The Grapes of Roth

Ribbentrop at the White House, Kristallnacht in America? In his latest novel, Philip Roth slaughters two American sacred cows - the concept that `it can't happen here' and the notion that the Jewish tradition of survival is unsuited to the U.S. reality

Joseph Dan
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Joseph Dan

The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston and New York, 2004, 400 pages, $26

For 60 years now the explicit or implicit slogan that has determined American Jewry's attitude toward Zionism and the State of Israel is: "It can't happen here." That is, Jews in other countries can be persecuted and there is a need for Zionism and Israel to afford them a refuge, but not for American Jewry. American Jewry is protected by the U.S. Constitution and there is no possibility that what happened in Europe will recur across the ocean.

Therefore, the Jews of the United States are not a diaspora. Their role is to help persecuted Jews everywhere and to help Israel serve them as a place of refuge. Holocaust, pogrom and even anti-Semitism are concepts that characterize the Old World; they have no foothold in the American reality. The perception has caught on in public opinion - Israeli, Jewish, Zionist and even non-Jewish - that the United States is something different; everything that characterized Jewish history everywhere and in every age is not relevant to the unique phenomenon of the prosperity, freedom and absolute security that the Jews of the United States enjoy today.

At a time when Israel and Europe are intensively scrutinizing the anti-Semitic phenomena that are occurring in France and other places, and asking whether there is a future for French Jewry in their country, Philip Roth's new book, "The Plot Against America," has been published in the United States. Its cover displays a picture of an American postage stamp with a swastika at its center. I don't believe I have ever in my life read a work of literary fiction with such shock, pain and emotional tempest as accompanied my reading of this book. A dozen times I wanted to set it aside and put an end to the suffering it was causing me. But I kept on reading, and here I share my feelings. What follows is not literary criticism but rather the expression of a personal experience. I apologize for the personal tone of these remarks, but I believe that many readers, even if they do not concur with my opinion, will be unable to avoid a stormy emotional reaction of their own to the story that Philip Roth has given us.

The strength of the book derives to a large extent from the fact that it blends two stories that could have been distinct from each other. One is a detailed and precise personal diary of a Jewish boy growing up in Newark, New Jersey at the beginning of the 1940s. The second is an imagined political drama that depicts a Nazi takeover of the United States after the elections in 1940. The narrator of the two stories that have been blended, and also their protagonist, is called Philip Roth. In The New Yorker, which hastened to publish a review (September 20, 2004) before the book itself was officially released, critic Joan Acocella has noted that all the details about Roth's family, the story of his life, the street and the neighborhood in Newark and so on as described in the book are absolutely accurate, "point for point."

Roth, who was born in 1933 both in the book and in real life, describes his relatives and friends, his school and the reality around him with absolute reliability. This is totally exceptional relative to Roth's many previous books, in which there was a constant game underway between the autobiographical elements in the character of the narrator and his fictional character. Here Roth has removed his disguise. The narrator is himself, his father and mother are presented with their real names, lines of work and characteristics; he describes his aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends as they really were and under their real names, just as Amos Oz did with respect to his life in Jerusalem in "A Tale of Love and Darkness." However, grafted onto Roth's story of a childhood, which begins when the protagonist-narrator is 7 years old and continues or is cut off when he is 9, is the story of an imagined historical occurrence that is intimately interwoven into the true story of childhood.

Re-educating the Jews

The boy Philip Roth is a witness to and participant in events that begin when Charles Lindbergh - the daring pilot who was the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a solo flight in 1927 - appears at the Republican Party convention in Philadelphia in 1940 after the delegates have failed to elected a candidate for president who will run against Franklin Roosevelt, the Democratic incumbent who is seeking a third term as president of the United States. The fictional part begins when the frustrated Republican delegates choose Lindbergh as their candidate. Lindbergh had just returned from a long stay in Europe (after his young son was kidnapped and murdered), where he was smitten by the charms of the Nazis and received a medal of honor from Hermann Goering, Hitler's deputy. Lindbergh promises the American voter to preserve U.S. neutrality and refrain from supporting Britain and France, which were in the midst of the war against Germany. He is elected by a large majority and a short time after his inauguration he signs a friendship agreement with Germany and Japan, a treaty that gives Hitler a free hand to take control of Europe and enables Japan to take control of China and all of East Asia.

While the entire world is enveloped in the horrors of cruel bloodshed, America under Lindbergh's leadership basks in tranquillity and prosperity, and Lindbergh wins increasing support from the entire American public. After Hitler invades the Soviet Union, the rulers of America depict the war as a war against communism and see it - though not for public consumption - as a war against the Jews, while America enjoys the fact that its work is being done by others. Even within this fictional construct, Roth remains as faithful as possible to the historical facts. He has even added an appendix to the book with documents that depict the historical reality as it was.

One literary character who plays a key role in the plot of the book links the political events in the country to the Roth family's fate. It is quite possible that this character is destined to occupy a very significant place in American Jewish cultural discourse: Reform Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, who is depicted as one of the most influential rabbis of the New Jersey Jewish community. He represents the veteran elite of U.S. Jewry, a descendent of immigrants from Germany in the early and mid-19th century who integrated completely into life in the New World. Bengelsdorf is the only one among the leaders of American Jewry who joins Lindbergh's election campaign, while the Jewish public as a whole gives its unstinting support to Roosevelt. His presence at the side of the Republican candidate, the friend of the Nazis, in appearances throughout the United States grants a certificate of kashrut to the candidate the

other rabbis consider an all-out Jew-hater.

After Lindbergh is elected, Bengelsdorf is appointed as an expert on Jewish affairs in the new administration, and he heads a campaign to change the status of the Jews in America. Roth integrates into the story extracts from the rabbi's speeches, which depict in a sharply satirical way the purification of the unclean in a typically Jewish style. The aim of the committees that Bengelsdorf heads is to dismantle the concentrations of Jews in the large cities of America, especially on the east coast, concentrations that Bengelsdorf calls "ghettoes," where Jews are educated to continue living in fear, as they had in Europe. In order to re-educate them, they must be scattered throughout the entire country, especially in rural areas, where Jewish families will live without contact with other Jews. In the first phase, hundreds of Jewish children are sent from Newark and other cities to work during the summer as farmhands in remote areas.

One of these children is Philip Roth's elder brother, 14-year-old Sandy, who spends a few months on the farm of a Christian family in Kentucky. He returns from there enthusiastic about the way of life that was revealed to him and full of hostility toward his family and his heritage. Bengelsdorf and his colleagues therefore take him up as an example and model of the success of the mixing of Jews and Christians. In the second phase, Jewish workers are required by their employers to move to distant offices and jobs, especially in the Midwest, and thus cut off their ties to the Jewish community.

Irreparable break

Before this dream of scattering the Jews and causing them to lose their identity is realized, the Jewish families are torn from within, and the Roth family is an example. The father's nephew Alvin, who was orphaned as a young child, was raised in their home and shared a small bedroom with the young Philip. When Lindbergh signs the pact with Hitler, 20-year-old Alvin secretly travels to Canada and volunteers there to serve in the Canadian commando corps that works out of bases in England against the German army in France. He participates in such an incursion, is seriously wounded and loses one of his legs. He returns to his uncle's home and Philip's room, wounded and depressed, and causes the FBI to keep a close eye on the family.

Parallel to this, the younger sister of Philip's mother, a pretty and flighty girl, serves as Rabbi Bengelsdorf's secretary and eventually becomes his mistress; finally, he marries her. The Roth family invites the couple to a dinner that ends in a sharp quarrel and an irreparable break. One of the sharpest satirical scenes in the book is Bengelsdorf's wedding party, at which most of the leaders of American Jewry are present. All of them listen together in excitement to the letter of congratulations sent by the first lady, Mrs. Lindbergh, to the Jewish couple. Roth and his family, of course, are absent from this celebration.

A point of crisis in this process, which is depicted in detail in the book, is the formal dinner President Lindbergh holds for an honored guest: Joachim von Ribbentrop, the foreign minister of Nazi Germany, who comes for an official visit to the United States. The Jewish community and the Democratic Party embark on an energetic struggle against the visit and the hospitality at the White House, but to no avail. The Nazi leader is given a royal reception in Washington, and among his hosts are Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf and his wife from the Roth family. She even dances with him during the course of the party and finds him a good dancer and a gracious and polite individual.

In the book, Bengelsdorf represents the Jews who see their brethren's fears of connections with Nazis as baseless paranoia, a product of the Jewish ghetto tradition, which all of them need to shake off in the great land of liberty, the United States. The Constitution is the real defender of the Jews' existence and rights, but in order to shelter in its shade they must rid themselves of their repulsive customs and their ugly traditions, mix into Christian society and integrate into American culture without preserving their uniqueness. I do not know whether this is a coincidence, but in the first handful of reviews of this book that I have read in recent days, no attention at all has been paid to the character of Rabbi Bengelsdorf.

About 10 years ago, Yitzhak Ben-Ner's book "Dubim veya'ar" ("Bears and Forest") was published; it depicts the nightmarish experience of a young Israeli who visits Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union and experiences a kind of Holocaust in the forests of Belarus. The major part of the story is the clash between the Israeli macho man, who is certain that "it won't happen to me," and the reality that develops around him - in which it can and does happen. This hallucinatory and nightmarish story, which did a fine job of expressing the deepest fears of the Israelis, did not, it seems, win much attention.

The title that Ben-Ner chose (which reflects the Hebrew expression "neither bears nor forest," meaning no basis of truth) seems better to me than the title Roth chose: There are bears and a forest not only in the Belarus of today but also in the flourishing American democratic experience. It is much harder to integrate, even in a fictional story, into a reality in which the Holocaust is located in the future and is spreading, spinning webs and taking shape, with no refuge from what is going to happen. A Holocaust that was, is more than we can bear; a Holocaust that will happen - even more so.

Rehabilitation of the Jewish mother

It is impossible to exaggerate Philip Roth's importance in American literature and culture today. He is one of a handful of veteran writers who are permanently at the forefront of the literary world. For decades now his books have been arousing interest and debate, and there is no one who questions his impressive literary ability. He is the third writer to have been granted in his lifetime a luxury edition of his complete works from the prestigious publisher Library of America, which immortalizes the great intellectuals of the United States. The problematics of American Jewry are presented consistently in various forms in all of his works, and Israel too has an honorable place in the rich oeuvre of his thought and concerns.

At the start of his career, Roth was severely criticized by Gershom Scholem, who wrote a letter to Haaretz when "Portnoy's Complaint" was first published. Scholem saw in this book a Jewish writer's confirmation of the anti-Semites' claims regarding the sexual perversity of Jews and saw its publication as a great danger to Judaism. Since then, decades have gone by during which many things have happened, both good and bad, to Jews and to Judaism, but not one of them was caused by "Portnoy's Complaint." In this case, Scholem failed where many others have also failed: He thought, contrary to his concept in many other cases, that anti-Semites need reasons and proofs to justify their opinions and actions. However, it is true that many Jews have been put off by the frankness and sharp satire that Roth has often directed toward the American Jewish experience.

It seems to me that the most impressive and extraordinary phenomenon in this book, "The Plot Against America," is Philip Roth's attitude toward his father and mother. Jewish-American literature is characterized by a constant tension between the writer and his parents. The narrator usually is far more deeply involved in American society and culture than his parents, who are immigrants or the children of immigrants and still connected to the old tradition of the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe. This tradition is depicted in a humorous way (the thousands of jokes about "the Jewish mother"), in a satirical way and sometimes even with real hostility. The aim of the writer-protagonist is to cut himself free of the constraints of the provincial and tribal tradition, with its narrow horizons, that his parents brought over from the Old World, in order to integrate fully into the New World and its values. It is not at all difficult to follow the trail of this conflict in Roth's writings, and, for example, it is at the center of "Portnoy's Complaint." "The Plot Against America" is a book that reverses this trend. In this book, both as its narrator and its protagonist, Roth expresses deep and nearly unstinting admiration for his parents, and especially for his mother.

The father, Herman, is depicted in a most positive way: a man who devotes all his efforts to supporting his family and who believes with all his heart in his firm status within American society. America is his homeland, and he is hurt not only as a Jew but also as an American who is devoted to the values of the Constitution and the equality it grants to everyone. In Roth's depiction, the father does not succeed in restraining himself and his aggressive outbursts endanger the members of his family. However, Bess, the mother, is self-controlled and always finds the right way.

I do not think one can find in all of American literature such a full expression of the Jewish writer's admiration for his parents' values and tradition. The difference between the mother and the father is sharp and clear: The mother is devoted above all to her family, and engages in a daily struggle with all the small travails of life. The father does this too, but in addition he is imbued with American ideals and believes that in America, the Jewish people has found refuge from all its travails. During the course of the plot it becomes increasingly clear that the mother's way is the correct one, and that the father's belief is unfounded. America is permeated with anti-Semitism no less than the lands from which the parents of Herman and Bess fled. The mother, who has preserved her parents' values, is the one who knows how to survive in such a reality.

All the usual characteristics in the depiction of the Jewish mother, the obsessive housekeeper, in Jewish-American literature, are also found in this book. She devotes her entire being to cooking and baking, laundering and mending, making sandwiches for her husband and her children. She scrutinizes the actions of the members of her family with an eagle eye. However, in the reversal the family experiences, the negative characteristics turn into positive ones. The mother is the one who maintains and preserves the regular course of daily life. She affords strength to her husband and her younger son, and it is she who knows that the only solution in the developing reality is immigration to Canada.

What is the message of this book? Is there a danger of a Holocaust lying in wait for the Jews of the United States? I am writing these lines in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in one of the bastions of the astonishing success stories of American Jewry, Harvard University. Up until two generations ago it was almost entirely closed to Jews, whereas now its president is Jewish and Jews are very much in evidence among the faculty and in the student body. There is no precedent in Jewish history for a Jewish collective that has won such an influential, central, respected and esteemed position. The status of Jews in the culture, the literature, the intellectual life, academia, the economy, politics and the consciousness of America is based upon and rests upon firm foundations.

Undoubtedly, there is outright and latent anti-Semitism in America. At a number of Internet sites I have recently seen poisonous attacks against Roth's book, and there were those who made a connection between the book and the neoconservatism of the current U.S. administration. As usual, the Jews are accused both of supporting the administration and of hostility toward it, but from this to the emergence of a danger like the one depicted in Roth's book, the distance is great.

Even if this book does not have a current political message, it does offer a sharp and definite warning about received opinions that have served as a basis for the American-Jewish experience for three generations now. Roth slaughters two sacred cows in this book. One is the belief that "It can't happen here," that America is a different experience from everything we have known until now; it is outside the usual circle of Jewish history and is guided by different laws. Roth presents a picture in which burning anti-Semitism can also erupt in the United States and the liberal Democrats are too feeble and hesitant to grapple successfully with dangerous historical processes. The American Jews, too, are no different from their brethren elsewhere; among them are those who pursue their own benefit and those who are shortsighted and nurture rosy illusions, just as there were in Europe. The second sacred cow is the notion that the Jewish tradition of survival is entirely negative and unsuited to American reality, and the only way to go is to adopt American values in their entirety.

This book is not going to give anyone any pleasure, and nearly all its readers will be hurt by it. It casts aspersions on all the hopes that keep our world going: democracy, liberalism, love of mankind and the values of equality, friendship and loyalty. All of these go up in smoke here. Jewish readers in America will feel that Philip Roth is knocking out from under them the foundation on which they have been standing and flourishing for generations. Non-Jewish readers will feel that they are being accused of latent anti-Semitism, or at least of impotence. The Israeli reader might well find a quasi-Zionist message in this book: The Jewish people can survive only by relying on its own strengths. However, the book casts doubt on the possibility of relying on the strength of the United States and the strength of the Jews who live there - an essential reliance for the survival of the State of Israel. It is possible that this is a profound and acute expression of despair by a veteran and experienced writer who stands on the threshold of a new century and finds that that the means and the values he had believed had the power to build a better reality are now powerless, just as they were powerless 60 years ago.

Joseph Dan is the Gershom Scholem Professor of Kabbala in the department of Jewish thought at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and currently a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School.

Author Philip Roth poses in New York, September 15, 2010.
Author Philip Roth poses in New York, September 15, 2010.Credit: \ ERIC THAYER/ REUTERS