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Family Plots

A once-Orthodox writer finds inspiration in Philip Roth’s historical reconstructions, even if his latest alter ego isn’t threatened by tradition.

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Around the age of 12, I concluded that Orthodoxy’s map for living marked too elaborate a hopscotch pattern for me. I had never been much good at rule-based activities, liking best walks across uncultivated lots. Within a few years, a rigorous, self-guided program of malingering got me out of the municipal school in Petakh Tikva and into a vocational school in Tel Aviv. Though again consigned to a nominally religious setting, here I encountered an entirely new breed of girl. Or I should say, what at home had been the closeted exception was now the rowdy rule. We trawled the Central Bus Station market stalls for hair ribbons and lipstick, swayed in small-time dancehalls, and ventured out on dates involving heavy petting, motorcycle rides, and road-stop meals devoured on Shabbat.

My joyride through semi-secular Israel came to an abrupt end when, as I entered the 12th grade, my family moved back to the States, land of outlandish opportunities that wove themselves almost immediately through my really-still-pretty-cautious life. Even cutting loose in Tel Aviv, I had kept to the slacker fringe of the tradition-bound, sheltered from truly insubordinate humanity. But here I was, discovering myself on the giant blank slate of a country I knew next to nothing about.

Possibly I got more than I bargained for—or is it less? It had never been my goal to reinvent myself from the ground up. In all my thirst for personal liberty, never would it have occurred to me to shuck my heritage, only to move into its loosest folds. Nathan Englander once commented in an interview on his delight at discovering in Israel the “culturally Jewish” way of life. A Jew can embrace his or her culture anywhere, but in Israel it seems to embrace you, as if it were the climate: holidays blowing in with the seasons, history pumping through the language. In America, holding on to your identity requires commitment. Sporadically, I seek out prayer services, Israeli singalongs, and other establishments of communality and continuity as would have once aroused in me only a great desire to get out. But for a system of observance, to perform my personal rituals of worship and irreverence, love and skepticism, gratitude and frustration, loyalty and dissent, I rely on the discipline of writing.

The notion of narrative as stopgap, a tent city filling the void left by dismantled conventions, occurs out of driving need, I think, to writers like Englander, Pearl Abraham, or myself, who may always be digging in the scrap heaps of their deconstructed Orthodoxies for building materials. From an act of destruction we try to yield a construction, from the bereavement of voluntary loss a life of compulsive creation, from rebellion a sort of community service. It is curious—or else entirely understandable—that a towering originator of our destructive and preservative guild did not himself emerge from the Orthodox world.


Philip Roth, 1960.

When I consider Philip Roth’s work in this light, I imagine a troika of fictional characters harnessed side-by-side to pull their precarious shared load, massive and complicated and tending to disjoin. There stands Sergeant Nathan Marx, “Defender of the Faith,” powerfully built although beginning to develop a paunch, doubt in his eyes, discipline fixing his jaw. Beside him rangy, off-rhythm Alex Portnoy, complaining, painfully aware of what they say he should be pulling, but just as fixated on bulges in the pocket. Finally, the author’s newest creation, the 7-year-old Phil Roth of The Plot Against America. On first glance, the small boy seems to emulate precociously the methodical sergeant, to whom he glances for cues. Watch him closely, though, and you will see that every now and then this sober kid, wide-eyed with sudden terror, tries to slip the reins and bolt. In the manner of Biblical archetypes from Abel to Joseph, each reflects the same idea reconsidered.

At a 1962 Yeshiva University appearance, Roth was assailed by an angry mob of faculty and students for what they saw as his calumnious depiction of Jewish character in “Defender of the Faith.” In the story, a Private Grossbart asks Sergeant Marx, his coreligionist, for preferential treatment, using Orthodoxy and shrill claims of tribal preservation to support his escalating demands. In his later autobiographical work, The Facts, Philip Roth traces the conception of Portnoy to the YU encounter. With Portnoy, who arrived in 1969, Roth was “upping the ante”; if grabby Grossbart offended, let the YU crowd try the most bawdily voracious Portnoy on for size.

But Portnoy is not an extension of the dishonorable Private Grossbart; he is the literary offspring (or perhaps bastard child) of Grossbart’s nobler foil, Sergeant Marx, who is initially taken in but finally cuts off the favoritism, rescinding Grossbart’s last wangled favor, to be stationed in New Jersey rather than the Pacific war zone. Jew by birth, all-American by ideology, Marx redefines his faith-defending role as a righteous law enforcement, a kashrut supervision of fellow Jews following universal standards of decency and accountability, foreshadowing Alex Portnoy’s high position on the Commission On Human Opportunity. You might say all the opportunity lands Portnoy on the shrink’s couch. You could say also that complaining is his opportunity to populate the gap between all that he feels he could be and have, and what his galloping sense of possibility has actually managed to get him.

Now, in The Plot Against America, this epic complaint—issued by one Roth character after another—finds its youngest agent. Little Phil Roth, “a third grader a term ahead of himself,” does have a certain edge on worldly wisdom, but being so young he’s only dimly aware of all that lies beyond the low-cut hedges of his neighborhood and the shelter of a loving family. Through his philately, Phil discovers the arrhythmic pulse of the American promise, stamp by stamp: Horace Mann, America’s early champion of education as the Great Equalizer; Booker T. Washington, “the first Negro to appear on an American stamp”; Susan B. Anthony. But there is no black face on a stamp celebrating American children, and no stamp portraying a Jew.

Readers can see a better future and the pluralistic stamps honoring Hanukkah, Eid, and Cinco de Mayo. But Phil is living in an alternate past, which may not be headed our way. In times overtaken by a warped spirit of progress, Charles Lindbergh, conqueror of the Atlantic skies and proponent of Hitler, has risen to the Presidential post. Phil’s quandary is not so much how to reconcile his will with his roots, but how to keep the basic package alive.

To Marx and Portnoy, tradition-bearers are challengers, will-suppressors. Phil, by comparison, has never felt tradition as a threat. A moderate Jewish ritualism has always figured into his life, as reassuring as the measured rhythms of his dedicated parents’ daily labors. Phil’s parents are The Plot‘s brightest lights, mythic guardians and loyal Jews, who even at the height of chaos and despair maintain a valiantly stubborn grip on normalcy. Surely their gosling could never see in them an affliction; without them he would not survive.

This is not any child, though, but a Rothian hero of modernism. Even under the most crushing strictures in the world, his sense of possibility offers innovative options. If his immature psyche cannot articulate his wish to be parentless, his actions speak for themselves. Phil attempts to run away to a Catholic orphanage, but is kicked in the head by a horse, rescued by Seldon, his clingy, fatherless Jewish classmate, and delivered unconscious back to his Jewish fate.

It is Seldon—prototypically brainy, ostracized, luckless—who with his impositions on Phil’s conscience recalls Private Grossbart, minus the villainy. In an eerie channeling of Sergeant Marx, Phil arranges for poor Seldon, like Private Grossbart, to be sent to a war zone, or what soon becomes very much like one: Kentucky, which is overtaken by pogroms.

Marx’s action was a setting-straight of a shirker. Phil’s is something like the opposite, a passing of the buck. His family received the original transfer orders. Thus Phil continues the once-righteous Marxian line. According to the same high humanistic ideals, he attempts to break from coercive script. In compliance with low Portnoyan law, he makes a dirty job of it, and like Portnoy he suffers the consequence. The Roth family takes in the orphaned Seldon and Phil must become, in The Plot‘s final words, “the prosthesis,” trying to fill the dreadful gap that his own striving has caused.

The Facts suggests that Roth was riled by the YU criticism. Yet in “upping the ante” he did not indulge in mere defiance, but went the poker player’s way, taking the match of wits seriously and increasing his own personal risk. Beset by angry big-beards, the universalist took a harder look at his subject: life as he knows it, defining itself outside preset molds. And perhaps it is not so often heroic as it is outrageous and self-crippling, or maybe it’s a child who knows not quite exactly what he does. 5,765 years of tradition and 613 commandments map a tested method, but some kids just have to do it their way.

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Family Plots

A once-Orthodox writer finds inspiration in Philip Roth’s historical reconstructions, even if his latest alter ego isn’t threatened by tradition.

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