Judaism is all about asking questions. When my father was a young boy at Montreal’s Adath Israel school, he presented a vexing hypothetical to his teacher. What if there was only one spot in heaven, but two candidates: the avowedly secular father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, or the learned and devout Rabbi Akiva? The teacher paused for a moment before responding: “Weinfeld, get out!”
I may have inherited my dad’s inquisitiveness and chutzpah. At my afternoon Hebrew school class at the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue in Westmount, Que., when I was younger, I presented my teacher with a similar conundrum. What if there was a morally righteous man, a tzadik, who did not believe in God, or heaven? Would he be offered a spot in olam ha-ba, even though it would devastate him to learn that his most cherished belief was wrong? I don’t remember my teacher’s answer; I only remember being dissatisfied.
When I posed that question, I hadn’t yet read Philip Roth’s short story, The Conversion of the Jews, which appeared alongside his 1959 debut novella, Goodbye, Columbus. When I finally read it, I saw myself in Ozzie, the main character who asks his mother why Jewish deaths matter more than gentile ones. Ozzie pelts his Hebrew school teacher with similarly perplexing questions. Less concerned with heaven, Ozzie wondered why Jews should believe the tale of God creating the universe, but not the Christian story of Jesus’ virgin birth and resurrection, like everyone else did.
Roth was an avowed atheist. Before he died last month, he insisted that he not be given a Jewish funeral, as he wanted no religious ceremony of any kind. His Jewishness was not about faith, or any religious doctrine. It was at once more cerebral and more primal. Jews, he thought, were desperate to belong to a community – either their own, or the broader American land of opportunity – but were never fully comfortable in either.
The book that best exemplifies this Jewish quandary is Roth’s 1969 classic, Portnoy’s Complaint. Undeniably lewd and unquestionably misogynistic, it is also the most important American Jewish novel ever written. The protagonist, Alexander Portnoy – a compulsive masturbator, civil rights lawyer and sexual pervert – blames his overbearing mother’s hectoring for his fragile masculinity. In truth, his complaint is about the modern Jewish condition. He envies the natural strength and poise of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men – “engaging, good-natured, confident, clean, swift and powerful halfbacks for the college football teams called Northwestern and Texas Christian and UCLA.” Jews can only aspire to that world, but never truly enter it.
Except in Israel. Upon visiting the Holy Land and looking around at all the tough Israeli soldiers, as well as workers of every stripe, Portnoy quickly understands: “here, we’re the WASPs!” In comedian Lenny Bruce’s parlance, Israel is goyish! The Jewish-American neurosis and alienation was totally alien in 1960s Israel. In a few short pages, Roth had written a truly profound statement of the difference between Israeli and American Jewry.
Today, in the United States and Canada, Jews have made it. Yet for many Jews, the sense of alienation has not abated. The existential angst we felt in adolescence persists into adulthood. We still ask the same questions that Ozzie and Portnoy asked: Why can’t we be like everybody else? Why be a Jew when you can be a human being?
In 1972, literary critic Irving Howe responded to Roth with questions of his own: “Who, born a Jew in this 20th century, has been so lofty in spirit never to have shared this fantasy? But who, born a Jew in the 20th century, has been so foolish as to dally with it for more than a moment?” Though eloquent, Howe was wrong. Roth, who died last month, asked questions for another 46 years. He understood that questioning Jewishness is not a betrayal, but an affirmation. Let’s keep asking questions to honour him.