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Philip Roth, acclaimed and controversial novelist who probed Jewish themes, dies at 85

Author Philip Roth poses for a photo in New York on Sept. 8, 2008. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

(RNS) — Philip Roth, a giant of American fiction whose works often dealt with Jewish assimilation, died Tuesday (May 22). He was 85.

The cause was congestive heart failure, according to Roth’s literary agent, Andrew Wylie. Roth retired from writing fiction in 2012 at the age of 80.

Though Roth was an avowed atheist, Judaism was a perennial theme in much of his work, something the Jewish Theological Seminary recognized in 2014 when it awarded Roth an honorary degree.

“I welcomed the honor,” Roth said of the award. “Who takes Jews more seriously than the JTS? And what writer takes Jews more seriously than I do?”

Nonetheless, Roth seriously offended some Jews in his 50-plus years of writing fiction. Reviewing Roth’s third novel, “Portnoy’s Complaint” in 1969, Israeli historian Gershom Scholem described it as “just the book that anti-Semites have been waiting for.”

Roth captured every major literary prize, both American and international, save one — the Nobel. He won two National Book Awards: for his first book, “Goodbye, Columbus” (1959), and his 20th, “Sabbath’s Theater” (1995). He also received the Pulitzer Prize, the Kafka Prize, the Man Booker Prize and the National Humanities Medal.

Novelist Philip Roth poses at his home on Sept. 5, 2005, in Warren, Conn. (AP Photo/Douglas Healey)

Roth was born on March 19, 1933, in Newark, N.J., a city he returned to repeatedly in his fiction. His father was a shoe salesman and, later, an insurance salesman. As a child, Roth fell in love with baseball — another of his literary themes  — because, he said, it offered “membership in a great secular nationalistic church from which nobody had ever seemed to suggest that Jews should be excluded.”

Roth attended Rutgers University and graduated from Bucknell University. He received a Master of Arts from the University of Chicago and then taught composition there. While working in Chicago, he began writing short fiction.

“Defender of the Faith,” published in 1959 in The New Yorker, was his first short story. It was about a World War II Army private who, like Roth, was a secularist. Some Jews took umbrage at what they saw as the story’s reinforcement of negative Jewish stereotypes.

“(R)abbis denounced Roth from their pulpits,” Judith Thurman wrote in The New Yorker in 2014, “and a leading educator at Yeshiva University wrote to the Anti-Defamation League to ask, ‘What is being done to silence this man? Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.'”

So did the literary establishment, which gave his 1959 short fiction collection, “Goodbye, Columbus,” the National Book Award. Roth was 26 years old.

Still, criticism from some in the Jewish community lasted throughout Roth’s career. “Sabbath’s Theater” (1995), about a debauched puppeteer who wraps himself in an American flag and a yarmulke (and nothing else), raised eyebrows and derision.

“Whether we enjoy Philip Roth’s work or not, we’d do well to reconsider what he has wrought, and make sure that we fall on the right side in the eternal struggle between the heart and the groin,” wrote Tablet Magazine’s Liel Leibovitz in 2011. “That, after all, is what great writing has always helped us accomplish; the rest is little more than self-gratification.”

Roth’s Jewish characters had a knack for touching sensitive chords, sometimes even distancing themselves from Jews killed in the Holocaust.

“We are not the wretched of Belsen! We were not the victims of that crime!” Nathan Zuckerman, a Roth stand-in who appeared in nine of his novels, including “Zuckerman Unbound” (1981) and “The Ghost Writer” (1979), says to his mother about the Jews. “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.”

But Roth’s willingness to go where no other American writer of Jewish descent had dared to go before also blazed a trail other writers would soon follow.

“What ‘Goodbye, Columbus’ laid bare was the empty triumphs of contemporary Jewish-American life,” critic Sanford Pinsker wrote at myjewishlearning.com. “He wrote, in short, about the Jewish-American suburbs in a way that boosters equated with prophetic scolding and knockers worried would precipitate anti-Semitic riots.

“Hindsight suggests that both groups were wrong: Roth’s collection occasioned neither an abrupt shift in mainstream Jewish-American attitudes nor broken noses suffered from Gentile fists. What did change, however, was a revised – and revitalized – sense of the subjects to which Jewish-Americans writers could lay claim.”

Over time, Roth earned appreciation and acclaim even from Jews who didn’t always share his conclusions. JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen praised Roth in comments made to The New Yorker for a 2014 essay titled “Philip Roth Is Good for the Jews.”

Eisen told the magazine: “No one has written more acutely about Israel and its relations with the diaspora—or, for that matter, about circumcision—than Philip Roth. His questions about Jewish life and identity and their dilemmas have always been the right questions, even if I haven’t always agreed with his answers. The outrage that greeted his early work belongs to another era, and so does his sense of being a pariah.”

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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