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March 21, 1969 - Image 2

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1969-03-21

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Purely Commentary

The 'Jewish Mother' Fable Marketed in an
Youth Rebellion
Roth and His Wares

Aura of Filth
and an Admoni-

tion to Seek Wisdom.

Youth versus Elders:
Confrontations and
Search for Accord

Israel's 21st Anniversary—a Festival for the Family

To mark Israel's 21st birthday, Do April 23, provision has been
made for family groups to have special festivities, and a program of
merit has been prepared for that occasion.
"Yom Ha-Atvmaut as a Family Holiday" was inaugurated several
years ago by a national leader of Pioneer Women, Dr. Sara Feder, of
Columbia, Mo., who heads the programing for such occasions as na-
tional chairman of the project.
The impressive program arranged for the suggested events is so
well arranged that it can serve the needs of all factions, observers and
the indifferent. It contains prayerful as well as nationalistic hymns
and readings, as well as songs and other necessary material for cele-
Dr. Feder's apepal for observance of Yom Ha-Atvmaut as a family
function, her introduction of her program to serve as a children's holi-
day in honor of Israel's Independence Day, deserves the cooperation
of rabbis, teachers, schools, synagogues and centers. Good community
spirit, emanating from the family and the youth, can be created through
such programs.

'Portnoy' . . . (Philip Roth's) . . . All About
'Jewish Mama Market'.. . . 'Enough Already'

"Let's put the id back in Yid" is Philip Roth's battlecry in his sen-
sational "Portnoy's Complaint" "port-nolz kam-plant?" — (see Jewish
News Feb. 21) and he has been assured a cool million for the book,
reprints in magazines, (movie?) and other privileges made possible by
the publication of his work by Random House.
Fantastic! That a book that thematically marks conflicts with the
constipated father, the nervous (!?!) mother, the desire for shikses and
the urge to masturbate has taken such a'strong hold on a generation
that has become concerned about mother. The Solomonic praise,
"Eishet Iiayil mi yimtza"—"a woman of valor who shall find?"—once
again grows upon the best -seller list. And the eishet hayil is so under-
standing: she knows exactly what Alex Portnoy said when he told the
psychiatrist: "To be bad, Mother, that's the real struggle: to be bad—
and enjoy it! That's what makes men of us boys, Mother. Let's put the
id back in the Yid!"
So it isn't mother alone: also the Yid! How else can a contemporary
Jewish writer emerge best-selling the stuff that—as so many reviewers
said, is not pornographic—is just a bit filthy—with an appeal that sells:
with Jews as ,the theme! Especially the Jewish Mother!
It is not the novel we are now, concerned with but the remarkably
fine subject that has emerged: the variety of, reviews and the opinions
of reviewers.)
A new subject can be added to college curricula: the manner of
reviewing books; and only one text would be needed: the collection of
reviews of "Portnoy."
There were two reviews- in Use New_yo4 Times. In one, special
attention was called to Roth's (PortnofEraThonition to the psychia-
trist to whom the complete tale is related that he is living his life "in
the middle of a Jeywish joke." That reviewer (Josh Greenfield) asserts:
"Whether a dead-end auto-da-fe or open-end bar mitzva peroration (and
not just "Today I am a penis') on the road to cultural manhood—read
'Portnoy's Complaint.' And don't feel the least bit guilty about enjoying
it thoroughly . . ."
Then there was a review in the NYTimes by Christopher Lehmann-
Haupt, who is a bit more philosophical and analytical, who stated:


What does it all add up to, besides being Roth's best work since "Good-
bye, Columbus" and a brilliantly vivid reading experience? "Portnoy's Com-
plaint" is a technical masterpiece that succeeds in 274 pages in bringing
the genre of the so-called Jewish novel (whose various practitioners have
more or less dominated the literary scene for the last two decades, to an
end and a new point of departure.
This is not to suggest that Saul Bellow or Bernard Malamud or Bruce
J. Friedman or Stanley Elkin will have to turn in their typewriters; but
the literary vein they've been mining will never be the same. For Roth has
taken the archetypal Jewish parents and fixed their exact location in the
Jewish son's nightmare, and he has permanently identified the narrative
style of the Jewish novel—with its schticks and spiels, its self-deprecations
and hallucinations—as a neurotic's cry of guilt and frustration and comic
despair from the psychoanalytic couch.
By, definitively mapping the shockingly recognizable, "Portnoy's Com-
plaint" also points the way to the unexplored territory, because at the end
of the book Alex's analysis—his therapy—has not yet begun. This therapy
will involve an understanding of the individual and collective histories that
produce Portnoys. Whether it takes place through the medium of a psycho-
analytic novel (whatever that may turn out to be) or through some other
new form, it will inevitably be more concerned with what the Jewish hero
' has in common with all humankind than with what separates him and
identifies him as a Jew.

So—we have been introduced to a new appeal to reason—a new
Jewish philosophy in which our bar mitzva problem is scrutinized (ass
if we do not have enough problems with our confirmations!) and our
identity as Jews is studied by way of the psychoanalyst's couch, the
avalanche of obscenity, the quest for compassion over a Jewish writer's
provision of ammunition to anti-Semites by way of the sex urge and
the craving for shikses!
But Roth does not appeal to the anti-Semite! He is the proud Jew!
George Plimpton, editor of the Paris Review, addressed a few questions
to Roth, and in an additional special article in the NYTimes we have
the queries and the answers:

Do you think there will be Jews who will be offended by this book?
I think there will even be Gentiles who will be offended by this book.
I was thinking of the charges that were made against you by certain
rabbis after the appearance of "Goodbye, Columbus." They said you were
"anti-Semitic' and "self-hating," did they not?
In an essay I published in Commentary, in December, 1963, called "Writ-
ing About Jews," I replied to those charges, and at length. Some critics
also said that my work furnished "fuel" -for anti-Semitism. I'm sure all
these charges will be made again—though the fact is (and I think there's
even a clue or two to this in my fiction) that I myself latte always been
far more pleased by my400d fortune in being born a Jew than any of
my critics may begin to' imagine. It's a complicated, interesting, morally
demanding and very singular experience, and I like that. There is no ques-
tion but that it has enriched my life, but when I say "enriched" I don't
know that I mean the same things that my rabbinical critics may mean
when they use that word. What I do mean is that I find myself in the his-
toric predicament of being Jewish, with all its implications. Who could ask
for more? But as for those charges you mention—yes, they will doubtless
be made again. Because of the UN condemnation of Israeli "aggression,'
and anti-Semitic rage flaring up in the black community, many American
Jews must surely be feeling more alienated right now than they have in a
long time; consequently, I don't think it's a moment when I should expect
a book as unrestrained as this one to be indulged or even tolerated, espe-
cially in those quarters where I was not exactly hailed as the messiah to
begin with. I'm afraid that the temptation to quote single lines out of the
entire fictional context will be just about overwhelming on upcoming Satur-
day mornings. After all, the rabbis have got their indignation to stoke,
just as I do. And there are sentences in that book, alas, upon which a man
could construct a pretty indignant sermon.

This does not complete our selectivity. Perhaps the best review of
"Portnoy" was written for the Nation (March 10) by Therese Pol, an
editor at Rutledge Books, whose father is a German Jew and her
mother an American Methodist. Miss Pol is the one whose review was
entitled "The Jewish Mama Market." It's such a splendid piece that
we quote it here:
The subject of the Jewish family in general and the Jewish mother
in particular—with its catastrophic consequences for all those who

2—Friday, March 21, 1969


By Philip


The "Jewish. Mother" theme, in all its exaggera-
tions, nevertheless seems to have an aura of admiration
and respect in many quarters, and certainly among non-
Jews. A typical example of veneration is expressed in
Oliphant's cartoon. Enough already? Plenty . . .!

move within their orbitcan no longer be regarded as a literary en-
deavor on the American scene. It has become a big industry, nearly
as threatening as the military-industrial complex. In this sense Philip
Roth, the author of "Portnoy's Complaint," is merely the latest, if
enormously successful, tycoon.
It was Philip Wylie who started the mother-kicking bit with his
crusade against momism. With brutal impartiality he condemned all
American mothers. Reviewers across the land have already praised
Roth's new book as the culmination of the Jewish mother motif,
apparently forgetting that Bruce Jay Friedman beat him by several
miles in "A Mother's Kisses." Friedman did a final demolition job.
Now comes the culmination of the culmination—Roth's resurrec-
tion of ,this type of woman. The best that can be said of his accom-
plishment is that Mama Portnoy is a caricature drawn by a master
cartoonist, but she's no more than that.
That is not to say that Roth has not added other touches to the
over-all picture of Jewish family life which, is depicted, must be the
most destructive form of living known to mankind. Some of Roth's
scenes are outrageously funny. Alex Portnoy has an obsessively Jew-
ish father, who is an insurance salesman in New Jersey, and chronic-
ally constipated (not as irrelevant as it sounds). The bathroom be-
comes for a while the center of the fun, with papa spending many
unsuccessful hours on the john and Alex, the kid, masturbating him-
self into near lunacy. Roth's treatment of constipation is a scream—
but how much mileage can you really get out of constipation?
Roth's book is a long monologue addressed to a hypothetical psy-
choanalyst (does the man listen?), in which Alex dissects his stifling
childhood (mother, father, the whole damn Jewish neighborhood,
come under the microscope) and his subsequent, and practically pre-
ordained, troubles with sex. Because all the girls he yearns for are
Alex drank in the longing for Gentile sex, whatever that is, with
his Jewish mother's milk. Alex, the adult, a successful civil servant
of sorts, has the worst experiences with his women. He really picks
them. The Monkey, an illiterate high-fashion model from West Vir-
ginia, blackmails him with suicidal impulses. The Pumpkin, straight
from the Corn Belt, is wonderfully American but becordes a bore.
The Pilgrim, a Mayflower product, has too much class for her own
good, and is incapable of giving Alex oral gratification (of which
there is a great deal in this book, in case anyone wants to brush up
on it). The novel ends with a five-line scream of ahhh, and a slap-
stick suggestion from the analyst to the effect that perhaps now the
treatment might begin in earnest.
The pacing of Roth's book is frantic, which gives it a one-dimen-
sional quality. lie is filled with orgies of various kinds, saved from
total tedium only by Roth's comic vein. The melancholy truth about
orgies is that in the long run they are dull, even funny orgies. The
barrage of four-letter words is also getting to be a pain in the ass,
to use Roth's idiom, although he has justified it on the highest artis-
tic grounds. In effect, Roth has created the same permanent Jewish
joke that his Alex so bitterly complains about in the novel, complete
with Jewish sell-loathing and guilt far beyond anything Saul Bellow
ever had to offer, but certainly nothing brand-new.
There are of course some gems in this book. At the age of 5 or so,
little Alex is so mixed up by the overarticulate salt-of-the-earth peo-
ple, their vindictive religion, their superstitions, the whole kosher
household, that one day he looks out of the window into the drifting
snow and asks, "Momma, do we believe in winter?"
Some people profess to see the depths of despair—both Jewish
and cosmic—in Roth's book. Maybe so. But Thomas Mann once said
that irony can become so dense that it is no longer recognizable as
such. So it is with Roth's despair. There is something else wrong
with it: it is basically trivial because it is rooted in endless self-
examination, leading nowhere in particular, which no amount of sty-
listic cleverness can disguise. And his occasional gallant attempt to
pass from the ridiculous to the sublime without losing his balance
simply does not come off.
The main trouble with the Jewish family theme Is that It has
been overwritten. Unlike the plague in the Middle Ages or the pog-
roms in Czarist Russia, the Jewish mother goes on and on, spawning
more mother-smothered Jewish girls, who in turn will inevitably
smother their own brood. It is a vicious circle which can be broken
only by a moratorium on the whole subject, guilt included.
Enough already.
Indeed: Enough already? We doubt it. The contemporary Jewish
writers now have a guideline: "Portnoy" is worth a million, why not
keep the Jewish Mama market open for business? And what's more, if
what Roth produces as a problem echoed in "Jew! Jew! Jewel Jew!
Jew!" why can't other writers continue it? That, too, is good business.
And all of it stems out of the marketing of filth, of an author's
failure to close the toilet door while in the performance of acts that
demand privacy!
We have come to the point provided by Shikse Therese Pol:


Have students been "disenfran-
chised" in our universities? If the
charge is true, then the Hillel
Foundations, the "structure of or-
ganized Jewish life" and the na-
tional organizations have been
guilty in the implied failure to se-
cure a proper confrontation with
our youth and the decision arrived
at by the Hillel commision to cre-
ate a "partnership role" was just-
ified, belatedly.
There never is justification for
"superficiality." There can be no
other road other than full coopera-
tion in advancing Jewish cultural
ties between the young and their
elders. Yet we wonder whether the
approach that was made at the
exciting meeting in Washington
last week is totally ,realistic. If
there is to be a unity of action,
why further splintering?
There was a similar experience
in Jerusalem last year when Jew-
ish youth demonstrated at the
World Zionist Congress sessions.
The youth were granted 21 of the
100 seats on the Zionist Actions
Committee. Now they are put to
the test, to prove that they can
fulfill their responsibilities to the
world Jewish community. The el-
ders • did their duty: now we need
the total response in cooperative

Youth also displayed a desire
for action locally , when they
gathered some weeks ago in meet-
ing challenges on t h e Wayne
State University campus for a re-

sponse to anti-Semitism. But at
that gathering there were boos
against the "establishment" and
expressions of antagonism to
Hillel. We question whether that
was necessary, whether it was to
have been assumed that the exist-
ing agency for action could not
have fitted into a thoroughly co-
operative scheme of action on and
off campus for adherence to basic
Jewish ideals, for opposition to
racism, for free expression of
views, for instructive and construe , -
tive Jewish programming.
If students feel affronted, the
fault undoubtedly lies with the rul-
ing class, with the elders. Never-
theless, the admonition to them by
Dr. William Haber that the "most
unfortunate" aspect of their unrest
is that "students make clear only
what they are against, not what
they are for."
Dr. Haber described the present
generation of students as "the
brightest" in his 40 years of ex-
perience on the campus. He ac-
knowledged the validity of their
"grievances." But he maintained
that the university is not "an ac-
tion society" capable of abolishing
the draft or stopping the Vietnam
war and he gave all of us some-
thing to think about when he said:
"The difficulty arises in that
being smart and bright is not the
same as being wise. Wisdom
takes experiences and students
need maturing before they can
talk of experience."
Is this asking too much? Aren't
we also asking for wise action on
the part of the elders? Isn't our
aim cooperation, to the fullest, not
mere coexistence? Aren't we striv-
ing f6r an affluent society to reach
out for an intellectual aristocracy
terms we have emphasized time
and time again without receiving
a proper response?
We concur that something good
may have come out of the Wash-
ington confrontation bet w acts
young and old. - We submit that
youth need not wait until another
generation challenges it for its im-
petuosity before there can be
firm steps towards joint tasks for
the good of our comunities--and
the welfare of our comunities must
be viewed as the welfare of this
country, its people, its ideals
which are rooted in fair play and
,creativity. •

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