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Anti-Semitism in America


Borrowing from my background
Philip Roth Writer
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I've borrowed many things in my books, many, many things from my background, my history. And the things get twisted and turned so that they're unrecognizable and they get assigned to different characters and so on. But of course I've drawn very heavily on… on my background, but primarily on the milieu itself and on the community, because that's the other side to this story of growing up, which is I felt myself a member of a community, a neighborhood. It was called the Weequahic section, that's an Indian name, and it was in the southwest corner of Newark. And there was only… begun to be… houses only began to be built there around the time of the First World War, so it was the last section of the city that was settled. And into this neighborhood the Jewish children of the original immigrants moved – which was my parents' generation, and these are people born around the turn of the century; their children were born in the 1920s and '30s. And I lived in this; it wasn't a shtetl – that misrepresents it – it wasn't a ghetto – it was a community. And, you… I felt, and I think we felt collectively, an allegiance and a loyalty and a comfort taken from this place. You know, it was predominantly – overwhelmingly, I should say – Jews. There were two non-Jewish families on our street; one next door to us, an Italian family, who I in a way use in The Plot Against America, and then down the street another Gentile family, a fellow named Whitey Sable, who was my great friend. But aside from that the whole entire street was… was Jewish, and so it would be on other streets as well. There was a comfort, as I said, to be taken in this, because we knew that we hadn't felt it on our backs, we certainly knew about hostility to Jews, distaste for Jews, discrimination and bigotry against Jews, we knew it... how did we know it? Our parents told us and the world told us. After all, Hitler was around in 1933 and the persecution of the Jews started almost immediately, and by the time 1940 and '41 came around when I was old enough to know what was going on, people knew that things were not good for the Jews in Europe. The extent of how bad things were for the Jews, one didn't quite know yet, but some people surmised.

We also knew on a local level. My father worked for a big insurance company, the Metropolitan Life, who didn't have Jews at the executive level. I think there was one Jew at the executive level, he was the treasurer, so he was involved with the money, but otherwise there were no Jewish executives. Nor were there even district managers who were Jews, except for one or two. And my father in 1943, I think it was, decided to go into business with some friends of his in the frozen food business to get out of the insurance business where he… he couldn't advance. He couldn't make $100 a week for the rest of his life, he had two sons who had to go to college. Luckily, my brother had the GI Bill and by the time I came around he had begun to recoup some of his losses from that business. But he wanted to get into a business where he could make the money to send his kids to college and other things, of course… buy a house, whatever.

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: Newark, Europe, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Adolf Hitler

Duration: 5 minutes, 4 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013