Page 22 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 43

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10
JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
become of this new breed? These Americans? This
sidewalk-and-gutter generation? He knew them all and
they were all alike — brazen, selfish, unbrodled. Where was
learning, veneration of parents, deference to the old? . . .
Ask one who Mendel Beilis is? Ask one did he shed goyish
blood for the Passover? Would they know? Could they an­
swer?
On Pankower’s lips these questions have an authenticity — and
let us admit it, a poignancy — that they lack when their echoes are
mouthed, some thirty-five years later, by Alex Portnoy’s beaten-
down, benighted father:
Tell me something, do you know Talmud, my educated
son? Do you know history? One-two-three you were bar
mitzvah, and that for you was the end of your religious edu­
cation. Do you know men spend their whole lives in the Jew­
ish religion, and when they die they still haven’t finished?
Tell me, now that you are all finished at fourteen being a
Jew, do you know a single thing about the wonderful history
and heritage of the saga of your people.
To be sure, the rebellious Alex does not, but, then again, neither
does his father. And
that,
apparently, is Roth’s satiric point. The
conflicts that energized Henry Roth’s
Call it sleep
have been re­
duced to a string of platitudes and the predictability of rehearsed
responses. Philip Roth is left with the threadbare spirituality, with
the overwhelming meretriciousness, of the American-Jewish
suburbs. For better or worse, he has been our most unflinching
of chroniclers and our sharpest critic.
In an early story like “Eli, the fanatic,” the Jews of Woodenton
lead comfortably unexamined lives— that is, until “Jewish educa­
tion” (albeit of a tame, garden variety sort) threatens to undo all
they have worked, and assimilated, for. As one of Woodenton’s
solid, Jewish citizens puts it:
Sundays I drive my oldest kid all the way to Scarsdale to
learn Bible stories . . . and you know what she comes up
with? This Abraham in the Bible was going to kill his own
kid
for a sacrifice. She gets nightmares from it, for God’s
sake! You call that religion? Today a guy like that they’d
lock him up. This is the age of science, Eli. I size people’s
feet with an X-ray machine, for God’s sake. They disproved