Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Philip Roth's Nostalgia for the Yiddishkayt and the New Deal Idealisms in the Plot against America1

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Philip Roth's Nostalgia for the Yiddishkayt and the New Deal Idealisms in the Plot against America1

Article excerpt

Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004), which appeared in the wake of 9/1 1 and the Iraqi-American conflict, intrigumgly deals with the Holocaust, bringing its horrendous reality to an imagined America in the grip of fascist ideologues. Contrary to the expectations aroused by its title, the novel does not address America's problem with international terrorism, but curiously revisits the traumatic era of World War II and records the struggles of an American Jewish family against anti-Semitic intolerance. Interestingly, the family in question is Roth's own, and, by implicating it in the turbulent forces of history, the novelist has successfully fused autobiography and history through inventive fictionalization. In unmistakably conflating the yiddishkayt ideals of the Jews with the New Deal values of the Roosevelt era, the novel persuasively includes the vexatious issue of Jewish survival to the core American concerns. The twining of Jewish and American concerns, often a characteristic perspective in Roth's fiction, is effectively dramatized in The Plot Against America through an alternate history or counterhistory. Such a revisionary exercise in historical imagination thickly enmeshed with Roth's family history, paradoxically, triggers a realistic narrative that forcefully articulates why the fascist-inspired genocide could not occur in the United States.

Yiddishkayt literally means Jewishness or Jewish worldview and often suggests a deep emotional attachment with and an acceptance of the Jewish people that is rooted in secular values. According to Bonnie Lyons, yiddishkayt is "folk culture or domestic religion" that governs the life of "Eastern-European Jews and their descendants, including] most American-Jewish writers" (62). Celebrating the humanistic values inherent in the struggles of the Jews in the East European shtel, it privileges the common humanity of laborers, small-time farmers, and tradesmen. The culture of yiddishkayt continued to flourish among the Jewish immigrants in the United States aided by a longestablished democratic political ethos that accorded primacy to the life of the common citizen. Since most of Americas East European Jewish immigrants came from Russia, it was only natural that they brought to the new land their revolutionary idealism. These working class American Jews, with their leftleaning politics and grounding in the secular Jewish social ttaditions, were instinctively drawn to the Democrats. This affinity for the Democrats turned into an alliance, as it were, once President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated the New Deal policies that were coterminous with his fitst two terms in office (1932-1940). Joseph A. McCartin defines the New Deal era thus:

This era saw an unprecedented level of federal intervention to regulate economic life and provide basic welfare to citizens in response to the Great Depression. This redefinition of government in turn facilitated the realignment of both major political parties, the rise of unionism among 'mass-production workers, demands for progress by women and minorities, and the growth of populist influences in culture and the arts.' (546)

The complex cultural politics of yiddishkayt has an analogue in the New Deal idealism of Roosevelt that has had such a significant effect on the sociocultural life of the United States in the twentieth century. In The Plot Against America, Roth mines the political landscape of the American 1930s and early 1 940s that testifies to the combined fervor of the yiddishkayt and the New Deal idealisms.

Roth's uchronic experimentation in The Plot Against America involves the Jewish American milieu of his parents' generation who shared a common cause with President Roosevelt in resisting the fascism of Hitler and other Axis powers. If Herman and Bess, parenrs of the child narrator Philip Rorh, and their fellow American Jewish compatriots are hounded by Nazi-inspired anti-Semitism, it nevertheless becomes evident that they would eventually be rescued through the combined might of the yiddishkayt tradition and the New Deal principles. …

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