Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth

First read: 4/2003
Reviewed on: 4/19/2003
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I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

Reviewing this book puts me in dangerous territory. It talks about being Jewish, coming from a Jewish family, being middle-aged and unmarried, having unusual sex and wanking. All of these are issues with which I've been involved, and that I don't normally talk about.

There was a fellow-Jew that I looked up to (hell, worshipped) when I was a bonny youth. He started being embarrassed by his culture, trash-talking his mom, and all that self-hating culture denying stuff. Once, one of his difficult employees asked him he was Jewish and he said, "no." I was surprised, but figured he knew what he was doing. From there he started referring to Karl Marx's religion any time he came up in conversation, converting to Catholicism, admiring both George Bush I and Jesse Jackson, and now is a Southern Baptist, sending proselytizing literature to both myself and his aged mother so we can stop Sinning and avoid hell. I feel rather strongly about that, and this book brought out a lot of thoughts on the subject. But as it is, I feel awkward having said this much, and certainly can't go into any sort of depth.

As I write this, we are at war with Iraq. The idealistic branch of the right-wing of the US has pretty much come out against the war, and are (with varying degrees of openness) starting the process of pinning the blame on the Jews. That's expected, the far-right in the United States tends to blame the Jews for things, and the conservatives usually water down their ideas for mass consumption. Not only am I used to it, I sometimes find myself liking Pat Buchanan as a person. I know where I stand with him, and I know that he bases his ideas on his own thoughts, not on what will sell or make him the most profit. But the left-wing, the liberals, they are pretty much blaming the Jews as well. And that gets annoying, to get it from both sides. Oh - and the middle. Let's not forget the first Bush administration, where the quotation "Fuck the Jews, they didn't vote for us" was neither denied or apologized for, and the second Bush administration, where Saudi Arabia somehow not only gets everything it wants, but a complete free ride for their role in the 9/11 bombing and... But there I go; I try not to get really political on this page, and this is quite a powder-keg issue. But when I read Portnoy's Complaint, I somehow felt compelled to shout things like this to the world.

Here is a possible explanation - By the time I went to graduate school in Ann Arbor, I was pretty much an Atheist. Culturally, of course, I was still a Yid, but I certainly didn't identify myself as any sort of religion. But then the campus paper started writing some fairly anti-Semitic things, and definitely anti-Israel things. And I remembered my former fellow Jew, and how it seemed to all begin when one of his difficult employees asked him he was Jewish and he said, "no." (You should remember, too. Jeez, it was only a couple of paragraphs ago.) And that day, I bought a Mezuzah. Well, actually I didn't, I asked Mom to send me one. But when it came, I put it on my door.

I'm increasingly convinced that it starts with the "no." This society makes the "no" very easy. In Cedar Falls, when the subject of religion comes up, I know that if I mention mine the conversation may very well stop. Not anything anti-Semitic or hateful, but the conversation will just stop. This has happened to me in Minneapolis, too. But never before. I don't know if it is a location thing, or just the way society is moving. And even though I don't believe in God, and I have bacon cheeseburgers all the time, I know that it starts with the "no", and I go ahead and say "yes". And when the political conversations happen, and it is taken for granted that "Yes, the Palestine / Israel conflict is very complicated, but the Jews are wrong and the Palestinians are right" by both the Liberals and the Conservatives, I do speak out. And I'm starting to feel funny about the bacon cheeseburgers. In an era when the coordinator for special projects for the mayor of Chicago said that Jewish Doctors are deliberately giving black children AIDS, and then was invited to speak at the University of Michigan, when Leonard Jeffries, an expert on the Afrocentric curriculum talks of the Jews and their partners the Mafia are in a conspiracy to destroy Black people financially, when seven prominent members of the Bush Campaign (1988) were revealed to be Nazi Sympathizers, and four were retained in the Republican national committee... in that kind of era, maybe I shouldn't be eating bacon cheeseburgers. Maybe I should be eating Matzoh this Passover week.

This entire week, I have been trying to write my impressions of Portnoy's Complaint, to put a cute anecdote about being caught wanking together with one about the time my mother and I went to Las Vegas when I was 21, or something else related to this book that didn't make me feel like I was overstepping my bounds. But I can't. This was a book about being a Jew, and being all whiny about it. As Brian puts it, I'm a Kike, a Yid, a hoof-nose, a hebe. I'm Kosher, I'm a red-sea-pedestrian, and proud of it. Fuck Alexander Portnoy.

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