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His Jewish Problem

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The narrative proceeds slowly. Roth has become a very essayistic writer, often repetitive, always exhaustive. The coiled concision of his early work is a thing of the past. In The Plot Against America, he leaves no shred of meaning unexamined, so that even the weirdest sentences in this book have an unhurried rhythm. Playing with the rambunctious new downstairs neighbor, little Philip is “derailed for the moment thinking that, on top of Mayor La Guardia’s being under arrest and President Roosevelt’s being under arrest and even Rabbi Bengelsdorf’s being under arrest, the new boy downstairs wasn’t going to be any more of a picnic than the one before him had been.” Famously rageful Roth is weirdly unenraged by the fascist takeover of America.

Everything one is used to in a Roth book is here, but upside down. In The Ghost Writer, the young Nathan Zuckerman has the following conversation with his mother, after Zuckerman fails to reply to a letter from Newark’s Judge Wapter in which the judge compares one of his early stories to the works of Julius Streicher and Joseph Goebbels:

[Mrs. Zuckerman:] “He only meant that what happened to the Jews—”

“In Europe—not in Newark! We are not the wretched of Belsen! We were not the victims of that crime!”

“But we could be—in their place we would be. Nathan, violence is nothing new to Jews, you know that!”

“Ma, you want to see physical violence done to the Jews of Newark, go to the office of the plastic surgeon where the girls get their noses fixed.”

Now it is happening in Newark. And Judge Wapter appears, in inverted form, as the unctuous Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, Newark’s most esteemed religious leader and opportunist, who becomes the New Jersey head of Lindbergh’s Office of American Absorption, or OAA, the agency charged with assimilating the Jews. Roth’s brother, Sandy, is here—as ever, a nice boy too easily swayed by more charismatic personalities, in this case Bengelsdorf. But the words that come out of Sandy’s mouth are the ones usually reserved for the Roth character: “And when are we moving to Canada,” he asks his mother sarcastically, “because of your persecution complex?” The only thing congruent in this counter-universe with ours is the perfidy of the Times. Although founded and owned by Jews (“and highly esteemed for that reason by my father”), the paper piously supports the firing of broadcaster Walter Winchell for his fierce and ostentatiously Jewish anti-Lindbergh rhetoric.

Some of this novel also reads like straight Rothian political satire, which crops up in a sort of auxiliary but satisfying way. Roth has hated every Republican since Eisenhower, he has particular contempt for the Bushes, and he summons a nice retroactive antipathy to President Lindbergh. He is, throughout, the creature of his advisers, including Secretary of the Interior Henry Ford and Vice President Burton K. Wheeler. An attack dog, Wheeler is turned loose when the defeated but still-revered FDR makes an appearance to criticize Lindbergh’s invitation of Hitler’s foreign minister to a White House dinner. “Roosevelt,” Roth recalls, “was immediately attacked by Vice President Wheeler for ‘playing politics’ with a sitting president’s conduct of foreign affairs.” The name of the program meant to deracinate the Jews by sending them into the American provinces—“Just Folks”—has a perfectly terrifying modern innocuousness to it. And of course the First Couple must have been irresistible to Roth: W., the truant Texas Air National Guard pilot, is nothing but a farcical version of Lindbergh, the genuinely courageous stunt aviator, and Laura, the banal pro-war librarian, has got to be some kind of reference to Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the antiwar author of The Unicorn and Other Poems.

In the book’s eeriest episode, the Roths visit Washington, D.C., in some part to dispel their fears about the new Lindbergh administration. Instead, their fears are confirmed. After getting kicked out of their hotel, they see that everyone on the street is looking up at a fast plane, the Lockheed Interceptor, zooming over their heads. Their tour guide explains that every day around this time President Lindbergh likes to take a “little spin along the Potomac.” Roth reports:

We all watched along with Sandy, who was unable to conceal his enchantment with the very Interceptor that the president had flown to and from Iceland for his meeting with Hitler. The plane climbed steeply with tremendous force before disappearing into the sky. Down the street, the people out walking burst into applause, somebody shouted “Hurray for Lindy!” and then they continued on their way.

Writing this passage, had Roth already read in his Times that for the infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech to the troops, Bush had landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln in an S-3B Navy plane, sitting in the co-pilot’s seat, just like a grown-up? Bush is not, as some on the left would have it, much like Hitler, but he is, in Roth’s telling, an awful lot like Lindbergh.

But the heart of the book is the way it functions as perhaps the final chapter in Roth’s history of the Jews. Roth has, of course, always been Jewish—this has been the content and the force of his fiction. “I thought of myself,” he once wrote, “as something of an authority on ordinary Jewish life.” But in a sense Roth did not write Jewish—his language did not employ the Yiddish cadences of Henry Roth or Saul Bellow (or, for that matter, of the English-language translations of Isaac Bashevis Singer). For someone like Irving Howe—who was Roth’s intellectual nemesis in the way that Updike was his writerly one, strong where Roth was weak and weak where Roth was strong—Roth was cut off from the Jewish tradition, and had indeed come to represent, as Howe repeatedly wrote, “the point at which the underground springs of both Yiddish culture and the immigrant experience had finally dried up.”


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