Even before his 80th birthday on March 19, big events — including two documentary films — are being planned to honor writer Philip Roth.
Born at Newark Beth Israel Hospital and a member of the 1950 graduating class of the city’s Weequahic High School, Roth has set some of his best-known novels in the homes, schools, and psyches of the city’s once-thriving Jewish community.
“He is ours and Newark’s native son who has gone on to achieve a stellar position in the world of literature,” said Linda Forgosh, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey.
The JHS will host the premiere, with two screenings, of Out of Newark: The Life and Work of Philip Roth, on Sunday, March 17. Filmmaker Jane Statlander-Slote will be on hand to discuss her new documentary, which she wrote, produced, and directed.
“I wanted to make this film because I grew up in Newark,” Statlander-Slote told NJ Jewish News in a Feb. 12 phone interview from Miami, where she was completing its editing.
“I lived on South 15th Street in Clinton Hill, I graduated from Weequahic High School in 1968, and I attended Temple B’nai Jeshurun. Weequahic was like being in a fairyland, where everything was wonderful,” she said.
Statlander-Slote’s film pays special attention to the Newark of the 1930s and ’40s, when Roth grew up on the corner of Summit and Keer avenues, and to eight literary critics who have analyzed his writings. But she opted against interviewing Roth himself.
“I wanted to do my own independent thing,” she told NJJN. “I knew if he gave me an interview I would have to promise X, Y, or Z. I did not want to do that.”
Statlander-Slote, who has read all of Roth’s 31 novels, his two nonfiction books, and his collections of short stories, called him “artistically brilliant.”
“I understand Roth very well. I speak Newark, and everything is so, so clear. I knew the people he described. I knew the places he described,” she said.
Forgosh, who has fielded requests from Roth and his researchers, also shared JHS archival material with Statlander-Slote for her film.
“I went through the collection, picked out anything that had to do with Roth, and sent it to her,” the historian said.
‘What life is about’
A second documentary, Philip Roth: Unmasked, will have its debut on Wednesday, March 13, at the Film Forum in New York, and will be broadcast for the first time on Friday, March 29, at 9 p.m. on the PBS show American Masters.
It features a lengthy interview of Roth.
The filmmakers are Livia Manera, a literary correspondent for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, and William Karel, a French film director.
Manera called Roth, who recently announced he is retiring as a novelist, “one of my favorite writers and the most important living writer in the U.S. and one of the most important in the world. His fiction is not only excellent, it is also tells a lot about how we live, what we feel, and what life is about.”
Speaking from her home in Paris, Manera said she first interviewed Roth after his novel The Human Stain was published in 2000. “We became friends along the years, so it was not difficult to make the film,” she said. During the 15 hours they spent together, “he was extremely cooperative.”
He placed only one restriction on Manera. “He did not want to discuss his marriages,” she said. “I respected that. He had a lot of interviews in the past in which the private and the professional were mixed in way that displeased him.”
In the film, Roth’s frequent remarks are interspersed with quotes from high school, college, and army friends; writers, including Jonathan Franzen and Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation); and actress Mia Farrow, a close friend.
Early on, the film deals with what many perceive as Roth’s ambivalence toward his Jewish identity.
“I’m not crazy as seeing myself described as an American-Jewish writer,” he says on camera. “I don’t write in Jewish. I write in American. Most of my work — nine-tenths of it — takes place in America. I was raised in America. I am an American writer.”
Manera took issue with critics in the Jewish community who have labeled him “anti-Semitic” or a “self-hating Jew.”
“He has no problem with being Jewish at all,” she insisted. “People try often to manipulate what he says or who he is in order to make him more Jewish, in order to make a Jewish point. I would get angry if someone did that to me as a Christian or an Italian.”
Also to marks the writer’s milestone birthday, the Newark Preservation and Landmark Committee is presenting a two-day, invitation-only conference, “Philip Roth at 80,” on March 18 and 19 at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark.
It will feature literary discussions of his works and bus tours of landmarks mentioned in his many writings. One of the tours will be led by Rob Steinbaum, publisher of the New Jersey Law Journal, and Rosemary Steinbaum, who helped choose photographs for “Philip Roth: An Exhibit of Photos From a Lifetime,” a show of roughly 100 pictures, which will open at the Newark Public Library on March 19 and run through Aug. 31.
The main event is scheduled for the second night at the Newark Museum. It will include a cocktail reception, a program — with an appearance by Roth himself — and a salute including birthday cake and champagne.