Insisting He Wasn’t a Jewish Writer, Philip Roth Couldn’t Stop Writing about the Jews, or Caring What They Thought of Him

April 2 2021

To Cynthia Ozick, Blake Bailey’s new biography of the late American novelist Philip Roth is “a narrative masterwork both of wholeness and particularity, of crises wedded to character, of character erupting into insight, insight into desire, and desire into destiny.” In her review, Ozick reconsiders the ferocious criticism hurled at Roth from American Jews, scandalized by the publications of such works as Portnoy’s Complaint and “The Conversion of the Jews”—criticism which seemed to sting Roth deeply even as he reveled in it, and made it fodder for future works:

What Roth saw, himself bruised and embittered by these vilifications, was ignorant philistinism by minds impenetrable to the comical and freewheeling and antic liberties of good-natured satire. But Portnoy had harvested antagonists who could hardly be dismissed as unsophisticated humorless philistines. Gershom Scholem, the pre-eminent scholar of Jewish mysticism, decried the novel as worse than the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. And the formidably intelligent critic Irving Howe, while asserting that Portnoy “has become a cultural document of some importance,” wrote scathingly in Commentary magazine of Roth’s “free-floating contempt and animus,” adding that “the cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is to read it twice”—a quip in Roth’s own vein.

This early skirmish was neither incidental nor marginal nor ephemeral; it cut deep and long. It was fundamental and inescapable and even prophetic of the work to come, especially The Plot Against America, where Jews are insidiously trapped by a scheming fascist-style president, and Operation Shylock, set in Israel and furiously on fire with Zionists and anti-Zionists.

Put aside the irony of a charge of anti-Semitism hurled against a writer for whom anti-Semitism was one of his most visceral antipathies. Under this irony lurked another: Roth’s lifelong insistence that he was not a “Jewish writer,” but a writer, above all an American writer—never mind that his fiction was largely preoccupied with Jews, from a reimagined Anne Frank (The Ghost Writer) to Alvin Pepler, the aggrieved former contestant in a rigged TV quiz show (Zuckerman Unbound). Open nearly any novel by Roth, and see the Jewish names overflow.

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Read more at New York Times

More about: American Jewish literature, Anti-Semitism, Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth

Will Costco Go to Israel?

Social-media users have mocked this week new Israeli finance minister Bezalel Smotrich for a poorly translated letter. But far more interesting than the finance minister’s use of Google Translate (or some such technology) is what the letter reveals about the Jewish state. In it, Smotrich asks none other than Costco to consider opening stores in Israel.

Why?

Israel, reports Sharon Wrobel, has one of the highest costs of living of any country in the 38-member Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

This

has been generally attributed to a lack of competition among local importers and manufacturers. The top three local supermarket chains account for over half of the food retail market, limiting competition and putting upward pressure on prices. Meanwhile, import tariffs, value-added tax costs and kosher restrictions have been keeping out international retail chains.

Is the move likely to happen?

“We do see a recent trend of international retailers entering the Israeli market as some barriers to food imports from abroad have been eased,” Chen Herzog, chief economist at BDO Israel accounting firm, told The Times of Israel. “The purchasing power and technology used by big global retailers for logistics and in the area of online sales where Israel has been lagging behind could lead to a potential shift in the market and more competitive prices.”

Still, the same economist noted that in Israel “the cost of real estate and other costs such as the VAT on fruit and vegetables means that big retailers such as Costco may not be able to offer the same competitive prices than in other places.”

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Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Costco, Israel & Zionism