Last week, as I was looking through my files for the Torah portion of Vayetze, I came across a talk I gave in 2004, reviewing the Philip Roth novel, “The Plot Against America.” The book posits an alternate history where America comes under the sway of Nazi Germany through the election of Charles Lindbergh as President in 1940. The nation remains out of World War II, which Germany therefore wins, and the Jews in Roth’s own childhood neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, live in fear of anti-Semitic violence. I compared the fear of the Jewish protagonist with that of the patriarch Jacob, who ventures out into a dark and scary world, shaken by an unsettling dream, praying that he might awaken from the nightmare of Exile.
We don’t know what the coming four years will bring, but the novel seems eerily prescient. I firmly believe that past does not have to be prologue, but the fictitious past described here has become increasingly plausible in our current reality, not merely because it could easily have happened here in the manner that Roth describes, but that it has happened elsewhere, in many places not called Nazi Germany. It is happening across much of Europe right now, in countries like Poland and Hungary; it happened in Argentina.
So here are excerpts from my talk in 2004 – including some key passages from the book and from reviews.
The narrator is Roth himself, recalling days of his own imagined and very real childhood as they happened, or as they could have. And the prevailing emotional tone is one of fear. The very first line of the novel says, ”Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear.” The New York Times Book review asks, “Fear of what? Of Nazis? They are gone. Of Charles Lindbergh ? He never got anywhere in politics. Fear of what, then? Nobody living in this era after 9/11 should have to ask that question. But then, perhaps even 9/11 cannot explain every last aspect of this dark fear, which is old, old, old.”
The Times then adds, “Roth has found his way to an archetypal nightmare – the anxious, ancestral, midnight fear of the American Jews.”
In its review, Salon comments that the book “is an embrace of the catastrophic anxieties Roth once rebelled against. He envisions the kind of America where, like it or not, he is a Jew first.”
There are two narrators, one being the contemporary Roth, looking back at what happened, and the other being Roth the small boy, losing his innocence while coming of age, as the fear is being stamped onto his character
Stamped is the right word, because central to the book is Roth’s childhood stamp collection. He owns a set of National Parks stamps, depicting nature scenes. But Roth has a bad dream in which the stamps are disfigured. As the narrator describes it:
Across the face of each, across the cliffs, the woods, the rivers, the peaks, the geyser, the gorges, the granite coastline, across the deep blue water and the high waterfalls, across everything in America that was the bluest and the greenest and the whitest and to be preserved forever in these pristine reservations, was printed a black swastika.
The fear of this novel is a fear of the night. It is Elie Wiesel’s “Night” transposed onto our own country, where things like this can never take place, or so we thought. It is not giving away too much to let you know that no American Auschwitz is built, but things come precariously close. By the novel’s climax, we have long since experienced an American Kristallnacht, the border to Canada is sealed, Jews are being relocated en masse, and the Axis powers have a very friendly ally in the White House. And the American people are happily safe and economically sound, far from the carnage of a European war.
Lindbergh’s rise to power is made plausible by the fear Americans had of entering the war back in 1940, fueled by the anti-Semitism that was commonplace in the radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin and the diatribes of Henry Ford and the pronouncements of Lindbergh himself. In the middle of the night, Lindbergh literally swoops down on a deadlocked Republican Convention, which turns to him with adulation on the 21st ballot. The narrator recalls being awakened at 4 AM.
“‘No!’ was the word that awakened us, ‘No!’ being shouted in a man’s loud voice from every house on the block. It can’t be. No. Not for president of the United States.
Within seconds, my brother and I were once more at the radio with the rest of the family, and nobody bothered telling us to go back to bed…. The neighbors pour into the street in their pyjamas and nightdresses, crying in outrage and disbelief, ‘Hitler in America!’
In point of fact, the whole novel reads like a nightmare, uneven at times, with long, complex historical processes simplified to a few sentences, with some implausible leaps of logic, with the post-Holocaust refrain of “Never Again,” mirrored in the narrator’s constant refrain of disbelief, “Never Before.”
Returning home after a particularly trying day, he says:
I didn’t know if I had dreamed that an FBI agent had questioned me on Chancellor Avenue. It had to be a dream and yet couldn’t be if everybody else said they’d been questioned too. Unless THAT was the dream. I felt woozy and thought I was going to faint. I’d never before seen anyone faint, other than in a movie, and I’d never before fainted myself. I’d never before looked at my house from a hiding place across the street and wished that it was someone else’s. I’d never before had twenty dollars in my pocket. I’d never before known anyone who’d seen his father hanging in a closet. I’d never before grown up in a place like this. Never before: the great refrain of 1942.
There is no escape; there is no escaping this nightmare and there is no escaping his Jewishness. Some Jews try to escape the latter, including one of the protagonists, a rabbi, who turns out to be Lindbergh’s lackey. But for the most part, for these Jews, their Jewishness breathes through them. They would neither desire to nor be able even to conceive of the option of shedding that skin. Now, in 2004, that choice to shed is more readily available.
When you read this novel, where Lindbergh rises to power with the campaign cry of “Don’t let us get swept into a war on behalf of the Jews,” you can’t help but hear echoes of accusations made against Israel and Ariel Sharon regarding the Iraq war: It’s the Jews war! Our boys are dying for Israel! That’s what makes it so plausible. We’ve heard these claims even in our own day, although more from the left than from the right.
What we hear from the right is also echoed in the book, in America’s yen for mindless hero worship and its drive to homogenize and disregard civil rights and the pain of minorities. An American Moslem could read this book and understand the Jewish condition. At one point, Roth’s father comes back to Newark from an outing into red state America and states, “We knew things were bad, but not like this. You had to be there to see what it looked like. They live in a dream, and we live in a nightmare.”
So how would we respond if we woke up one day and Pat Buchanan had been elected president? A few more butterfly ballots and we might have elected him! Post 9/11, is America more susceptible to the type of charismatic populism that blind us to the evil lurking behind it? Or are we now more attuned to our place in defending the entire world from such evil? Neither Roth nor Jacob give us those answers. It is noteworthy, though, that this novel’s America doesn’t allow itself to be completely consumed by this plot against it, in part because the roots of anti-Semitism and intolerance simply don’t run as deep here.
But the fear does. For the Jew, the fear does. Even for Philip Roth, the one who has made a career out of mocking it, the fear does. Most of us can never really know the kind of terror that would cause one to say, “Never before.” Only a survivor of the Holocaust can really understand how one’s lifelong home can turn into a prison overnight. But all of us know that perpetual fear…the fear that began when Jacob left his home behind, the fear that has not left us since.
One wonders if it ever will.