The media have recently awoken to the phenomenon, often discussed in this column, that mainstream American Jewish culture and mainstream Israeli culture are in the process of permanently parting ways. It is particularly poignant to see this realization occur in the wake of the recent passing of American Jewry’s greatest literary explicator and challenger, Philip Roth.
A recent American Jewish Committee survey tells us, as William Galston put it in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, that Israel is a red state and American Jewry a blue state. They hated Obama and love Trump; we, the opposite. They want to keep their settlements and occupy the West Bank forever, democracy be damned; we’re still democrats. They are unbothered by the horrors of what’s happening in Gaza; we are troubled. They let fundamentalist rabbis tell them whom they can marry, who can be buried where, and even who is and who is not a real Jew; we say “feh” to all that.
The Israelis believe that liberal, secular American Jews are disappearing, to be replaced by politically conservative Orthodox Jews. And according to the rough projections of scholars Ediel Pinker and Steven M. Cohen, in 40 years, Orthodox will indeed outnumber Reform and Conservative Jews combined. By the end of the century, given current birthrates, they could outnumber all American Jews, period.
Roth’s life tracked the golden age of secular American Jewry. Growing up in the shadow of World War II, he was able to effortlessly marry his patriotism to his Jewishness, not through jingoism but through baseball. As he explained back in 1973:
[B]aseball was a kind of secular church that reached into every class and region of the nation and bound us together in common concerns, loyalties, rituals, enthusiasms, and antagonisms….[T]he war that began when I was eight had thrust the country into what seemed to a child—and not only to a child—a struggle to the death (“unconditional surrender”) between Good and Evil. Fraught with perilous, unthinkable possibilities, it inevitably nourished a patriotism grounded in moral virtuousness and bloody-minded hate, the patriotism that fixes a bayonet to a Bible. It seems to me that through baseball I came to understand and experience patriotism in its tender and humane aspects, lyrical rather than martial or righteous in spirit, and without the reek of saintly zeal, a patriotism that could not quite so easily be sloganized, or contained in a high-sounding formula to which one had to pledge something vague but all-encompassing called one’s “allegiance.”
Coming of age in the aftermath of the Holocaust and (therefore) the near disappearance of socially acceptable anti-Semitism, Roth’s generation of Jews were freer and safer than any Jews in history—free to make their own lives as they wished and to negotiate their own relationship to their religion and its people. American Jews grew more self-confident, making their mark in places that had previously been closed off to them. Nowhere was this truer than in the world of culture. Arthur Miller’s 1949 Death of a Salesman is still the most representative American play of the past century. Saul Bellow broke open barriers four years later when his Augie March declared, “I am an American, Chicago born.” Augie was Jewish. So too, Arthur Miller would eventually admit, was Willy Loman. But they were Jews without religion and with a fierce American sense of limitless possibility. Roth, who frequently credited Bellow with liberating him as a writer, burrowed deep into the Jewish psyche, fusing it with an unquenchable libido and a stiff-necked refusal to let anyone tell him who he should be and what he should write. As his friend the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld would observe, “Roth’s Jews are Jews without Judaism.”
Roth’s revolution was to show Jews acting as badly as Christians did when it came to lying, adultery, and communal closed-mindedness. His take on Israel transformed over time. In Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), he is clearly thrilled by it, but, while the fascination remains, his view of Israel gets darker. Operation Shylock (1993) is Roth’s most underrated book and a masterpiece regarding Israeli/American Jewish relations. In a remarkable scene in the epilogue, a retired Mossad agent meets “Philip Roth”—one of two in the novel—inside “a Jewish food store on Amsterdam Avenue” that is clearly Barney Greengrass, the smoked-fish restaurant that Upper West Side Jews sometimes invest with religious significance. Roth writes of “the bitter fragrance of vinegar, of onions, of whitefish and red herring” as lovingly as the scribes did of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. The Mossad agent, who has accused himself earlier in the novel of criminality and brutality toward the Palestinians, is demanding that “Roth” alter the text of a book he is about to publish to protect Israel’s secret spy operations. He explains that “Diaspora Jews constitute a pool of foreign nationals” who often undertake dangerous and distasteful tasks for Israel. “They find their compensation, all of it, in having fulfilled a Jewish duty.”
“Roth” admires this man; he almost loves him. The Mossad agent represents “what ‘Jew’ is to me, the best of it to me. Worldly negativity. Seductive verbosity. Intellectual venery. The hatred. The lying. The distrust. The this-worldliness. The truthfulness. The intelligence. The malice. The comedy. The endurance. The acting. The injury. The impairment.” But “Roth” never stops sparring with the agent. He is his own man fulfilling his own Jewish destiny, not Israel’s. His is what is often called “lox and bagels” Judaism, one of memory, family, and friendship. But these qualities turn out not to be strong enough to sustain, much less reproduce themselves in, a new generation of secular Jews. Israel, moreover, has become an alien country, supported by a hateful American president who cozies up to anti-Semites and neo-Nazis.
The past is now truly the past; it died with our greatest novelist. Philip Roth insisted that he be buried with no religious trappings whatever. May his memory be a blessing.