Philip Roth remembered as an ‘acerbic recorder of Jewish life’

Philip Roth attends the 53rd National Book Awards ceremony in New York City in 2002. Photo by Dennis Van Tine/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

Lori Lefkovitz says she “gave up” on author Philip Roth when she was in high school and he was shocking America with his portrayal of a lustful lawyer in Portnoy’s Complaint.  

“In his youth, he was all about the male libido,” says Lefkovitz, now a literature professor at Northeastern. “It was only as I matured as a reader that I was encouraged to go back to him and realized that he had matured as well.”

Roth, a leading figure in 20th-century literature, died on Tuesday at age 85. He wrote more than two dozen novels, often exploring sex, death, and Jewish life.

He won most of literature’s top honors, including a Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards, and became the third living writer to have his work enshrined in the Library of America in 2005.

And for most of his half-century as a novelist, Roth generated controversy.

Portnoy’s Complaint, published in 1969, was among his novels and short stories that were condemned by influential rabbis, who claimed that he distorted the lives of Orthodox Jews and affirmed Nazi stereotypes.

But it was Jewish stereotypes, Lefkovitz says, that Roth was “unafraid to expose,” especially the nagging mother and culture of bourgeois capitalism.

“Roth was an acerbic recorder of Jewish life,” she says. “He didn’t want to be considered a Jewish writer per se, but he understood himself to be writing out of his experience as a Jewish person in America.”

Lefkovitz, the director of Northeastern’s Jewish Studies program, says his later works painted more nuanced portraits of Jewish life.

Lori Lefkovitz, a Northeastern literature professor and Jewish studies scholar, taught a Philip Roth novel in one of her spring semester courses.

She points to the Jewish family at the center of The Plot Against America as a prime example. The novel, published in 2004, imagines an America where aviator Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 presidential election and then launches a spate of pogroms against Jews.

“As he matured and as the place of Jews in America changed and evolved, his portraits became more loving,” she says. “The family is represented with real affection. There is nobody in it that you’re embarrassed to know or love.”

Lefkovitz taught The Plot Against America in her “Modern and Contemporary Jewish Literature” course this spring. “It’s so prescient,” she says, noting that literary critics have drawn parallels between Roth’s Lindbergh and Donald Trump, a TV star turned world leader. “It’s a novel for our moment.”

She says students enjoyed the book, which is now being adapted into a six-part miniseries by the creator of the HBO show The Wire.

“On one hand, they were interested in the politics of the fiction and the alternative reality Roth created,” she says. “On the other hand, they wanted to discuss the exquisite capacity he had for showing how worldly events affect relationships within a family.”

The intelligence with which he describes life in modern America, the depth of his characters, and the complexity of his ideas testify to the timelessness of his work, Lefkovitz says.

“Roth will survive the test of time. He catalogued the changing times, writing intimately about the world in which we live.”