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Two Old Jewish Socialists: Henry Roth Meets Bernie Sanders

What the novelist’s 1976 conversation tells us about the 2016 presidential campaign, the persistence of change, and the durability of political ideas

Nathaniel Popkin
May 19, 2016
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine

On Thursday, June 3, 1976, Henry Roth, the author of Call It Sleep, took his audio recorder and drove from the trailer park court where he lived with Muriel, his wife, eight miles to the house of Rose and Louis Hiat, in the Highland section of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was the Bicentennial summer, and Roth was feeling good, even though chronic arthritis would necessitate a hip replacement in the coming years. Recently, he’d begun a regimen of cod liver oil and lecithin to relieve the itching of skin psoriasis, he told his daughter-in-law, Joy, on the telephone. “I’m the new Bionic Man, right,” he kidded.

On the phone with Joy and his son Jeremy, Roth reveals the same 71-year-old version of himself he portrayed in Call It Sleep: guileless, impish, self-deprecating. A package of gourmet tea and cookies had arrived for Father’s Day from his other son, Hugh, he told Joy. “So, you really felt like a father,” she said, begging for a reaction.

“Ah, yes, I felt like a father,” he replied. “But you know, it doesn’t seem to make too much difference. I never could get that idea into my head anyway that I was really a father. How’s your health?”

Roth recorded the phone conversation along with interviews with Hiat (a former Red Army soldier two years older than Roth and, like Roth, an ex-member of the Communist Party) and various TV newscasts over most of the next year, as members of the popular front for the liberation of Palestine hijacked an Italian plane at the Istanbul airport and Jimmy Carter won the Presidency with the decisive backing of New York Jews. A dozen years after Avon Books re-released Call It Sleep to wide acclaim and an enormous new readership (the novel, first published in 1934, had been originally overlooked), Roth himself was on the precipice of writing the follow-up that had been long expected but he had never delivered.

Starting that Thursday in early June, Roth drove to Hiat’s house, in a neighborhood of one-story adobe style buildings with stone driveways and juniper bushes, 12 times. Perhaps hoping to model a fictional character on Hiat, Roth’s initial questions were biographical. He sought details, like how a Red Army soldier would hide and preserve a shotgun in the forest (“The whole thing you oil, and you put it in a good box,” wrapped in canvas).

But for most of these sessions, transcribed last year just in time for the 2016 presidential campaign transformed by the Brooklyn-raised democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, the two men talked passionately about what led them to socialism and to the Communist Party. “The idea of a changed human being, a new man, a new socialist man, I found that irresistible,” said Roth; the transformation was so “religious” that, much later, beginning to doubt the Communist Party “was just very much like questioning for the first time the existence of God.” They agreed, however, that an American turn to socialism was inevitable. Can we “have a socialism which is still democratic?” Roth asked. “That’s the question.”

By seeking out Hiat, Roth was signaling a readiness to confront the issues that had caused him to dry up as a writer: his fragmentation as a Jew, the blinding dogma of Communism, and, most powerfully, the incest he committed with his sister and cousin during high school and college. The conversation didn’t touch on the subject of incest that Roth buried until he willed it forth in his second, and final, novel, Mercy of a Rude Stream, published in a complete edition in 2014. But it accelerated Roth’s unflinching self-examination as a political thinker, a writer, and as a Jew. Just two years later, he bought a word processor and began writing Mercy, a 1,251-page work of startling genius and determination that he finished just before passing away, in 1995.

Roth straps on to this lightly fictionalized coming of age story a discursive brace that steadies and shapes the narrative and exposes the very nature of the author’s search for personal truth. That the search is up against the clock—fiercely returned arthritis makes typing nearly impossible—imbues Mercy with an unsurpassable melancholy. In these discursive passages, Roth burrows deep into his literary evolution, away from the “alienation” of James Joyce that had inspired Call It Sleep, toward “the midwife of his rebirth: Israel.” In the conversation with Hiat, we listen in on the transformation.

It isn’t the rather predictable end of that transformation—an old man, relieving his heartache with the seductive tonic of the Land of Milk and Honey—so much as the process itself. “Because of the very nature of the conversion, un-conversion, or re-conversion or whatever you want to call it,” Roth said to Hiat of his path from anti-Jewish universalism to Zionism, “the very nature of the transformation has occupied my thoughts.” Political ideas, we might want to announce to those pondering the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, do and must evolve.


Hiat was born in Kletsk, a town south of Minsk, in Belarus. As a child, he began to doubt the possibility of God. “I’ve seen children die, small children, and the doubt of a merciful God really drove me” away from religious belief, he said to Roth during the first interview session, describing the crucible of his political consciousness and suggesting the rigor of his autodidactic mind. But at the same time, at the cheder in Kletsk, Hiat was introduced to the Jewish teaching that opened him intellectually to a “revolutionary instinctive upbringing.” “Socialism,” he said, “is part of philosophical Judaism.” There is, he explained to Roth, who never received, or pursued, a full Jewish education, “a certain Hebrew word, ein kemach, ein Torah: If you have no bread, you have no Torah.”

Bernie Sanders, who perhaps embodies this connection as thoroughly as any American public figure in history, rarely draws that line. In a speech last year to the students of the Evangelical Christian Liberty University, he quoted the Book of Matthew, not Torah or Talmud, in citing a religious influence in his political ideology. (Hillary Clinton, for her part, draws a connection between the Christianity she experienced growing up and her instinct to volunteer in poor neighborhoods of Chicago.) Sanders sometimes directs the question of how his Jewish self-identity inspired his political beliefs to the specter of the Holocaust, from which his father escaped but many of his relatives in Poland did not; more often, he simply identifies his parents as “Polish.”

Some observers have criticized Sanders, the first Jew to win a presidential primary, because they believe he has purposely downplayed his Judaism. Hiat offers what feels like an unusual perspective on the issue that may be corroborated by the experience of Barack Obama, the first black president. An Associated Press poll indicates that white prejudice against African Americans increased during Obama’s first term. “We must not put our head in the lion’s mouth,” Hiat told Roth. The result will be an “intensification of hatred.”

Hiat served in the Red Army, where he experienced pervasive anti-Semitism and began to differentiate between the promise of the socialist movement and the Jewish experience of that promise:

Roth: It looked like a tremendous liberation for us. What else could you do? What else could you be?

Hiat: That’s what I say. And I want to emphasize it, that our communism was not only with the liberation movement, we saw a messianic movement, the abolishment of exploitation, equal education to everybody, economic security for the human being.

Roth: The elimination, the abolition of long, long discrimination. You said—you were saying “dzzt, dzzt, dzzt,” same thing.

Hiat: In Poland, “dzzt, dzzt”—Henry, you have no idea the humiliation that the Jews [in the movement] endured, Polish Jews especially.

Pervasive anti-Semitism forced Jewish socialists to see themselves as separate from their comrades. In a jail cell in Poland with a “nice” Russian peasant, Hiat recalled to Roth, “As soon as he will get the extra piece of lamb, his ideology will be met, his ideas will be met. That was his idea. But we had higher aspirations, higher goals, higher humanitarian goals, goals of Utopia.” For a while, the Utopian visions blinded Hiat to the mounting corruption and intolerance that overtook the Communist Party. Roth said his own blindness persisted until Khrushchev revealed the truth of Stalin’s crimes against humanity. Even then, he said to Hiat, “I felt tremendously guilty that I was betraying” the movement.

“The end never justified the means, in my thinking,” Hiat replied.

Roth: You didn’t feel guilty?

Hiat: I felt betrayed.

Only much later, Roth told Hiat, did he come around to the same position, “that it was the movement that had betrayed me, not I the movement.”


Perhaps the movement never betrayed Bernie Sanders because it never took real hold in the United States; his only experience with a socialist society was during summer 1963 at Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’amakima, whose members flew the red Communist flag, near Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. In fact the opposite: We might say that he has only experienced the betrayal of the American capitalist system. As the wealthiest top one-10th of 1 percent of American citizens have come to control nearly half of private wealth, Sanders’ ideology and political tactics have remained steady. His rhetoric while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination is the same as it was in 1971, running for governor of Vermont on the Liberty Union ticket. “I have demanded a radical revision of the state’s regressive tax structure.”

Sanders’ campaign demeanor and tactics are consistent with the left-wing political activists I have known, who, once radicalized, view the world rather stridently according to deterministic precepts of economic class and rarely waver. Hiat, speaking with Roth on June 10, 1976, said of the movement that, “instead of broadening your ideas to make it in depth, it narrowed you to such an extent that you became a robot.” Roth, in an interview with literary scholar Morris Dickstein, published in the New York Times in 1987, labeled this worldview “sterile.”

Roth began reprogramming himself in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli war, when what Dickstein called “certain buried tribal loyalties” jolted him. A newly discovered love for Israel—“not some idealized country, but all of it,” he wrote in Mercy of a Rude Stream—rescued him “from alienation.”

To Israel he owed a new staunchness of affirmation, a sympathy with people, a unity within and without, a regeneration.

In his conversation with Hiat, Roth addressed his newly felt Zionism as unquestioning support for Israel, no matter the nation’s uneven embrace of socialism. Hiat agreed. “Now is not the time. When your house is on fire, you try to help to save, not to divide,” he said.

Since the 1970s, this position (shared by Hillary Clinton) has been American orthodoxy, even on the left. Over the years, Bernie Sanders, criticizing the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, has challenged it. “The Sanders campaign,” wrote James Kirchick in these pages, “is important as a space in which the left’s universalistic pretensions are coming into conflict with the particularistic concerns of Jewish nationalism—as many on the left single out Israel for opprobrium and demand that their Jewish comrades do the same.”

Roth rejected such demands. “I’ve seen these purists before,” he said. “These purists who will not have anything to do with … Israel, unless Israel first becomes a thorough socialist state.”

Hiat and Roth agreed that the re-election of Gerald Ford would be “a calamity for Israel.” The issue of Israel’s future took hold of the Roth-Hiat interview on July 22, 1976, a week after Jimmy Carter won the Democratic nomination to run against Ford at the party’s national convention in New York.

As the campaign intensified over the summer and fall, the two old radicals tried to make sense of a Carter presidency. Would he advance socialist goals? The candidate, who, like Hillary Clinton, had substantial Jewish backing, didn’t impress Hiat, the “neo-Marxist.” “He’s a millionaire, an exploiter of labor; his grandfather had slaves,” he said of Carter.

On Nov. 4, Roth again drove south through the beige landscape of Albuquerque to Lou Hiat’s house. Carter had won the general election two days before by 57 electoral votes; New York’s massive Jewish vote, Hiat and Roth surmised, had been decisive. Ford, Roth said, had been “building a dam against the whole flow of history” that left alone leads inevitably to socialism. Carter, he said hopefully, will “build sluiceways, what they call easements … to allow the necessary changes to take place, maybe not in his administration, but he is allowing a certain easement toward the future.”

Hiat had little patience for Roth’s mental gymnastics. “He will absolutely try to preserve the system as it was,” he said, of Carter. “Maybe he’ll give a bone, a little bone over here, a little bone over there.”

But Henry Roth was also making a larger point: Change was the only lasting form of resilience. And thus he said, sitting at a table in a house exactly 2,000 miles west of the cold-water flat in Harlem where he came of age, “I would now be on the side of the more gradual transformation of the society.” Drastic transformation, where it has happened, he averred, “demanded the eradication of all the elements in that society that were humanist, that were, you might say, independently thoughtful, creative, and all the rest. That’s the penalty, that’s the price you pay.”


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Nathaniel Popkin is a literary writer, journalist, historian, and the author of four books, including the 2013 novel Lion and Leopard and a forthcoming novel on Jewish radicals of the 19th century.