March 2013

Josh Zajdman

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

Free to Be Jew and Me?: A Lament

I've been thinking about Judaism a lot lately. It's been prompted by a couple obvious things and led me toward exploring a couple less obvious ones. The last Hanukkah candle has been lit, the last Philip Roth novel has been written (allegedly, and more on that later). Israel's still a mess, which seems like an unfortunate given. Woody Allen is still working, sure, but it's been a while since he worked in the vein of the "New York Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, socialist summer camps and the, the father with the Ben Shahn drawings, right, and the really, y'know strike-oriented kind of, red diaper way" material. Speaking of New York City, the famed Stage Deli just shuttered. While some aspects of Judaism, culturally or otherwise, seem imperiled, others stay strong. But, what to make of it? The twentieth century was marked with prevalent cultural touchstones that played a large part in representing Judaism. It was representation, considerations (and occasional pleas) for assimilation, and it stretched across all forms of media. There were the Goldbergs (who began on radio in 1929) and dabbled in film, only to finish on TV nearly thirty years, and an entirely different world, later. Oh, the writing! There were the tectonic triumvirate that was Bellow, Mailer and Roth. Afterwards, Malamud, Paley, Ozick, Oz and so forth.

For the longest time, I've identified more with the heyday of all things cultural in American history -- that fascinating first sixty or so years of the last century. That's where this column germinated. Accordingly, I've been taking a deeper look at the way Jews were represented in the early twentieth century. This has been done through the literary work of the other Roth, Henry, and the radio, television, and film presence of the larger-than-life Gertrude Berg.

I struggle with the acclaim of Henry Roth's Call It Sleep. Originally published in 1934, it received a decent critical response but didn't connect with regular people. As often happens with such books, it went out of print and stayed that way for nearly thirty years. Then Irving Howe made a case for it in October 1964. It was published in paperback and sold over a million copies. Howe wasn't the only public intellectual banging his drum. Leslie Fiedler said that since Roth, "no one has reproduced so sensitively the terror of family life in the imagination of a child caught between two cultures." For Alfred Kazin, Call It Sleep was "the deepest and most authentic and certainly the most unforgettable example of this much-tried subject that I know." Finally, Norman Podhoretz called it "one of the most undeservedly neglected American novels" and "a classic of American-Jewish writing." I just can't understand this. I've agreed with Fiedler and Kazin elsewhere, but this just seemed asinine.

My largest problem with Call It Sleep is its register. Well, that's the problem -- it only has one. Moreover, it's a very long book. Reading it is like attending an opera composed entirely of arias, no recitative. It's annoyingly repetitive and flirts irritatingly with postmodern tricks. Countless contemporary reviews compared its final section to the Nighttown section of Ulysses. This doesn't elevate Roth's book, but diminishes Joyce's. The influence is obvious but that's just what it seems -- a cribbed influence, nothing more. Call It Sleep isn't just dated or strangely stereotypical, it's also ham-fisted and hard to swallow. There is many a bildungsroman, and older ones at that, which better convey familial strife and the hard road to adulthood (think Buddenbrooks). Throughout Roth's novel, a clunkily written passage like this is all too commonplace:

David who was watching his mother as she stood above her husband serving him, saw her bosom swell up slowly as though responding to minute increments of pain, and then without response, exhale tautly her muted breath and look off blankly and resigned. David himself knew only one thing -- that the relief Luter's absence afforded him was as sharp and fervent as a prayer, and that every wordless nerve begged never to see the man again.

That's just the prose. Settle in for the terrible dialogue and descriptive force as it batters you. In a painful attempt at verisimilitude, Roth makes the young Jewish boys of Brownsville sound like extras in gangster films.

"I godduh waid hea till duh wissle blows."

"W'a wissle?"

"By de fectory. All togedder."


"So den I c'n go opstai's."

This isn't a great novel of immigration. Unless we rely on depictions of "thick-set, lipless and impassive" Irish cops "with beefy red paws" as a means of understanding the melting pot that was New York. It starts promisingly, and at Ellis Island, so one could be safe in assuming what type of novel it is. The prologue, easily the most powerful part of the book, and the least melodramatic, appends its scant nine pages with an entreaty: I pray thee ask no questions this is that Golden Land. Yet, its depiction, once the boat's docked, rarely if ever approaches paradise. America appears to be an unyielding, unwelcoming, and unsupportive environment, but the examples we get never rise off the page. The plump Jewish mother wringing her hands, the angry overworked father, the effeminate young Jewish son hiding behind the mother and fighting against his Oedipal complex from minute one, spread over 500 pages elicits a most rageful Oy! This has all been done before.

It is interesting, however, that the book came out before the Holocaust. Its success in the reprinting seems like a tonic to comfort legions of people still, and understandably, dealing with the scars and traumas of genocide not even two decades removed. The period of Roth's New York wasn't a golden age. There was still anti-Semitism but it was a series of isolated incidents not a looming spectre. Sadly, I would tell you not to read this book. It's like drinking a cocktail with one part Manischewitz, two parts schmaltz, and a Metamucil float. While I am glad to have finally finished, I am disappointed and baffled, instead of engaged and reflective. Maybe the jaded millennial reading it feels that way and it was a big backhand to, or ugly reflection of, the post-Depression, pre-War audience, which ate it up. Yet, and I can't make this clear enough, domestic squabbles unfolding over Borscht do not a moving novel make.

On the other side of things, well, sort of, we have The Goldbergs. It began as a radio show -- The Rise of the Goldbergs -- in November 1929. That's five years before Roth published his novel. The similarities are apparent, yes, but they don't hold weight upon consideration. A Jewish family living in the Bronx. A Jewish family living with neighbors like them in a city with others like them and others who bear little resemblance. Yes, but there was a desire to display a sense of progressivism and not merely record surroundings or court controversy, which was what Roth did. Molly Goldberg, played by creator and writer Gertrude Berg, was an amalgam of the modern urban woman and the "apron-wearing Old World touch." Others saw her as bringing " a warmth and solution to every problem." The Jewish matriarch, writ on an even larger, and more acceptable scale." She transcended ethnic boundaries because her family and their travails were relatable.

This point is driven home successfully in Aviva Kempner's 2009 documentary Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, which handily provided the aforementioned quotations. Before Lucy or the Honeymooners, the painfully procreative Bradys or the Jeffersons, there were the Goldbergs. Kempner's documentary details the show's move from radio to film and television as it continually garners success. It concerns the stereotypes associated with Jews of the period and the difficulties faced by those blacklisted toward the end of the show's run in the 1950s. The last season, and it's most interesting, is available on Netflix. It's particularly worth watching because the family moves out of the mostly Jewish enclave of the Bronx into Westchester County and deals with issues of assimilation and misconception generated by ethnicity. Berg wasn't shy. As a response to Kristallnacht, she wrote an episode where a brick was thrown through the Goldbergs' window during Passover. Another year, she had an actual Rabbi perform a service over the radio. This was a time where Judaism was front and center. This didn't go unnoticed -- one of the documentary's highlights is a brief apocryphal anecdote concerning FDR. When complimented on the New Deal, he said "I wasn't the one who got us out of the depression, it was the Goldbergs." Nobody had anything like that to say of Henry Roth. Yet, for all of this, The Goldbergs traffics in some of the same stereotypes -- old world dialects, enforced gender roles, contrived considerations of ethnicity. But, it was bold. It carried a very important torch. At least, for a time. Kind of like Philip Roth.

It seems fitting to begin with disappointment in one Roth and end with another. Philip Roth's work has been terrible since Everyman. That is true. I still cannot escape the green dildo of The Humbling. However, I also can't escape the power of David Kepesh in The Dying Animal; the drive and selfishness of Nathan Zuckerman; the savagery of Mickey Sabbath; or the truly epic falls of Swede Levov, Ira Ringold, and Coleman Silk. All writers have hits and misses but few have such an extensive oeuvre and that many hits. It's the end of nearly half a century and one more light extinguished. Since the announcement regarding the end of his writing, nearly everyone's chimed in. Today's young Jewish writers don't have the ferocious graphomanic tendencies of Updike, Bellow, Roth, and others. One wonders how their work will be judged in the future, and to what extent their oeuvre will reach. Will some of Roth's less popular books be out-of-print in thirty years? Will anyone have even heard of The Goldbergs in another ten? As for Henry Roth's novel, one might as well take it as it is. "A specifically Jewish book," said Leslie Fiedler. Whatever that is.