The historical conundrum of the Jewish people has no clear parallel in the long chronicle of civilizations that have come and gone, and those that have survived and prevailed, in humankind’s vast history. Consider other ancient, preexisting non-Islamic tribes in the Middle East. The Samaritans today number fewer than 1,000 living individuals. The Copts of Egypt are under severe pressure. The Yazidi, subject to centuries of forced conversions to Islam and more recently massacred and sold into sexual slavery by ISIS, continue to hold on in profoundly diminished form, predominantly in Iraq. Other tribal or ethnic groups, including the Philistines, Amorites, Edomites, Lydians, Moabites, and Hittites, are long extinct. As Carl Sagan once put it in a broader context, “Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”

The Jewish people constitute one of those rare exceptions. They have managed not only to survive but to thrive, even after half of the global Jewish population was wiped out in the mechanized mass murder of the Shoah. Today, for the first time in modern history, Jews have their own nation in Israel, and the Diaspora has achieved a phenomenal level of success far out of proportion to its numbers, in the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, and throughout the world.

Yet, as throughout its 3,000-year history, that success is ever contingent, ever threatened, ever insecure, frequently reviled, and always afraid to proclaim in a full-throated voice its Jewish pride and to speak explicitly about the Jewish values and traditions that have helped to engender its many achievements. We can see this in the work of the longest-enduring and perhaps final voice of the American-Jewish literary vogue that gripped the country in the 1950s and 1960s. Philip Roth, descended from Ukrainian Jews who made their way to New Jersey, spent his life (born 1933, died 2018) in a tortured and tortuous relationship with his own Judaism and Jewishness. In that sense, he was a model of the costs and also the benefits of displacement, and his best work embodies and transcends the existential dilemma that gripped him and so many Jews of his time.

In perhaps his finest novel, American Pastoral, he created a wrenching and indelible portrait of the American Jewish experience of assimilation, with a bleakly pessimistic ending that illuminated the darker corners of the Jewish entrapment between the left-wing anti-colonialist and right-wing racist forces that now work together to tell Jews, in effect, When you are in Europe, go to Palestine. When you are in Palestine, go back to Europe. If you stay where you are, hide your mezuzahs and your Stars of David and your tefillin if you want to be safe. If you leave, don’t by any means go to Israel, because then you are a colonialist. You have no home here, you have no home there, and you have no home anywhere.

Seymour Levov, the graceful, athletic, kind, and tragic subject of American Pastoral, exemplifies the contingent dilemma of the modern American Jew. Born during the Depression, he becomes the glowing idol of his fellow Jewish students at a New Jersey high school, among whose number is Roth’s long-time fictional alter ego Nathan Zuckerman. Seymour excels at high-school sports and, just as important, has blond hair and blue eyes and so does not look like a stereotypical Jew. He is the model of assimilation, which is, at its furthest reaches, the Jewish suppression of one’s own Jewishness. The purpose of this suppression? To, at best, fit comfortably into the Gentile world and, at worst, not to be persecuted and murdered.

Would Nathan Zuckerman and his fellow Newark students have admired Levov—who “starred as end in football, center in basketball, and first baseman in baseball”—quite so much if his batting average were even higher and his receiving yards even greater but he looked more like Philip Roth himself?

Clearly not. For during the war years, it was perversely a matter of pride for the Jewish students of Newark to have one of their own who looked “startlingly Aryan…as close to a goy as we were going to get.” A gym teacher nicknamed him “Swede,” and the name “just stuck” and “made him mythic in a way that Seymour never would have done.” The Swede “carried it with him like an invisible passport, all the while wandering deeper and deeper into an American’s life.”

Now, why on earth would Jewish kids in New Jersey whose fellow Jews were at that moment being exterminated on an industrial scale for not being Aryan wish to be Aryan-looking themselves or, at the very least, idolize one of their own for being a blond-haired, blue-eyed simulacrum of one? Was it internalized self-loathing, of the sort that not too many years later led countless thousands of Jewish teenagers to get nose jobs to deracinate their faces and that today causes some young Jewish people to sympathize “as a Jew” (in the contemptible modern parlance) with those who seek to murder them?

Nathan Zuckerman certainly seems to think so, for he says, “In our idolizing the Swede and his unconscious oneness with America, I suppose there was a tinge of shame and self-rejection.”

Zuckerman goes on to say, “Conflicting Jewish desires awakened by the sight of [the Swede] were simultaneously becalmed by him; the contradiction in Jews who want to fit in and want to stand out, who insist they are different and insist they are no different, resolved itself in the triumphant spectacle of this Swede who was actually only another of our neighborhood Seymours whose forebears had been Solomons and Sauls and who would themselves beget Stephens who would in turn beget Shawns.”

There are other reasons for the exalting of the surprisingly unassuming athlete into a neighborhood demigod, reasons that were not exclusively Jewish in nature. Zuckerman also asserts that “the elevation of Swede Levov into the household Apollo of the Weequahic Jews can be explained, I think, by the war against the Germans and the Japanese and the fears that it fostered. With the Swede indomitable on the playing field, the meaningless surface of life provided a bizarre, delusional kind of sustenance, the happy release into a Swedian innocence, for those who lived in dread of never seeing their sons or their brothers or their husbands again.”

When Zuckerman encounters the Swede many years later, both in their mid to late 60s, Zuckerman is startled by how that “Swedian” innocence has been seemingly uncorrupted by the “cruelty of life…the injustice of it” that others must endure. The idol has become bland and commonplace, yet enduringly good-natured, a prosperous manufacturer of ladies’ gloves.  “Something had warned him,” Zuckerman, himself now a famous writer, surmises. “You must not run counter to anything.”

The stated reason for their meeting is Swede’s desire to have Zuckerman write an account of the life of the Swede’s father, who had brought his son into the glove business. In his letter proposing the project, the Swede refers cryptically to “the shocks that befell his loved ones,” but their dinner conversation doesn’t even touch on the writing project or on these “shocks” or on anything at all in particular. There is only an amiable “catching up” session between two aging guys from the old neighborhood. Anything difficult or untoward—other than Swede’s recent bout with prostate cancer, now in remission—goes completely unmentioned, and Zuckerman is left only with the impression that the Swede’s entire being is about “pointed unobjectionableness…all that rose to the surface was more surface. What he had instead of a being, I thought, is blandness—the guy’s radiant with it.”

But Zuckerman, and the reader, soon enough discover what those shocks were and how profoundly Levov’s life became enmeshed with the harsh realities of America in the 1960s. The central tragedy—as Zuckerman learns only from Swede’s brother, and not from Swede himself—is that his daughter, Merry, became an activist against the war in Vietnam, descended into dangerous radicalism, and planted a bomb in the local post office that killed a man.

She proceeds to go on the run, eventually atoning for her crime by moving into a squalid cave-like hovel reached through

an underpass no more than a hundred and fifty feet long but of the kind that causes drivers to hit the lock button on the door. There were no lights overhead, and the walkways were strewn with broken pieces of furniture, with beer cans, bottles, lumps of things that were unidentifiable. The place hadn’t been cleaned in ten years. Maybe it had never been cleaned.…To get to where Merry rented a room just off McCarter Highway you had to make it through an underpass not just as dangerous as any in Newark but as dangerous as any underpass in the world.

Merry’s very room, in this ruin left over from the disastrous Newark riots of 1967, has no window, no running water, and no heat, and adjoins a filthy hallway that reeks of a gigantic urinal. It is in this setting that Merry reveals to her utterly unmanned and baffled father that she had been responsible for several other “protest” bombings that killed three more people.

The ever-kind and never-comprehending Swede Levov begs and pleads with his obdurate daughter to come back to him, to come back to life, to come back to the America he has given his own life to and assimilated into for the sake, or so he thought, of his children. Merry’s refusal to respond to his entreaties—her proclaiming, in effect, and yet without any real rancor, that “I am no longer your daughter” and “this hovel is my home and all I deserve”—is one of the most painful scenes in contemporary literature. Swede, Roth writes, “had learned the worst lesson that life can teach—that it makes no sense. And when that happens the happiness is never spontaneous again. It is artificial and, even then, bought at the price of an obstinate estrangement from oneself and one’s history.”

How did this golden child of the American suburbs, daughter of the idolized and mild-mannered Levov and his wife, a beautiful former Miss New Jersey, come to this lamentable pass? Roth suggests three possibilities.

The first is the Vietnam War itself, which, very much like the Israel–Palestine conflict today, drove generations apart and sparked vehement debates between those who saw American imperialism as the source of all global evil and those who saw the relentless worldwide spread of Communism then (much like radical Islamist jihad violence now) as the true threat to global civilization.

The second is Merry’s severe stutter, which led to her being bullied at school and treated by an incompetent psychologist. She was unable to express her anger and frustrations clearly, and that, on a symbolic level, caused her to turn to bombs and mindless destruction rather than debate.

But the third, and most important, is that, as the child of a nearly perfect man and a physically flawless mother, Merry felt incapable of living up to expectations and, at some point, became enraged by implicit societal pressure to do so.

Those expectations were enormous. For the Jews of the era, whose parents had escaped the Holocaust and made their way in the American Diaspora by dint of “wet, smelly, crushing work,” such as the labor of Swede’s father and grandfather and Swede himself in the stench of the Newark tanneries, “the most serious  thing in life [was] to keep going despite everything.” For Swede and his forebears, the journey from the 120-degree factories necessary for “fleshing sheepskins fresh from the lime vat…[in a] tannery that stank of both the slaughterhouse and the chemical plant from the soaking of flesh and the cooking of flesh and the dehairing and pickling and degreasing of hides” to the air-conditioned luxury of Merry’s suburban upbringing was an unalloyed human triumph over destitution, anti-Semitism, and the desperate struggle of Diaspora Jews before, during, and after the war years.

But for Merry, the struggle was not worth the cost. American commerce, for her and her anti-war colleagues, is an appendage of American capitalism, colonialism, and brutish dominance, symbolized by those sheep her father and grandfather led to the slaughter and then flensed. Merry has nothing but disdain for the place she has had reserved for her. She rebels by rejecting everything she thinks they stand for, shedding the suburbs along the way and abandoning her paternal portion of Judaism. Instead, as penance for her killings, she becomes a Jain, a member of a religious sect that believes in the sacredness of life to such a degree that their adherents wear masks to avoid accidentally breathing in gnats and other tiny insects.

Her abdication from American life through the embrace of terrorism and, later, extreme self-abnegation is a rejection of the forces of assimilation emanating from the dominant Christian society as well as from the Jewish community. Her non-Jewish mother had had a lengthy and humiliating interrogation on the part of the Swede’s father—“what about Jews? Let’s get down to brass tacks, Mary Dawn. What do your parents say about Jews?”—until he allows her, finally, to marry his precious son. It is little wonder that Merry is torn in her first days on earth: “She entered the world screaming and the screaming did not stop. The child opened her mouth so wide to scream that she broke the tiny blood vessels in her cheeks.” When, against the express wishes of the Swede’s father, the baby is baptized, she screams then, too. It is not surprising that the half-Jewish, half-Catholic Merry never comes close to embracing either religion and instead becomes, in her shame and guilt, a Jain.

_____________

Times have changed over the past half-century since the story of Merry’s destruction of her father’s sense of himself and the country that had granted him such riches. And radically so. Young protesters no longer march against the U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam or, at the extremes of the movement, in support of North Vietnam and the Vietcong; today, they march in support of Palestinian liberation and, at the extremes, in support of Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and a “globalized intifada.”

“I remember when Jewish kids were doing their homework,” Swede’s father laments. “What happened? What the hell happened to our smart Jewish kids? If, God forbid, their parents are no longer oppressed for a while, they run where they think they can find oppression. Can’t live without it. Once Jews ran away from oppression; now they run away from no-oppression.…They have parents they can’t hate anymore because their parents are good to them, so they hate America instead.”

If American Pastoral were set in 2024 instead of in the 1960s and ’70s, Merry would almost certainly be participating in the Free Palestine movement and mindlessly chanting “Palestine must be free from the river to the sea”—and she, her father, and her grandfather would be gazing at each other across a wide gulf of mutual incomprehension. I can’t presume to know how Roth would portray the 2024 version of Merry Levov, but the odds are very high that he (or more specifically his fictional alter ego Nathan Zuckerman) would have imagined her as a convert not to Jainism, and not to Islam itself—that would be too glib for the Rothian sensibility—but to the pasteurized Islamist radicalism that has infiltrated America’s places of privilege, principally academia, journalism, and the arts.

This is not to say that a 2024 Merry Levov would be an active supporter of Hamas; more likely, she would be chanting slogans inspired by or invented by the Muslim Brotherhood or designed by the KGB to advance the cause of Islamist radicalism in the West without the chanters quite knowing that this was their purpose. What Roth describes in American Pastoral as “the monotonous chant of the indoctrinated, ideologically armored from head to foot” has been an inescapable feature of the current conflict.

What if the Swede back then, or his hypothetical 2024 version, had married a religious fellow Jew and both had raised Merry to be a devout Jew herself, rather than, as she was, a “half Jew”? Would that have changed anything? Would it have made Merry happier, more content, more attached to the eternal and the spiritual and less fixated on temporal conflicts and controversies? Or would it have given her just one more thing to rebel against? There is no way of knowing, in particular because Philip Roth himself was a secular Jew almost devout in his Godlessness and without the ability to provide his characters with satisfactory religious answers.

Even with the distance of many years, the accommodating and ineffectually liberal Swede Levov and his ideologically dogmatic daughter remain paradigmatic figures in the existential journey of American Jewry. The Swede assimilated as well as he knew how, and he became that figure of admiration (and sometimes envy and disdain): the successful Jew who created something useful out of nothing. But “look where it’s got you,” his brother says, during a bitter argument about whether Swede should turn Merry in for her crimes.

“Refusing to give offense. Blaming yourself. Tolerant respect for every position. Sure, it’s ‘liberal’—I know, a liberal father. But what does that mean? What is at the center of it? Always holding things together. And look where the f—k it’s got you!… No, you didn’t make the war. You made the angriest kid in America. Ever since she was a kid, every word she spoke was a bomb.”

“I gave her all I could, everything, everything,” Swede responds helplessly. “I swear to you I gave everything.”

Swede is a Jew and an American. America is his refuge—the “real Israel,” as Roth has stated elsewhere. It is his home and his life, for better and now for worse.

For worse, because this graceful athlete and successful businessman has been absolutely and inescapably checkmated by “the adversary who is not fair—the evil ineradicable from human dealings—and he is finished.”

But we cannot forget that Merry, too, is “finished.” Certainly not because she converted to Jainism then, and perhaps to Berkeley-style “Islamism Lite” now, if Roth had lived to write an updated version of his novel, and certainly not because Merry is a deeply sensitive, suffering, and empathetic young woman, a person of deep and unshakeable convictions.

No, she is finished because she has lived her entire life in opposition, counter to everything. She rebelled against her perfect parents, against the Judaism and Catholicism she found inimical to her battle against the world’s woes, and against her own inconsolable unhappiness. She has lived her entire life as an unwitting illustration of the principle that earnestness and sincerity carried to an extreme are indistinguishable from heartless fanaticism, and that humorlessness and rigidity have far too much in common with death and despair.

Unlike her father, who accommodated everyone’s wishes and was agreeable to everyone’s desires, even at the cost of being severed from his Jewish roots, Merry has accommodated no one, and was agreeable to exactly none of society’s expectations for her. Raised in cosseted comfort, she actively sought out her struggle and battled her own sort of adversary, one that she could shout against until the “blood vessels in her cheeks burst.”

And who is this evil adversary? It is not only anti-Semitism, though Swede has spent his life consciously or subconsciously hiding from that—a task harder than ever in the current climate for a new generation of Swede-like men who live in a darker Diaspora than any in the past 80 years. It is not war in general, or any specific war in Vietnam or Israel or Gaza. It is not the Holocaust that Swede avoided by being lucky enough to have been born in America. It is the one thing none of us can escape from, no matter how much we try to hide from it or strive to succeed despite it. It is the evil ineradicable from human dealings. It is history.

This, more than Judaism, more than the inscrutable human mind, was Roth’s great subject in American Pastoral—how the gears of history grind, and how all-American, cheerful, and successful strivers are, in turn, ground down. And yet it must be said, and Roth himself likely would have agreed had he seen what has happened in America since October 7, that while Jews have proved capable of being more successful than their non-Jewish counterparts when they are set free to do so, in these days of a darkening Diaspora, they are also more likely to be ground down.

Photo: AP Photo/Richard Drew, file

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