I was raised in an Orthodox household and sent to a Jewish school where I was taught Torah and prayer. I was taught about the Holocaust and the founding of Israel. I was taught about Jewish continuity and the Spanish Inquisition and the Hebrew language and even some Yiddish. But I didn’t really know what it meant to be a Jew — nor did I know exactly how to be Jewish — until I read Philip Roth.
Roth was not assigned reading at my yeshiva, mind you; no, my introduction to him was an accident. My mother, always on the lookout for the ways that the world was trying to rip her many daughters’ many virginities away from them, wouldn’t let me read Sweet Valley High books like the rest of the sixth-graders at my school. She took one look at the peach-cheeked, yellow-haired twins with sparkling gentile genetics on the covers of those books, and she basically saw a porno.
Meanwhile, my older sister, Tracy, smuggled a copy of “Portnoy’s Complaint” into our “Virgin Suicides” house. I remember her sitting at the table, eating flanken unmolested with the hardcover standing up on its own, forming an angled force field around her while our mother interrogated my “Baby-Sitters Club” book, whose cover featured a boy sitter named Logan. (“He only wants to be a babysitter to get near the girls!”) Over at the other end of the table, Tracy’s book had a serious cover, words only, with a heavyweight Caslon-variant typeface whose swash capitals somehow, despite their femininity, conveyed the literary masculinity that was the authority of the time.
One boring November day, unable to continue to defend the virtue of a Paula Danziger character who ate too many pistachios to my mother, I picked up “Goodbye, Columbus.” I was hooked, dazzled by the complicated, dirty, thousand-word sentences and the boobs. After “Columbus,” I read “Portnoy.” Then “Letting Go.” Then “When She Was Good.” I did not take a chance on bringing “The Breast” or “The Prague Orgy” into my house, lest I too overtly tempt my mother’s attention, but I had a locker at school and an intestinal condition I would fake during math. I was never bored again.
My mother should have recognized the Roth books as the real enemy, since the only thing worse than a deflowered daughter would be one encouraged to examine her ambivalence about the American Jewish experience outside our community’s hushed auspices. In the end, that’s what those books really did for me. There was a book for every facet of this quandary: “Goodbye, Columbus” for interclass tensions; “The Human Stain” and “American Pastoral” for the perils of passing; “Indignation” for assimilation and intermarriage.
Roth’s books answered the question of how all this Jewish education I was getting would translate into the real world, should I survive the ordeal of childhood. What did it mean to be Jewish in America? Were we supposed to convey pride in our religion and our culture? Were we the punch lines to a joke that was constantly being made? Were the jokes at least funny? And such small portions? Was being Jewish a bad thing? Were we proud? Were we embarrassed? Did we still have to watch our backs? How should a modern Jew behave in the world? How should a modern Jew assert his or her Jewishness? Were we white? You’re kidding yourself if you think we’re white! Do the goyim like us, or do they simply tolerate us? You’re kidding yourself if you think they tolerate us! How to act, how to assimilate but not too much, how to remind them about the Holocaust when they got uppity about Jewish privilege. How to not break into laughter when someone used the phrase “Jewish privilege.”
The Jews in my life grappled with their identities in only the most private forums. There were heated, impolite conversations that, should we air them in public, might give away some kind of tenuous advantage that we had gained over the years, which was, specifically, that nobody in the mid-1980s was overtly trying to genocide us. There was economic prosperity then. There wasn’t the kind of economic downturn that unleashes, oh say, burning swastikas at rallies in the South, or the unprovoked beatings of at least three Jews in Brooklyn in the last month.
To ask the questions in public would be to admit that we were unsure, or in disagreement. Any fracture in the facade or unity might topple our tenuous, newly earned, mostly illusory strength. But Roth didn’t care. He wrote about our avenue of the American experience, not just for us, but for the world. In “The Plot Against America,” how we’re just one unlucky decision away from another disaster, one that would wipe us from the earth completely. In “American Pastoral,” how irresistible a shiksa could be, not just because of her beauty and the health she would surely hand down to your children, but because of the baggage she wouldn’t. Elsewhere, what it meant to be the child of people who came to America to forget, but then insisted on incessant remembering. How Jews would never be left to forget that they were different. How only some Jews wanted to even try to forget. And when he was done writing about the questions, he wrote about our anger at him having aired our dirty infighting.
He was called self-hating for all this, but he wasn’t self-hating. He was paving a road that would legitimize the American Jewish experience so thoroughly as to elicit a piece like this upon his death, which was edited by not one but two yellow-haired genetically sparkling gentiles. With every book, with every question, with every overt display of ambivalence and disgust, he was affirming to us that we were contenders. Like our experiences deserved to be considered and judged.
Like we belonged here.
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