Private Sins Aside, Philip Roth’s Biographer Fails to Understand His Jewish Context

July 28 2021

This year saw the publication of two biographies of Philip Roth, who died in 2018 after a long, controversial, and much-celebrated literary career. In her review, Judith Shulevitz focuses on the one written by Blake Bailey, whom Roth carefully chose for the job. To Shulevitz, the work is marred by an excessive willingness to accept its subject’s view of things—which is no doubt what Roth intended:

Bailey took as his epigraph Roth’s instruction, “I don’t want you to rehabilitate me. Just make me interesting.” By the time you reach the last of the book’s 912 pages, however, Roth’s directive may strike the reader as disingenuous. Roth commissioned his biography—indeed, he began trying to commission it decades before he met Bailey—precisely to rehabilitate himself, which is not the same as being interesting. In particular, Roth felt that he had been unfairly besmirched by a damning memoir by his former second wife, the actress Claire Bloom, and he was not a man to let go of a grievance. Bailey’s biography was supposed to give him the last word.

But that’s not the only flaw:

Bailey lacks a feel for Jews of Roth’s generation. In particular, it doesn’t occur to him to think about how they got out from under the weight of the past. They didn’t go in for family history the way Jews do now, and though Roth began locating lost relatives and soliciting their stories late in life, he never had more than a hazy understanding of previous generations. A well-researched account of his grandparents’ transition from the familiar but pogrom-ridden Galicia to the unknown wilds of New Jersey could have told us many things about Roth that Roth spent most of his life not finding out.

The old country was not at all like a certain Broadway musical, as Roth observed, but what was it like for the Roths and his mother’s family, the Finkels? Bailey is as vague as Roth. He uses thirdhand sources and Roth’s own limited knowledge to reconstruct their corner of Galicia, the city of Tarnopol (Roth made it the surname of another of his alter egos). Bailey quotes Irving Howe about shtetl sociology here, offers an anecdote from Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March there, and serves up credulous generalities about Polish Jewish life: “Solace was found in ritual and piety. A good Jew’s life was finely regulated by 613 mitzvoth. . . . The law was embodied by rabbis.”

In a coda to the review, Shulevitz treats the scandal that swept up Bailey’s book when, in an all-too-real plot-twist that seemed straight out of one of Roth’s novels, reports surfaced accusing the biographer of execrable personal behavior.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: American Jewish literature, Biography, 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