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 | Cynthia Ozick
About the author: Cynthia Ozick is an American writer whose essays, short stories, and novels  have won countless awards. Her latest novel, Antiquities, was published in 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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