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

Ruth R. Wisse
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!”

Read more at Commentary

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

Iran’s Four-Decade Strategy to Envelope Israel in Terror

Yesterday, the head of the Shin Bet—Israel’s internal security service—was in Washington meeting with officials from the State Department, CIA, and the White House itself. Among the topics no doubt discussed are rising tensions with Iran and the possibility that the latter, in order to defend its nuclear program, will instruct its network of proxies in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and even Iraq and Yemen to attack the Jewish state. Oved Lobel explores the history of this network, which, he argues, predates Iran’s Islamic Revolution—when Shiite radicals in Lebanon coordinated with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s movement in Iran:

An inextricably linked Iran-Syria-Palestinian axis has actually been in existence since the early 1970s, with Lebanon the geographical fulcrum of the relationship and Damascus serving as the primary operational headquarters. Lebanon, from the 1980s until 2005, was under the direct military control of Syria, which itself slowly transformed from an ally to a client of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The nexus among Damascus, Beirut, and the Palestinian territories should therefore always have been viewed as one front, both geographically and operationally. It’s clear that the multifront-war strategy was already in operation during the first intifada years, from 1987 to 1993.

[An] Iranian-organized conference in 1991, the first of many, . . . established the “Damascus 10”—an alliance of ten Palestinian factions that rejected any peace process with Israel. According to the former Hamas spokesperson and senior official Ibrahim Ghosheh, he spoke to then-Hizballah Secretary-General Abbas al-Musawi at the conference and coordinated Hizballah attacks from Lebanon in support of the intifada. Further important meetings between Hamas and the Iranian regime were held in 1999 and 2000, while the IRGC constantly met with its agents in Damascus to encourage coordinated attacks on Israel.

For some reason, Hizballah’s guerilla war against Israel in Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s was, and often still is, viewed as a separate phenomenon from the first intifada, when they were in fact two fronts in the same battle.

Israel opted for a perilous unconditional withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, which Hamas’s Ghosheh asserts was a “direct factor” in precipitating the start of the second intifada later that same year.

Read more at Australia/Israel Review

More about: First intifada, Hizballah, Iran, Palestinian terror, Second Intifada