If Only Philip Roth Had Said: “Damn Right America, I’m Your Jewish Writer and Proud of It!”

June 26 2018
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at Tikvah. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

Reflecting on the recent death of Philip Roth, Ruth R. Wisse considers how her attitude toward his work changed from her youth—when she wrote him a “fan letter” praising his novella Goodbye, Columbus—to her more mature assessment of both his fiction’s merits and its flaws. She pays particular attention to his refusal to be considered a “Jewish writer”:

Roth’s denial of meaningful Jewish attachment remained an essential feature of his writing, complicated by the lack of an alternative, for unlike Russian Jewish writers like Boris Pasternak who turned to Christianity, he disliked Christianity even more than being a Jew. In a 1961 Commentary symposium, [he] wrote that . . . “wherein my fellow Jews reject Jesus as the supernatural envoy of God, I feel a kinship with them. Needless to say, this form of kinship is not a basis for any true affection.” . . . He then goes on to deny any other form of religious or cultural cohesion so that “we are bound together, I to my fellow Jews, my fellow Jews to me, in a relationship that is peculiarly enervating and unviable.” . . .

Roth never graciously accepted his designation as a Jewish writer. . . . A sad feature of his life as a writer is that in never pretending to feel anything for the Jewish God, the Jewish homeland, or the Jewish people, Roth could not luxuriate in the affection and gratitude that many readers accorded him. At the heart of his fiction, hence of his standing as a writer, is distrust of Jewishness and secondarily of America as home to that Jewishness. Cold kasha. Adverse relation to one’s habitual subjects is not the best recipe for great art, and Roth did as well with it as anyone could, but I wish that after Portnoy’s Complaint, if not before, he could have reached the threshold of love.

With the sadness that attended Roth’s retirement from writing in 2012 and his death in 2018 came the realization that his work was never joyful. Funny and witty certainly, vital and intelligent always, and highly entertaining, but never plainly happy in the way a well-matched bride and groom enchant family and guests at their wedding. I was startled [when, in a 1972 essay], Irving Howe call[ed] him “an exceedingly joyless writer, even when being very funny.” Howe saw this before I did.

Wisse concludes by contrasting Roth’s Newark Jews to the Soviet Jewish writer Isaac Babel’s description of the Jews of his native Odessa:

Babel loved the Jews for what they were, the enjoyment of bourgeois pleasures being the best of their qualities. Babel loved being who he was despite the heavy price it exacted. Although he was first silenced and then tortured and killed at Stalin’s command, his work [is capable of breathing] happiness and joy. . . . How is it that the modern Jewish writer who functioned under the most aversive moral and physical conditions should have cast himself as the harbinger of sunshine in Russian literature, whereas the novelist who benefited beyond all others from America’s freedom and opportunity should have put so little of its pleasures into his writing? It might have been because Roth could never bring himself to say, “Damn right, America—I’m your Jewish writer, and thank you for letting me be proud of it!”

Read more at Commentary

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

Hizballah Is Learning Israel’s Weak Spots

On Tuesday, a Hizballah drone attack injured three people in northern Israel. The next day, another attack, targeting an IDF base, injured eighteen people, six of them seriously, in Arab al-Amshe, also in the north. This second attack involved the simultaneous use of drones carrying explosives and guided antitank missiles. In both cases, the defensive systems that performed so successfully last weekend failed to stop the drones and missiles. Ron Ben-Yishai has a straightforward explanation as to why: the Lebanon-backed terrorist group is getting better at evading Israel defenses. He explains the three basis systems used to pilot these unmanned aircraft, and their practical effects:

These systems allow drones to act similarly to fighter jets, using “dead zones”—areas not visible to radar or other optical detection—to approach targets. They fly low initially, then ascend just before crashing and detonating on the target. The terrain of southern Lebanon is particularly conducive to such attacks.

But this requires skills that the terror group has honed over months of fighting against Israel. The latest attacks involved a large drone capable of carrying over 50 kg (110 lbs.) of explosives. The terrorists have likely analyzed Israel’s alert and interception systems, recognizing that shooting down their drones requires early detection to allow sufficient time for launching interceptors.

The IDF tries to detect any incoming drones on its radar, as it had done prior to the war. Despite Hizballah’s learning curve, the IDF’s technological edge offers an advantage. However, the military must recognize that any measure it takes is quickly observed and analyzed, and even the most effective defenses can be incomplete. The terrain near the Lebanon-Israel border continues to pose a challenge, necessitating technological solutions and significant financial investment.

Read more at Ynet

More about: Hizballah, Iron Dome, Israeli Security