No Complaints From Philip Roth as U.S. Jewish Institution Honors Him

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Philip Roth, author of "Portnoy's Complaint" and many other novels, in 2012. Credit: Reuters

Philip Roth, whose early fiction satirizing American Jewish life made him persona non grata among the pillars of the community back in the '60s, has been awarded one of those pillars' highest honor. The Forward reports that New York's Jewish Theological Seminary gave Roth, 81, an honorary doctorate Thursday night.

When he accepted the award, the audience gave the novelist a "sustained standing ovation."

Roth's comedic portraits of overly protective Eastern European immigrant parents, and of the nouveau riche, American-born generation that succeeded them, won him the scorn of many American Jews who considered him a self-hating Jew, one who shamed his people in front of the gentiles. In 1962, he was shaken by the loud, hostile reception he got from students at Yeshiva University during a literary symposium. He vowed to "never write about Jews again." The vow was short-lived.

After "Goodbye Columbus" and "Portnoy's Complaint," though, Roth became less of a hot-button personality for the community's establishment – partly because he turned his attention beyond mainstream American Jewry, and partly because Roth had done so much to lift the taboo against Jews speaking critically about Jews.

He also began exploring Israel and Israelis, depicting a radical West Bank settlement in "The Counterlife" and, in "Operation Shylock," creating a character who passes himself off as the real Philip Roth and goes around Israel preaching "Diasporism" – the return of the country's Ashkenazi Jews to Europe.

After a tremendously prolific career including some 30 novels, several books of non-fiction and dozens of short stories, Roth announced in 2012 that he was written out and was retiring as an author. After a reading early this month at New York's 92nd Street Y, he said he was through with public appearances, too. But last week it was announced that he will guest on the "Colbert Report" in July.

JTS chancellor Arnold Eisen, a sociologist, told the Forward that Roth was "the greatest sociologist on American Jewish life, without doubt."

David Roskies, a JTS Jewish literature professor, wrote in a note to the class of 2014, If the Western world views itself through the lens of the modern Jewish experience, it is in large measure due to the novels, novellas and short stories of Philip Roth.

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