Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"I'm Just Jewish . . .": Defining Jewish Identity in Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"I'm Just Jewish . . .": Defining Jewish Identity in Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories

Article excerpt

What is it then between us? -Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

At its release, Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus was met with enthusiastic praise by some and harsh criticism by others.1 Among those who applauded Roth's literary talents were critics Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin, as well as successful Jewish novelist Saul Bellow. Howe, for instance, wrote that Goodbye, Columbus "bristled with a literary self-confidence such as few writers two or three decades older than Roth could command" (229). Still, several of the stories within Goodbye, Columbus have consistently "excited the anger of many Jewish readers who accused Roth of exploiting Jewish-American culture in order to gain acceptance as an 'American' author" (Parrish 1). In his essay "Writing About Jews," Roth claims that one rabbi actively protested his work to the Anti-Defamation League, asking "What is being done to silence this man? Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him" (160). Rabbi Theodore Lewis condemns Roth's portrayal of Jewish Americans saying that "the Jewish characters in his short stories and novels [are] depraved and lecherous creatures. The only logical conclusion any intelligent reader could draw from [Roth's] stories or books, is that this country-nay that the world- would be a much better and happier place without 'Jews'" (qtd. in Isaac 182). Many within the Jewish community took issue with Roth's portrayal of the Jewish cultural and religious identity, labeling him a self-hating Jew.

There is no shortage of scholarship that explores the subjects of Roth's social criticisms in Goodbye, Columbus. One early critic, for instance, writes that "the major force behind [Goodbye, Columbus is] an indictment of the Jewish upper-middle class" (Larner 28). Likewise, Debra Shostak identifies the underlying theme of the collection as a criticism of Jewish assimilation after the Second World War (117). But for a richer understanding of the text as a whole, critics would be wise to discuss not only what Roth is satirizing, but how he is criticizing it. Certainly, the novella "Goodbye, Columbus" could be categorized as "an indictment of the Jewish upper-middle class," and "Eli, the Fanatic" is easily a story about assimilation. Critics, like Jeremy Larner and Shostak, who have characterized these stories as critiques of the modern Jewish way of life as Roth saw it, are not incorrect in their assertions. But the fact that Roth criticizes assimilation and Jewish materialism through principles established by traditional, even orthodox Jewish values serves to validate those criticisms. This is especially true since Roth would later come under attack by Jews who claim to ground their attacks at him in the principles of Judaism. Though it cannot be denied that Goodbye, Columbus is a social indictment, many of Roth's more harsh critics have oversimplified the collection by insisting that Roth purposefully condemns the American Jew. In fact, the collection reveals Roth to be a social critic who is both bemused at, and cynical of those American Jews who have abandoned the morals of Judaism in favor of the more convenient morals of American individualism. Perhaps then the only crime that Roth commits with Goodbye, Columbus is the crime of holding a mirror to unflattering truths. Even this accusation is a bit too simplistic, though. Jewish scholar Samuel Osherson theorizes instead that "[s]uch stories [that appear in Goodbye, Columbus] were OK as long as they were confined to a Jewish audience; Roth's sin was that he wrote a best-seller, and showed our [Jews'] dirty laundry to the goyim" (32). Thus, many Jewish critics of Roth's work might have found Goodbye, Columbus troublesome not simply for its unflattering portrait of some American Jews, but because it was critical while being marketed toward a largely non-Jewish audience.

JEWISH MATERIALISM IN "GOODBYE, COLUMBUS"

Neil Klugman is by no means a privileged Jewish boy. He lives with his aunt and uncle in a Jewish neighborhood in the city of Newark. …

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