This episode contains adult language and sexually explicit descriptions.
Jeremy Shere: Welcome to Adventures in Jewish Studies, the podcast of the Association for Jewish Studies. In every episode, we take you on an entertaining and intellectual journey about Jewish life, history, and culture, with the help of some of the world's leading Jewish studies scholars. I'm your host, Jeremy Shere.
Liam Castellan: Dr. Spielvogel, this is my life, my only life. And I'm living it in the middle of a Jewish joke. I am the son in the Jewish joke. Only it ain’t no joke. Please. Who crippled us like this, who made us so morbid and hysterical and weak? Why, why are they screaming still? “Watch out! Don’t do it, Alex! No!” And why alone on my bed in New York, why am I still hopelessly beating my meat?
Doctor, what do you call the sickness I have? Is this the Jewish suffering I used to hear so much about? Is this what has come down to me from the pogroms and the persecution, from the mockery and abuse bestowed by the goyim over these two thousand lovely years? Oh my secrets, my shame, my palpitations, my flushes, my sweats, the way I respond to the simple vicissitudes of human life. Doctor, I can't stand any more being frightened like this over nothing. Bless me with manhood. Make me brave. Make me strong, make me whole. Enough being a nice Jewish boy, publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putz. Enough.
Jeremy Shere: The passage you just heard is unmistakably from Phillip Roth's famous and infamous novel Portnoy's Complaint, published in early 1969. The book was an immediate sensation, selling thousands of copies and rocketing to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, turning Roth into an overnight celebrity. Critics loved the book too. Reviewing Portnoy's Complaint for the Times, book critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt judged the novel "Roths' best work since Goodbye, Columbus and a brilliantly vivid reading experience."
But not everyone was so enthralled. Many Jewish readers, including rabbis and other leaders of the Jewish community, were scandalized by the book's unsparing, satirical depictions of overbearing Jewish mothers and their horny sex-obsessed sons.
In this episode, we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Portnoy's Complaint by telling the story of its origin and the major impact the book had on the life and career of Phillip Roth, on the evolution of modern American literature, and on how Jews thought about their ethnicity and identity as they assimilated into the American mainstream.
To understand how Roth came to write a book as wild and controversial as Portnoy's Complaint, we have to go back in time one decade, to 1959, when the then 26-year-old aspiring writer published his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, a collection that included the novella Goodbye, Columbus, about working class Neil Klugman and his wealthy self-centered girlfriend, Brenda Potemkin and her family, as well as several short stories.
Roth populated the book with the sorts of Jews he'd grown up around in the densely Jewish neighborhoods of Newark, New Jersey, and Roth's impolite depictions of his Jewish characters as less than fully wholesome caused a stir.
Brett Ashley Kaplan: The whole collection, Goodbye, Columbus, upset many, many, many people because they felt that the Jews portrayed in Goodbye, Columbus and some of the other stories were not doing any favors to the Jews.
Jeremy Shere; This is Brett Ashley Kaplan, a professor of comparative literature and Jewish studies at the University of Illinois, and author of the book Jewish Anxiety and the Novels of Phillip Roth.
Brett Ashley Kaplan: They were crass in the case of Neil's family. And in the case of Brenda's family, they were caricatured rich Jews. We might now call Brenda a quintessential Jewish American Princess, to use a very problematic term. And so they had this very distasteful representation.
Jeremy Shere: Rabbis trashed the book in their Sabbath sermons. Even the Anti-Defamation league spoke up, putting in a call to the New Yorker magazine, which had published one of the offending stories ahead of the book's publication. At Yeshiva University, which had invited Roth to speak, Orthodox Jewish students attacked him, asking angrily if Roth would write such antisemitic stories if he lived in Nazi Germany.
Why exactly were Roth's critics so upset? Warren Hoffman, executive director of the Association for Jewish Studies and author of the book The Passing Game: Queering Jewish American Culture, notes that the first few decades after World War II were a period of transition for American Jewry.
Warren Hoffman: Jewish Americans are beginning to occupy a new place in the American landscape, that even though antisemitism will continue decade after decade, it really is, I would say, the first time when Jews are beginning to be accepted as a minority in the US, when they're leaving the cities, going into the suburbs and creating very robust Jewish communities out there.
And so even though time had passed from the Holocaust, at the same time, it's a transitional moment for Jewish Americans. And I think it was important, especially for leaders at the time, to put the best possible gloss on what it meant to be Jewish American. And so when, whether it's Goodbye, Columbus or Portnoy's Complaint, comes out, these books that are showing Jews in not the best light, it raised some hackles with some people.
Jeremy Shere: Roth didn't shrink from the controversy. He confronted it, writing essays about writing about Jews. And in some cases, responding directly to his critics.
Josh Lambert: Even in responding to one very established rabbi, Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, who wrote to him and criticized him, Roth was extremely clear that he had every right to write the kind of fiction that he wanted to write and that what he was doing wasn’t in any way an attack on Jews or wasn’t in any way antisemitic, but was, he called it in one of the letters to Rackman, “responsible semitism.”
Jeremy Shere: This is Josh Lambert, education director at the Yiddish Book Center and author of the book Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.
Josh Lambert: He believed that what he was doing was representing Jewish people in a way that was thoughtful about tensions and conflicts and human fallibility and all that sort of stuff. And the idea that by showing a Jewish person who committed a crime or who wasn't acting in an ideal way, he was being an antisemitic, a totally ridiculous idea.
Jeremy Shere: Not all Jews were up in arms about Goodbye, Columbus. In fact, no less than the celebrated novelist Saul Bellow and the esteemed literary critic Irving Howe praised the book and hailed Roth as an important young voice in American literature. Better still, Goodbye, Columbus won the National Book Award for fiction in 1960, a remarkable feat for a young writer and one that established Roth as an artist to be taken seriously.
Over the next few years, while teaching at the Iowa Writer's Workshop and working on his first novel, Letting Go, Roth mulled over the uproar Goodbye, Columbus had caused. Meanwhile, he was struck by the kinds of stories his Jewish students were turning in.
Josh Lambert: They all wrote the same stories and they were all obsessed with their mothers and with Oedipal dynamics and family squabbles and the stories were sort of all the same.
Jeremy Shere: By the mid-’60s, the smothering Jewish mother had become a popular meme as we'd call it today. Jewish mother jokes were a staple of best-selling standup comedy albums and featured prominently in movies and on television.
Josh Lambert: So Roth was looking at all that stuff in the pop culture. And I think what he set out to do is suck all of it in, to take all of that in and understand the energies and the tensions and the intensities around Jewishness and Jewish families, Jewish masculinity, that were circulating in the culture. And to put it back out as this really tightly constructed, sharply done satire, that would make fun, and sort of top, in a way, to be a stronger, bigger version of the whiny or stereotypical Jewish writing that he was seeing, being done by lots and lots of writers out there in the culture.
Jeremy Shere: But the process wasn't easy. In fact, Roth was struggling both with his writing and in his personal life. Letting Go, which came out in 1962, and Roth's next novel When She Was Good, which came out in 1967, were commercial flops, and the critical response was mostly indifferent. Meanwhile, Roth's marriage to his first wife was falling apart. Roth felt artistically and personally adrift. Court costs from his divorce and alimony payments left him broke. He was thousands of dollars in debt to his editor for money he'd been loaned to pay for the intensive psychoanalysis he felt he needed to stay sane.
Still, difficult as it was, Roth kept writing, intent on exploring in greater depth, the psychological, emotional, and sexual dynamics at play in Jewish families, and especially between mothers and sons. He wrote a draft of a novel titled Portrait of the Artist as a Young Jewish Man later retitled The Nice Jewish Boy, which featured a Jewish family called the Portnoys.
He experimented with short stories about sex-obsessed Jewish men. The breakthrough that led to what became Portnoy's Complaint had several components. First, as Lambert notes, by the mid-60s, the obscenity laws that had gotten comedian Lenny Bruce into so much trouble in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s were beginning to loosen.
Josh Lambert: It's only in the late ’50 that there's a huge, important nationally discussed set of court cases around D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. And then it's only in 1961 that you have the same sort of set of conversations around Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. And it's only in 1966, when the Supreme Court decides a particular case, that you really have the sense that an American literary publisher can publish books with any kind of words, with words like “fuck” and “shit” and explicit descriptions of sex.
Jeremy Shere: It was liberating, especially for a writer like Roth, who had been peppering his experimental manuscripts with scatological and sexually explicit language. At the same time, Roth's immersion in psychoanalysis sparked an intense interest in Freud whose writing about hysteria and the Oedipal complex and other neuroses Roth devoured. The experience, inspired him to write a short story with the title A Jewish Patient Begins His Analysis. And there it was—the setting and framework for the book that had been taking shape in Roth's mind and on the page in fits and starts for the past five years.
In an interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick, Roth recalled that crafting the story as a therapy session set in an analyst’s office gave him the psychological permission he needed to really go for broke, without any rules or restraints or sense of decorum. Roth was ready, even eager, to return to, and to satirize, the Jewish milieu that had given Goodbye, Columbus such a sharp cutting edge.
Brett Ashley Kaplan: Maybe a partial answer to why he would put himself from the frying pan back into the fire and decide again to enrage everyone is maybe in part because they were enraged in the first place. And how fun would it be to poke even more fun at the kind of sanctity of Jewish American life, which according to his critics was supposed to be represented only in this kind of edifying, wonderfully assimilated, beautiful, seamless way, that he was going to say “up yours” to that kind of sanctification — I'm going to go right for the comedic caricature and up it times ten.
Jeremy Shere: The result was a book that in its manic duration, sexual explicitness, and general obscenity was unlike anything that Roth had written before. It was unlike anything that anyone had written.
Josh Lambert: In some ways I'm not even sure calling it a novel is the right way to describe it. It’s more like a performance. It's a monologue. It's standup comedy. In some ways it's a confessional. It's very theatrical and dramatic. And while of course it's in a written novel form, it really goes beyond, I think, the standard written word in ways that we might expect.
Jeremy Shere: The plot, such as it is, focused on one Alexander Portnoy, the book’s deeply troubled, but also insightful and hilarious, narrator spilling his guts to his analyst, Dr. Spielvogel, in a marathon ranting-like riff about masturbation, about lusting after shiksas, about guilt and self-loathing. And especially about his parents, Jack and Sophie.
Brett Ashley Kaplan: Sophie Portnoy is the typical smothering Jewish mother. Jack Portnoy works for an insurance agency, and his job is to go around, and as Roth has Portnoy put it at one point, it's like collecting blood from a stone. He goes around to impoverished, mostly black neighborhoods that are contiguous to his neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey and collects money from people for their insurance. And Jack famously suffers from terrible, terrible, terrible constipation. And as Roth at one point puts it, Jack might as well, be working for the firm of Worry, Fear & Frustration.
Jeremy Shere: Portnoy's Complaint was published by Random House on January 12th, 1969. It sold nearly 400,000 copies within a month. Readers were stunned, and mostly delighted, by the book’s outrageous humor and raw manic energy.
Warren Hoffman: I think it was such a hit for so many different reasons. Stylistically, it’s like nothing else. It just dashes off the page. You have a real sense, I think, in your ear, who this person is and all of his hysterical narcissistic behavior. And the book is also just so damn laugh-out-loud funny. I mean, the sexual exploits that he unabashedly tells the reader. You know, 50 years later, I can't think about a piece of liver after having read Portnoy's Complaint.
Jeremy Shere: Hoffman is referring, of course, to the infamous scenes in which the book's narrator, Alex Portnoy, describes masturbating with the aid of a piece of liver. In case you haven't read Portnoy's Complaint, or if it's been a while, here you go. Liver masturbation scene, Number One.
Liam Castellan: On an outing of our family association, I once cored an apple, saw to my astonishment and with the aid of my obsession, what it looked like and ran off into the woods to fall upon the orifice of the fruit, pretending that the cool and mealy hole was actually between the legs of that mythical being who always called me “big boy,” when she pleaded for what no girl in all recorded history had ever had.
“Oh, shove it in me, big boy,” cried the cored apple that I banged silly on that picnic. “Big boy, big boy. Oh, give me all you've got,” begged the empty milk bottle that I kept hidden in our storage bin in the basement to drive wild after school with my Vaselined upright. “Come, big boy, come,” screamed the maddened piece of liver that in my own insanity, I bought one afternoon at a butcher shop and, believe it or not, violated behind a billboard on the way to a bar mitzvah lesson.
Jeremy Shere: Liver masturbation scene, Number Two.
Liam Castellan: Where is this right mind? On the afternoon I came home from school to find my mother out of the house and our refrigerator stocked with a big purplish piece of raw liver. I believe that I've already confessed to the piece of liver that I bought in a butcher shop and banged behind a billboard on the way to a bar mitzvah lesson. Well, I am wished to make a clean breast of it, your holiness, that… she…it… wasn't my first piece. My first piece I had in the privacy of my own home rolled around my cock in the bathroom at 3:30 and then had again on the end of a fork at 5:30, along with the other members of that poor, innocent family of mine.
So now you know the worst thing I have ever done: I fucked my own family's dinner.
Jeremy Shere: These scenes and many others in the book are objectively hilarious and, what's more, played an important role in the book’s success, by presenting readers with something entirely new and formerly taboo.
Josh Lambert: A major focus of the novel is masturbation, right? That Alexander Portnoy talks about masturbating. He talks about what he thinks about while he's masturbating. He gives you very concrete images of what it's like when he masturbates, and that's the kind of thing that I think many people had absolutely never heard someone talk about before, they had never seen represented in literature or film before.
Jeremy Shere: Roth’s timing could not have been more perfect. The late 60s was, after all, the height of the sexual revolution, a time when how people thought about, talked about, and engaged in sex was rapidly changing.
Brett Ashley Kaplan: ’69 is this sort of cauldron of everything exciting happening at once. So the world is undergoing this transformation, and right at this moment, this book comes out that basically puts intimate details that are normally not seen on the printed page outside of the porn zone, into the public realm. And people start talking about it. People start feeling that it's representing what their childhoods were like, but they could never even say. So it taps into this huge vein of repression and really cracks it open.
Jeremy Shere: The success of Portnoy's Complaint radically changed Roth's life and career. He became famous, not just in literary circles, but among the public at large. Strangely, many people assumed that Roth and his oversexed liver-masturbating narrator were one and the same. On the tonight show with Johnny Carson, bestselling novelist Jacqueline Susann quipped that she'd like to meet Roth, but she wouldn't want to shake his hand. Suddenly Roth was a celebrity, a public figure, and everyone was talking about Portnoy's Complaint.
Portnoy's Complaint also put Roth back in the crosshairs of the American Jewish establishment, raising alarms among many of the same rabbis and other Jewish leaders who had been so scandalized by Goodbye, Columbus.
While the late '60s may have generally been a period of counter-cultural experimentation and the overthrowing of cultural and social taboos, the mainstream Jewish establishment was conservative by nature and, as it had been a decade earlier, still highly alarmed by Roth's bare-fisted portrayal of American Jews.
Warren Hoffman: Another cultural reference point: This book comes out in 1969. Fiddler on the Roof opens in 1964 and is going to run into 1970. So you have this very, very different view of Jewish life. The Jews of the shtetl, the Old Home, look how nice everybody is with the daughters and the father. And then you have Portnoy—it's like night and day.
Jeremy Shere: Roth wasn't surprised. After all, Portnoy’s Complaint was a deliberate provocation aimed directly at those conservative notions about how Jews ought to be portrayed. Roth was bothered, though, even incensed, when in 1972, in an essay titled "Phillip Roth Reconsidered," Irving Howe—who a decade earlier had praised Goodbye, Columbus and hailed Roth is an important new talent — now trashed Portnoy's Complaint and very publicly attacked Roth himself.
"The cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy's Complaint is to read it twice," Howe wrote. "An assemblage of gags strung onto the outcry of an analytic patient, the book thrives best on casual responses. It demands little more from the reader than a nightclub performer demands.”
In many ways, Howe's attack seemed personal.
Josh Lambert: it really is. It feels ad hominem. It feels mean-spirited. He says Roth is a person of thin culture, something like that, which seems like a fancy way of saying that Roth is an ignorant dumbass. It feels real really, really like it's grasping at a way to unseat Roth from his position of prominence. That how I personally see what Howe's trying to do. He feels like, "Oh my God, I've created a monster. I've given all this power to this writer and I don't trust him to use it in a responsible way.”
Jeremy Shere: Roth was deeply troubled by Howe’s critique. It was one thing to be pilloried by narrow-minded rabbis, but Howe was a sophisticated literary critic and one of the most respected public intellectuals of the time. For Howe to not only take issue with Portnoy's Complaint, which was fair game, but also to call into question Roth’s talent, his very essence as a literary artist, that was a step too far and an offense that Roth never forgot or forgave.
Even more than a decade later, Roth was still fuming. In his novel The Anatomy Lesson, published in 1983, Roth revisits the episode and the character of Milton Appel, an obvious stand-in for Howe, who viciously attacks the artistic integrity of Roth's protagonist and narrator, Nathan Zuckerman. Zuckerman, a stand-in for Roth, gets his revenge by impersonating Appel and portraying him as a lurid pornographer.
Since the publication of Portnoy's Complaint, the book has captured the attention and imagination of academic, literary critics. Academic journals and books over the past several decades are filled with essays analyzing Roth’s text from myriad critical perspectives. For example, in his book Unclean Lips, Lambert reads Portnoy's Complaint as continuing a history of allegorical uses of sex to talk about issues of Jewish continuity.
Josh Lambert: Going back to Yiddish writers in the nineteenth century, writers have thought about what it means to be Jewish through the lens of who a particular character is going to sleep with. And for me, what Roth does importantly, is take that whole representational tradition and say what happens to it when you can use all the dirty words? So that, you know, diasporism becomes a kind of masturbation, and Israel induces impotence, and all these issues of continuity and Jewish identity come through the sexuality of the book.
Many feminist critics, meanwhile, have taken Roth to task for what they see as his misogynistic portrayal of women, not only in Portnoy’s Complaint, but throughout his writing. Kaplan, though, takes a different approach to the novel, arguing that Portnoy's central love interest, the sexually liberated and nearly illiterate Mary Jane Reed, whom Portnoy calls “the monkey, embodies what feminist critics call “consent culture.”
Brett Ashley Kaplan: Consent culture is, in these writers’ understanding a way, to combat rape culture. Once we recognize that women can say yes, and say yes with abandon, and that doesn't then immediately label us whores, then we are writing our own script. We're taking power. We're saying it’s OK to be sexual. That doesn't mean that there needs to be a huge branding and shamefulness with it. And this is very, it's an anachronistic reading in the sense that here I am in 2019, looking at this 50-year old novel and trying to make of the monkey, especially, this figure who does embody consent culture. But I do think that that reading makes sense in that she really does that.
Jeremy Shere: Hoffman, meanwhile, is interested in the book’s, portrayal of Jewish masculinity, reading Roth’s portrayal of Alex Portnoy as queer, meaning not that Portnoy is gay, but that his sexual neuroses and behavior are outside the norm.
Warren Hoffman: In some ways, I would say that Portnoy sees himself—even though he doesn't use this term—as a queer character, because the whole book is him talking about hysteria and wondering what is it that has made him and so many other men of his generation hysterical.
Jeremy Shere: Originally hysteria was understood as a strictly female malady, but in the nineteenth century, the term became attached to Jewish men, stereotyping them as weak and feminine, the very antithesis of the Western ideal of masculinity. Hoffman reads Portnoy as reacting against the stereotype of the hysterical Jewish male to assert his identity as a red-blooded, sexually normative American man.
Warren Hoffman: And I think there's this really great line that happens towards the end of the book, in which he explicitly sums up to me what he's trying to achieve by having all this sex. And he says, "What I'm saying, doctor, is that I don't seem to stick my dick up these girls, as much as I stick it up their backgrounds, as though through fucking I will discover America." To me, that sort of encapsulates him trying to say, I'm trying to assert my male Jewish American personality through having heterosexual sex. And he has this compulsion. He's obsessed with having sex all the time. So if he continually needs to convince them, convince us, the reader and Dr. Spielvogel, the therapist, that he is a real man. Even though he's Jewish, that Jewish American men are as masculine and butch and tough as everybody else. And trying to push away that hysterical feminine stereotype that has dogged Jews for decades.
Jeremy Shere: it's worth noting, along these lines, that Portnoy only has sex with non-Jewish women, or shiksas as he calls them. The one time he tries to have sex with a Jewish woman, when he assaults a female army officer in Israel, not only does she physically overpower him, but for the first time in a novel full of sex, Portnoy can't get it up.
Warren Hoffman: She starts laughing at him for being impotent, and there's something very pregnant about that moment in that here he is in Israel and he’s sort of queered in this moment that he can't seem to function in the way that a heterosexual man should.
Jeremy Shere: Phillip Roth died on May 22nd, 2018, in Manhattan. In the forty-nine years since publishing Portnoy's complaint, Roth wrote more than 30 novels, as well as several works of nonfiction and criticism, several of which won major literary prizes. Many of those books surpassed Portnoy in terms of depth, stylistic, and thematic complexity, and in most, every other way. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Roth’s so-called “American trilogy,” including the novels American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain, vaulted him to an even higher level of acclaim, and cemented his status as one of America's greatest novelists.
So where does that leave Portnoy's Complaint today?
Brett Ashley Kaplan: Well, and that's a great question. You know it’s very hard to say what the legacy is, because I think that it's such a diverse legacy. I hear people say, when I talk about Portnoy's Complaint, that they can't read it, they just find it so dated and it's sort of impossible. And then you hear other people say, “It’s so funny, it so satirically gets it just right. It's hilarious. I couldn't put it down.” So I don't think there's one kind of legacy. I think that Portnoy's Complaint will be understood as a novel that significantly transformed American literature.
Warren Hoffman: I think for the most part, the novel has aged pretty well. I think that comes from the fact that, whenever I pick it up, there are still multiple episodes and moments in the book where I laugh out loud. I think there's just such rich humor in it.
Josh Lambert: I feel like it still works. I think that it's kind of an amazing literary performance, when you think about creating that sense of orality, making it feel like a monologue, and the way that it represents the rise of standup comedy and different kinds of oral forms of storytelling in America. And as a kind of condensed compendium of major issues in American Jewish life, it's astonishing.That does it for this episode of Adventures in Jewish Studies. The opening scene, and the liver masturbation scenes, were performed by Liam Castellan. The executive producer of the podcast is Warren Hoffman. The Association for Jewish Studies is the world's largest Jewish Studies membership organization, and features an annual conference, publications, fellowships and much more for our members, as well as public programming. Visit associationforjewishstudies.org for more information on what we do, to learn about joining if you're a Jewish studies scholar, or to find out how to bring a Jewish Studies scholar to your community. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Shere.
Warren Hoffman, PhD
Brett Ashley Kaplan, PhD
Josh Lambert, PhD
Jeremy Shere, PhD
Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD
Producers: Avishay Artsy and Erin Phillips