Goodbye, Philip

The tragedy of American Jewish writers.

Tzvi Fishman

OpEds Philip Roth
Philip Roth

The famous American novelist, Philip Roth, has died at age 85. I met him forty years ago at a fancy literary party at the St. Moritz Hotel in New York. He was already a literary superstar, with a movie of his biting satire of Jewish life in America, “Goodbye, Columbus,” appearing in theaters coast-to-coast, while I was a young novelist waiting for my first novel to be published.

The exclusive, jet-set party was in honor of one of Germany’s top publishers who was visiting New York. My literary agent at the time handled his books in translation, so he invited me to the gala affair. I won’t tell you how I stole the attention away from Roth and the other well-known writers in attendance. Now that I have a long beard, my youthful shenanigans aren’t something of which I am proud. The party seemed so phony to me, I felt I had to do something to wake people up. Those were still the days of the hippies and the Age of Aquarius. Or maybe, I did what I did out of jealousy. That’s probably more like it.

Roth at least, and his non-Jewish wife, were very well mannered. He wrote about himself a lot in his novels, revealing his more eccentric side and wild fantasies, but at the party he acted very reserved. I told him that Dell Publishers was coming out with my first novel, and he wished me good luck. I asked him if I could write a screenplay from one of his bestselling novels, and he told me to get in touch with his agent.

Roth became a world celebrity with the publication of his scathing, anti-Jewish, autobiographical novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. The hero of the story, Alexander Portnoy, hates his Jewish mother with a homicidal passion and rants on and on about her wickedness throughout the book, describing in hilarious and very unchaste detail how the over-possessive maternal monster destroyed his life and the relationships with the women he loved. In many other books, Roth’s literary alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, blasts away at Judaism with equal animosity. The world loved Roth for it.

The late American-Jewish novelist, Joseph Heller, author of the famous war satire, Catch-22, also married a non-Jewish woman. I said hello to him at the same literary party at the St. Moritz Hotel. One of his last books, before succumbing to a painful sickness, was a ribald and irreverent satire about the life of King David. I don’t want to imagine the scene when he met King David up in Heaven, after having made fun of Israel’s exalted hero. Fortunately, Heller had a gift with words, because when he met the holy compiler of the Book of Psalms, whom he so ridiculed in his book, he had a lot of explaining to do.   

At the time, but not at the party, I met another famous American-Jewish writer, Norman Mailer, also in the literary Hall of Fame in Heaven, who was married to eight different, non-Jewish wives. That’s right – eight. Mailer was a bigger-than-life character, and a bigger-than-life writer who was compelled to prove that he could be more American and more Gentile than all American Gentiles put together. I met him during his unsuccessful campaign to be elected Mayor of New York, a publicity stunt that won him a lot of attention. To his credit, he had a brilliant mastery of the English language, and I copied many things which I admired in his hard-hitting and controversial style. He too was no great lover of Judaism, but unlike Roth, he avoided the subject completely, as if being a Jew had nothing to do with him.

Since we are mentioning a few of the great American-Jewish writers, Arthur Miller deserves to take a bow. After all, the renowned playwright achieved the biggest American-Jewish Dream of them all when he married the world’s most glamorous glamour queen, Marilyn Monroe. How proud the assimilated Jews of America were at the great event. For an American Jew, marrying a woman like Marilyn Monroe was the greatest success of all.

Finally, the Jews had made it! Move over Joe DiMaggio!  A member of the Tribe of Moses has stolen the heart of America’s Number One Girl!

The tragedy of these great American-Jewish writers is the tragedy of America’s Jews. Acclaim and assimilation. Brilliance and blindness. Excellence and extinction. May their memories be for a blessing.