Philip Roth: Goodbye Columbus, Hello Newark

by David Silon

I guess I felt a sort of kinship with Philip Roth. Well, vicariously anyway, through my dad. You see he, like Mr. Roth, is from New Jersey – he from Jersey City and Roth from next-door Newark. Both grew up in Jewish households and both were the second children of first-generation American parents. So when I asked him if he had any familiarity with Newark, a major object of my focus in this article, I was expecting stories of the Roosevelt and Truman years, or what happened at the local theater. After all, he always talked about those things in regards to Jersey City, Union City, Manhattan, Bayonne, Hoboken, Atlantic City, and South Jersey, so why not Newark? Much to my astonishment though, he knew absolutely nothing about the city. Way to go, Dad.

Now I’ll have to work. Now I’ll have to do my own research.

Today, Newark is the largest city in New Jersey and since writers tend to write what they know, Philip Roth would base his stories on growing up Jewish in Newark.

Jews first came to Newark from Europe around 1848, and from then on the community grew. By 1858, the first synagogue was built, on Washington Street. In keeping with the demographics of the time, religious services were held in the orthodox tradition. Soon however, as the local Jews (as well as American Jews in general) began to assimilate and prosper in American society, the old orthodox tradition of the synagogue was discarded in favor of the reform tradition and the congregation contained some of the most prominent Jews in the city. Many of these were from families who had founded some of the major department stores and retail chains on the east coast: Plaut, Bamberger, Straus, Solomon, and Weingarten, just to name a few.

Toward the end of the century, the city became home to thousands of Russian immigrants, who were part of the Russian immigration wave that flooded the United States at that time.  By 1900, half of the local Jewish population was made up of these immigrants who combined their resources to build their own synagogue which they called Anshe Russia, located on High Street and Thirteenth Ave.

Other Jewish institutions followed, most of which even predated Russian immigration, such as the Progress Club, the Hebrew Benevolent and Orphan Asylum, and the Plaut Memorial School, a free Hebrew school which catered mainly to the Russian community. By the middle of the century, Newark had a nice, mid-sized Jewish population containing about forty synagogues, one of which, Ahavas Sholom, whose permanent building was constructed in the 1920s, is still standing today.

Among the city as a whole, Newark was always teeming with all sorts of activity and the famous Market and Broad Street intersection was said to be the busiest in the United States. There was also a lively nightlife and the local hotels often catered to the biggest celebrities from Hollywood and Broadway. But what was once the state’s commercial hub has deteriorated into a city with a host of economic and social problems. These problems, although predating World War II, began to accelerate in the post-war period.

The one thing that my dad did mention to me was that, in his day as today, Newark had a gang problem. The city was rife with corruption and not only replete with black and Hispanic gangs, but also the Italian and Jewish mafias. In fact, Dutch Schultz was a prominent Jewish mafia figure in Newark toward the end of his life, which came through the barrel of a gun.

It was into these types of environments, the lively and the sinister, that Philip Roth was born in 1933, hailing from a Galician Jewish family who had immigrated to America two generations previously. There was also the usual “white flight” to the suburbs leaving the minority populations behind in the inner city, often suffering from the racial discrimination of the time, along with all that had to offer: the difficulty, if not impossibility of acquiring mortgages and loans, the abandonment of inner city factories which were left old and dilapidated while new ones were built in the outlying areas, and the building of new highways without any regard for the quality of the city’s neighborhoods and displacing many residents who were in its path.

Since the ’30s, the city has been losing population but this trend seems to be reversing since 2000 and as of this writing, it apparently has increased by two percent.

In all honesty, it would be unfair to say that the city’s violent side exclusively had an influence on Roth’s writings. But it was certainly a factor. But even more so than that, however, was the whole American experience, from his point of view, that was the major influence.

Roth himself grew up in the suburb of Weequahic which, in those days, was a largely middle class Jewish neighborhood containing many synagogues, yeshivas, and Jewish restaurants as well as the tallest building in the area, Newark Beth Israel Hospital. As a teenager, Roth attended Weequahic High and many of his stories are set there. Indeed, most of his stories could be thought of as thinly disguised autobiographies, his perceptions of growing up Jewish in Newark.

Consequently, and often compared to Mordecai Richler, this would sometimes cause heated controversy with many of his critics accusing him of self-hatred. A perfect example, they pointed out, was his first novel, Goodbye Columbus, published in 1959. This was actually a collection of six short stories, which included the title of the novel itself, plus “The Conversion of the Jews,” “Defender of the Faith,” “Epstein,” “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings,” and “Eli the Fanatic.”  In these, the author explores the psychological problems of second and third generation American Jews and their assimilation in American society, unlike in their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. According to his critics, many of the Jewish characters in this collection were portrayed in a most unflattering way. But he adamantly denied the charge of self-hatred, and in 1960 Goodbye Columbus won the National Book Award.

The beginning of Columbus is narrated from the point of view of Neil Klugman, a Rutgers University graduate. He has a low paying job in a library and lives with his Aunt Gladys and Uncle Max in a working class neighborhood in Newark. One summer, Neil meets Brenda Patimkin, a student at Radcliffe College and from a wealthy family from the suburbs. Her brother was a star athlete at Ohio State who would always listen to a favorite record of his in which the phrase “Goodbye Columbus” is often repeated, hence the title of the story.

As the story progresses, the author intertwines the subjects of assimilation and class distinction and inter-class relationships. It was the tendency of Jewish society in America at that time that the wealthier you were, such as the case with Brenda, the more assimilated you were. The middle- and lower-classes, such as the case with Neil, were less so.

The following five stories are like a continuation of this main story, each exploring a different aspect of Jewish society but with the common denominator of the Jewish relationship with the wider society as a whole. For instance, “The Conversion of the Jews” is an exploration into the questioning of one’s religious beliefs. It centers on Ozzie Freedman, a 13-year-old Jewish boy who regularly attends Hebrew school which is held inside the neighborhood synagogue. Throughout the story, he asks his teacher, Rabbi Binder, a slew of strange questions, the type of which Jewish boys just don’t ask.

Did God give the Virgin Mary a child without her having sex?

Despite being slapped across the face by his mother, Ozzie continues to ask the rabbi these same such questions, resulting in the rabbi slapping him across the face.  He then runs up to the roof of the synagogue and threatens to jump. But the rabbi and his students, joined later by Ozzie’s mother, go outside to try to convince him not to jump. Ozzie warns that he will carry out his threat unless everyone down below goes down on their knees like Christians, and admits that God can make a virgin birth and that they believe in Jesus Christ.

Talk about doubting your heritage. But so successful was Goodbye Columbus, that by 1969 it was made into a major motion picture production starring Richard Benjamin, Ali MacGraw, and Jack Klugman. The next year, it was nominated for an Academy Award and won the WGA Award for Best Screenplay Adaptation from Another Medium. Aside from films, Philip Roth received many honors during the course of his literary career. He was twice awarded the National Book Award, twice the National Book Critics Circle Award, three times the PEN/Faulkner Award and, for his 1997 novel American Pastoral, he received a Pulitzer Prize.

Not bad for a middle-class Jewish kid from Newark.

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