As a college junior and feature editor of Yeshiva University’s newspaper, The Commentator, in 1962, I was assigned to interview Philip Roth (who died at 85 Tuesday in New York) following his appearance at a symposium at the school that, according to him, marked a pivotal and deeply disturbing moment in his life as a writer.
My memory of the event is still vivid, in part because, for a change, each author’s performance actually correlated with his prominence at the time. The symposium was on the minority writer in America, and Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man,” was the star. He spoke with an easy, spontaneous eloquence. Young Roth, the prodigy, having won the 1960 National Book Award for Fiction for “Goodbye, Columbus,” read prepared remarks that were safe, impersonal, and unremarkable; and Pietro Di Donato, author of a 1930s proletarian novel “Christ in Concrete,” had already lapsed into obscurity and hadn’t spent much time preparing for the event, and it showed. (Of course, no one even thought of inviting a woman writer.)
In his more or less autobiographical book “The Facts,” Roth claims to have been unprepared for that evening’s assault. He was asked if he would have written his stories depicting Jewish materialism, vulgarity, and boorishness if he were living in Nazi Germany. He replied that Jews in America were secure enough for him to write his stories without harming anyone and, in effect, that it would be submitting to the pressure of anti-Semitism not to be able to write them.
Roth describes his night on the rack at Yeshiva University as “the most bruising public exchange of my life.” The denunciations he describes were so fierce that fatigue took hold of him and rendered him almost unconscious, and he imagines “the inquisitional pressure … mounting toward a finale that would find me either stoned to death or fast asleep.”
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why he waved me away wordlessly when I approached afterward to interview him. But at the time I was surprised as well as disappointed, since he was already aware of disapproving voices in the Jewish community, and the questions didn’t seem brutal enough to inflict so traumatic a wound.
My memory differs slightly from Roth’s. He claims that the moderator picked on him and asked him if he would write the same stories that depicted Jews in a negative light if he had been living two decades earlier in Nazi Germany. But I thought it was Roth’s nemesis, Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, a faculty member then who had already attacked him, well in advance of this event, as a self-hating Jew. I can only add that the moderator was David Fleisher, chair of the English department at Yeshiva, who dreamed up the symposium and was actually a fan of Roth’s. He sat through the Q & A with an enigmatic half-smile. Fleisher taught a wonderful class on Roth’s early story, “Eli the Fanatic,” pointing out, among many other insights, that the surname of the Holocaust survivor and founder of the orphanage/yeshiva, Leo Tzuref, derives from the Hebrew word that means “burned, refined, purified.”
Roth continued to bear a grudge against Rabbi Rackman, who wanted to silence him. In an interview shortly after Rabbi Rackman’s death at age 98 in 2008, Roth admitted to having kept track of him: “He just died. His name is Emanuel Rackman. … I had just turned twenty-six. That was a nasty attack. I was furious.”
Not to excuse Rabbi Rackman, with whom I took a course at Yeshiva in jurisprudence, or, more accurately, Jewish-prudence (he held both a law degree and Ph.D. in political science from Columbia), but one might keep in mind that he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, where he served overseas during World War II. It was his experience with victims of the Holocaust in Germany that caused him to change his career from law to the rabbinate. His security clearance was threatened years later because of his outspoken opposition to the death penalty for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and his defense of radical singer and actor Paul Robeson. Someone born in 1910 and with those life experiences might at least be understood or even forgiven for worrying about the status of Jews in America.
Roth writes that later that night in 1962, over a pastrami sandwich at the Stage Deli in Midtown Manhattan, he vowed never to write about Jews again. (Over a pastrami sandwich, yet.) But upon reflection he saw that the evening shaped his obsession with Jewish identity and insecurity for years to come. In his own words, “After an experience like mine at Yeshiva, a writer would have had to be no writer at all to go looking elsewhere for something to write about. My humiliation before the Yeshiva belligerents — indeed, the angry Jewish resistance that I aroused virtually from the start — was the luckiest break I could have had. I was branded.”
I can share one other memory of seeing Philip Roth in the flesh, though it is almost not worth mentioning. My first full-time job, as a tenure-track assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, coincided with the years that Roth taught a comparative literature course there. Although I saw him a number of times in the mail room at Bennett Hall — our mailboxes, arranged alphabetically, were separated only by one belonging to James Rosier, a dour medievalist — all I ever managed to say to him were “Hi” and “Good morning,” which were his responses as well. Roth was by then a celebrity and for that reason intimidating. He had even been one of Jackie Kennedy’s Jewish suitors, preceding her long-time companion Maurice Tempelsman by a number of years. And more than once he was compelled to refuse, always politely, the requests of book-club members who had tracked him down and wanted to sit in on his class.
More memorable for me is that ever since the summer day in 1959 when I devoured ‘Goodbye, Columbus,” Roth was my life-cycle reality instructor: from young love in “Goodbye, Columbus,” to the indignities of old age in “Exit Ghost,” death and burial in “Everyman.” And in between everything from preparation for graduate school in “Letting Go” (I still echo Libby Herz when I meet a poet: “Thank you for your poetry”), the reawakened love of baseball in “The Great American Novel” (a play on “the great American pastime”), and an awareness of what Virgil called lacrimae rerum (“the tears of things”) in “American Pastoral.”
I remember pressuring the person I was then dating, now my wife of almost 54 years, to sit down immediately and read “Goodbye, Columbus,” while I, irritatingly, read over her shoulder, to make sure that she took in all of the wisecracks and insights of Brenda Patimkin and Neil Klugman. And a few years later, on visiting our 3-month-old son in the hospital after a surgery, my wife and I found ourselves reading a story in The New American Review that would later form a chapter of “Portnoy’s Complaint.” (Its title, a colloquial term for self-gratification, must go unmentioned in these pages.) No one knew what was coming, and that story ambushed us, helpless to stop the inappropriate gales of laughter, despite the appalled glaring of everyone conscious in that recovery room.
Support the New York Jewish Week
Our nonprofit newsroom depends on readers like you. Make a donation now to support independent Jewish journalism in New York.
Jason Rosenblatt (brother of the editor) is emeritus professor of English at Georgetown University.
Watch the novelist talk about why he wrote about Jews, his atheism and more in a 2010 CBS interview.