It was eighteen years ago, almost to the day, when I had my first taste of Philip Roth.
Growing up in Jerusalem in the late 1970s and early 1980s, had I gone to my school’s library and asked for “Jewish Literature,” I would have most probably been directed to the works of S. I. Agnon, the great master of modern Hebrew literature, but most certainly not to the works of Roth, Bellow, Malamud and the other great names of the 20th Century Jewish American canon. Why? Because Zionism seemed to insist that all authentic manifestations of modern Judaism emanate from Israel. Diaspora Jews, according to its logic, were there to provide material and political support, and we, sons and daughters of the old-new homeland of the Jewish people, were there to make meaning of all Jewish life.
Little did I expect, then, the pleasant surprise I felt when I first picked up the dusty, yellow-jacketed copy of Portnoy’s Complaint and felt the rush of vitality, talent, and sheer audacity that gushed from its brittle, yellowing pages.
“It’s a disgusting book!” someone warned me. And yes, it was, but at the same time brilliant, boundless, and desperately original. Nothing spoke of Jewish neurosis, of mindful vulnerability and the tragedy of the minority state of mind, like the obscene, phallocentric rants of Roth’s Portnoy, who verbalized himself into oblivion while making some of the most heartbreakingly funny and astute observations about the perverse psycho-sexual reality of the American immigrant class.
And so it was through Portnoy’s—sorry, through Roth’s—eyes that I also first saw my own Israeli tribe through a critical outsider’s gaze. The picture he drew was far from flattering. Was it a pleasant discovery? Not necessarily. Roth’s self-satire is beyond barbed; it’s sometimes poisoned. His attention to detail is at times borderline psychotic, as is his brutal honesty about every humiliating twist and turn of his mind, which is really ours. As an Israeli, a product of the “New Jew” cultural mill, I often felt very uncomfortable with Roth’s tendency towards the grotesque and the self-deprecating. I did, however, realize that this tendency to wallow in weakness, so frowned upon back home in Israel, was also a sign of strength. Work by work, word by word, Roth modeled for me a trait that I always admired in writers and artists: brutal honesty.
Reading Roth’s literary gems, such as Portnoy’s Complaint, the Zuckerman Trilogy, Operation Shylock, American Pastoral, and the chillingly prophetic The Human Stain, has taught me an invaluable lesson about being a modern Jewish writer, a lesson that I would have never learned had I stayed in Israel and surrounded myself with its hermetic universe of pride and heroism. I attribute to him the broadening my cultural horizons and the flexing of the equation of my identity. Roth’s chutzpa was contagious, as was his irreverence, the total artistic and personal freedom under which he operated. For me, his writing was not only inspiring, but also liberating. He was the kind of author we cannot aspire to emulate but may only sorely miss.