Page 28 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 50

Basic HTML Version

20
JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
to Philip Roth’s novel
The Counterlife
(1986). In this rich work
of fantasy, his hero (or rather one of his two heroes), Henry
Zuckerman, has two alternate lives: in one he lives the empty
life of the de-Judaized suburban Jewish middle-classes. Tired
of his tame Jewish wife Carol, his main object, like that of
Portnoy in an earlier Roth novel, is the search for sexual variety
among the “shiksas.” He dies whilst undergoing an operation
designed to make him independent of a drug which is robbing
him of his sexual potency.
But Henry has a “counterlife,” an alternative fictive destiny
which is the dialectical opposite of his first mode of existence.
In this second story, he survives the operation and undergoes
a kind of moral and psychological crisis which has the effect
of awakening his latent Jewishness. We see him leaving his
American wife and family as well as his more covert sexual in­
dulgences and lighting out for Israel where he will undergo
a kind of spiritual rebirth.
After Henry arrives in Israel, his first shock of Jewish self-
identification comes when he hears a class of ten year olds shout­
ing out their lessons in a
heder
in Meah Shearim. Though he
cannot understand a word of what they are saying, he suddenly
feels a deep bond with them — “I’m a Jew as deep as those
Jews,” he declares. The second phase of his rebirth comes when
he joins what appears to be a
Gush Emunim
settlement near
Hebron, presided over by a militant and dynamic ex-American
rabbi, Mordechai Lippman. Henry, now toting a gun, discovers
that side of his Jewishness which stands at the opposite extreme
from both
Galut
assimilation and the
Galut
sickness of “self­
distortion, self-contortion and self-disguise.” But it is a Jewish
identity nevertheless and the reader is made to feel its cogency.
Not th a t we are to take H en ry ’s re lig ious and social
transformation with total seriousness. His brother Nathan, the
astonished and sceptical observer, makes sure that we view Hen­
ry’s rebirth as a Jew with a certain quizzical amusement and
ironic distance. Roth also offers us an ironic view of Shuki
Elchanan, a left-wing secular intellectual from Tel Aviv. He bal­
ances one extreme against the other. Israeli society as a whole,
secular and religious, right and left is paranoiac, but then so
are Diaspora Jews. They too, have their vestigial Jewish iden­
tities which prevent them from achieving total normality in a
“goyish” world. They will go overboard one way or another.