(JTA) — Given his place in the international literary canon, it’s hard to believe that there has never been a widely-released documentary made about the Jewish Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow.
That’s about to change, as PBS debuts “American Masters: The Adventures of Saul Bellow” on Monday night.
The documentary, which was filmed by Israeli director Asaf Galay between 2016 and 2019 and features what is being touted as the last interview Philip Roth gave before his death in 2018, digs deep into Bellow’s personal life and inspirations. Many know about his successful novels and memorable (usually Jewish) characters, but as the film shows, Bellow had a turbulent personal life that involved five marriages. Several of his closest friends and family members felt betrayed or offended by how Bellow wrote unflattering characters closely based on them. His moderate conservative political leanings put him at odds with the ethos of the 1960s, and some saw his framing of occasional Black characters as racist.
But the film also devotes time to explaining — through interviews with scholars, other novelists and members of the Bellow clan — how Bellow’s deep-rooted sense of “otherness” as the son of Jewish immigrants influenced his work, and how he, in turn, influenced many Jewish American writers who followed him. Roth, for instance, says on camera that Bellow inspired him to create fuller Jewish characters in his own work.
To mark the milestone film, we looked back through all of the Saul Bellow content in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s archive. What emerged was a portrait of a leading Jewish intellectual of his time who was deeply invested in the Soviet Jewry movement and Israel, and who was beloved by the American Jewish community — despite his complicated relationship to his Jewishness and his bristling at being called a “Jewish writer.”
The Soviet Jewry movement
Bellow was born in 1915 in Canada to parents with Lithuanian ancestry who first immigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia. In the 1920s, when Bellow was 9, the family moved to Chicago. By the 1950s, the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union — who were forbidden from openly practicing their religion and from emigrating — had become a rallying cry for American Jews. As a 1958 JTA report shows, Bellow was passionate about the issue; in January of that year, he signed a letter to The New York Times about “the purge of Yiddish writers, the refusal of the current Soviet regime to permit a renaissance of Jewish culture and the existence of a quota system on Jews in education, professional and civil service fields.” Other signatories included fellow Jewish writers Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin and Lionel Trilling.
He signed another letter to the Times on the topic in 1965, and in 1969 he circulated an appeal for cultural freedom for Jews to the Soviet Writers Union, getting other prominent writers such as Noam Chomsky and Nat Hentoff to sign. By 1970, the issue had become widely publicized, and Bellow stayed involved, signing onto a petition with several other thought leaders that asked: “Has the government of the Soviet Union no concern for human rights or for the decent opinion of mankind?”
Like many American Jews, Bellow had complicated feelings on Israel. “If you want everyone to love you, don’t discuss Israeli politics,” he once wrote.
In the 1970s, JTA reports show that he followed Israeli diplomacy closely and was a strong supporter of the Jewish state in the face of international criticism. In 1974, at a PEN press conference, he called for a boycott of UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural heritage arm that has historically been very critical of Israeli policy.
In 1984, Bellow met with then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who was in the United States on an official state visit.
But Bellow wasn’t a blanket supporter of Israel — in 1979, he signed a letter protesting West Bank settlement expansion that was read at a rally of 30,000 people in Tel Aviv. In 1987, while in Haifa for a conference on his work, Bellow criticized the Israeli government for the way it handled the Jonathan Pollard spy case, bringing up an issue that still reverberates in Israel-Diaspora conversation — and in U.S. politics.
“I think the American Jews are very sensitive to the question of dual allegiance, and it is probably wrong of Israel to press this question because it is one which is very often used by antisemites,” Bellow said.
After garnering multiple National Book Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, Bellow won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976. JTA’s report on the award noted that Bellow’s most recent book at the time, published right around the time of the Nobel announcements, was a memoir about his 1975 stay in Jerusalem, titled “To Jerusalem and Back.” The report added: “Two of his books, ‘Herzog,’ published in 1964 and ‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet,’ which won him the National Book Award in 1971, have been translated into Hebrew and were enthusiastically received by Israeli critics and public.”
(Bellow wasn’t the only Jew to win a Nobel that year: Milton Friedman won the economics prize, Baruch Blumberg shared the medicine prize and Burton Richter shared the physics prize.)
A “Jewish writer”?
The Anti-Defamation League also gave Bellow an award in 1976. According to a JTA report, Seymour Graubard, honorary national chairman of the ADL at the time, said that Bellow “has correctly rejected all efforts to pigeonhole him as a ‘Jewish writer.’ Rather, he has simply found in the Jewish experience those common strains of humanity that are part of all of us — and therein lies his greatness as an American writer.”
Debate over whether or not Bellow should be labeled a “Jewish writer,” and what that meant, dogged him for much of his career. After his death in 2005, at 89, a New York Jewish Week obituary focused on Bellow as “a literary giant who did not want to be bound by the tag of Jewish writer.”
“Mr. Bellow bridled at being considered a Jewish writer, though his early novels, most notably 1944’s ‘The Victim,’ dealt with anti-Semitism and featured characters who spoke Yiddish and Russian,” Steve Lipman wrote.
Bellow’s biographer James Atlas added in the obituary: “He always said he was a writer first, an American second and Jewish third. But all three were elements of his genius. His greatest contribution was that he was able to write fiction that had tremendous philosophical depth.”
In a JTA essay at the time of Bellow’s death, academic and fiction writer John J. Clayton argued: “No good writer wants to be pigeonholed or limited in scope. But he is deeply a Jewish writer — not just a Jew by birth.
“Jewish culture, Jewish sensibility, a Jewish sense of holiness in the everyday, permeate his work.”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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