As you may have read everywhere else but here, Philip Roth was denied the Nobel Prize in Literature last week. Feh! But why fuss over cultural pronouncements of the Swedish Academy when Roth devotees still have the Swede? In fact, nearly a thousand Roth fanatics, who inexplicably had nothing to do on a Tuesday afternoon, not only had the Swede (American Pastoral), but Alexander Portnoy (Portnoy’s Complaint) and Roth himself (or at least The Plot Against America version of Roth) brought to life in a dramatic reading headlined by Alec Baldwin.
The event was the surreal realization of the TIPA Project, the Library of America, and Temple Emanu-El, the 5th Avenue mega-shul, which staged the reading…on the bimah…of its smaller sanctuary. Apparently, we’ve come a long way from our reception of Roth’s earlier works, which infamously prompted charges that Roth was a heretic, a subversive, an anti-Semite, or worse yet, the reinforcer of anti-Jewish tropes. The rabbi for Temple Emanu-El welcomed the crowd and kashered the affair by speaking warmly of Roth.
To be fair, there was a short partition that separated the lectern from the Torah arc and the ner tamid, but as October light seeped in through the room’s eight massive stained glass windows, the backdrop was set for some postmodern shenanigans. Fortunately (or disappointingly), the reading was all chalk, drawing on some of Roth’s most well-known and relatively anodyne passages.
As Paul Carlin, the Bronx-born actor, read a heroic passage about Alexander Portnoy’s insurance salesman father, racked by constipation and characterized as the Jew who tilled the barren grounds of northern Jersey’s uninsured, there was no shortage of laughter and wheezing from the crowd. John Rothman went next, letting his Broadway chops show by announcing that he was going to read from AMERICAN Pass-toe-raahl. Also culling from the book’s early pages, Rothman read Nathan Zuckerman’s paean to the Swede, the baseball-crushing high school star, whose passive response to being “the desired object of all this asexual lovemaking” by Newark’s Jewish community, has seemingly come to resemble Roth himself these days.
Applause for Alec Baldwin broke out before he even reached the lectern, where, with some false humility, Baldwin clumsily noted Roth’s handsomeness on a nearby poster before adding that “If I looked like that, I would have written books with a lot of sex in them, too.” We all squealed with delight anyway. Baldwin then broke into some early pages of Roth’s The Plot Against America, a masterfully chosen passage that allowed Baldwin to channel the prosecutorial fury of Roth, the book’s narrator whose first childhood hero, President Roosevelt, is challenged for the White House by Roth’s first childhood villain, the Nazi apologist Charles Lindbergh.
The passages recited by all three actors centered around Roth’s New Jersey, which, if unintended, seemed a bit reductive. Sure, it wouldn’t have been fair to expect some of the lurid parts of Sabbath’s Theater or the partisan rage of The Human Stain’s opening pages, but there was London, Jerusalem, Central Europe, and even New England to survey. Whatever complaints a listener might have had, dissolved, when Baldwin–in his salt-coarsed voice– launched into the “Our Homeland Was America” part of the liturgy, which ends with:
Israel didn’t yet exist, six million European Jews hadn’t yet ceased to exist, and the local relevance of distant Palestine (under British mandate since the 1918 dissolution by the victorious Allies of the last far-flung provinces of the defunct Ottoman Empire) was a mystery to me. When a stranger who did wear a beard and who never once was seen hatless appeared every few months after dark to ask in broken English for a contribution toward the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine, I, who wasn’t an ignorant child, didn’t quite know what he was doing on our landing. My parents would give me or Sandy a couple of coins to drop into his collection box, largess, I always thought, dispensed out of kindness so as not to hurt the feelings of a poor old man who, from one year to the next, seemed unable to get it through his head that we’d already had a homeland for three generations. I pledged allegiance to the flag of our homeland every morning at school. I sang of its marvels with my classmates at assembly programs. I eagerly observed its national holidays, and without giving a second thought to my affinity for the Fourth of July fireworks or the Thanksgiving turkey or the Decoration Day double-header. Our homeland was America.
Then the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed.
The only thing missing at Temple Emanu-El (God is with us), of course, was Roth. He was kind enough to send his regards. Following Baldwin’s reading, a note from Roth was read aloud, in which he explained that he had wanted to attend, but had been hospitalized over the weekend. (A collective “aww” hummed from the crowd.) According to Roth, “a microbe made a deal with my intestine and knocked me down. Down, but not out.” (Laughter and applause.) The note went on:
“Otherwise, I would be seated in the front row as starstruck as anyone else. But, as General Douglas MacArthur said as American forces were driven out of the Philippines by the Japanese at the start of World War II, I shall return.”