Monthly Archives: May 2018

The Professor of Desire is No More

My father was hospitalized in 1969. As I recall, it was for kidney stones, though I don’t remember for certain. As he convalesced at Middlesex Memorial Hospital, my father received some visitors. Some brought the requisite gifts: flowers, a box of chocolate, and so forth. But a couple of people brought books. One of the books was a newly published novel. The book cover was bright yellow: impossible to miss. I saw it briefly on the one day I was allowed to enter my father’s hospital room (in those days, people under 18 were personae non grata at hospitals).

 The next day the book was in our house. I asked my mom, “Why isn’t Dad reading this?” She got this perplexed look on her face and said, “ Marion Prinz (a Holocaust survivor with a thick accent and nothing but opinions on everything) told me in the waiting room that the book was filled with antisemitism and bad words and that it was so dirty that people would come in and be shocked that your dad would ever have such a book in his room. So I brought it home.”

 I was fourteen years old and I’d just been told that this shocking book with lots of dirty parts, was sitting in my house. With my father in the hospital, my mother was so distracted she didn’t consider hiding it. My luck.

 So I read Portnoy’s Complaint at 14 years of age.

 As Joan Rivers used to say, “Can we talk?” I was shocked, horrified, delighted, scandalized, titillated, joyful… I loved it. I learned more from that book than any other book I’d ever read. Roth answered questions I didn’t even know how to ask: about men and women, sex, angst, relationships, and Jewish consciousness. It was a life-changing experience.

 I became aware of the terrible press Roth was getting, particularly from the established Jewish community. He was accused of hating women, hating his parents, hating Gentiles and, of course, hating Jews. Rabbis the world over sermonized about just how poisonous the tome would be for the Jews of America. Portnoy’s Complaint was roundly condemned as blasphemous and profane, with Israeli scholar Gershom Scholem going so far as to call it “the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying”.

 The critic, Irving Howe wrote in Commentary, that Philip Roth is not a “natural” novelist at all, the kind who loves to tell stories… He is an exceedingly joyless writer, even when being very funny. The reviewers of his novels, many of them sympathetic, noticed his need to rub our noses in the muck of squalid daily existence, his mania for annotating at punitive length the bickerings of his characters. Good clean hatred that might burn through, naturalistic determinism with a grandeur of design if not detail, the fury of social rebellion—any of these would be more interesting than the vindictive bleakness of Roth’s novels.

 Such strong criticism made me all the more interested in Roth. Why were so many people so upset with this man, this writer? Was it just the sex? Was it the take on Jewish guilt and Jewish stereotypes? So while I’d begun to read Roth looking for the ‘good parts’, I came away with a true sense of awe regarding the power of words. I started to see, through the manic words of this author, this rebel, just how confused grownups really were. I began to see how desire drove people crazy. I began to learn that sex and death – Eros and Thanatos – were two sides of the same coin. To paraphrase the narrator after Adam and Eve eat the fruit: “And his eyes were opened.”

 I went to the only bookstore in Middletown, Huntington Books, and bought Philip Roth. First, Goodbye Columbus, then When She was Good. I loved Goodbye Columbus, the crispness of each short story and the audacity of many of the characters, challenging authority and authoritativeness.

 I was hooked on Philip Roth, a man with a relentless need to shout the truth – or the truths – with words so refined, so surgically specific and perfectly chosen. Sometimes I’d have to stop and reread a sentence or a paragraph, not due to its denseness or opacity. To the contrary, I read it over because I couldn’t believe how clearly he was able to express the human condition. Love. Hatred. Lust. Fear. Foolishness.

 Over 30 years ago I professed my appreciation for Roth to an antiquarian books store owner. He said, “If you like his work so much, collect him.” Which I’ve done. I am proud that I own a first edition of every work of fiction and nonfiction Philip Roth ever wrote. There’s something special about having a complete set: it’s a form of homage. But it’s not enough.

 Philip Roth is gone. The great women and men of the generation before me are dying. The authors and musicians and artists and actors who so illumined my world are dying.  I am not so foolish or such a cultural chauvinist to say that there will never be great artists and writers again who match the brilliance of the Depression-WWII-Korea generations. But I know that, as my heroes die, I feel slightly bereft and a bit less… supported, as I make my stand in this increasingly malevolent world.

 Philip Roth is gone, my icon of liberation, my narrator on the ramparts, my professor of desire. I plan to reread my favorite Roth: Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy, Patrimony, American Pastoral, Professor of Desire, The War Against America… I don’t know when or where to stop. Strange how the death of a man I’ve never met feels like a personal tragedy. What a writer. What a teacher. May he rest in peace.

Hold On!

Sometimes I experience existential woe. It’s usually after I’ve read the news. I find myself utterly disconcerted, so I seek a stable surface to regain my sense of balance. Only this week it’s felt like an ongoing earthquake with no stable surface in sight. And thus, a heart filled with angst.

For instance, in Gaza. Watching Palestinians rushing the security fence. I know that 50+ of the fatalities were Hamas operatives. Some of them had weapons, bombs, Molotov cocktails, and so forth. But the rest of the dead – and the over 2000 injured by Israeli live ammunition – were Palestinians living in Gaza who have nothing to lose.

Yes, of course, Hamas is responsible for immiserating the lives of the Gazans. Yes, Hamas is a terrorist regime. Yes, Hamas has encouraged their people to become martyrs.

And yes, Israel has blockaded Gaza for years. As a result, the unemployment rate is 44%, the highest in the world, according to the World Bank. In Gaza, economic activity has all but ground to a halt. Gazans depend on aid money not just for their basic needs but for whatever employment there is. The level of despair and discontent in Gaza is off the charts. Long before Israeli soldiers decided whether to shoot at protesters, Israeli leaders decided to bar farmers in Gaza from exporting spinach, potatoes and beans. They decided to bar fisherman in Gaza from fishing beyond six nautical miles. They decided to bar students in Gaza from leaving the Strip to study, to bar spouses from leaving to legally join their husbands or wives in the West Bank, to bar grandchildren from leaving to attend their grandparents’ funerals. They decided to bar people in Gaza from importing the spare parts necessary to rebuild the Strip’s electricity grid.

I watch desperate people filled with rage and bitterness and utter hopelessness rushing the fences. I watch Israeli soldiers shoot them down after repeated warnings about their intentions. I wonder if this degree of response is truly necessary. Israel is creating a commission to ask that very question. Could we have avoided such use of lethal force?

The whole situation is soul crushing. It’s like watching two people beat each other up, never pausing to address the possibility that there are other ways to solve whatever issue is causing them to fight in the first place. It’s frustrating. It’s tragic.

I’m not a military planner, so I don’t know what the options are for Israel. But I do know that as long as Israel continues to drag its feet on actively creating a two-state solution, violence like this will continue. And as long as Hamas continues to use martyrdom and poverty as potent weapons against the Jewish State, there will be no peace.

There is a tradition of offering a nechemta, a teaching of comfort and hope, at the conclusion of a Jewish text discussion. I wish I had such a teaching this Shabbat. All I know is that the world is pretty shaky, and all we have is each other. We need each other in the midst of this craziness and this radical disillusionment. We need to keep each other alive and aware, safe and sound. So hold on to me: I’m holding on to you.

Shabbat Shalom.



I did something strange today. When someone stopped to let me a make a left turn, which is, in Boston driving a criterion for a miracle, I acknowledged her kindness with a gesture. I always do a thank you when people are nice to me. It’s a jungle out there, in case you haven’t noticed.

Every other day for at least 30 years, I have waved; out the window, out the sunroof, in front of my rearview mirror. Because I want to reinforce their kindness. I want to let them know that I know I am not entitled to make a left turn in traffic, and that, despite that existential truth, I appreciate their thoughtfulness.

But I didn’t wave; I gave the peace sign. And as soon as I did, I felt slightly foolish. After all, who did I think I was, anyway? An aging hippie in a VW microvan?  What does that gesture even mean in 2018?

I remember what it meant in the 70s. The peace sign was a way of signaling good intentions and good vibes. The two-fingered V peace sign signaled a kind of hopefulness, a deep desire that we all ‘give peace a chance.’

We believed in that promise of peace. We thought that the world would eventually see what we saw so clearly; that the Vietnam war was a disastrous misadventure, a guaranteed horror show. Watching Ken Burns’ Vietnam documentary, that point was made, over and over and over again.

We of the peace sign generation were right. But were our demonstrations, protests, and general activism instrumental in ending the war? Apparently, the jury is still out.

We peace sign people are now between 50-70. And I think it’s fair to say that the hope we experienced in our youth has been replaced by cynicism. All the big dreams we dreamed about peace and racial equality and feminism have been replaced by nightmares of #metoo and “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and saber rattling in Washington.

Maybe David Hogg and Emma Gonzales, survivors of Parkland and true student leaders, will be able to take their outrage and their moral imperative and get right what we failed to do. Maybe they will budge the forces of the status quo that want what they want despite the damage and disaster they cause.

I’m not giving up. That’s not going to happen. It’s just that it gets so tiresome trying to push that boulder up the mountainside.   As Sheryl Crow sang, “No one said it would be easy/But no one said it’d be this hard.” Am I expecting too much? Am I naïve and unrealistic? Probably.

Elie Wiesel once said that you have to do something in the face of evil, even if it is something insignificant. Writing a letter, signing a petition, calling a politician, and yes, participating in a demonstration may not change much. But at the very least, when someone asks, “What did you do?”, you can answer that you tried to do something.

Perhaps flashing the peace sign was my way of reaching into the nostalgic past, telegraphing my deepest intentions to a bewildered motorist. Maybe I was reminding myself that there is still so much work ahead, that this new generation can’t do it alone – and neither can we.


Shabbat Shalom,