By Jack Engelhard
The New York Times reminds us that Philip Roth is into his 50th year as a writer. His first book was “Goodbye, Columbus.”
Roth is an Establishment figure, a media darling. Our culture honors Jewish writers – and Jewish artists in general – who are not happy being Jewish. This theme runs through most of Roth’s works. This is a man running from his faith; uncomfortable in his skin. For that, he is celebrated.
The Jews in Roth’s novels are usually whining and groaning – objects of ridicule from clothing to behavior. There is no love of Jewish roots, no love of Torah. If Torah is mentioned, it’s done so in derision. Always there are complaints about being Jewish. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – That’s not writing. That’s kvetching.
Saul Bellow had the same problem. He too is celebrated for mocking his Jewish characters. Virtually all come across as stereotypes. Woody Allen is beloved by what I will loosely call our Culture and in all his films Jews are portrayed as cartoons. The audience is meant to laugh and to scorn.
We are not seen discovering the cure for polio. We are shown eating and belching.
There is nothing (or hardly anything) in these works that speak of the Jewish contribution to our culture. There is no pride in what we have offered by way of ethics, entertainment, laws, wartime exploits, medical advances. There is no pride in Israel. There is only scoffing and lamentation. There is no joy in the fact that only four years after the Holocaust a nation, Israel, rose from the ashes. There is only criticism.
We know the saying that “it’s hard being a Jew.” Obviously, it’s hard being a Jewish writer. Or rather, it’s hard being a Jewish writer who loves himself and his people. Norman Mailer did not go in for self-abasement. His trick was to forget his Jewishness altogether and for that reason, for denying his roots, none of his fiction really succeeds.
I.B. Singer already said that it is impossible for a writer to succeed if he denies his heritage. That’s the well from which he draws his water.
The writer – the Jewish writer – who speaks well of himself and of his people will generally be excluded from the Club. He or she will not be welcome at the New York Review of Books. Write negatively about yourself, your people, about Israel, and you’ll be given a seat. If you are hostile to your faith, to your Jewishness – you are a THINKER, an INTELLECTUAL.
If you despise Israel, like Tony Kushner, you will make movies with Stephen Spielberg.
There are exceptions. Joseph Heller kept himself above it all but (see his wonderful “Good As Gold”) spoke well of himself and of his people.
We must not forget Leon Uris. The Culture never liked him much. He was not intellectual enough especially when he made the case for Israel in “Exodus.” For that, he will never be forgiven – and by the way, that book could not have been published today; certainly not the movie. (In the obits for Paul Newman, “Exodus” was hardly mentioned as part of his filmography. Actually, I never saw it mentioned at all.)
We come, therefore, to Herman Wouk. Here is a true blue novelist. All his books are first-rate and – he is a proud, devoted even religious Jew. Wouk was not afraid to write a book titled “This Is My God.” That is part of a Torah text (Book of Exodus) – “This is my God and I shall glorify Him.” Wouk is never mentioned as a favorite to win the Nobel Prize. Roth? Always.
Rather than celebrate that man’s 50 years of workmanship, we’d be wiser to go back 2,000 years for the words of Hillel:
“If I am not for myself — who will be for me?”
Novelist Jack Engelhard is the author of “Indecent Proposal” and “The Bathsheba Deadline.” His latest novel, “The Girls of Cincinnati,” is available on Amazon. He can be reached at www.jackengelhard.com