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The Counterlife, Philip Roth (1986)

Zuckerman vs. Zuckerman: impotence, Zionism, and brotherly love

Alana Newhouse
September 17, 2013

Only one author appears twice on this list, and only one book can make a reasonable claim to be filed in any of its seven categories. In The Counterlife, Philip Roth offered up a Rubik’s cube of existence and destiny—one for us to first watch him play, then try out ourselves. As it turned out, it was through wrestling with Judaism and Zionism—not Jewishness, his usual chewing gum—that Roth ended up creating his most universal work, and his greatest masterpiece. “Zionism, as I understand it, originated not only in the deep Jewish dream of escaping the danger of insularity and the cruelties of social injustice and persecution but out of a highly conscious desire to be divested of virtually everything that had come to seem to the Zionists as much as the Christian Europeans, distinctively Jewish behavior—to reverse the very form of Jewish existence. The construction of a counterlife that is one’s own anti-myth was at its very core. It was a species of fabulous utopianism, a manifesto for human transformation as extreme—and, at the outset, as implausible—as any ever conceived. A Jew could be a new person if he wanted to.” As could we all.

Alana Newhouse is the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine.