“Defender of the Faith” was published in 1959 in Philip Roth’s first book, Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories. The four other short stories accompanying the book’s title novella were “The Conversion of the Jews,” “Epstein,” “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings,” and “Eli, the Fanatic.” The volume was honored with the National Book Award and launched Roth’s career with more attention than is normally accorded a literary debut. Each of the pieces explores the tensions between Jewish particularism and assimilation to a universalist American identity, a theme already attracting wide interest through the works of Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud. Roth was soon being considered the junior member of a brilliant triumvirate that included himself and these two other authors as the leading figures in the newly fashionable category of “American Jewish literature.” Together with Bellow and Malamud (with whom he did not otherwise have a great deal in common), Roth resisted the label “Jewish author,” but his very resistance became an important theme in his work.
Despite the accolades it received, Roth’s first book in general and “Defender of the Faith” in particular were also denounced by some Jewish commentators as anti-Semitic. The story was attacked, by rabbis and others, for its portrayal in Nathan Marx of a self-hating Jew and in Sheldon Grossbart of an unctuous Jewish finagler, a con artist who manipulates tribal loyalties to advance his personal agenda. Roth was accused of defaming his own people by perpetuating negative stereotypes of Jews. The early burden of justifying his art and identity shaped the rest of Roth’s long, productive career. Refusing the role of ethnic cheerleader, he countered the criticism with two essays, “Some New Jewish Stereotypes” (1961) and “Writing About Jews” (1963), as well as with several works of fiction in which a fictional novelist, most often Nathan Zuckerman, is condemned for writing books that are not “good for the Jews.” Roth has not denied his Jewishness or the fact that he is drawn again and again to depicting Jewish characters, but he has insisted on the freedom to pursue his art without sectarian obligations. There is a bit of Nathan Marx in Roth’s reluctance to be a defender of the Jews.
In 1945, when the enormity of the...
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