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

Ruth R. Wisse
pick
June 26 2018
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is a Mosaic columnist, professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. 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!”

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Read more at Commentary

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