The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity
By Eric L. Goldstein
(Princeton University Press, 307 pp., $29.95)
Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America
By Eric J. Sundquist
(Harvard University Press, 662 pp., $35)
IN UNCOUNTED, FLEETING, intimate ways, American Jewish children growing up between Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 lived the changing landscape of Jewish and African American relations. I know I did. Born in 1958 at Albert Einstein Hospital, at the northern end of Broad Street in Philadelphia, I spent my first few years in a one-bedroom in Cheltenham, to which young couples like my parents moved with their babies from the city, their move one in a history of gestures of Jewish social mobility. Just over the city line, our garden apartment complex was a quick drive from the streets of high-stooped, dark-parlored rowhouses where my parents’ parents, small manufacturers in textiles and furniture, had settled after World War II; and where, after my parents decided in 1964 to move to Washington, we would make frequent visits. Turning down one or another block of dusty brick and clapboard, my parents would point out the diners and dance floors and public high schools where they had dated each other, and other Jews of their class.
It was hard for me to imagine, because by the 1960s the city line, an informal color line, had been breached. It was the line that had divided the Levys, Dickmans, Goldmans, and Felsteins from the members of the AME, Pentecostal, and Baptist congregations who bought up the synagogues and rowhouses just outside it. By 1970, the last down-at-the-heels relatives of ours to live on this line had moved to Florida, and our driving route changed. Occasional lunchtime visits to uncles at their downtown places of business—large, busy factory spaces one entered through a freshly painted door on a crumbling block—took us across street after street of nothing but package stores, black kids on the stoops. Otherwise we shot off the expressway straight into the leafy suburbs. Though no one of my parent’s generation would ever use the word shvartze, Philadelphia cousins my mother’s age still called the black woman who took three buses to clean their houses “the girl.” And it went without saying that when one of my cousins married a black policeman, her grandmother, my great-aunt, felt a shame from which she never really recovered.
Living near the University of Maryland, our life in the Washington suburbs exposed me to more open attitudes than in provincial Philadelphia. There were black children splashing in the pool of the summer camp I attended in 1965, and my favorite shows in thelate ‘60s were Julia, with Diahann Carroll playing the warm, strict nurse working for a Jewish doctor, and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, where Flip Wilson hinted at a harder-edged, more boisterous and distinctive black culture. In the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the mothers of our neighborhood decreed thewhole District of Columbia, except for the Northwest, out of bounds for the carpool: the annual ride with my father to the Redskins game would now follow an exotic southeasterly route. This trip, and then the game itself, where black fans mingled with white, was probably my closest exposure to black culture until college.
Outside, that is, of Hebrew school. There, a focused and deliberate racial liberalism informed the curriculum. At Temple Sholom, which I attended until I was nine, I never heard of Rashi or Rambam, but I learned all about the Falashas, those miraculous black Jews, and about Freedom Rides. At Washington Hebrew Congregation, youth group kids like me could exchange textual study or discussion of the Yom Kippur War for tutoring black children in Southeast D.C. And every Jewish camp I attended had a popular trust-building event with a Follow the North Star theme: some bekerchiefed senior counselor led us out of bondage from an Egypt plagued by anti-Semitism andracism, freedom marked by guitar chords, and the singing of Israeli anthems and Negro (but universalist) spirituals. Thus was I readied for the countercultural ecumenicism and earnestness of Brandeis University circa 1976; and its student newspaper, The Justice; and its glam alumni duo, Angela Davis and Abbie Hoffman; and its burning campus issue, apartheid.
As it was for so many of my generation, college was for me a place of genuine transformation, an education in the duties of tolerance and the delights of diversity. Yet my college was—as my high school had been, and as my children’s high schools and colleges still are—also a place where kids transported from low-income neighborhoods (by bus or scholarship or experimental housing development) ate and partied by themselves; where inadequate preparation sometimes meant underperformance or differential standards; and where currents of anxiety, defensiveness, resentment, and backlash bred and combined unhealthily. Brandeis in the ‘70s was a place where comity could shatter and insults fly (as when Louis Farrakhan came to campus), and so were virtually all theother institutions and communities to which I belonged and through which I passed as I grew up. On a visit to Washington from graduate school, I learned that the Silver Spring synagogue had been covered with anti-Jewish slurs: it would become the focus of Supreme Court deliberations on civil rights protection for groups other than African Americans. In my first year teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, a speech code was imposed to stabilize the communal mood after a Hebrew-speaking student called a black young woman a behemah: whether the word was translated as “beast” or “water buffalo” did not much assuage the sense of a wound, raw and gaping open. In 2001, Amiri Baraka, whose writing I had once assigned in a team-taught course called “Exodus and Memory,” said that on September 11 the Jews stayed home.
My experiences, I trust, are no different from those of most American Jews my age, Jews who hoped to be part of the solution to what DuBois called the problem of the color line. We thought that by the twenty-first century the Jews whose universalism had made them first “American Hebrews” and then “liberals” would surely be brothers, not strangers, to those people who embraced their own exodus. The African American call to freedom—“Let my people go!”—echoed our own founding myth of emancipation. Surely Jews, persecuted, ghettoized, and then murdered in Europe, would by the twenty-first century be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the sons and daughters of slaves. Together, they would usher in a century free from all prejudice. But a new century finds us not strangers, but not brothers and sisters.
JUST HOW WE HAVE GOTTEN WHERE we are, just why an erstwhile, perhaps mythologized, black-Jewish alliance has frayed, is the subject of these excellent new books. One by a historian, one by a literary scholar, these books, laid end to end, trace the whole course of black-Jewish relations from Reconstruction through the present day. And in the subtle kinship of their methodology, they also point to a crucial mutual dependence and interplay between historical and cultural analysis.
Eric L. Goldstein traces the instability of race as a category of Jewish self description. Goldstein shows how the variability and the fitfulness of the Jews’ embrace, and eschewal, of whiteness served shifting agendas over the course of American Jewish history. A palimpsest layering institutional, communal, literary, religious,and visual materials, Goldstein’s study moves deftly and amusingly through periods and across cultural domains to show how the Jews came to describe themselves now as a race and now as a religion; now as a culture, now a nation, now a people, now an ethnicity, with Jewish self- presentation adapting and sometimes torquing in response to white America’s less ambiguous relations with its black population.
Eric J. Sundquist’s immense and serious book pays the closest attention ever given to the symbiosis and the alienation of Jews and African Americans in the aftermath of World War II, even as he traces the emergence of major works of Jewish and black literatures in this same period. The argument of Sundquist’s magisterial bookof 1993, To Wake the Nations, was that the most significant American achievements of the nineteenth century—Melville’s, Twain’s, Chestnutt’s—were ineluctably engaged with the problem of the color line. Shifting his focus to post-Holocaust literature, Sundquist’s new book reveals not only how much of the literature we will remember from the last half of the twentieth century is literature of America’s “strangers”—blacks and Jews. He also reveals how the tragic alliance and the estrangement of these groups from each other emerged as late twentieth-century American literature’s most haunting obsession.
ONCE, GOLDSTEIN REMINDS us, American Jews were “Hebrews.” Descendants of the original “Semites,” sponsors of “Judeo-Christian” universalism, these dignified pillars of stately Moorish “temples” in Cleveland, Baltimore, Boston, and Philadelphia could not be mistaken for huddled masses. They were rather—as the term “Hebrew” stressed—better regarded as emigres from the Bible whom a chain of circumstance had detained in Europe for two millennia. “Hebrew” suggested linguistic and geographical ties to the desert cradle of civilization, but it could also be vaunted as a “racial” term, a term any Jew might wear proudly as a badge of a heroic world-historical mien. With his chief racial trait being asuperior degree of civilization, this nineteenthcentury American Hebrew presented unbroken ancestry, high cultivation, and preternatural persistence through persecution as a passport to white, middle-class, and socially mobile America. At home in the synagogue and on Main Street, the Hebrew went forth in American culture unafraid that his race stigmatized him.
But as the relatively homogeneous Central European Jewish population of the mid-nineteenth century altered—and as, decade by decade, the Hebrew community comprised a population more culturally divergent, more regionally dispersed, more politically and ideologically heterogeneous—the circumstances that made one kind of racial Jewishness attractive would give way to others. Hairpin communal turns, unlikely alliances, and bizarre inconsistencies would result. Early on, for instance, before the arrival en masse of those Eastern European Jews whose gabbing in Yiddish, inveterate traditionalism, and extravagant beards gave pause to defenders of the Hebrew “race,” the Jewish woman had come in for her own racialization, this racialization in the service of Jewish continuity.
What else was there to do when “valorous women” of Central European stock took to gadding about the avenues in hats? Something had to be done to stanch the alarming flow of Hebrew women out of the home and into the emporia and the workshops. Thus, one of the earliest changes rung on the theme of race was that it produced the attractively domestic “Jewess,” a deep-bosomed, hoop-earringed Semite of the hearth. If this American variety of the eishet chayil now stayed home to perpetuate the Jewish family, the Jewish cultural apparatus adapted to give her much more in the way of credit than her mother had enjoyed. Indeed, such magazines as American Jewess made the Jewish mother not just a breeder or a housewife but also the arbiter of taste, social tact, and the family’s—and her own—leisure. This Jewess knew that mixing with gentiles at summer resorts was not the same as intermarriage. Her home preserved its Jewish flavor. The Jewess’s ethnicity was domesticity’s—and posterity’s—retaining wall.
Enter those more traditional, less graceful Yiddish speakers from the East—slower to assimilate, comfortable in their enclaves of Yiddish and kashrut, and unversed in the essential American respect for the color line as a socioeconomic marker. Genteel rabbinic expositors might condescend to their eastern brothers in insisting their Judaism was a religion, its venues the temple and the Sabbath table, but from here, Goldstein shows, things took a sharp and momentous turn. For cherishers of Yiddishkeit would not see Jewishness as mere religion. They would see it as peoplehood. The Jews were folk, as the blacks were folk, and their travails in Europe paralleled the Negro’s travails in the South.
By World War I, inconsistencies begin to crack and to craze the smooth front of the Jewish “communal” view of race. In the same years that the Yiddish Forverts gave a forum to socialists comparing worker exploitation to Negro slavery, Jewish socialist leaders such as Morris Hillquit made bargains with a unionism whose key recruiting tool was protection of the white working man. “Faith-Jews” from the Union of American Hebrew Congregations might plead in vain with “race” Jews, Yiddishists, black hats, to moderate their exhibitions of difference, only to suffer attacks from Yiddishists. And also from Zionists, whose own anti-religious, national, and often racialized version of peoplehood lionized the sun-blackened halutz, the Zionist pioneer, a hero of national pride.
But whether its orientation was to Judaism as religion or race, whether institutionally mainstream or raffishly bohemian, nearly every Jewish club had its minstrel show. By the 1920s, the Forverts used images of Aunt Jemimas and stereotypical Mammys to sell Duzsoap to Eastern Europeans moving to Jewish sections of Manhattan. Such images flattered the upwardly mobile aspirations of the newly bourgeois northern Jews. Nationally, though, they did not play well. The northern Yiddish press might be as strident in its defense of the Scottsboro Boys as it had been on behalf of Leo Frank, but this was to the considerable dismay of the southern Jews ready to censor (as happened to Rabbi Edward Israel of Baltimore’s Har Sinai) or to fire (as happened at Temple Beth Or in Montgomery, Alabama) rabbis whose activism exposed them to Klan-sponsored vitriol.
Meanwhile, in northern cities where black exclusion was lessformalized than it was in the Jim Crow South, things wentneighborhood by neighborhood, industry by industry, giving scope toa wider, but also more volatile, range of Jewish attitudes. Forsome Jews, memories of restrictive residence in Europe and thesmart of exclusion from universities and other elite strongholds increased identification with African Americans. But in other communities Jews endorsed restrictive housing codes, hired only whites, and did all they could to represent their own whiteness.The shock of the Holocaust inclined Jewish officialdom to a racial liberalism that would bear them through the civil rights years and into the counterculture, when young Jews teased up kinky “Jew-fros” in tribute to their black friends. But the same years increased fears among Jews that their suburbs—with their good schools, stable real estate values, and well maintained access lanes into the American leadership elite—were vulnerable, and that a younger generation’s imprudent identification with the counterculture would imperil decades of progress.
MEANWHILE, IF THE manifold agendas and the shifting claims of a diverse and fractured Jewish community seeking vainly to present a unified “identity” complicated and tormented the American Jewish “line” on race, the African American “community,” no less complex in its way, developed its own wide range of experiences with its Jewish brethren. The Jews were motivated by solidarity and brotherhood. The Jews were stuck in noblesse oblige and paternalism.The Jews were, as they have ever been, driven by greed and bloodsucking. Things changed from place to place, moment to moment. Each city, each neighborhood, South Side, North Side, had its own story. Any one incident (Scottsboro, or the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike) was capable of branding images in memory that would tip the balance utterly.
Instead of an identity, Goldstein’s book reveals the many negotiations and the constantly shifting tactics that divided Jews of any one decade not only from African Americans but also from each other, with generational fault lines becoming especially pronounced, as each generation was apt to find its parents’ views not only dated but also inexplicable and shameful. My parents’ generation cringed when their parents said “colored.” I laughed nervously when mine said “Negro.” My children raise their eyebrows at the deliberateness and delicacy that substitutes “African American” for “Afro-American,” and the effort it takes me to pronounce a person “of color.” For it sounds too much like my grandparents’ “colored.”
Goldstein’s presentation of a century and a half of Jewish “negotiation” of whiteness is fascinating chapter by chapter, and deft in communicating the bewildering diversity and reactivity of Jewish relationships to the black community. He also offers wonderful cameos of segments of the population that tend to get lost in other histories. His rabbinic worthies have a pained and earnest consciousness of their duty to lead that helps us see through their ponderosities and bloviations. The adventures of his Jewish intellectuals in the young discipline of anthropology reveals how fine was the line between Franz Boas’s pioneering studies and the measurement of cranial cavities and nose breadth. His multigenerational, multi-site portrait of Jewish womanhood—from the Jewess with her harp, to the Washington Heights housewives bidding for low-wage cleaning ladies to dust the piano, to Miss Daisy with her chauffeur—is genuinely fascinating. The visual images interspersed through the pages are especially well chosen, for they wonderfully illustrate the dramatically short half-lives of each generation’s attitudes, each seeming already congealed in its datedness. For attitudes that date do not die. They remain part of a multi-layered archive vouchsafed, or secreted, in the memories of both blacks and Jews.
To flip through Goldstein’s book is to be forced to see beyond the Jewish communal icons of the Freedom Riders and the earnestness of liberal curricula to a more troubled history of interaction. For, as Goldstein shows throughout his fine book, the whole archive—its triumphs and its shames—is ours. Raised in the well-meaning integrationist liberalism of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I still cannot forget the time my teeny aunt Lil stood on tiptoe to kiss my tennis-tanned father and told him he looked like a shvartze. Nor will I forget my own shrinking fear of a large, laughing black girl who crowded into a seat next to me on the camp bus. Or the anger, and then shame at my anger, and then anger at those but for whom there would be no shame, that I experienced as her friends shoved three and four into the green vinyl seats in front and behind.
‘NEVER FORGETTING” HAS its perils, of course, and these dangers are a theme of Sundquist’s book. The much-vaunted memory of the Jews, their self- understanding as a “historical people,” and their reliance on the foundational narrative of the exodus provided, Sundquist claims, a model readily adopted by America’s unwilling immigrants. For those sold into Mississippian bondage, the Exodus tale especially had a forward thrust well-suiting a people in need of a myth to lift them, too, out of the present and into higher circumstances. Moreover, the injunction framing the Exodus—that you shall “tell it to your children”—provided not only memory but the conditions for narrative telling itself; for a literature of crossing, uplift, and transcendence. The Passover seder and the Negro spiritual, The Rise of David Levinsky and Up From Slavery—all are narratives that draw on the Exodus story to break out of stasis into linear history. All such stories show posterity the North Star or the far bank of the Jordan in stories of the way.
Yet just how it happened that memory became a faculty of shame, that self- expression became a reflex of the viscera, and that history became a bargaining chip: this is the sadder story of blacks and Jews in America that Sundquist traces. Taking for granted that literature matters, Sundquist is concerned to show how much of the post-Holocaust relationship between these groups has been negotiated in, and by means of, fiction, poetry, and the highly crafted non- fiction of the periodical press. Thus Sundquist’s book is not only a study of the literature of black and Jewish relations; it is also a study of how, after World War II, black-Jewish relations came into their troubled maturity in literature, which served as the photographic plate on which black and Jewish relations developed.
Questions of quality—of the great and the shabby, the timeless and the topical—play no explicit role in Sundquist’s argument, and yet this book is a moral argument for the high office, and the great risks, of literature. The most important works, as Sundquist treats them, are not just nods to, or even lenses on, passing moments.They are, like the Exodus story, progressive forces in history that deliver generation to generation, lifting us above our own transience and into more durable forms of understanding. Literary art commits readers of one generation, and then across generations, to an honest acknowledgement of where they have truly been and where they are truly going.
That the works and writers to achieve this stature for Sundquist are not those we might expect, that excellence will not depend on the racial identity or even the reputation of their writers, nor on the canonical order now assigned them on syllabuses all over America, is apparent early in Strangers in the Land. By the end of the book, Sundquist shakes things up quite a lot. He suggests, for instance, that the achievement of Paule Marshall qualifies her as perhaps the greatest living African American writer, and he will have commended Anna Deavere Smith and Julius Lester to our much closer attention. He will have implied that Malamud’s engagement with issues of race and intellectual culture was more profound than Bellow’s—treating Mr. Sammler’s myopia as merely the vestibule to the tragic blindness of Harry Lesser. He will have confirmed Ralph Ellison’s moral authority and came to doubt James Baldwin’s.
SUNDQUIST’S CONCLUSION IS THAT Black Power’s embrace of the Black Holocaust, the reductio ad Hitlerum, leads nearly every writer inits orbit to phantasm, myth, caricature, or the cheap effectiveness of raucous parody. Meanwhile, he does not stint to show how Jewish self-regard, and an anodyne Jewish avoidance of hard questions, have resulted in the proliferation of moral pedants and in an art too liable to middlebrow crowd-pleasing. If the African American fetishization of the anguish of slavery produces a literature driven to kill, to burn, and to deny its own transcendence, and thus much of its own vital history, the Jewish sentimentalization of the sufferer as moral avatar has filled the stage, the novel, and the multiplex with cliched and facile handwringers. Add to this picture the Jewish writers, intellectuals, and activists romanticizing, and unwittingly mimicking, black machismo (from Norman Mailer to the neo-cons) and three-piece-suited black intellectuals cashing in on “Dialogue” and the Hanukkah market, and you begin to get a sense of Sundquist’s scope, and of the broad, complexly stitched cultural canvas for which he assumes responsibility.
Still, despite its great richness, it would not be enough to call this book, as its jacket states, encyclopedic. Strangers in the Land is a much braver book than its compendiousness suggests. For the cumulative effect of Sundquist’s careful search for the most complete explanatory contexts, and of his judicious counterpoising of black and Jewish materials, is that an awful lot of evidence is in. And thus the possibility of, and the obligation to, clear-eyed judgment draws nigh. By the end of the book, and in particular bythe last two chapters, “Holocaust” and “Spooks,” Sundquist has assembled nuanced criteria for the judgment of what ought to count for constructive, as opposed to obsessional, engagement; what does, and ought to, count for self-searching, as opposed to narcissistic, expression; what does, and what ought to, count for lastingly valuable, as opposed to compellingly, noticeable art. Some readers of Sundquist’s book will accede to the persuasive inevitability of his conclusions. Others will regret and even resent his analyses. Examples are many, but the one that stood out for me was the implicit judgment Sundquist renders as to the relative importance of Philip Roth’s work, and of Toni Morrison’s, in the postwar American canon.
Can a whole book be marred by its epigraph? Can a major reputation be subverted, or curdled, by one drop of poison, tincturing the rest? It depends what the poison, and what its cultural effect. In the case of Toni Morrison, Sundquist’s unemphatic, but also unmistakable, judgment is that the epigraph prefacing Morrison’s celebrated Beloved (“Sixty million and more”) betrays a negligence of fact and thus a moral slackness with which major works of art, and major artists, have no commerce. “Most writers who portray the black holocaust,” Sundquist writes, “do not set out to debate the prior claims of the Jewish Holocaust, let alone parse ideological differences,” but rather write against the “two distinctive histories whose differences ... must be brought into sharper focus.” For Sundquist, the price of Morrison’s having in this “infamous” epigraph tendentiously and unrepentantly “debated” the prior claims of the Holocaust means that she has mistaken “moral and spiritual arguments ... as well as the metaphoric constructions that sustain them” for factual ones. Despite her singular status as the only African American Nobel Prize winner that America has produced, and of Beloved’s reputation as the consummate novelistic expression of African American experience, Sundquist situates Morrison among writers at a dead end.
DISINCLINED TO INFLAMMATORY rhetoric, Sundquist lets the organization of his book pull a lot of critical freight. Coming after exposition of Baldwin’s more demagogic uses of the Holocaust, after an account of Judy Chicago’s 1992 “Arbeit Macht Frei/Work Makes Who Free?” whose “powerful, regimented design shows us worlds that may be set side by side but made to seem truly similar only if wrenched out of their respective times and places,” Morrison’s Beloved is dispatched in a relatively short diptych. Paired not even with the foregoing, but with S.E. Anderson’s Black Holocaust for Beginners, a “pop culture” text from which it “differs not in purpose but only in genre and artistic accomplishment,” Beloved is quietly moved out of world-class literature.
Sundquist tries hard to credit Morrison’s famous lyrical account ofthe Middle Passage with aspiring to a “sublime” and thus potentially cathartic and enlightening strain of historical understanding. And he strains to be fair to this writer whose “highly stylized tragedy produces an effect that is undeniably monumental.” Yet in the final analysis, the very monumentality of Morrison’s baroque prose, and her aspirations to the scale of epic, seem to Sundquist of a piece with her “sixty million and more”: not sublime, but exaggerated; not cleansingly tragic, but static; and stagey besides. She thus figures among those for whom not only the”past” but also “racial identity” are discoverable only through “enduring, unspeakable pain.”
Who to turn to, then, for the precise and coruscating vision that we need? Which writers of the post-Holocaust era allow blacks and Jews to find grounds of analogy, mutuality, and sympathy rather than imitation, symbiosis, cultural vampirism? Sundquist provides us arich syllabus of little-known readings. His groundbreaking chapter on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird argues for the great salience of this “children’s” book in the moral education of twentieth-century Americans. A chapter on Malamud is similarly reorienting to reclaiming the career of a writer otherwise falling out of the canon of the greatest of Jewish-American writers. But the writer to whom Sundquist gives, as he subtly puts it, “the last word,” is Philip Roth. In Roth, more than any other writer treated in his book, Sundquist finds the expositor with the grasp, the artist who for fifty years has had the courage, the tragic sense, and the heart equal to the problem of the color line.
“Are you a Negro?” the twenty seven-year-old Roth had Brenda Patimkin inquire of Neil, her Newark suitor, in Goodbye, Columbus, in 1959. The matter of whether the term—a patent construction of blackness—could be applied to Jews was among that dazzling book’s most searching questions. Of course, the hard vacancy and the broad caricature of Brenda Patimkin and the Patimkin family were probably only part of what roiled the Jewish community when this book appeared. For Roth also offered in this novella comparisons of a Jewish social climber, Neil, to a black kid in the Newark library dreaming over the nude beauties of Gauguin. He compared Neil, too, to the safely uniformed Patimkin maid, Carlotta, the official inferior permitted the literal cherries that Neil must steal (with,of course, her thrilled, because condescending and slumming permission) from ripe Brenda. And, of course, he had also begun to develop in Neil a deeply transgressive portrait of the Jewish man as he actually exists in America: not a pillar of the community, not an exemplar or Hebrew or liberal, and not any sort of a nice Jewish boy, but a Newarker, whose sexuality, honesty, creative virility, and capacity for truth’s destructive probe would always come, in Goldstein’s words, at the price of whiteness.
Beyond rabbi-baiting, and bubbe-bashing, and into the more elemental zones of shame and human need that Kafka but also James and also Dostoyevsky knew, Roth’s gradually aging swordsmen—from the boyish masturbating Alex Portnoy to fantasizing Nathan on-the-make; from his disingenuous academics to his instant Israelis (Zion is his getaway spot for men in mid-life crises) to the sad, sad Swede and the grave-desecrating puppeteer Mickey Sabbath—grow more and more fallible, more and more stained by the contradictions of their psyches and their century. They leak and spurt their darker antisocial impulses; their bodily needs, their lies. From Coleman Silk to Bill Clinton, black or white, powerful or disgraced, in bed with a Jewess or with trailer trash, Roth’s American man screws up every chance to get away, and does so out of an essential, ineluctable humanness.
Nor does Roth cuts him any slack for being “other.” Making common cause with the outlaw or the slave, making your life a long Freedom Ride, wins you no special moral edge. Handwringers, get a life. The Jew cannot escape the privilege of his whiteness, of the social mobility that makes the individual accountable for whatever kind of failure or liar or fool he turns out to be. And those suffering extra insult, those reviled for their color, like The Human Stain’s Coleman Silk, or the Jews of The Plot Against America, are given not much more scope for self-exculpation. They cannot escape the moral compromise that a long history of passing and then playing the race card has heaped up. In an American culture still improvising its romances of black and white, landlord and tenant, Promised Land and Golden Land, equality is usually won at the price of mendacity; authenticity is often a pervert’s and terrorist’s game.
“No special deals here,” declared Brenda Patimkin’s father, the tanned and deeply dumb Mr. Patimkin, while tossing a new porcelain sink at his deeply dumb son Ron. It is a wonderful moment in Roth’s debut novella when, to Ron’s proposal that Patimkin Sink institute two separate-but-equal lunch shifts—one for Jewish management,the other for its Negro work force—Mr. Patimkin answers equably, winningly, automatically: no special deals. As Mr. Patimkin’s good instincts would augur, Roth saw no warrant for letting the renewal, the rediscovery, of America’s promise, have its valedictory in 1959 any more than he would let it die in 2005. It was not time in 1959 to say goodbye to Columbus. Nor, despite a half-century of backward as well as progressive movement, is it time to call the “plot” to destroy America won.
Even in Roth, good instincts, decency, and the great wisdom of the people sometimes prevail. True, paranoids, puritans, puppets, and pundits will ever wring this day’s points out of polarizing exaggeration, the next’s out of rapprochement. But all the while longer cultural processes and deeper mechanisms are knitting new patterns into the fabric of American life. That Roth’s The Plot Against America was a best-seller tells us how mainstream, how unrepressed, how unmarginal the understanding of prejudice has become. Moreover, new norms in the American family, school, neighborhood, and workplace as well as the cinema, the iPod, the bookstore-cafe and the swim and tennis club, breed levels of familiarity inconsistent with contempt. And as the twenty-first-century’s first studies of black-Jewish relations bring our scholarship abreast, in candor and courage, with our best art, there is hope yet, as Sundquist and Goldstein both hold out, that blacks and Jews in America are at the beginning of an era of greater, more dispassionate honesty with, and about, their own histories. Why should it not be, both scholars imply, that more genuine encounter and acknowledgement with the parallel and intersecting history of America’s strangers may liberate us all, little by little, from the more stagnant forms of brotherhood, from the cycles of estrangement, and from the fetishes of identity and difference, in America?
This article appeared in the February 12, 2007 issue of the magazine.