Philip Roth and My Jewish Essence
I recently purchased the biography of novelist, Philip Roth. I have very little interest in the man. It was purely an investment. Soon after the book came out, the biographer, Blake Bailey was accused of sexual assault. I figured, rightly so, that in our cancel culture atmosphere, the publisher would stop printing the book. I was hoping it would shoot up in value a la Dr. Seuss books that were banned. I envisioned selling my copy for $500 on eBay.
Alas, my huge investment of $24 was a bust as you can still purchase the book at regular price. Thankfully I was able to return it to Amazon, so it ended up costing me nothing.
As for Philip Roth the man, I can’t say I was a fan. His portrayal of American Jewish life was not the most flattering. I will readily admit that I have never read any of his works, but what I have read about him doesn’t really interest me. I am not of the highly educated, northeast cultured crowd who gravitates towards the darlings of The New York Times. I have very little personal experience with the type of Jewish world he was raised in and have even less connection to it. It is clearly a vastly different one than what I grew up with and that I presently inhabit.
That being said, the closest I ever came to reading one of his novels was many years ago when I was teaching a class to a group of businessmen and lawyers who shared office space in Coconut Grove. One of them gave me The Counterlife, figuring I would be interested in it since some of it takes place in Israel where I lived for many years. This novel is somewhat unique among his works because of the Israel locale which is apparently different than the usual American setting of failed and perverse Jewish life that normally animates Roth’s stories.
I tried reading it but lost interest early on and never did get through it. But somehow I came across one bit that was truly fantastic. I can honestly say it is probably the best description that captures the essence, feelings and thoughts of someone who has transitioned their life – moving from a marginal Jew to a more involved, practicing one.
I cannot give you the context of the following excerpt because, again, I never read the book. But you can tell it is about a fellow visiting Israel with others and the profound impact it had on him. It is too long for me to quote in entirety, so I am giving you the shortened, cleaned-up version where I have taken out some of the very funny but somewhat offensive parts. (It is on page 60-61 if you want to see the whole version.):
One a day tour of Jerusalem, he had broken away from the other four after lunch and wandered back by himself into the Orthodox quarter, Mea She’arim, where they had all been that morning with the guide. It was there, alone outside the classroom window of a religious school, that he had the experience that changed everything.
“I was sitting in the sunshine on the stone sill of this broken-down old cheder. Inside was a class, a room full of kids, little eight-, nine-, ten-year-old kids with skullcaps and payess, screaming the lesson out for their teacher, all of them reciting in unison at the top of their voices. And when I heard them, there was a surge inside me, a realization- at the root of my life, the very root of it, I was them. I always had been them. Children chanting away in Hebrew, I couldn’t understand a word of it, couldn’t recognize a single sound, and yet I was listening as though something I didn’t even know I’d been searching for was suddenly reaching out for me.
I stayed all week in Jerusalem. Every morning around eleven I went back to that school and sat on the window sill and listened. You have to understand that the place isn’t picturesque. The surroundings are hideous. Rubble dumped between the buildings, old appliances piled on the porches, piled in the yards – everything clean enough, but dilapidated, crumbling, rusty, everything coming apart wherever you looked. And not a color, a flower, a leaf, not a blade of grass or fresh coat of paint, nothing bright or attractive anywhere, nothing trying to please you in any way. Everything superficial had been cleared away, burned away, didn’t matter – was trivial… Only the uglier and more barren everything looked, the more it held me – the clearer everything became.
I hung around there all one Friday, watching them get ready for the Sabbath… I bought a challah in some little dungeon bakery – stood in the crush and bought a challah and carried it all day in a bag under my arm. When I got back to the hotel, I took it out of the bag and put it on the bureau. I didn’t eat it. I left it there the whole week – left it on the bureau and looked at it, as though it were a piece of sculpture, something precious I’d stolen from a museum. Everything was like this. I couldn’t stop looking, over and over again going back to stare at the same places.
And that’s when I began to realize that all that I am, I am nothing, I have never been anything, the way that I am this Jew. I didn’t know this, had no idea of it, all my life I was swimming against it – then sitting and listening to those kids outside the cheder window, suddenly it belonged to me. Everything else was superficial, everything else was burned away. Can you understand? I may not be expressing it right, but I actually don’t care how it sounds to you or to anyone. I am not just a Jew, I’m not also a Jew – I’m a Jew as deep as those Jews. Everything else is nothing. And it’s that, that, that all these months has been staring me right in the face. The fact that that is the root of my life!”
Roth masterfully illustrates the epiphany and experience that every Jew needs to have. To realize, when all is said and done, that you are not just a Jew, you are not also a Jew; that at the very root and core of your existence is your Jewish soul and being.
At some point in our life, we need to cross that line and get this realization. That as much as we may be involved in a whole hosts of interests and events, it is all “superficial and needs to be cleared away, burned away, didn’t matter – was trivial.” Not that one has to adopt the lifestyle of Mea She’arim, but that at some point we need to enter that space – if but for a short time – and thereby get to place and vantage point where one looks at life and lives it through a Jewish lens above all else. A moment or event that redefines my core and self and animates my thoughts and words and deeds for the rest of my life.
Some of us have been there. Some of us have had that transformative moment. But there are plenty Jews out who haven’t. All we can do is live our Jewish life to the fullest and maybe, just maybe, we can be that Mea She’arim moment for another Jew.
In some small way, Philip Roth did just that.
What I’m fighting for
Is worth far more than silver and gold
What I’m fighting for
Is a chance to unite the past…
Sons and daughters of Abraham
Lay down to a higher command
Don’t be tricked by the acts of man
God’s wisdom revealed in a holy plan