Jewish Identity in the "The Counterlife" by Philipp Roth

Stereotypes and their deconstruction

Essay, 2012

18 Pages, Grade: 3,0




Stereotypes and Jewishness
The American Jew
The Israeli Jew
England’s made a Jew of me

Christendom – The Gentiles, Shiksas and Marias
Judaism and Christianity

In search for an Identity


Stereotypes and their deconstruction

Jewish Identity in the The Counterlife by Philipp Roth

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts[1],

William Shakespeare


At a first glance The Counterlife by Philip Roth seems to present a variety of stereotypes or roles to its readers. Like in the quote by Shakespeare to Roth these stereotypes are very similar to social roles, connected to social expectations and environment. Roth draws upon epitomes from the domestic area, when he is describing housewives and husbands, he finds them in the field of professional labour when talking about dentists, lawyers or the professional writer and he most vividly depicts them in the religious context when he is observing what the American Jew distinguished from the English or at other the Israeli Jew and as well when he is describing them in opposition to Christians or more Gentiles. However it would not do Roth’s writing justice to leave the analysis to this. His character presentation is far more elaborate than a mere construction of stereotypes from the view-point of a Jewish American author. Providing us with all these various different view-points in The Counterlife, is the attempt of in doing so establishing an idea about what the term identity can really mean. This essay is trying to perform the task to prove that Roth deliberately establishes these stereotypes in The Counterlife in order to consequently and successively deconstructing them again in order to eventually create a far richer and more complex structure of the individuals presented in the novel. He seems to be using this accumulation of different, sometimes even strongly contrasting and opposing roles[2] to create heavily profound and intricate characters. This essay will focus on some of the most frequent recurring stereotypes Roth draws upon and it will thus examine how they are broken up and re-arranged with different stereotypes. With his post-modern approach to interweave his characters’ identities Roth makes it ultimately impossible to distinguish who is really who, and in doing so he seems to establish the idea of a Jewish identity that is a mere blend of fractions of all these different stereotypes.

Stereotypes and "Jewishness "

The American Jew

Throughout the novel the term “American Jew” for the Jewish community in the U.S. is a recurring label. Sometimes it is used in the negative sense as a cliché for the weak, adapted Jew, who has given up most of his uniquely Jewish identity, as Mordechai Lippman conceives it in his speech at Agor . “The America Jew” becomes the epitome for the “normal Jew”, the one who is actually doing the right thing by not overly identifying with the Jewish history, up to a degree where the Jewishness becomes unimportant or even irrelevant. This is for instance the case when the liberal Israeli journalist Shuki Elchanan talks to Nathan Zuckerman:

“You’re the only smart one – you of all people, are the only normal Jew, living in London with an English Gentile wife and thinking you won’t bother to circumcise your son.”

Elchanan, presented as a character rather reasonable and rational, concludes this once again when he writes to Nathan telling him again that he in fact is a normal Jew and proofs this was that he is “riveted by Jewish abnormality” (162) Even though Nathan rejects Elhanan’s statement on page 166 (“Stop calling me a normal Jew”), this lays the basis for the assumption, Nathan’s personal identifying and not-identifying with “Jewishness” is the core of what Roth is trying to present an idea of what Jewish identity can mean.

Lippman perceives the American Jews in a very different light from what Elchanan believes to be true. To Lippman the American Jews were on the retreat being on the brink of facing a new Diaspora (“The Great American Pogrom (128)”) which will draw them out of the United States eventually. Lippman further states that the American Jews were “to be crushed – if […] not slaughtered first by the blacks (128) ” since there was “nothing the American goy would like better than a Judenrein United States (128)”.

In a letter to Henry, Nathan responds to the idea of Jews in America that Lippman had developed:

“You know better than to swallow uncritical the big cliché they seem to cherish at Agor of American Jews eating greedily from the shopping center fleshpots, with one wary eye out for the Gentile mob – or worse, blindly oblivious to the impending threat – and all the while inwardly seething with their self-hatred and shame. Seething with self-love is more like it, seething with confidence and success.”

The ideas Lippman presents and defends seems to be part of an over-exaggerated, highly politicized ideology, however the claim about Anti-Semitism in the U.S. is not entirely plucked out of thin air. Especially after World War I up until after the second World War when Jews in America were suspected of supporting the communist regime many people of Jewish descent were facing times of exclusion and difficulties based on their cultural and ethnic background (Trepp 1991: 52 – 64). However the anti-Semitic attitude in the U.S. never reached a physical level (Trepp 1991: 54) and remained only visible through incisions like a special numerus clausus exclusively for students with a Jewish background which increased the hurdles to get accepted into university (Trepp 1991: 50).

So on a meta-level the author allows Lippman to present his ideas, but yet Lippman is fenced in by the protagonist Nathan and also by the wits of the intellectual Elchanan (“Lippman is not such an interesting character (162)”). Yet Roth makes this cliché of the weak American Jew obvious and even though he deconstructs it through Nathan and Elchanan (and maybe even through the fanatic und irrational “Jimmy-character”) the cliché gathers momentum again when in the very last chapter, Roth allows Maria to unveil Nathan as being Mordechai Lippman himself (308). So even when there is a cliché established and then deconstructed it will be drawn upon again and by that kept alive throughout the novel. Consequently every stencil Roth creates seems to have a legitimacy and power, even after it has been refuted pr contradicted to a certain degree - its meaning for the whole novel does not cease.

Here the label “American Jew” is applied to all the people with a Jewish ancestry who are living in the United States. Nathan can be considered the most complex individual in the novel to whom this term is applied. After he moves to England he still can be considered an American Jew, but his perception of himself and of his identity change due to him being exposed to a surprisingly different environment. In England he experiences anti-Semitism first hand, in a way that he was never personally touched by in America (311).

Nathan’s perception of the U.S. is marked by a strong feeling of nativity. When he talks about his family’s history, he uses imagery like the “kitchen table in Newark” (142) to describe it. It seems very odd to Nathan, when Henry proclaims having found his identity (his identity as a Jew) in the Jewish Homeland that has nothing to do with what Henry has experienced growing up in the U.S. To Nathan, Henry is the embodiment of the successful Jewish American with a decent job as a dentist, a university diploma which made his father so proud (59), a nice wife who happens to be Jewish as well, but never thought of it as something important[3] and sweet children. Nathan perceives Henry as the stereotypical American Jew, completely detached from any greater meaning connected with the search for the Jewish identity. This becomes clear when looking at page 234 when he states that “if Henry was ever going to turn out interesting, [he] was going to do it.”


[1] From: As you like it. p.143

[2] very much like the role conflicts described in sociological role theory by Klaus Hurrelmann (Hurrelmann 2001)

[3] “I didn’t marry a Jew“ ; “ I married a very handsome, athletic […] responsible dentist” (157)

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Jewish Identity in the "The Counterlife" by Philipp Roth
Stereotypes and their deconstruction
University of Stuttgart  (Institut für Anglistik)
Jewish-American Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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504 KB
Jewish-American Literature, philip roth
Quote paper
Lisa Kastl (Author), 2012, Jewish Identity in the "The Counterlife" by Philipp Roth, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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