A world of literati sang “Happy Birthday” to Philip Roth in the courtyard of the Newark Museum as one of America’s most honored and prolific writers returned to his hometown to celebrate his 80th birthday.
The March 19 party culminated two days dedicated to Roth, who capped the proceedings with a variously humorous and elegiac speech devoted to memories of his native Weequahic section and its once-prominent Jewish community.
A day earlier, the Philip Roth Society began a two-day conference, Roth@80, at which scholars from many parts of the world gathered to discuss his writings, which include more than 30 books.
In companion events, the Newark Preservation & Landmarks Committee conducted a guided bus tour of “Roth’s Newark,” and the Newark Public Library opened a five-month exhibit of his personal photographs.
Writers, scholars, friends, and fans came from a dozen states and countries — including India, Italy, Romania, France, Germany, Brazil, and Norway — to attend the festivities.
“Welcome to March Madness,” said committee president Elizabeth Del Tufo, as she opened the birthday celebration in the museum’s Billy Johnson Auditorium.
After being praised from the podium by five literary figures who are among his close friends — Jonathan Lethem, Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation), Hermione Lee, Alain Finkielkraut, and Edna O’Brien — Roth appeared onstage.
Unlike most of the men in the audience, he was dressed in a black suit and open-collar shirt, having forsaken a more formal necktie.
Rather than standing, Roth sat behind a table at center stage, opened a notebook, and proceeded to read a 45-minute speech.
“I will not bore you tonight with my happy stories of my childhood in the Weequahic section of the city,” he said at the start, as he proceeded with a series of boyhood reminiscences.
He recalled the neighborhood’s Weequahic Park and “the skating pond, the fishing hole, the necking parlor, our pickup place.”
He pledged not to mention the Osborne Terrace Library and the bicycle basket he would fill with the books he borrowed.
He said he would not reminisce about the Chancellor Avenue School and his student days, when “there were only eight teams in the National League and only eight teams in the American League” and how he and his friends “painstakingly picked the silver foil from empty cigarette packs and rolled them and brought them to school for the war effort.”
He shared his memories of Germany’s surrender and “the saddest day in my young life,” the day President Franklin Roosevelt died. “My family seemed insane,” he said. “My country seemed insane.”
He recalled the Gold Star flags hanging in the windows near his home on Summit Avenue —signs that a family member had died in combat.
“I wondered back then what it would be like inside their homes with the grieving family,” Roth said.
Then he turned to happier times, remembering how, in 1946, he watched Jackie Robinson play at Newark’s long-gone Ruppert Stadium for the minor league Montreal Royals against his beloved Newark Bears, a year before Robinson became the first African-American player in Major League Baseball. “It was just us kids” in the bleachers, Roth said.
Roth also spoke of making 25-cent bets with his older brother at the boxing matches they attended in the city’s Laurel Garden arena.
“To me, it had the synagogue beat by a mile,” he said.
Alluding to his retirement from writing, which he announced last year, Roth spoke of having written about “my last javelin throw, my last stamp album, my last jewelry store, my last breath, and my last butcher shop.
“I don’t wish any longer to contemplate in fiction the destruction of writing and reading.”
Switching subjects and tone abruptly, Roth began a 28-minute reading from Sabbath’s Theater, the 1995 novel he considers a favorite among his works. The excerpt was set at a Jewish cemetery at the Jersey shore, where protagonist Mickey Sabbath ruminates on the World War II combat death of his older brother, Morty.
After reading the final words of the melancholy excerpt — “Here I am” — Roth closed the notebook, rose from the table, and walked offstage to a standing ovation.
Moments later, he reappeared on the steps leading down to the museum’s indoor courtyard, greeted by a flourish of horns and a drum played by three current members of the Weequahic High School Marching Band.
Then he moved to a table in the center of the room and cut a slice of a large cake shaped like an open book.
“Let’s all have something to eat,” he said. Then 300 friends and fans saluted him with “Happy Birthday.”