• Email
  • Print

Philip Roth and the Jews: An Exchange

In response to:

Imagining Jews from the October 3, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

In his demurrer to my charge that he introduces the anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jew as “defiler and destroyer of the Gentile world” into his depiction of Portnoy, Philip Roth [“Imagining Jews,” NYR, October 3] misrepresents my position and credits me with extraordinary obtuseness. Roth starts out by stricturing my supposed inability to appreciate the techniques of fellatio, and my failure to “give any indication that oral intercourse may not necessarily constitute the last word in human degradation.” The relevance of my hypothetical shortcomings in this regard to the discussion escapes me since I nowhere commented on Portnoy’s sexual predilections with either Jew or Gentile. On the contrary, I referred specifically to the depressingly unerotic scene in which Portnoy exults because he, a swarthy Jew, possesses a blonde “New England patrician,” can “stick it up their backgrounds,” and so “conquer America.” This program is about as aphrodisiac as a page from The Protocols of Zion. The dark Jewboy lusting after the Aryan maiden in order to dominate her world is pretty standard stuff though presented more amusingly than in the usual script.

So much for “defiler.” Now as to “destroyer.” Here I referred to one of few moments of joy Roth grants his character. Portnoy describes his delight when as a liberal member of a committee investigating television scandals he manages to expose a Goy: “Yes, I was one happy yiddel…busily exploding Charlie’s honor and integrity…. Phenomenon known as hating your Goy and Eating One Too.”

Despite the disarming diminutive and the antic humor, this “happy yiddel,” gloating simultaneously over the conquest of a Gentile “background” and the demolition of a Goy is cast from a familiar mould. That the pattern does not quite fit the farcical shlemiehl Roth has been portraying makes these glimpses all the more baleful. The merriment is not so innocent.

The issue is not Roth’s depiction of “lustful” Jews as he seems to believe. From the Old Testament to the present time. Jewish writers have produced an abundant quota of Jewish lechers. Roth has much company in what he conceives to be a pioneering venture; however, I grant that in making masturbation a literary theme, he has uniquely succeeded in giving a Jewish ambience to a non-sectarian practice.

Nor is the issue the Jewish writer’s freedom to depict hostile, aggressive Jews instead of meek sufferers as Roth suggests. One of the greatest of modern Jewish writers, Isaac Babel, wrote of Jewish gangsters in Odessa. But he also described other kinds of Jews and other facets of Jewish experience. It is the monotony of Roth’s gross, mean Jewish world, peopled largely by cheats and vulgarians, that is offensive. That he presents his cast with homey touches of local color ranging from appetizing Jewish delicatessen to hilariously mimicked dialogue only serves to make his caricatures more convincing and consequently more vicious. I, for one, recognize the matzoh balls but not the diners.

Even allowing for the ebullience of satire, Roth cannot have it both ways. He cannot claim that he is offering liberating insights into the Jewish psyche (as in the passages I have quoted) and then protest if readers note how his particular vision parallels that provided less divertingly by the commonplaces of anti-Semitism. Finally, when a writer asserts the primacy of the artist’s conscience and imagination readers are bound to judge his truth and intent by what he imagines and the kinds of images that he persistently dredges out of his consciousness.

Marie Syrkin

New York City

Philip Roth replies:

Since Marie Syrkin contends that my selective quoting from her March, 1973, Commentary letter, rather than going to the heart of her characterization of Portnoy’s lustfulness, actually misrepresents her position, I think I owe it to her to quote that letter in its entirety.

To the Editor of Commentary:

I have only one reservation in regard to Irving Howe’s superb essay on Philip Roth [“Philip Roth Reconsidered,” December 1972]: he lets Roth off too lightly in an area important enough to warrant dissenting comment. Mr. Howe writes: “Portnoy’s Complaint is not, as enraged critics have charged, an anti-Semitic book, though it contains plenty of contempt for Jewish life.” At the risk of joining the ranks of the enraged, I should like to examine this statement.

To begin with, the line between “contempt for Jewish life” and anti-Semitism is a bit shaky. Among its various components, anti-Semitism has a generous admixture of contempt which may either spring from hate or lead to hate. But even if we accept the distinction made by Mr. Howe, Roth remains open to the heavier charge.

For the sake of argument I am prepared to grant that Roth’s unrelieved picture of Jewish grossness, chicanery, lechery, hypocrisy, and so on belongs in the realm of the extended Jewish joke; and that Roth’s vision of the Jewish family in Portnoy…is, according to the taste of the reader, satire, realism, or simply a hilarious lampoon of the Jewish tribe which should vex only the overly nervous Jewish bourgeoisie. After all, why should Jews be exempt from the social critic’s jibe or the prophet’s wrath? And who is more qualified than a fellow tribesman to reveal the sty hidden beneath ritually pure kashrut? Let me also grant that the tribe’s perpetually endangered state is no reason for a serious humorist to stay his hand. Such matters should be the concern of rabbis, professional Jews, and other philistines, not of the honest writer and his enthusiastic reader. Yet even after all these concessions to artistic probity are made—“I paint the world as I see it”—there remains in Portnoy a distillate of something describable only as plain unadulterated anti-Semitism. The fact that the more sophisticated the critic the more readily he has ignored its presence tells us something about the Jewish condition in the United States.

No disquisition on the nature of anti-Semitism is called for in this instance. Let us venture to be simple. Of what, in addition to lesser charges (Jews are pushy, vulgar, dishonest, shirkers of military duty, and generally unsavory), do anti-Semites accuse Jews? The gravamen of the anti-Semitic indictment straight through Hitler is that the Jew is the defiler and destroyer of the Gentile world.

Now what about hapless Portnoy, the amusing shlemiel on the analyst’s couch? He is neither so innocent nor so impotent. His boyhood pollutions are the prelude to his calculated pollution of his environment. In a classic description of what the Nazis called rassenschande (racial defilement), Portnoy explains that he lusts after blonde shikses not because he is drawn to them individually but because that is how he can “conquer America.” In sexual intercourse his pleasure is that “I can stick it up their backgrounds.” The scene in which he gloats at the contrast between his swarthy body and that of the fair Nordic patrician maiden he possesses is straight out of the Goebbels-Streicher script. Only the customary Roth technique of festooning the savage contour of his creation with amusing bits of idiom or local color—the dark Jewish body is at least half “undigested halvah and hot pastrami, from Newark, N.J.”—keeps the chuckling reader from realizing what has been perpetrated.

Nor is Roth content with depicting Portnoy as the willful violator of the Gentile sexual background. He must be revealed as the enemy of the Gentile world. For Portnoy, Assistant Commissioner of Human Opportunity, the phony Jewish liberal par excellence, offers as his prime achievement his exposure of an “Ur-Wasp” in the television quiz scandals: “Yes, I was one happy yiddel down there in Washington, a little Stern Gang of my own, busily exploding Charlie’s honor and integrity, while simultaneously becoming lover to that aristocratic Yankee beauty whose forebears arrived on these shores in the 17th century. Phenomenon known as Hating Your Goy and Eating One Too.”

This is not even funny. It’s plain vicious. And the voice is that of Roth not of Portnoy, for no “happy yiddel” would refer to himself as such in this context. The destruction of a goy is the sole positive achievement which Roth bestows on his creation. That the achievement is wholly out of character with fumbling Alex as heretofore presented only serves to underscore the act. Despite the disarming diminutive, the one happy yiddel emerges as the baleful Yid of tradition. The two crudest and most venerable stereotypes of anti-Semitic lore—the Jew as sexual defiler and malevolent destroyer with a supporting cast of cheats and vulgarians—move in a Jewish ambience whose authenticity is guaranteed by appetizing borsht, wonderfully mimicked intonations, and comic folkways. If the accent rings true, why doubt the words?

The literary decline of Roth is brilliantly traced by Mr. Howe. The same descending line may be noted in Roth’s social commentary on American Jewry—his chief if not sole theme. By current standards the stories in Goodbye, Columbus now seem less shocking though just as skillful as when they first appeared. To épater les bourgeois today Roth has to kick over the traces entirely. The antic humor of Portnoy provides the guise. America, while holding its nose, embraced Portnoy as a perceptive if extravagant depiction of American-Jewish life and Jewish literati led in bestowing the accolades. Now that Roth has shifted from Jewish mother to mammary gland, cosmic profundities are being discovered in what is in reality a bore. But The Breast continues a process already apparent in Portnoy. Like every cartoonist, Roth dismembers his characters by dehumanizing them so that they never appear whole. Then he pastes the bits together with a realistic Jewish glue so that the reader, sniffing the agreeable aroma of knishes, can rejoice in discovering what “they are really like” without feeling guilty.

While the pathology of anti-Semitism may be mysterious in its origins, its symptoms are all too obvious….

Marie Syrkin, New York City

Res ipse loquitur. Or, for those who spoke no Latin at home: Gornisht mit gornisht iz als gornisht. However, to answer her complaint, I shall in any future printing of “Imagining Jews” insert the bracketed words into the following sentence: “Here is Syrkin’s characterization of Portnoy’s lustful, even vengefully lustful designs upon [the Gentile world and its women—and particularly of the gratifications he seeks, and to some degree obtains, from] a rich and pretty Wasp girl, a shiksa whom he would have perform fellatio upon him, if only she could master the skill without asphyxiating herself.”

  • Email
  • Print