A Jewish friend once told me, “Philip Roth is writing the story of my life. I wait for each new book to discover the next chapter.” Many are the Jewish men who have expressed, each with a different nuance, similar gratitude to and affection for the writer who died May 22 in New York City at eighty-five. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, a Jew born in South Africa and raised in Britain, expressed gratitude in print, on the very day when the sad news broke, for the way that Roth had introduced him to the liberating Jewish-American way to be Jewish—or to be himself.
Philip and I have been friends—it hurts to say “were friends”—since 1974. In that year, I was working as an instructor on a temporary appointment (I would leave academic life within the year) at the University of Montana. There, I read “Imagining Jews,” a long article that he had just published in the New York Review of Books, and wrote him about it, c/o the Review. He answered, a correspondence ensued, and he invited me to visit him if I ever came east. Some months later, I did so, and the friendship took off from there. Among Philip’s immense gifts was the gift of friendship.
My reason for writing him had arisen from several key passages in “Heroes Jewish Writers Imagine,” the second section of “Imagining Jews.” Considering Saul Bellow’s heroes, Philip, while regarding Bellow as “to my mind the country’s most accomplished working novelist,” found
That almost invariably his heroes are Jewish in vivid and emphatic ways when they are actors in dramas of conscience, but are by comparison only faintly marked by their Jewishness, if they are Jews at all, when appetite and libidinous adventure is at the heart of a novel.
In Portnoy’s Complaint, Alexander Portnoy exclaims to his psychiatrist at one point, “Doctor, doctor, let’s put the id back in yid!” In “Imagining Jews,” Philip provided that much-quoted line, among so many others in his raucous 1969 bombshell of a novel, a subtle and deeply pondered social and literary context.
Regarding Bernard Malamud, an almost equally celebrated Jewish novelist back in 1974, he made a related point even more sharply:
For Malamud, generally speaking, the Jew is innocent, passive, virtuous, and this to the degree that he defines himself or is defined by others as a Jew; the Gentile, on the other hand, is characteristically corrupt, violent, and lustful, particularly when he enters a room or a store or a cell with a Jew in it.
Now, on the face of it, it would seem that a writer could not get very far with such evangelistic simplifications. And yet that is not at all the case with Malamud (as it isn’t with Jerzy Kosinski in The Painted Bird), for so instinctively do the figures of a good Jew and a bad goy emerge from an imagination essentially folkloric and didactic that his fiction is most convincing the more strictly he adheres to these simplifications….
Philip was entirely right about the appeal on the page of “these simplifications,” even for a Gentile reader. Reading Malamud as an “innocent, passive, virtuous” but, notably, a Catholic young man, the kind who could (and did) enter the seminary, I identified powerfully with the interior life of Malamud’s deep, idealistic, morally anguished or conscience-driven Jewish heroes. But naggingly in the back of my mind, brought forward only when Philip brought it forward in his analysis, was the fact that in these works, no one like me in ethnicity or religion or education ever is innocent, passive, virtuous, idealistic, etc. So, for me, you might say that while putting the id back in yid, Philip proposed to put the morally longsuffering oy back in goy.