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I was one Jew when I was 10, another when I was 20


Being a Jew in America
Philip Roth Writer
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Until I was 16, I lived in this Jewish community. I... I never thought twice about it. I wasn't a synagogue goer. At 13... at 13 I was Bar-Mitzvahed in a synagogue. I was Bar-Mitzvahed on March 9th, 1946, which is... today is an anniversary for me. And I would... of course, I wanted to be Bar-Mitzvahed, I wanted to do well at it, but after that I never wanted to set foot in a synagogue again. I had no religion in me. And even after three years of instruction in Hebrew school, I didn't know what the hell they were talking about. I didn't know who these Bible characters were. I didn't know what Hebrew was. I didn't know why I should learn it, but I did it. I did it for my parents, I did it for my grandparents, I did... and I did it because all my little friends did it.

But once I was free of that, I never went back into a synagogue... if I could help it. And when it came time to go to college, I went to... excuse me... I went to a college that was predominantly Christian. It wasn't a religious school, I mean the students were... were predominantly Christian, 95%, 100% white the college... the college was. And then there were 2% of... of Jews. I... I deliberately made that choice. I didn't know anything about the school. I certainly didn't know anything about it academically. But I knew from a friend of mine who'd gone there that it... it wasn't like our high school had been. Now why did I want to do that? I wasn't in flight from my background, I wasn't in flight from the neighbourhood. I was curious, as a kid. I'd begun to read in high school, on my own, American writers, Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Erskine Caldwell – I would read him secretly – and Thomas Wolfe and other American writers. And I wanted to know what the hell this America was. It wasn't that I didn't feel like I was an American kid, as... as a Jew, but what about the rest of the place? What... what is it like beyond my neighbourhood? So I went and I began to learn a little bit, I suppose. Mostly I studied my studies.

The fame of the American writer Philip Roth (1933-2018) rested on the frank explorations of Jewish-American life he portrayed in his novels. There is a strong autobiographical element in much of what he wrote, alongside social commentary and political satire. Despite often polarising critics with his frequently explicit accounts of his male protagonists' sexual doings, Roth received a great many prestigious literary awards which include a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1997, and the 4th Man Booker International Prize in 2011.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Erskine Caldwell, Thomas Wolfe

Duration: 2 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013