27 March 2012

Portnoy et al.

These days I seem never too far from Philip Roth.
I think that something that Tony Judt (z”l) says in Thinking the Twentieth Century that resonates here. Judt wonders why American Jews are so obsessed with those events where assimilation has either failed (as in the Holocaust) or been rejected (as in the State of Israel). In the former, of course, the destruction of the Jews—who from the emancipation in France under Napoleon in the 18th century and the continued emancipation through Europe in the 19th century had considered themselves citizens of their respective places of national origin, gives brutal evidence of the failure of assimilation. And if assimilation has been the goal—assimilation that renders the Jew invisible—then of what use is Israel to the American Jew as a place where Jews might be safe. Who would know they are Jews?
Judt argues that the Zionists might have a point: assimilation is a scam. They argue that even if the gentiles like you and accept you for who you are and you achieve ‘asssimilation’, then you will not like yourself exactly because you are amenable to the gentiles. Assimilation will lead to self-hatred. Thus, you will find some way to make yourself noticeable and distinctively Jewish—exactly because the gentiles accept you for who you are and do not acknowledge that you are Jew. This is somewhat akin to my observation a number of years ago: I said that Christians always assume that I am a Christian unless I make a point of stating that I am Jewish, and make a point of being Jewish, in which case I will be looked upon with some suspicion (or worse). The success of assimilation leads—in Freudian language, to the return of the Yid!! Thus, everyone walks about at Christmas time wishing a Merry Christmas to all . . . the assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas is assumed. And when I respond that I do not celebrate Christmas (or Easter), I become the leper.
Thus occurs the scandal concerning Portnoy’s Complaint. Portnoy struggles to be the self-effacing Protestant. But his entire upbringing has been dominated by the Jewishness of his parents and the culture in which they have lived and in which they want their son, Alexander Portnoy, to live.  He, however, wants to escape. “Because I have to speak absolutely perfect English. Not a word of Jew in it,” he remarks, as he plots his pursuit of the shiksa, Peggy Ann O’Brian. Fearful always of exposure, Portnoy is tormented by the conflict between his morality that is embedded in his Jewish upbringing and his natural drives: “The headlines. Always the headlines revealing my filthy secrets to a shocked and disapproving world.” I think that in part the book explores the paradox of the American Jew desiring assimilation but suffering from self-hatred as a result. “For skating after shikses, under an alias, I would be a cripple for the rest of my days.” In Portnoy’s Complaint, I think Roth has revealed to the world one of the central secret dilemmas experienced by the Jew in America. 


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