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

Article excerpt

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. …

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