A few days ago, I went over to my friend, Danuta’s, to watch a documentary on Philip Roth. She had taped it, knowing how much I like his writings. She had also given me his autobiography, The Facts, for my birthday. I am now thoroughly immersed in the man’s life.
By his description, his childhood was so different from mine. He talks about growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in Newark, N.J.. After leaving home, his obsession with being Jewish in a predominantly Gentile culture, becomes a major theme in his novels. But he expresses a comfort with his Jewish childhood that I never knew.
We were the only Jewish family in a Gentile community. I always felt my parents discomfort and so, as well, mine. My parents focused on assimilation, as did many immigrant Jews at that time. We lit the Chanukah candles and also had a Christmas tree (dubbed Chanukah bush by my sister). We celebrated Passover and had Easter baskets. We went to the synagogue on the High Holidays to kiss my grandmother, or so it seemed to me the sole purpose for the trip. I never went to services otherwise. So it was without surprise that when a child asked me my religion when I was in the fifth grade, I nervously answered Christian, yet not even knowing what that meant.
It took be a long time to understand it was okay to be born into a Jewish family. Even though I lived in mainly Jewish Manhattan for many years. These days I still do not practice Judaism, but at least it is a part of my heritage I feel no shame about.
Even after talking about what seems to be a happy, Jewish childhood, with Jewish friends and Hebrew school, Roth expresses a fascination for the Jewish/Gentile struggle. It forms much of his writing. Yet he also, at the end of the book, lets the reader know that even an autobiography can be, and most likely, is, fiction. Just a partial truth as seen at the time of writing, what the writer wants to focus on then, what he or she wants you to see. Life according to the moment.
Philip Roth at 80: the novelist of desire (3quarksdaily.com)
Jewish-American Style: Philip Roth and the Mischief-Making Tradition in Jewish Culture (schlemielintheory.com)