, and Sweden.

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Read more at Jerusalem Post

More about: Abraham Accords, Europe and Israel, European Union, Israeli gas