2016-06-30
Phillip Roth and Cynthia Ozick, two scions of American Jewish letters, have published new novels in 2004, the year marking the 350th anniversary of Jewish settlement in the United States. Roth's "The Plot Against America" and Ozick's "Heir to the Glimmering World" differ in many ways but fundamental to both works is a deep concern with history. Both books deal with the complexities of interpreting history in the pivotal decades of the `30s and `40s, eras in which American Jews felt a great chasm between their self-image as the model upwardly mobile ethnic group and the very real exigencies of fascism and economic slump. In this celebratory anniversary year, why do Roth and Ozick opt to tell stories of Jewish America in the moment before the wide-scale decimation of world Jewry?

An analysis of Roth's novel provides a partial answer. In contrast to most writers of literary fiction, who would happily engage in a Faustian pact with the devil to get their novels reviewed in the New York Times, Philip Roth publishes his books with the expectation that they will be greeted not just with front page publicity in literary taste-making venues, but also with reviewers willing to devote unprecedented critical energy to discerning his intentions. "The Plot" is no exception. Roth's novel is a dystopian fantasy, the author's imagining of an America in which the Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh succeeds FDR as president of the United States and embarks on a program of coercive assimilation of American Jewry at the same time that he refuses to aid the Allied powers in battling Hitler's decimation of Europe's Jewish population. Critics are quick to question the impetus for Roth's historical nightmare. Reviewers in publications from the Village Voice to Ha'aretz are asking: What exactly does Roth mean by "The Plot Against America"? What is he trying to tell his readers by imagining a `30s and `40s America in which Jewry is in decline? What is he doing depicting a history of the Jews in America in which successful integration into every facet of American life is not a given?

None of the critics who have expended their considerable energy to determine Roth's intentions in The Plot Against America, however, have commented on one of the primary factors that distinguishes this book from his other literary creations. What makes Roth's latest novel unique within the prolific author's oeuvre is its protagonist. The Plot Against America is told through the eyes of a seven year old child (a playful fictionialization of the author, whom Roth gives his own name), rather than from the point of view of the simmering adolescent or adult males that usually inhabit his fictional world. The unchecked libidinous energy that sends Alexander Portnoy and Nathan Zuckerman and all the other Rothian anti-heroes sniffing after shiksas is absent from the new novel.

Instead, Roth offers an account of a world slowly being discovered by a sheltered Jewish boy, a tale told from a place of comparative innocence. The fact that Roth tells the story of the dissolution of this world - a world in which American Jews take their security and sense of belonging for granted - from the point of view of a contented child makes his narrative all the more affecting. But, Roth goes even further. Not only does he set the story of American Jewry imperiled in his protagonist's (and, by extension, his own) vaunted pre-adolescence, he situates the novel itself in a time of innocence and unselfconscious security for all of America's Jews. The "pre-adolescence" of American Jewry was coterminous with his own. Roth's nightmare of anti-Semitism come home to roost in America is set in a landscape of pre-, a landscape of Jewish identity prior to the Holocaust and the foundation of Israel, and the subsequent need to negotiate Jewish American identity against the complicated backdrop of a Jewish genocide and a Jewish nation-state. The novel reads like a Fall from Eden.

It is also a meditation on the uniqueness of the Jewish romance with America, both as a place and an idea. Throughout The Plot Against America, as Roth depicts the steady growth of anti-Semitism in America under the Lindbergh regime through the eyes of young Philip, he refuses to take what might have been the easy route in a novel about anti-Semitism: pitting "Jews" against "Christians" or cosmopolitan philo-Semites against Jew-hating hicks. Instead, he makes it clear that Lindbergh is successful in America precisely because he represents a variant of "the American dream", a dream that seduces Jews just as much as it does other Americans.

When the assimilated German-Jewish Rabbi Bengelsdorf chooses Philip's older brother Sandy to be one of the first Jewish boys to participate in the Lindbergh-devised "Just Folks" program, the Roth family balks. Their intellectually precocious Sandy, never having set foot outside the Jewish area of Newark, will be spending the summer of his thirteenth year working on a tobacco farm in Kentucky. However, when Sandy returns from the summer tanned and brawny, flexing his newly-formed muscles, young Philip and his parents can't help but be impressed. They, too, see something magical about the American land and the virile farmer who works it. Sandy rattles off statistics about curing barns and tobacco stalks and cutting tools, and the family recognizes that he has learned a new, uniquely American argot, one that gives him entry into a privileged sphere of `real Americans', a sphere which excludes his parents. While Herman and Bess Roth are concerned about their son's newfound sense of superiority, they, like young Sandy, remain in thrall to a certain idea of the American pastoral and the attendant sense that authentic Americanness comes from having roots in the land. As Roth portrays it, this link to the land is appreciated more by that archetypically landless people, the Jews, than by any descendant of those who came to America on the Mayflower.

The Roth family of 1939-42 are avid patriots. When granted a rare vacation from the insurance company at which he works, Herman takes his wife and sons to the nation's capitol. Roth's depiction of the family's visit to Washington, D.C. is marvelous for a number of reasons. It proves the ideal arena in which Roth can show that the taint of anti-Semitism has begun to show itself even in the shadow of monuments to the founders of the republic. Only miles from massive statues of Lincoln and Jefferson, the proprietor of a D.C. hotel discovers that the Roths are Jewish and suddenly pulls out a "No Vacancy" sign. Herman's response to this slight is a quintessentially Jewish one. He hires a tour guide of the capitol to give his children details about American history and proceeds to talk over him, providing Sandy and Philip with a subterranean history, the story of the Jews in America. The guide's mention of Woodrow Wilson reminds Herman to tell the boys about Louis Brandeis, Wilson's appointee and the first Jewish member of the Supreme Court. The Roth boys learn what every Jewish kid does from his/ her parents: that there is a (Jewish) People's History of the United States, a monologue that runs parallel to the tour guide's chant. Roth makes it clear, however, that this sense of the significance of American Jewish history does not undermine the family's awe in the face of American history.

Roth depicts a Jewish family enamored with American culture while wishing to retain the particularity of their ethnic identity. He makes it clear that Lindbergh's collusion with Hitler undermines not just the Jews in America but America itself. An assault on the ideal of pluralism that the Jews embody--the sense that one can be "American" without giving up on being "Jewish", that Jews may be fully invested in American history as part and parcel of their own history--is an assault on America itself, according to Roth.

This need for Jews to remain vigilant about maintaining both their particularity and the pluralistic ideals of American democracy might lend a partial answer to the question of what this imagining of Jews threatened from all sides means in the year 2004. Many have read Roth's novel as an admonition against Jewish American exceptionalism, the belief that the destruction of Jewry that occurred in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s `could never happen here'. These readers view Roth as telling a story of a blithe American Jewry complicit in its own demise. This vision, forwarded in particular by many Israeli critics, depicts Roth as stressing the need for American Jews to refuse complacency and recognize the importance of Israel as a haven for the always-imperiled Jewish race. American Jewish readers, however, can find in "The Plot Against America" something less about the need for Jews to prevent against their global annihilation and more about the particular position of American Jewry in the here and now. Yes, Roth transports the enemy of the Jews to America and stresses that American Jews must defend themselves against becoming `too American'. Importantly, however, he does so not to wag a finger at Jewish complacency but to recover the position of cultural outsider for American Jews, a position that once made a reflexive identification with the underdog so much a part of American Jewish identity and political life. In Roth's imagining, Jews need not stop believing in America, but they must discard the naive belief that they must buy whole-heartedly into certain American ideals in order to be fully American.

Roth is not alone in attempting to offer an analysis of the 1930s and 1940s, that critical period for American Jewish identity. Cynthia Ozick's "Heir to the Glimmering World," too, looks at this era from the vantage point of 2004. Ozick's novel is comprised of two discrete, but interrelated stories. One relates the fairy tale narrative of Rose, an orphaned girl who is taken in by the Mitwissers, a family of German Jewish refugees in the Bronx. The other is a counter-fairy tale of sorts, the story of James, a young man intent upon freeing himself from the "embellishment" of his past - a past in which he was the inspiration for a series of internationally popular (think Winnie the Pooh popular) children's books written by his father. Desperate to get away from the image of himself as an eternally picturesque tot with rouged knees, James embarks upon a campaign of self-purification and self-destruction that leads him straight to the Mitwisser clan. James is particularly drawn to the Mitwisser paterfamilias, Rudi, whose lifework is the study of the Karaites, an ancient Jewish sect bent upon restoring the purity of the Torah by doing away with the vast web of embroidery and interpretation that Midrashic commentary superimposes on the literal word of God. James, attempting to strip away the layers of identity and "ornament" imposed upon him by his own father, feels a bond to this ancient sect of heretics.

Rudi Mitwisser is a Karaite of sorts himself. A star scholar in Germany, he is reduced to dependence upon charity in the U.S. Nonetheless, he refuses to comment on his sufferings at the hands of the Nazis. He will not allow the radio to be turned on in the house for fear that the unpleasant news of the war in Europe will distract him from his studies and agitate his mentally unstable wife. James, too, attempts to dissolve his links to the past, divesting himself of anything that might connect him to the books his father wrote and refusing to comment on his own textual life. Only Elsa Mittwisser, Rudi's addled wife, retains her engagement with the past, first by refusing to give up speaking the German language and subsequently by narrating nightmarish bedtime stories to anyone who will listen about how Hitler's henchmen drove her family into exile.

While one might describe Ozick's work as a novel of ideas and Roth's "The Plot Against America" as a work preoccupied by history, both novels are clearly about the past and how one's relationship to the past constructs and constrains the present. Ozick uses her characters' relationship to text - whether the children's books in which James remains a perennial child or the fragments left behind by the Karaites that obsess Rudi - as a metaphor for their relationship to the past. The connection to history, whether it be personal history or the history that Elsa dubs "world-upheaval", is necessarily fraught for the refugees who people Ozick's "Heir to the Glimmering World." The orphan Rose. The exiled Mittwissers. The storybook James. Ozick's vision is a tragic one. At the end of the novel, only Rose, taken in by the family, is able to interpret and provide commentary on their tale. The Mitwissers themselves have been completely dissolved into America. As if in a fairy tale, money pours down from the sky, and the musty immigrant Mitwissers become proper middle class Americans. All connections to the past are severed. Ozick's characters, like the Karaites, refuse interpretation.

In both Ozick's and Roth's novels, the '30s and '40s provide an entryway into the particularity of Jewish Americanness, an Americanness always haunted by history. These two rich articulations of American Jews' quest to understand their histories, both Jewish and American, are the perfect testament to the importance of the Jewish presence in America in this 350th anniversary year.

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