Will Philip Roth ever shake his critics who accuse him of anti-Semitism? Judith Thurman checked in with the author as he recently received an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary:
The spectre of “outside” voices objecting to his recognition by a bastion of Jewish learning and Conservative theology couldn’t spoil Roth’s pleasure in the morning’s lovefest, but it rankled him. “Look,” he said, “‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ was published ten years after ‘Defender of the Faith,’ in 1969, and the Jewish reaction to it was completely understandable. I can’t say I didn’t expect it. I had no objection to it, either. I’ve always had literate Jewish readers, even if my most virulent enemy was the greatest scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, who reviewed ‘Portnoy’ in Haaretz, where he wrote, ‘The writer revels in obscenity’ and ‘This is just the book that anti-Semites have been waiting for.’ And I also can’t say that, when ‘Defender of the Faith’ was published, I didn’t know that Jewish nerves were raw. I was not insensitive to the rawness, because I knew where it came from. World War II had ended only thirteen years before, and I came of age in the single most anti-Semitic decade in human history. But rabbis denouncing me from the pulpit, and in their Saturday sermon columns—well, that was disgusting, and it stung.”
The next day, the Forward published an article about the commencement—”PHILIP ROTH, ONCE OUTCAST, JOINS JEWISH FOLD” (it’s a fold that also includes Martin Luther King, Jr., who received an honorary doctorate in 1964)—and Roth sent it to me without comment. But he had one last red-light reflection:
That these displays of narrow-minded literary stupidity that first erupted in response to my work in 1959 should continue to emanate from the McCarthyite right of the Jewish establishment in 2014 is more than a little shameful. Do you think that African-American readers of James Baldwin are still up in arms, if ever they were, because in his fiction Baldwin vividly portrayed black prostitutes, drug addicts, and pimps? Do you think the African-American readers of Ralph Ellison are still up in arms, if they ever were, because in the great opening section of his masterpiece “Invisible Man” Ellison permits a southern black sharecropper to speak with relish of how he routinely has sex with his own young daughter? It’s beginning to appear that I, for one, will not live to see these disapproving Jewish readers of mine attain that level of tolerant sophistication, free from knee-jerk prudery, that has long been commonplace among African-Americans when reading their own writers.
Previous Dish on Roth and religion here.