Judaism as Neurosis: A Farewell to Philip Roth

Philip Roth wrote in his last will that no Jewish ceremony of any kind must take place at his burial. Abhorring the customs of his forefathers even beyond the grave, but demanding a grave in a cemetery with other Jews makes one wonder again why Judaism became a neurosis, a source of permanent unhappiness in his life and work. He did not believe in afterlife or religion. Why did he care about his funeral? Why not let friends or family decide how to conduct it? Or better, why not go the whole way and cut the cord with Judaism completely: ask to be cremated, which is forbidden by Jewish religion, ask for your ashes to be deposited in a discreet place where Jews will not go? No, he made sure that some Jews would still encounter him even without reading his books.

When Julius Caesar reached the Rubicon River in 49 BCE, he crossed it, conquered Rome and changed the history of the world. “Let the die be cast”, he allegedly said. Philip Roth (or his heroes) reached his (their) own Rubicon, waded into it but did not swim to the other side. Instead, he (they) kept paddling in the middle of the river while complaining that the experience was quite unpleasant. All through history Jews were tip-toeing out of Judaism, changing identity, name, language and home, to disappear and be forgotten. For most the change was smooth, particularly in the United States. However, others did not cut the link but remained ill at ease with the Jewish religion, people or state, if not all three. They kept expressing their unhappiness one way or another. Philip Roth belongs to the second category, unhappy but still Jewish. A sentiment of unhappiness permeates his novels. It is the unhappiness of liberal American Jews who have abandoned religion, cannot identify with Israel but still cannot cut the link completely. This is a transitory psychological condition. It is unlikely to last longer than a generation. Their children will cut the link except for a few who will find a way back to Jewish religion, peoplehood or Zionism.

Nobody disputes that Roth is one of the greatest, maybe the greatest and most influential American Jewish novelist of the 20th century. But how will he be read in one or two generations? Will his work still ring a chord in American ears in fifty or hundred years? It is doubtful. Not simply because of his unhappiness which is liberal Jewish and American and thus, not enormously important to the rest of the world. Franz Kafka wrote that literature is not written to make readers happy. Books must feel like “a blow with a mace over your head”, they must be a wake-up call. Surely Kafka’s stories will continue to be read and discussed. Their mysteries and riddles seem to hold secret answers to the anguish of the human condition. No wonder he is translated into Arabic and Chinese, among many other languages.

Philip Roth? Jews have made and are making an extraordinary contribution to American life and culture of the 20th century, in science, literature, visual arts, music, technological innovation and more. The paintings of Marc Rothko will remain. They allude to the mystery of doors opening to an unknown world, a world beyond. What does Rothko want to tell us, we are still asking? He often referred to his Jewish origins. He never allowed the holding of exhibitions of his paintings in Germany. He did not forgive them. George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Irwin Berlin will remain. All their music conveys happiness, yes, Philip Roth, there is also Jewish happiness!

Dr. Shalom Salomon Wald, The Jewish Policy Institute (JPPI), Jerusalem. This article reflects the personal opinion of the author.

About the Author
Dr. Shalom Salomon Wald, Senior Fellow of the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem, is co-author (together with Arielle Kandel) of India, Israel and the Jewish People – From History to Geopolitics.