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)

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Jerry Lewis a great entertainer passes away

August 22, 2017

Jerry Lewis, born Joseph Levitch to Russian-Jewish vaudeville entertainer parents and one of the towering American-Jewish comics of the 20th century, has passed away at age 91. He combined his film career with a long commitment to community service, including the Muscular Dystrophy Association, for which he raised funds.

Although he acted in numerous film and television shows during a career that began in 1949 through the present day (he appeared in last year’s “The Trust” with Nicholas Cage), during the 23 year period from 1960 to 1983, he also directed himself in 12 films.  All these films screened at last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival – in retrospect, almost perfect timing memorialising a great man of American film: “The Bellboy” (1960), “The Ladies Man” (1961), “The Errand Boy” (1961), “The Nutty Professor” (1963), “The Patsy” (1964), “The Family Jewels” (1965), “Three on a Couch” (1966), “The Big Mouth” (1967), “One More Time” (1970), “Which Way to the Front?” (1970), “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972), “Hardly Working” (1981) and “Cracking Up” (1983).

Although mostly known as a comic and entertainer, Lewis also was an extraordinary film technician: he invented the “video assist”, a technology that enables filmmakers to view a video version of what they have shot.

Two of Lewis’ best-loved films are “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy”, where the video assist was used for the first time. “Professor” (re-made in 1996 starring Eddie Murphy), is a romantic comedy crossed with science fiction parody of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. Jerry Lewis’ persona as Julius Kelp – prone to accidents, socially awkward and buck-toothed – has never been on better display than on this film, and was so popular that Lewis later reprised the character in both “The Family Jewels” and “The Big Mouth”.

“The Bellboy” – my personal favourite and Lewis’ debut as director – captured another side of the Lewis persona, taking a “bow” to classic silent comedians, in particular the pantomime artist Stan Laurel, who Lewis consulted on the script. “The Bellboy” has a lovely “backstory”:  Lewis – who directed, produced, wrote and starred – shot the film in less than four weeks on location at the historic Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, filming during the day while performing in the hotel’s nightclub at night. For those of us who grew up in the northeast of the USA in the 1960s and visited Miami Beach, the Fontainebleau personifies that time and place. And Jerry Lewis in turn personifies the hotel. View it for a peek of what life was like there and then, more than 55 years ago.

“Which Way to the Front” – although a minor addition to the Lewis body of work – tackled the Second World War, where Lewis plays a rich playboy who volunteers to fight against the Nazis and impersonates a German general.  It was Lewis’s only overt attempt – in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” – to ridicule the Nazis. Although it failed as a film, it’s worthwhile viewing for both Lewis fans and film historians.

The world will be a much poorer place without Jerry Lewis in it, but we are all much richer for his having shared himself with us.

Jerry Lewis The Bellboy DVD cover

(Note: the post above is an updated and expanded version of my original article, which appeared in The Australian Jewish News Melbourne edition on 28 July 2016.)


Australia’s first-ever Jerry Lewis film festival opens in Melbourne

July 31, 2016

(This article appeared in the Australian Jewish News, Melbourne edition, on 28 July 2016 in a different form.)

Australia’s first-ever Jerry Lewis film festival has opened in Melbourne, as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF).

Jerry Lewis, born Joseph Levitch to Russian-Jewish vaudeville entertainer parents, stands as one of the towering American-Jewish comics of the 20th century.  Although he acted in numerous film and television shows during a career that began in 1949 through the present day (he appears in this year’s “The Trust” with Nicholas Cage), during the 23 year period from 1960 to 1983, he also directed himself in 12 films.  All of these films will screen at this year’s MIFF: “The Bellboy” (1960), “The Ladies Man” (1961), “The Errand Boy” (1961), “The Nutty Professor” (1963), “The Patsy” (1964), “The Family Jewels” (1965), “Three on a Couch” (1966), “The Big Mouth” (1967), “One More Time” (1970), “Which Way to the Front?” (1970), “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972), “Hardly Working” (1981) and “Cracking Up” (1983).

Two of Lewis’ best-loved films are “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy”.  “Professor” (re-made in 1996 starring Eddie Murphy), is a romantic comedy crossed with science fiction parody of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.  Jerry Lewis’ persona as Julius Kelp – prone to accidents, socially awkward and buck-toothed – has never been on better display than on this film, and was so popular that Lewis later reprised the character in both “The Family Jewels” and “The Big Mouth”.

“The Bellboy” captures another side of the Lewis persona, taking a “bow” to classic silent comedians, in particular the pantomime artist Stan Laurel, who Lewis consulted on the script.  “The Bellboy” also has a lovely “backstory”:  Lewis – who directed, produced, wrote and stars – shot the film in less than four weeks on location at the historic Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, filming during the day while performing in the hotel’s nightclub at night.

“Which Way to the Front” – although a minor addition to the Lewis body of work – tackles the Second World War, where Lewis plays a rich playboy who volunteers to fight against the Nazis and impersonates a German general.  It was Lewis’s only overt attempt – in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” – to ridicule the Nazis, and although it failed as a film, it’s worthwhile viewing for both Lewis fans and film historians.

The Bellboy(poster of Jerry Lewis’ film “The Bellboy”, shot on location in Miami Beach)


The Forward’s ‘Top 50’ Jews in American Life

November 29, 2015

Here’s further proof that Australia and the USA – despite being linked by the English language and a long and deep friendship – are worlds apart in social, political and artistic cultures. “The Forward” – possibly the oldest and still the best Jewish newspaper in the USA (originally published in Yiddish as “The Jewish Daily Forward”, and read religiously by my grandfather Sol) back in the 1930s – has just published its list of the 50 Jews in the USA making the most impact in 2015.

The article is entitled “Loud, Proud, And at The Heart of America”. Author Jane Eisner points out that, “This is a year when American Jews are deeply, loudly and passionately embedded in some of the most pressing political and social issues in the nation.” Jews seem to be everywhere on the cultural cutting edge, “from the debate over a nuclear deal with Iran, to the emergence of transgender identity in synagogues and on screen, to the groundbreaking acceptance of marriage equality.”

Politics: Presidential wanna-be (Vermont Senator) Bernie Sanders, as well as New York Senator Chuck Schumer (uncle of Amy, more on her later) and Congressman Jerry Nadler (New York City – whose district we lived in during our 2011 residence).

Culture: TV show “Transparent” director Jill Soloway and actor Jeffrey Tambor. And number one on the list: actress and comedienne Amy Schumer (“Trainwreck”, and one of “Time” magazine’s “top 100”).

And so the list goes. Fascinating, yes.

But from the perspective of Jews who live outside of the USA, how many of them are “household names” here in Australia (or anywhere else outside of North America), even in the Jewish community? Remarkably, astonishingly, few. Check out the list yourself. Of the 50 (see the complete list below), I only count 12 that I can name with assurance – AND I think I am tied in to US culture and politics.

The ones I recognise are Amy Schumer, Bernie Sanders, Michael Dell (computers), Sheldon Adelson (casino magnate, Jewish philanthropist and conservative activist), Ben Lerner (post-modern novelist), Jill Soloway, Jeffrey Tambour, Jon Stewart (TV host), Sarah Koenig (NPR’s “Serial” podcast), Jerrold Nadler, Charles Schumer and Dianne Feinstein (California Senator).

Top 5
• Amy Schumer
• Marina Rustow
• Bernie Sanders
• Mendy Reiner
• Evan Wolfson

Activism
• Shoshana Roberts
• Nicholas Lowinger
• Emma Sulkowitcz
• Alan Gross
• Ruth Messinger
• Ruby Sklar (and Rachel)

Business
• Michael Dell
• Paul Singer
• Justin Hartfield

Community
• Eli Broad
• Haim Saban
• Tom Sosnik
• Sheldon Adelson
• Alisa Doctoroff

Culture
• Jill Soloway
• Hari Nef
• Billy Eichner
• Shulem Deen
• Nicole Eisenman
• Ben Lerner
• Jeffrey Tambor
• Zalmen Mlotek
• Carolyn Hessel
• Jon Stewart
• Ike Barinholtz
• Sarah Koenig

Food
• Alon Shaya
• Yehuda Sichel
• Leah Koenig

Media
• Lori Adelman
• Sarah Maslin Nir

Politics
• Jerrold Nadler
• Charles Schumer
• Ann Lewis
• Dianne Feinstein
• Wendy Sherman
• Leon Rodriguez

Religion
• Bethany Mandel
• Deborah Waxman
• Capers Funnye
• Naftuli Moster

Science
• Evelyn Witkin
• Gary Cohen
• Tom Frieden

Sports
• Dustin Fleischer

(Amy Schumer’s image from the article appears below.)

Amy Schumer image The Forward


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


Amanda Barker appointed new consumer director on COSL – one of Australia’s two credit ombudsman services

October 30, 2014

I am pleased to note that my former colleague at ASIC – the Australian Securities and Investments Commission – has now been appointed a new consumer director at COSL, the Credit Ombudsman Service Limited, which is one of Australia’s two ASIC-approved credit ombudsman services.

I worked closely with Amanda for almost two and a half years in ASIC’s Community Outreach Program:  she was the team leader and I was the deputy team leader.  I know of nobody who is better able to take on this important role – especially given her long experience and commitment to financially vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians.

The official media release goes as follows, and can be found on both the COSL website and the Consumers’ Federation of Australia website.

*****

The Board of the Credit Ombudsman Service Limited (COSL) announced the appointment of Ms Amanda Barker as the new non-executive consumer director of the company, effective 22 October 2014.

Ms Barker is well known for her work with culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Indeed, she has been nominated for the Prime Minister’s Community Award and was awarded the Public Service Medal in 2012 which recognises outstanding service by employees of the Australian Government.

Ms Barker was the Senior Manager of the Community Outreach Program at the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), where she was employed to engage more meaningfully with vulnerable and disadvantaged communities.

Ms Barker’s experience ranges from individual casework to policy reform and educating consumers in relation to consumer credit. She has worked collaboratively with government departments that fund programs for these target groups and has provided guidance and advice about policy settings and service delivery.

Mr Mark Scanlon, COSL’s Chairman, congratulated Ms Barker on her appointment and noted: “Ms Barker is exceptionally well qualified for the appointment as COSL’s new Consumer Director given her experience working in consumer advocacy and consumer protection, particularly in relation to consumer credit.”

“Her acknowledged stakeholder engagement and management skills and reputation, dealing particularly with the vulnerable and disadvantaged, will contribute to the effectiveness of COSL’s work in this area. I look forward to working with Ms Barker in continuing to develop COSL as a leading external dispute resolution scheme,” Mr Scanlon said.

“Ms Barker replaces Ms Karen Cox who stood down from the Board on 27 August 2014. My Board, staff and I are indebted to her for her input into the development and continued growth of COSL,” continued Mr Scanlon.

 

 

 


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.)