Page 22 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 29

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ethic drawn to its ultimate conclusion. He is the Jewish liberal
par excellence,
the glass of fashion and the mold of
form, fully equipped with a social consciousness and an Oedipus
complex. Malamud’s Jews accept suffering because it is, they think,
part of being Jewish, but Roth sees that suffering—even (or maybe
especially) Jewish suffering—is repulsive when it is not redemptive.
And since redemption is impossible in a secular world, what is
left in Roth’s novel is a massive and ubiquitous repulsion.
There is a passage in Portnoy’s recollections that is most reveal-
ing in this regard. He has a memory of having seen his mother’s
menstrual blood “. . . shining darkly up at me from the worn
linoleum in front of the kitchen sink.” Joined to this memory
(this “icon” of his mother, as Portnoy calls it) is another mem-
ory of
an endless dripping of blood down through a drainboard
into a dishpan. It is the blood she is draining from the meat
so as to make it kosher and fit for consumption. Probably I
am confusing things—I sound like a son of the House of Atreus
with all this talk of blood—but I see her standing at the sink
salting the meat so as to rid it of its blood, when the attack
of “woman’s troubles” sends her, with a most alarming moan,
rushing off to her bedroom.
And immediately following this recollection there reappears the
ever-present knife, “the bread knife with which my own blood
would be threatened when I refuse to eat my dinner.”
I trust I am not the only reader who finds this passage repulsive,
a repulsiveness in no way diminished by labelling it black humor.
But its repulsiveness is not gratuitous, as Roth indicates when he
has Portnoy bring up the House of Atreus, a family line plagued
with incest, parricide, fratricide, infanticide, cannibalism, etc.
But the allusion to the House of Atreus is also somewhat mislead-
ing, because the link between the menstrual blood and the tradi-
tion of koshering meat to remove the blood is one that may be
found in the Bible itself. Chapter fifteen in the Book of Leviticus
gives instructions for dealing with a woman in the “days of her
impurity.” Two chapters later, the children of Israel are instructed
not to eat blood: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I
have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your
souls; for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the
life” (Lev. 17:11). In Portnoy’s image (the icon of his mother)
there is a grotesque paradox: the mother purifying the flesh that
is to be eaten is herself struck with the periodic impurity of the
flesh womankind is heir to. In Portnoy’s mind the two taboo objects
have somehow run together—the taboo woman and the taboo flesh.