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Commemorating Philip Roth means confronting his limitations head on



(JTA) — Next Sunday marks the 90th anniversary of Philip Roth’s birth. In celebration of the famed novelist’s work, a scholarly conference titled “Roth@90,” sponsored by the Philip Roth Society, will be held starting Wednesday at the Newark Public Library. That will be followed by a weekend of high-profile events — staged readings, panel discussions, a bus tour of Roth’s old Newark neighborhood —  co-presented by the library and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. 

Exactly 10 years ago, we commemorated his 80th birthday in a similar fashion. Dozens of Roth scholars made learned presentations about his work, of which Roth attended exactly zero. Later that week, the author read aloud from his novel “Sabbath’s Theater” in front of hundreds of fans, friends and well wishers. The proceedings were televised on C-Span.

Roth was being acclaimed for having just wound down an exemplary career. With the exception of the Nobel Prize, what garland evaded him? Was there a high-culture literary platform where his name wasn’t a virtual watermark? Could he publish any novel without hundreds of reviews being written in newspapers across the world? Was there a serious fiction writer out there with greater renown?

So much has changed in the decade between the two conferences. To begin with, Roth died in 2018. In that same span, the country witnessed the election of Donald Trump and the fissure it exposed in society in general and the Jewish community in particular. America endured one convulsive racial reckoning after another. Finally, in October of 2017, the #MeToo movement gained massive public salience. 

All of those events, along with digital media’s indomitable ascent, have combined to affect and reshape Roth’s literary legacy. That legacy is far less assured than all the (justified) praise and lionizing that will occur this week might suggest. 

Let’s start with Jews. The Trump era yielded two seemingly irreconcilable data points. On the one hand, Jewish-Americans endured the Charlottesville riot, the Tree of Life synagogue attack and a stunning rise in antisemitic incidents. On the other, there was staunch support for Trump among Orthodox Jews and supporters of Israel’s right wing. 

Leaving that conundrum for others to parse, I simply note that Orthodox Jews and right-wing Zionists are almost completely absent in Roth’s fiction. A young Roth wrote a sensitive portrait of Holocaust survivors who want to start a suburban yeshiva in “Eli the Fanatic.” He also sketched a militant religious-nationalist Zionist in “The Counterlife,” Mordecai Lippman, who, according to Roth biographer Blake Bailey (about whom more below), was based on Elyakim Haetzni, one of the so-called founding fathers of the settlement movement. In the same novel, a version of the narrator’s brother falls under the settlement leader’s sway. 

And that’s it, across a half century of writing. For traditionalist Jewish readers, whose political and social influence in the United States and Israel is substantial and growing, Roth’s fiction is not a mirror, nor a signpost, nor a scroll upon which is inscribed some essential truth.

The Jews who populated his stories, the Jews he best understood, were of Ashkenazi descent, white, liberal, assimilated and secular. His courage was to valorize them over and against other Jews who viewed them as defective, lost or even as apostates. Thus Anne Frank in “The Ghost Writer” was portrayed as a patron saint of secular Judaism. Elsewhere, his stories abound in proud, professionally accomplished diaspora Jews. They rarely think about God. Synagogue attendance is reserved strictly for lifecycle events and High Holy Days, if that.  

A novelist, of course, is not a political clairvoyant. However, the immediate future of Judaism is being greatly shaped by Jews whose population and influence are growing and whom Roth rarely portrayed. In this manner, another stellar writer like Cynthia Ozick — herself Orthodox and quite attuned to the mindset of her co-religionists — might fare better commercially and emerge as more relevant than her friend in the coming decades. 

Roth didn’t just write about Jews. In my book “The Philip Roth We Don’t Know: Sex, Race and Autobiography,” I pointed out that depicting non-Jewish Black people was an unrecognized “obsessional theme” across his 28 novels and 25 short stories. Much to my dismay, I found Roth’s multi-decade treatment of his African and African-American characters often to be crude, thoughtless and sometimes racist. 

Familiarize yourself with the degrading portraiture we receive of Black people in “The Great American Novel” (1973), or a short story like “On the Air” (1970), and you might reconsider what Roth was after in “The Human Stain,” in which an academic who is accused of racism turns out to be an African American who had been “passing” as white and Jewish. The book, the 2001 Pen/Faulkner Award winner, is often seen as a sensitive treatment of racial issues in America, and perhaps as the author’s attempt to extend the hand of friendship to another oppressed minority

In fact, my best guess is that, as with many Jewish writers post-1967, Roth was shaken by the deterioration of the Black-Jewish alliance. His frustrations were reflected in prose that often referenced Black communities in his hometown of Newark but showed little curiosity about their lives or sympathy for their plight.

Obviously, this type of literary rendering of African Americans — or any minority group — is disturbing and dated. Insensitive racial representation inspires calls for publishers to drop authors. They disappear from high-school or college syllabi. This bodes ominously for the afterlives of the titans of post-World War II American fiction, including John Updike, Saul Bellow Bellow and Norman Mailer, all three of whom have been accused of being racially insensitive and worse.

Roth’s marketability also seems to be sailing into a squall regarding gender. As women began demanding an accounting of sexual abuse and misogyny within the media, entertainment and other industries, numerous think-pieces wondered how the author of “Portnoy’s Complaint” — whose libidinous narrator identifies most of the women in his life by debasing nicknames — would fare in such an environment. Would he — should he — be “canceled”? 

The question is more complex than his admirers and detractors make it out to be. No doubt, many of Roth’s male characters mistreated women. Accusations of Roth himself doing the same exist, but they are fairly rare, unsubstantiated and contested. The dilemma for researchers is that Roth was a deeply auto-fictional writer. You sense his presence in his stories — especially when protagonists share much of his biography, including Nathan Zuckerman and Peter Tarnopol, and when characters are named “Philip Roth.” 

It’s hard not to speculate about the relation between the author and the many misogynistic fellows who cut an erotic swath through his pages. There will, of course, be readers who give him the benefit of the doubt. They might observe that Roth’s toxic males provide evidence of women’s experiences that needs to be explored, not censored. 

Not helping him cleanse his reputation were the numerous allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against his hand-picked biographer, Blake Bailey. The ructions engulfing Bailey came to dominate the discourse about Roth, leading to a peculiar cancellation by proxy

The episode also revealed that Roth had instructed his estate to eventually destroy a massive trove of personal papers he entrusted to Bailey. This led Aimee Pozorski (co-editor of Philip Roth Studies), myself and 20 other Roth scholars to issue a statement reminding his executors that “scholarship can only be advanced when qualified researchers engage freely with essential sources.”

As if all these concerns weren’t enough, his grim prophecies about the demise of an audience for serious literature seem to be coming true. “The book,” Roth worried, “can’t compete with the screen.” Meanwhile, the English major is in a very bad way, and the institution of tenure is under siege. Professors (insufferable as we might be) teach the next generation who to read and how to read. Writers might not like them, but they need them. 

Roth is also getting the scrutiny that he was at pains to avoid in his lifetime. His disregard for scholars who might be critical of him always struck me, one such scholar, as misguided. Instead, he surrounded himself with friends — friends who had preternatural access to major media platforms. These friends built upon his own interpretations of his own work. It doesn’t mean they lacked wisdom. It just means that when they talked about Roth, they talked about what Roth wanted them to talk about. To wit: Jewish Newark, his sundry interpretations of his life, his pesky ex-wives and lovers, the close-mindedness of his critics, and so forth.

I think, in this cultural moment, it’s prudent to confront Roth’s limitations head on and chart one’s own path through his fiction. I pitch him to my students as a writer with some racial, religious and sexual hang-ups — who among us is innocent of those charges? I also present him as a bearer of unique and meaningful insights. Let scholars (while they still exist) parade those insights into sunlight. 

I’ve tried to illuminate that his fiction was preoccupied, for 50 years, by how individual and collective bodies (like the Jews) change. Transformation, metamorphosis, metempsychosis — his obsession with those themes, I’ve noticed in my classrooms, is shared by Gen Z. If the span between Roth@80 and Roth@90 has taught us anything, it is that Roth was right: Life is about radical, unpredictable flux. Now his own legacy is in flux. I wonder who will read Roth@100. 

The post Commemorating Philip Roth means confronting his limitations head on appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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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.

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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.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

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.)

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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.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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