Morality, Shmorality: Shteyngart on Early Roth

Gary Shteyngart offers an incisive assessment of Philip Roth’s early works, recently released as two volumes of a projected eight-volume set by the Library of America. Shteyngart’s perspective is unique not only because he’s a pretty funny writer himself, but becase he grew up “as a teenage member of the last Jewish emigration to America (the Soviet one).” It’s interesting to hear his thoughts on Roth, who was writing as part of the first generation of Jews in America “that not only grew up on native American soil but with an innate sense of confidence and belonging.”
He also shares his thoughts on the furor that accompanied the release of Portnoy’s Complaint, and how that novel represented a watershed moment in the Jewish American experience.

The Jewish community, of course, had a famous conniption over “Portnoy’s Complaint,” with rabbis and scholars predicting a wave of literary pogroms that never came. But while the novel exposed and in some ways upended the contradictions of Jewish-American life, it was also a backhanded celebration of being Jewish in America. “How I am going to love growing up to be a Jewish man!” Portnoy cries upon seeing his elders “kibitzing” around that most American of shapes – a softball diamond. Or the childhood realization that “We were Jews – and we weren’t ashamed to say it!” These sentiments would seem obvious and unneeded to someone growing up in the America of my generation, and I would wager that there aren’t many Sophie Portnoys – with their toilet inquisitions and shtetl ways – left among American Jews. Where this specimen may still exist, oddly enough, is among the Soviet Jews whose ties to the country that gave us the pogrom and the Pale are more heart-wrenchingly immediate, whose anxieties have not been tempered by a century’s passing.

Full essay.

3 thoughts on “Morality, Shmorality: Shteyngart on Early Roth

  1. oh, shteyngart would be surprised how many sophie portnoy’s remain. he’s clearly spent too much time among academic jews, who are generally more open-minded to “American” or assimilated ideas, than the traditional “you should marry a doctor” sorts who DEFINITELY still exist. just come to my house…

  2. Sophie represents what Alexander and the children of immigrants felt they needed to break free from, propelling them to acculturate and succeed by achieving the American dream (a college education and a house in the suburbs). I think Sheyngart reminds American Jews of the important period of transition and change for Soviet Jewry – something often overlooked by the Jewish community. What will the first and second generation of American-Soviet Jews look like?

  3. Ha ha Aliza, right on sista.
    Same experience here. Spend some time in the Cavendish Mall in Cote St Luc (Montreal) on a Sunday or Saturday. And now that I’m living in Toronto…I find the same stereotype at any Deli on Lawerence and Bathurst.

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