Between the lines: Writers’ block: Responding to critiques from Philip Roth and Michael Chabon

Between the lines: Writers’ block: Responding to critiques from Philip Roth and Michael Chabon

An award-winning Jewish author, addressing a distinguished academic gathering, speaks out boldly against the sacred cows of the community. Praised by some for his sharp critique, he is blasted by others for his intemperate remarks, creating a stir in the community.

In 1962, it was a young Philip Roth at Yeshiva University in an incident he later described as “the most bruising public exchange of my life” (read on). Two weeks ago, it was Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who, in his commencement address to newly ordained Reform rabbis in Los Angeles, skewered Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and challenged Judaism’s emphasis on in-marriage. He asserted that walls — whether they separate Israeli Jews from Palestinians or Jewish men and women from marrying out — are variations of hateful ghettos. He implied that the reason for Israel’s separation barrier was exclusion, not security.

“Security for some means imprisonment for all,” said the author of “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” and other highly praised novels.

Chabon’s address took place 10 days before Philip Roth’s death, and echoed a pivotal moment, 56 years earlier, in the career of the leading literary figure of his time. Since Roth’s death at 85, there has been an outpouring of acclaim for his work and a stream of personal reflections on his complex role in revealing — and piercing — the psyche of Jews in America in the mid-to-late 20th century. Included in several obituaries have been references to a traumatic evening he experienced at a Yeshiva University symposium in 1962.

It was entitled “A Study in Artistic Conscience: Conflict of Loyalties in Minority Writers of Fiction,” and he participated along with Ralph Ellison (author of “Invisible Man”) and Pietro di Donato (“Christ In Concrete”). At 29, Roth had already received the National Book Award for Fiction in 1960 for his collection of stories, “Goodbye Columbus.” He had also received a flood of criticism within the Jewish community, most notably for one of those stories, “Defender of the Faith,” which depicts a Jewish-American soldier as selfish and immoral in seeking to convince his Jewish sergeant to offer him favored treatment.  

As recalled by Jason Rosenblatt (my brother), emeritus professor of English at Georgetown University who at the time was assigned to cover the symposium as a feature editor of the YU newspaper, The Commentator, Roth was accused of defaming Jews by highlighting negative Jewish stereotypes in his writing. Would Roth have written stories casting Jews in a negative light if he were living in Nazi Germany, a prominent rabbi rose to ask. The author replied that he would, and that Jews in America were secure enough for writers like him to be true to themselves in their work.

The exchange, and resulting anger among many in the audience, “shaped [Roth’s] obsession with Jewish identity and insecurity for years to come,” Jason noted. It prompted Roth to later write: “My humiliation before the Yeshiva belligerents — indeed, the angry Jewish resistance that I aroused virtually from the start — was the luckiest break I could have had. I was branded.”

(Ironically, it was later that night, over a pastrami sandwich at the Stage Deli, that he told his wife he would never write about Jews again.)

There was no uproar at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) commencement after Chabon’s 25-minute startling speech, which seemed to equate Israeli attitudes with those of a small group of ultra-Orthodox zealots who threw stones at Jewish girls on their way to school, calling them names for their perceived immodest dress. He also described intermarriage in general as “the source of all human greatness,” breaking down barriers. When he finished, one mostly heard applause, though there were those who were upset. At least one graduate, Morin Zaray, walked out and later published an op-ed in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles accusing Chabon of a “one-dimensional” portrayal of Jews as “evil oppressors.” Zaray also took HUC-JIR to task for inviting Chabon to speak.

Responding to the criticism, the school’s leaders defended their decision. “As both an Israeli and American institution, belonging to two proud democracies defined by lively discourse, it does not occur to us at HUC-JIR to quash or vilify political criticism of Israel out of a preemptive fear of controversy,” wrote interim president Rabbi David Ellenson and Joshua Holo, dean of the Los Angeles campus. “On the contrary, we know that the confidence to invite challenging ideas both defines and validates democracy in the first place.”

It’s worth noting that the HUC-JIR leaders, like Philip Roth decades earlier, answered critics by asserting that American Jews are secure enough to tolerate internal disapproval.

Still, while it’s a sign of intellectual democracy for educational institutions to welcome a wide range of views, is it not self-defeating for a rabbinical school to present an honorary doctorate to an author who calls Judaism’s traditions “shameful” — in justifying distinctions between sacred and secular, Jews and others — and who describes “endogamous marriage” as “a ghetto of two?” 

Jewish history is replete with charismatic figures chastising their brothers and sisters for their behavior — and being reviled for it. But the prophets of old were urging repentance and a return to God, not away from God.

In the last half century, we American Jews have come a long way in shedding our insecurities about being accepted in mainstream society. Leading universities that once restricted Jews from attending now have Jews serving as presidents; and presidents and vice presidents of our country have Jewish children and grandchildren. But that openness and acceptance have led to new levels of assimilation and intermarriage. Michael Chabon appears to welcome that development; Philip Roth, who carved a career out of exploring the nexus between being a Jew and an American, left instructions that his funeral include no hint of Jewish ritual.

That doesn’t make either author a self-hating Jew, an ugly phrase all too frequently used to marginalize those among us with whom we disagree. 

A mature, confident American Jewry should be able to appreciate the talent, imagination, and artistic contributions of fictional writers like Roth and Chabon without giving them a pass on their real-life and sometimes warped critiques of Israel and Judaism. In the spirit of freedom and equality, we should respond as vigorously to their challenges as they are in offering them — but taking care to respond to the criticism without demonizing the critic.

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