"The Midwife of His Rebirth": Henry Roth and Zion

By Kellman, Steven G. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

"The Midwife of His Rebirth": Henry Roth and Zion


Kellman, Steven G., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


HENRY ROTH BEGAN HIS REMARKABLE CAREER AS NOVELIST with a vivid image of displacement-the disorienting arrival of Genya and David Scheari on Ellis Island. And the Lower East Side in which the Jewish newcomers settle is a profoundly unsettling place. But by the end of his long life and truncated career, Roth came to recognize that Ninth Street, within the borders of what he would, in a 1986 interview, call "a Jewish mini-state" [1] was his true Zion. Yet it was the other Zion that inspired Roth to overcome creative paralysis by returning through writing to his childhood roots in a vibrant neighborhood of Jewish immigrants.

"And this is the Golden Land," observes Genya Schearl in her first recorded words. [2] The mean streets of New York are not paved with gold, but neither is Call It Sleep a Zionist fantasy of eretz Zavat khalav u-dvash, the land flowing with milk and honey. Weaving his own literary gold out of immigrant urban straw, Henry Roth constructed powerful fiction on the Yiddish sarcasm of dubbing a world of tenements and sweatshops the Goldeneh Medina. But whatever it is, it is not Medinat Yisrael.

Galicia and America are the two poles of Roth's first fictional universe. The story begins in 1907, during the period of the Second Aliyah, yet no one in the book considers leaving Veljish for Haifa. When a Middle Eastern Jew happens to be mentioned, it is Isaiah or Abraham-not David Ben-Gurion or Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Call it sleep if you will, but in Roth's most important novel, the Promised Land of Moses and Herzl is not even a dream.

When Call It Sleep was published, in 1934, the State of Israel was still fourteen years away from creation, and Zionism was not yet a major force among American Jews. Nor does the land of Israel figure significantly in the fiction of Daniel Fuchs, Michael Gold, Nathanael West, Anzia Yezierska, and most other American Jewish writers of the thirties. However, especially for Roth, an avowed Communist and atheist immersed in the avant-garde culture of Greenwich Village, Zion is simply not on the map. Though Roth, born in 1906 in Tysmenica, Galicia, could be called a landsmann of his contemporaries S. Y. Agnon and Uri Zvi Greenberg, he inhabited a very different emotional landscape from those Hebrew authors. He became so distanced from things Jewish, much less an emerging Jewish state, that the surviving fragment of his second effort at a novel, a proletarian fiction about a Gentile Midwestern ruffian, was named for treyf: "If We Had Bacon." Shortly after his bar mitzvah, Ira Stigman, Roth's fictional alter ego i n the tetralogy Mercy of a Rude Stream, arrives at the realization that: "... he was only a Jew because he had to be a Jew; he hated being a Jew; he didn't want to be one, saw no virtue in being one, and realized he was caught, imprisoned in an identity from which there was no chance of his ever freeing himself." [3] As a student at City College, Ira shows up for classes on Yom Kippur, proud to convey the message: "Ah, here's a Jew who doesn't give a damn about Judaism." [4] As late as 1963, the fifty-seven-year-old Roth himself was proclaiming in the Zionist magazine Midstream that: "I can only say, again, that I feel that to the great boons Jews have already conferred upon humanity, Jews in America might add this last and greatest one: of orienting themselves toward ceasing to be Jews." [5]

Roth ceased to be a novelist after Call It Sleep. At the time of his prescription for Jewish extinction, he was halfway through the longest creative hiatus ever experienced by a major American novelist. During Roth's extended sojourn in Maine, he chopped wood, sold maple syrup, fought forest fires, tutored Latin and math, served as an attendant at a psychiatric hospital, and raised and butchered geese and ducks. From 1934 until 1994, his rare appearances in print were confined to a few short stories and nonfiction pieces, including an article on slaughtering waterfowl that was published in The Magazine for Ducks and Geese. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

"The Midwife of His Rebirth": Henry Roth and Zion
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.