Philip Roth Wasn’t a Nice Jewish Boy. But What Kind of Jewish Boy Was He?

July 10, 2020 | Jesse Tisch
About the author:

“Enough being a nice Jewish boy!” exclaims Alexander Portnoy in Philip Roth’s eponymous novel. To many of his readers, that sentence sums up Roth’s attitude toward his people, his fiction, and perhaps his very worldview. But, writes Jesse Tisch in his review of Benjamin Taylor’s Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth, the late American Jewish writer did not always play the rebellious Jew. He had little tolerance, for instance, for anti-Semitism, even when disguised as contempt for Israel:

For a fleeting period [after moving to London], Roth was cheerfully social, but the more familiar London became, the more its charms came to seem like drawbacks. Conversation was stilted. London was dull and dreary. . . . Worse was the genteel anti-Semitism of upper-class Londoners, something Roth could never abide. England’s bien-pensants disliked Israel; a haughty distaste for Jews was common, even in public.

Indeed, Roth sympathized deeply with the Jewish state:

Roth had been fascinated with Israel in the 1960s, when a conference brought him to Jerusalem; he rediscovered Israel in late 1984. “Israel is the place to give your curiosity a workout,” he wrote [his friend] Ted Solotaroff in a rare quiet moment. Roth toured widely, a glutton for experience, interviewing everyone from authors to NGO workers to ordinary Israelis. It wasn’t the Israel of popular myth—the plucky young country with an infallible army—but the actual Israel, seething, quarrelsome, self-questioning, that inspired Roth’s affection. “I’m only back two days and feel like taking the plunge again soon,” he wrote Solotaroff. “Each time you go out further and see more and are further astonished.”

Nor did Roth always side with the rebels:

[In 1997], Roth swerved sharply with American Pastoral, the tale of a wholesome, clean-cut everyman, Swede Levov, whose profound decency proves to be an Achilles’ heel. Here, Roth’s subject was history with a capital H: the 1960s radicals, embodied by a Weatherman-like extremist. “How could she ‘hate’ this country when she had no conception of this country?” her father wonders. The author seems to agree: Radicals aren’t brave; they’re just mad at their parents. In response, several Roth scholars rejected the notion that Roth had turned conservative. This is true—he was always somewhat conservative, if not politically then temperamentally, disdaining the counterculture and radical chic. American Pastoral was embraced by conservatives and nearly everyone else, snaring the Pulitzer Prize.

Read more on Jewish Review of Books: