The Struggle for Jewish Identity in Philip Roth's "New Jersey"

Seminar Paper, 2008

18 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. The New Jersey of Philip Roth’s Youth
2.1. Philip Roth and his Characters – The American Dream

3. Internal Struggle – The Product of this New Jersey
3.1. Shame and Struggle in Philip Roth’s Work
3.1.1. Alexander Portnoy’s Struggles

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

"Serious students of literature are keenly aware that all writing that passes for fiction contains a good deal of history."[1]

It is no surprise that Ben Siegel made this statement in the introduction to his essay about reading the works of Philip Roth. The world, not only physical but also psychological, into which Phillip Roth was born and grew up is portrayed in detail in his writing. By reading his literature, one can gain a glimpse into the Jewish world where he lived, through the eyes of a Jew. This glimpse is particularly credible because Philip Roth has gone so far in blurring the distinction between himself and his character's that he has even written about a writer, Zuckerman, who has, through his writing, blurred himself and his characters.

"The single unifying characteristic of all Zuckerman's fans is that they assume that the author and his character are identical."[2]

Consequently, his works give insight into the interaction of a diversified set of cultures forced to co-exist in the communities of US-America and the struggles, internal and external that resulted. Philip Roth notes that

"Ever since Goodbye, Columbus, I've been drawn to depicting the impact of place on American lives. Portnoy's Complaint is very much the raw response to a way of life that was specific to his American place during his childhood in the 1930s and '40s. The link between the individual and his historic moment may be more focused in the recent trilogy, but the interest

was there from the start."[3]

In turn the consequences that are divvied out on the children who grew up in these divided communities are a recurring theme which the characters of Philip Roth's works struggle with. They grew up torn between the ethnic identity that was being forced upon them by their parents and their communities, and the "American" identity being forced on them by pop culture. They grew up in a place where social mobility was taught to be possible. If you work hard you can get ahead; you can pull yourself and your family to new levels. The sky is the limit. This was inevitably easier to say and dream about than to achieve, and resulted in immense internal and external struggles for this generation.

This shame induced struggle is the compelling force in the life of Alexander Portnoy. Early in his life this shame is in his inability to "be a good boy". Then it is the shame of being Jewish and not fitting in. Later it becomes his shame of the sexual acts he performs and his shame of having turned his back on his roots. Two of these types of shame will be looked at in more detail because they can be found in Philip Roth's work and in that of other Jews of the greater New York area, like Bernard Malamud and Chaim Potok.

“Now- the road from these random and even silly ideas to Portnoy’s Complaint was more winding and eventful than I can describe here; there is certainly a personal element in the book, but not until I had got hold of guilt, you see, as a comic idea, did I begin to feel myself lifting free and clear of my last book and my old concerns.”[4]

Additionally, the concrete impact of the social surroundings on the Jewish youth of the 1960s will be examined whilst comparing the traditional Jewish society to the American culture.

2. The New Jersey of Philip Roth's Youth

2.1. Philip Roth and his Characters- The American Dream

Philip Roth, like many of his characters, was born in 1933 as a child of first-generation American parents, Jews of Galician descent, and he grew up in the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, just a stone's throw from the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Through this port of entry millions of soon to be "Americans" passed in the hope of living their very own "American dream". Many did not travel very far from Ellis Island before they began the process of building a home in their newfound "land of opportunity". Consequently, in northern New Jersey one could find amongst others Irishmen, Germans, Italians, African Americans and Jews living in close proximity to one another. But it was not a fairy tale country where everyone lived happily side by side. To the contrary, the groups lived separately, divided. Not surprisingly, the Italians built their Little Italies, the Chinese their China towns and the Jews too built their havens where they could be with other people just like them. In one scene from Portnoy's Complaint, Alexander Portnoy describes the visiting of a shvitz bath with his father. Here, the men of this Jewish community go "to endeavor to demolish - with the steam, and a rubdown, and a long deep sleep- the pyramid of aggravation he has built himself into during the previous week of work."[5] Then Alexander Portnoy describes the men there by saying

"They appear, at long last, my father and his fellow sufferers, to have returned to the habitat in which they can be natural. A place without goyim and women."[6]

This understanding of ethnic separation as natural demonstrates the beliefs, which were instilled in not only Philip Roth and the characters of his novels, but in the youth of the United States during the middle of the last century. In this time, before the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s, this normality of ethnic separation was a fact of life.

"Roth recalls vividly, in his memoir The Facts, how gangs out of other neighborhoods known as "Down Neck" and "The Ironbound", places in their own way as ominous and legendary as the Russian steppes, would swoop down on the placid Jewish community like marauding Cossacks."[7]

Likewise, in Portnoy's Complaint, Alexander Portnoy relates his families’ experience with the Nazi's of Jersey City, New Jersey where

"(...) the Nazis used to hold their picnics in a beer garden only blocks from our house. When we drove by in the car on Sundays, my father would curse them, loud enough for me to hear, not quite loud enough for them to hear. Then one night a swastika was painted on the front of our building."[8]

Of course, it was not just anti-Semitism that ran rampant in the birthplace of Philip Roth but a general state of distrust and fear for other ethnicities and a mental elevation of ones own ethnic group prevailed. In Goodbye, Columbus, John McKee says in the midst of a conversation about African-Americans with Neil:

"You know the way they treat the housing projects we give them. (...) Have you seen what they do at Seth Boyden? They threw beer bottles, those big ones, on the lawn. They're taking over the city.”[9]

Another driving force in the lives of the inhabitants of northern New Jersey was the struggle to achieve the "American Dream"; which to many meant living in the suburbs in a single family home with a lawn, a dish washer and a dog. In general, to be like the families on television during the 1950s. This was the opportunity to get ahead financially and to leave the poor neighborhoods where they grew up. By doing so they often also left behind their tight ethnically centered community, which had acted as a bulwark for their cultural identity. Jeremy Larner sums up the challenges faced by Philip Roth's generation in the following:

“While their fathers were necessarily absorbed in the struggle to raise their families above the pariah style of life which confronted immigrant minorities, the children find this problem solved (...) Not the least of their [the childrens'] problems is that they reject the values of their parents along with their occupations, and suffer in consequence from a schizoid distrust of the very things they are accustomed to need.”[10]


[1] Siegel, Ben. Introduction: Reading Philip Roth: Facts and Fancy, Fiction and Autobiography - A Brief Overview. In: Halio, Jay L. and Siegel, Ben. Turning Up the Flame. Page Page 17, line 1f.

[2] Joe Moran. Star Authors, Literary Celebrity in America. Page 108, line 5f.

[3] Gray, Paul. Philip Roth: Novelist. In: Time. P. 50, line.

[4] Roth, Philip. Reading Myself and Others. Page 22, line 22ff.

[5] Roth, Philip. Portnoy 's Complaint. P. 47, line 11ff.

[6] Ibid. P. 49, line 21.

[7] Shechner, Mark. Up society's ass, copper. Rereading Philip Roth. P. 24, line 1ff.

[8] Roth, Philip. Portnoy 's Complaint. Page 52, line 3ff.

[9] Roth, Philip. Goodbye, Columbus. P. 32, line .20ff.

[10] Jeremy Larner. The Conversion of the Jews. In: Pinsker, Stanford. Critical Essays on Philip Roth. Page 30, line 5ff.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


The Struggle for Jewish Identity in Philip Roth's "New Jersey"
University of Tubingen  (Englisches Seminar, Abteilung für Amerikanistik)
Oberseminar Philip Roth
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
496 KB
Struggle, Jewish, Identity, Philip, Roth, Jersey, Oberseminar, Philip, Roth
Quote paper
Kerstin Krauss (Author), 2008, The Struggle for Jewish Identity in Philip Roth's "New Jersey", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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