Leonard Strulowitz met Philip Roth for the first time in his Weequahic High School homeroom. Roth had been late to class, so the teacher told him there were no more lockers available and asked the other students if anyone was willing to share with the newcomer. Strulowitz, the only one to raise a hand, and Roth shared the locker that year, “and that is how we became friendly,” he recalled.
They reconnected around 2008, when Roth needed help in researching a novel, which would be called “Indignation.” Strulowitz’s father had owned the kosher Abe Strulowitz Butcher Shop on Bergen Street in Newark, and one of the central characters in “Indignation” was the son of a kosher butcher from Newark. Roth wanted to learn all he could about the meat business from a boy who worked in his dad’s store after school.
“I answered all his questions and I gave him a bunch of stories about my dad and he used them in the book,” and eventually in the film of the same name, Strulowitz, a retired optometrist, told NJJN from his home in Springfield.
On May 22 Roth, the Newark native, prolific author, and controversial profiler of American culture who frequently incorporated his struggles with his Jewish heritage into his writing, died. He was 85.
In the days since his death, as tributes to the almost mythical literary figure and essays describing his cutting insight into American society have been published in countless media outlets, NJJN spoke to several locals who knew Roth first as a friend, and second as an author.
Even though Strulowitz and Roth didn’t socialize much during their years at Weequahic — outside of the times they ran into each other at their shared locker — he still remembered several of their interactions. On one occasion, the two teenagers mixed up their lunch bags, Roth ended up eating his lockermate’s tuna fish sandwich and Strulowitz ate Roth’s shrimp salad. Strulowitz was strictly kosher, Roth decidedly not, so when Roth told him about the mix-up, “the nausea was so great that I had to run to the bathroom to throw up, and we used to laugh about that,” Strulowitz said, seven decades later.
To this day, Strulowitz remains an Orthodox Jew, and although Roth disdained organized religion — according to JTA, the author gave strict instructions that no Jewish rituals be included in his funeral service, which was held Monday — he considers “Phil as part of the Jewish family. He was not religious in any way and he had no problem being critical or demeaning. He always had Judaism because of the family part, not the religious part.”
Eileen Lerner Greenberg, who also lives in Springfield, met Roth in an early grade (she doesn’t remember which one) at Chancellor Avenue Elementary School, and they remained friends through high school at Weequahic. “We were a little bit social,” she said. “We went to little gatherings at classmates’ houses.”
They graduated in 1951, and Greenberg was in charge of organizing class reunions, but for the most part Roth stayed away, until their 45th. She threw an afterparty at her home, and Roth later called to thank her “for bringing us back.” Soon after, he wrote the novel “American Pastoral,” which begins at a high school reunion. “We all got a kick out of that,” Greenberg said.
Throughout the years, Greenberg remained an unabashed fan of Roth and his writings, attending most of the author’s talks and readings in the New York area. “I was like a groupie,” she said. The last time she saw him was at Roth’s 80th birthday party in 2013, a gala event held at the Newark Museum.
Elizabeth Del Tufo, president of the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee, had an even deeper connection with Roth, but one that started much later, in 2005. It began when she was commissioned to plan “Philip Roth Day” in Newark after he wrote “The Plot Against America,” the novel in which Roth considered an alternate history where famed aviator and confirmed anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh ran for president in 1945 and defeated incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Del Tufo spent two months organizing the event, in which Roth returned to his boyhood home on Summit Avenue where part of the novel was based. Former Mayor Sharpe James unveiled a plaque in Roth’s honor outside the house, and the street name was changed to Philip Roth Plaza. Del Tufo and Roth kept in touch but they did not speak regularly until 2013, when the author enlisted Del Tufo to organize his 80th birthday party (the same event where Greenberg last saw Roth). “My goodness, I almost went through the floor,” she told NJJN. “I was so excited.”
They last spoke on March 19, Roth’s 85th birthday. “He complained about getting old, but then, he always did,” she said. “We both agreed that we would love to turn the clock back and do it all over again.”
Weequahic graduate Jacob Toporek, executive director of the N.J. State Association of Jewish Federations, told NJJN “Philip Roth and his books, which never strayed far from our neighborhood and our high school, played a significant role in maintaining for so many a connection of the mind and heart to Weequahic High School, Newark, and New Jersey.”
Linda Forgosh, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of NJ (JHS), called Roth “Newark royalty.” They began a correspondence in 2006 while she was planning a JHS exhibit called “Born at the Beth,” the story of Newark Beth Israel Hospital (now Newark Beth Israel Medical Center), the city’s first hospital to allow Jewish and African-American doctors to practice medicine; Roth was born at the hospital in 1933.
They stayed in touch through handwritten letters which she cherishes. Among her most prized possessions is a note on his personal stationary congratulating her for winning the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee’s Charles Cummings Award for, Roth wrote, “her efforts to research, showcase and preserve Newark’s history.” The late Cummings was a preeminent Newark historian.
Roth also wrote a letter to Forgosh lauding her 2016 biography, “Louis Bamberger: Department Store Innovator and Philanthropist,” calling her book “extremely interesting and informative,” noting that he had worked part time in its shoe department during Christmas seasons in the 1940s.
Although Roth was a member of JHS since the organization launched in 1992, he declined many of the invitations extended by devotees from inside and outside the Jewish community. And when Forgosh requested the author deliver the keynote address at the “Born at the Beth” exhibit opening ceremony, “of course, he demurred,” she said.