Philip Roth Remembered

July 7, 2018

I discovered Philip Roth at age 17. In retrospect, it was the ideal age for a young Jewish man growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey to discover this “pre-eminent figure [of] 20th-century literature”.

I owe Roth a great debt. He showed me that the lives of Jewish men in suburban New Jersey could embody both romance and the “larger than life” elements that make stories big and give meaning to our existence. In his first book, Goodbye Columbus, consisting of a novella plus five short stories, the lead story (“Columbus”) runs only 97 pages in the paperback edition that I have carried with me through numerous households and two countries (see image below). The story charts a doomed summer romance between Neil Klugman, a lower middle class young man who works in the Newark library, and Brenda Patimkin, an over-indulged upper middle class sculpted beauty who lives in suburban Short Hills and studies at Radcliffe College (Harvard University).

Roth wrote in 1989 for the novella’s 30th anniversary edition, that he was both “unapologetic and critically freewheeling about the class of Jews whose customs and beliefs had shaped his boyhood society,” highlighting “the mundane household dramas of his Jewish New Jersey”. Roth was thrilled and amazed:

that any truly literate audience could seriously be interested in his store of tribal secrets, in what he knew, as a child of his neighborhood, about the rites and taboos of his clan – about their aversions, their aspirations, their fears of deviance and defection, their underlying embarrassments and their ideas of success.

Although the book was published in 1959, I didn’t discover it until much later, around the same time that the movie version (1969) was released, starring Richard Benjamin as Neil and Ali McGraw at Brenda. As a long-time writer and lecturer on Jewish film, I frequently use Goodbye Columbus (the movie) as one of my best examples. Set in a totally insider Jewish environment, the film neatly captures the same feeling – the American-Jewish suburban experience – as the book, although sadly updated the action to the Bronx and Westchester from my beloved New Jersey. It does, however, present – satirically, mostly lovingly, and never less than critically – a good range of Jewish suburban characters. Two scenes stand out in my memory: Neil’s first dinner at Brenda’s house (click here for a 2’26” YouTube clip) and the infamous and frequently criticised over-the-top Jewish wedding scene (short YouTube clip here).

In my last year of high school I produced a “term paper” that analysed Roth’s first four novels: Goodbye Columbus, Letting Go, When She Was Good and Portnoy’s Complaint. The second and third novels are far from Roth’s best, and – despite widespread critical acclaim – I never warmed to “Portnoy”, which became a truly terrible film. My term paper accurately predicted that Roth would become one of America’s great modern novelists; my then English teacher disagreed. Other than our New Jersey Jewish upbringing, Roth and I shared one other salient fact: both of our fathers worked for the Metropolitan Life Insurance company, now known as MetLife.

Roth has continued to play an important role in my literary and personal life since those high school experiences – he has his own category in my writing blog – although has been far from the lodestar role he played at age 17. My favourite Roth books are his “political” novels: American Pastoral (which became an under-released film that never made it to Australia), I Married a Communist, The Human Stain (read my review of the 2004 film here) and The Plot Against America, a frightening book which has taken on unexpected new meaning in the age of Trump.

Roth also played a role, albeit indirectly, in my own romantic life choices. I was introduced to my wife some years ago by a Jewish yoga teacher from New Jersey whose father taught English to … yes, Philip Roth … at Weequahic High School in Newark, New Jersey. In more recent years, I reviewed The Humbling (2010) for the Australian Jewish News, and have closely tracked the adaptation of Roth’s books into films, most recently reviewing the film adaptation of Indignation (2016).

I am not the only person so affected by Roth’s writing. Nathaniel Rich –  almost a generation younger than me – writes that:

I felt an immediate intimacy with the novel’s author, Philip Roth. Though two generations separated us, I felt that he spoke directly to me or, in some mystical, incoherent sense, spoke from somewhere inside my brain. I had read novels that frightened and delighted me, made me laugh, made me question—Roth’s writing did all that, but it also elicited a spookier response. I had never before read a writer who knew me. It was a shock to discover that others felt the same way—including many who were not Jewish teenage boys.

More on Roth

Very few authors have a whole journal devoted to their work. Philip Roth does, published by Purdue University Press since 2005. Wikipedia has produced a full bibliography of Roth’s work. The New York Times has provided a “starter kit” of what Roth novels to read – although I don’t agree with their choices: no reference to The Plot Against America – seriously? What’s fascinating is how Roth reached so many non-Jews, such as ABC Radio presenter Sarah Kanowski, interviewed about Roth’s legacy on Late Night Live in May. For more analysis of Goodbye Columbus, read Saul Bellow’s original review of the book in the July 1959 edition of Commentary, and Elaine Blair’s rethinking of the book’s ending in The Paris Review, April 2017.

(Image above: the cover of my original copy of Goodbye Columbus, 1968 Bantam paperback edition)

Advertisements

Ruth Marcus Patt

April 1, 2015

“Ruth Marcus Patt – Author, Historian, Philanthropist, and Woman of Valor”. That’s the title of the most recent bulletin of the Jewish Historical Society of Central New Jersey, devoted to celebrating her life.

Ruth was a great New Jersey Jewish leader who has just passed away at age 95. She was also my aunt, having married my mother’s brother Milton.

Ruth’s achievements have been detailed in a number of places. Aside from the Jewish Historical Society, you can read her official obituaries from the Home News Tribune (published on 25 February 2015) and the New Jersey Jewish News. Her life has also been detailed in the book Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Jewish Women.

In brief: Ruth graduated Douglass College (now part of Rutgers University) in 1940, with a BA in Sociology and a minor in Psychology. The then worked as a psychiatric social worker at Marlboro Psychiatric State Hospital before getting married to her husband Milton (my uncle) and travelling with him during the Second World War. She lived a life devoted to community service, including the Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, where she served as the President of the Sisterhood, a Board member and a 15 year period of editing the Temple newsletter. I know her writing well: for many years she wrote a family newsletter, entitled “The Colony House Observer”, named after the New Brunswick apartment building that she lived in.

Ruth devoted much of her energy to Jewish history, as the founder and leading light of the Jewish Historical Society of Central New Jersey. She wrote four books and numerous other articles on Jewish life in New Jersey, including The Jewish Scene in New Jersey’s Raritan Valley, The Jewish Experience at Rutgers and Uncommon Lives: 18 Extraordinary Jews from New Jersey.

In addition to her Jewish communal achievements, she served the City of New Brunswick – where she was born, raised and educated – with distinction. She chaired the City’s 300th year (“tercentennial”) celebration in 1980, which involved more than 130 events involved a wide range of ethnic, religious and racial groups. She was later recognised for her achievements with the Citizen of the Year award from the City. Other awards included the New Jersey Historical Commission’s Award of Recognition, the Douglass Society Award for Distinction in Public Service and the Rutgers University Medal. She and her husband Milton both received the Lehman Award for Service to the Jewish People.

As a person and a public figure, Ruth was “larger than life.” She commanded respect, not by “commanding” but by her personality and her leadership ability. She asserted authority, not because she necessarily wanted to be authoritative, but because that’s who she was, a person who could do things, and who would make things happen. She was gracious, articulate and expressive.

As I have travelled in the Jewish world in the USA and here in Australia, meeting travelling Jewish leaders in different settings, it is astonishing how many of them knew Ruth. It opened doors and added to my credibility to be able to introduce myself as “Ruth Patt’s nephew.”

Ruth is survived by her sons (my first cousins) and their wives, Dr Richard and Althea Patt and Dr Steven Patt and Deborah Jamison, two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Along with my cousins and their families and the Jewish community of Central New Jersey, I celebrate Ruth’s life achievements and I mourn her passing.

Ruth Patt


Jersey Boys – just not New Jersey enough

August 8, 2014

The main problem with Clint Eastwood’s cinema adaptation of the stage musical “Jersey Boys” about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, as far as I can see, is that it is not sufficiently “New Jersey”.

The characters all say that they are from New Jersey, and there are a couple of shots with (supposedly) New York City across the Hudson River (Jersey City?).

But the real indicator is an odd shot when the Frankie Valli and the other members of the “Four Seasons” all travel to home of their Mafia-like protector Gyp DeCarlo (a delightful Christopher Walken), who lives in a suburban mansion. The original band manager Tommy (Vincent Piazza) has taken them all into terrible debt to a loanshark, and the meeting there is to sort it out; it’s an important scene where effectively the group splits up (whoops – spoiler alert).

Presumably this scene takes place in “north” Jersey, and we all know that there are a few “mountains” nearby (unlike south Jersey, with its flat sandy plains) – hey, there are the Kittatinny Mountains, along with its foothills – the Pohchuck, Wawayanda, Bearfort, and Ramapo Ridges. And there are the Watchungs – consisting of Orange Ridge, Preakness Ridge, and Long Hill Ridge. But look carefully at this scene: was it really shot in New Jersey? The mountain behind the house seems way too steep to be in New Jersey and the vegetation looked pretty California-like to me.

I am a great fan of Clint Eastwood, and love most of his films of the last twenty years. But he’s a westerner, a former mayor of Carmel, California. He “does” San Francisco well, extraordinarily well: he was born there and had years of “Dirty Harry” characters, as well as directing “Blood Work” and others. He grew up playing westerns. (“The Good, The Bad, the Ugly”, which I once went to for a long-ago birthday present, was long one of my favourites). “Mystic River” – Boston, okay Clint you have me there. You did it once, but that was partly great casting, with Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon and more. But how about “The Bridges of Madison County” (upper Midwest) and “Unforgiven” (cowboy country) – that’s the west, to be sure, where I suggest you best know your stuff.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with filming in California and calling it New York. Hey, “Friends” was notably shot in Los Angeles, but that never felt very “New York” either, did it? By contrast, didn’t “Sex and the City” just ooze New York? It should, it was actually shot there.

It takes something else to portray those dense, multicultural east coast spaces of the USA. Martin Scorsese has it, in spades. Woody Allen has been criticised for only showing part of what the east coast is all about (he has usually preferred upper middle class, upper east side Jews … I love them, really), but he knows what it was like to grow up in New York City and has created some of the best screen romantic moments of that city. Barry Levinson, a Baltimore native, gets it. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck both get it, and their “Good Will Hunting” (Boston) director Gus Van Sant has been able to “do” both coasts (think “Milk”). The late Sidney Lumet was New York through and through. You want east coast films? Think Spike Lee, Sydney Pollack, Nora Ephron, Noah Baumbach – or the new wave of Lena Dunham and her contemporaries.

But Clint, Clint you never convinced me that I was, indeed, with you in New Jersey. Sure the houses were there and some accents. But a “New Jersey handshake” instead of a contract? Really? Go west, Clint, go west.

Below – character of Tommy on a street in New Jersey:

Jersey Boys Tommy on street

Below – the set of “Friends”, taken at the Warner Brothers studio lot, October 2011:

29Oct2011 NY LA-1 349


Jesse Eisenberg – an actor on his way

July 6, 2014

Like me, you may be continually astonished at how the young, physically underdeveloped and slender Jewish actor Jesse Eisenberg has been marking himself as one of the next “go to” Jewish creatives, with a strong and diverse resume that seems it will only get better with age.

David Denby, in the June 2, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, reviews two Eisenberg films – “Night Moves” and “The Double”, and captures something of Eisenberg’s essence:

Eisenberg was the latest smart-boy Jewish movie actor to hit the mainstream, but he wasn’t neurotic, like the young Dustin Hoffman; or self-deprecating, like the young Woody Allen; or bumptious, like Ben Stiller. He’s openly demanding, a nerd hiding his fears behind aggression.  Richard Dreyfuss did something similar, but Eisenberg is more nuanced.  His indelible performance as Mark Zuckerberg, in “The Social Network,” suggested that a new kind of personality had entered the world, a code-based brainiac who deals with life as if it were data. Racing through Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant script, Eisenberg short-circuits or wrong-foots other people.  Yet, on second viewing, you can see that for all his bullying speed, and the smirking put-downs, he ruffles the surface of Zuckerberg’s confidence and reveals an easily wounded temperament underneath.  Eisenberg is an economical actor, often relying on no more than a flutter of his eyelids, or a half smile, or a sweet glance that shades into contempt.  He is unafraid to play jerks, solipsists, narcissists.

He is also an accomplished playwright, contributor to The New Yorker, and has had two of the most noted male film performances in the past decade: playing Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” (my pick for best film of 2010, in large part due to Zuckerberg) and the son in Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” (2005). In fact, he played Zuckerberg so well that it took more than a year for the real Zuckerberg to re-instate his own persona to the public. Now, that’s acting.

(Note:  Zuckerberg grew up in East Brunswick, New Jersey, which is just a short bike ride from my home town of Highland Park.  But, like the best New Jerseyans, he has both kept a certain “New Jersey” core – intellectual, verbal, thoughtful, internal – as well as transcended his childhood.)


New Jersey suffers from de-centralisation syndrome but we love it still

May 3, 2014

One of my favourite subjects is grappling with my childhood identity of growing up in New Jersey in the USA.  What was it about that state at that time (the 1960s)?  What makes my former high school classmates (and yes, me) so nostalgic for our experiences, in what was, after all, a place of high pollution, few exciting natural resources (okay, let’s face it, “the shore”, but what else?) and constant living in the shadow of New York City to the northeast, and (to a lesser extent) Philadelphia to the southwest?

Few people can explain New Jersey better (both to Jersey natives and non-Jersey residents) than Michael Aaron Rockland, a professor of American Studies at Rutgers University.  Here is a quote from Rockland’s essay “New Jersey’s Image”:

New Jersey’s identity problem is, in part, self-inflicted.  The state has not sufficiently fostered centralized political, cultural, and commercial institutions which would provide a focus or sense of community.  The governor’s mansion is located not in the state capitol, Trenton, but in Princeton; the Garden State Arts Center (now named for a bank) is not in a city but just off a major highway exit; and the state’s commerce and industry is spread out along its highways.  The number of New Jersey jokes with the punchline “Which exit?” suggest that key to the state’s uncertain identity is its extreme decentralization. The state still exemplifies, in no small measure, Episcopal Bishop George Washington Doane’s 1846 lament: “We have well nigh forgotten that we have a history.  We have almost lost the very sense of our identity.  We jave had no center.”

For some years, Rockland has taught a course at Rutgers entitled “Jerseyana”, with a required reading/viewing list that includes books Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus (a classic for we New Jersey-types) and John McPhee’s Pine Barrens  along with the film’s Jersey Girl and Atlantic City.  The syllabus starts with a quote from Allen Ginsberg’s “Garden State” and and Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”.

If you really would like to examine what makes New Jersey New Jersey, here’s a strongly recommended book:  What’s Your Exit?  A Literary Detour Through New Jersey, edited by Joe Vallese and Alicia A. Beale (Word Riot Press, Middletown, New Jersey, 2010).  (I found Rockland’s quote above in their introduction, page 17.  You can also read some excerpts through Amazon here.)  The book is organised, in classic New Jersey fashion, by “exits”, and includes fabulous writing (poetry, essay, fiction, drama) by a large number of authors, including well-known names like actor Jason Biggs, poet Alicia Ostriker, novelist Tom Perrotta,  Joyce Carol Oates and of course Michael Aaron Rockland – as well as many many writers you have not heard of yet, but will want to read.

And want a good short “potted history” of New Jersey?  Try this essay by Rockland, which appeared in New Jersey Monthly in January 2014, written in honour of the state’s 350 birthday.  One fun fact from that piece:  I bet you did not know that New Jersey’s voters voted against Abraham Lincoln not once but twice – in 1860 and 1864.

And another point by Rockland, in his entry on New Jersey’s image in The Encyclopedia of New Jersey (Rutgers University Press, 2004):  “Jersey is the only state that so overpowers its namesake, you can drop the ‘New’ when referring to it. Try that with Hampshire, York, or Mexico.”

Take that, you doubters.

What's Your Exit cover


More New Jersey uniqueness

February 10, 2014

I still wonder what it is about those of us who grew up in New Jersey:  some odd combination of “New Jersey pride” and defensiveness.  We love it, are affectionate to its foibles (even to the “armpit of the nation” references) and can’t stop seeking reassurance.  I don’t sense that from any other state in the east coast of the USA – or anywhere else, for that matter.   Perhaps New York and California (and now Texas and wherever else) are way too confident to stoop to what we former New Jerseyans do to prove to ourselves and the world (but mostly, I suspect to ourselves) that our childhoods were valid, were actually exciting and were somehow romantic.

The latest – and genuinely very interesting “isn’t New Jersey cool” websites are located on “Movoto”, a real estate sales and blog site (to figure).  There are four sets of photos that are worth checking out:

– The 29 greatest moments in New Jersey history

– The 22 maps of New Jersey they never showed you in school (From map number 5:  Did you know that New Jersey apparently is the only place in the USA where they/we call the night before Hallowe’en “mischief night”?  I didn’t.)

– The 13 maps the conclusively prove that North Jersey is better than South Jersey (and I did not know anyone cared – but they do)

– The 33 photos that will make you remember why you love New Jersey (well, they didn’t do it for me, but they very pretty nevertheless)

New Jersey postcard


Cultural map of New Jersey

December 11, 2013

This “cultural map of New Jersey” by Rutgers employee and New Jersey native Joe Steinfeld went viral two years, but as I missed it then, you may have also.   (So much for the reach of social media in our instantaneous age!)  Some great truths lie here.

nj-cultural-map