Two sons of “Jewish Wit”: Philip Roth and Rafael Seligmann
THIS IS MY LIFE, my only life, and I’m living it in the middle of a Jewish joke! ” Philip Roth has the eponymous protagonist of his 1967 novel Portnoy’s Complaint exclaim. “I’m the son in the Jewish joke-only it ain’t no joke! ” (46-47).’ In the form of Portnoy’s extended monologue to his psychoanalyst, Roth depicts the situation of a young Jewish male growing up in America in the fifties and sixties. The self-comparison with the stereotypical put-upon son of many a Jewish joke refers to more than just the adolescent’s desire for emancipation from his domineering mother. As the novel unfolds, the “complaint” broadens to encompass Portnoy’s problematic polymorphous sexual urges and his longing for integration into Gentile society. Familial conflict thus becomes a cypher for the erotic and social frustrations of the young Jewish-American, whose possibilities for selffulfillment-that most American of dreams-stand tantalizingly open, yet lead to a number of irresolvable conflicts.
Despite its connection to a specific time and place, Portnoy’s exasperated remark applies equally well to the protagonist of Rafael Seligmann’s 1989 novel Rubinsteins Versteigerung.2 In it, a young Jewish outsider tells of his attempts to establish a tenable adult life in 1969’s West Germany, during which he suffers under a similar constellation of social, familial, and erotic pressures. The two novels are ripe for comparison, and indeed Seligmann’s novel has been dubbed a German Portnoy’s Complaint.3 The affinity, however, goes beyond the thematic.
If we engage in a bit of free translation- ich bin der Sohn des Judenwitzes-an interesting ambiguity emerges. In the German, Portnoy’s remark can be read as say ing: “I am the product of Jewish wit, of a particular type of humorous discourse.” As well as leading parallel lives, Portnoy and Rubinstein share a strikingly similar sense of humor-pointed, unflinching, frivolous, cruel, offensive, and playful. The main purpose of the present essay is to compare the two novels vis-a-vis the social dynamics of laughter, offering a comparative perspective on Portnoy’s Complaint and a discursive analysis of Rubinsteins Versteigerung, about which relatively little has been written.4
Both authors, I contend, work in a tradition of Jewish humor or Judenwitz that originated in Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century. Judenwitz emigrated to America, so to speak, in the late nineteenth century, and Seligmann, I would maintain, attempts to re-introduce it into post-Nazi Germany. Its influence on both authors can be seen in their mutual fondness for the insult, the pun, the sarcastic retort, the formulaic joke, and above all the humorous diatribe, or kvetch, which is the central discourse of Portnoy’s Complaint and Rubinsteins Versteigerung. In both novels, kvetching tirades interrupt and obscure plot to the extent that the kvetch itself takes over some of the structural function of a conventional story line. Moreover, Judenwitz not only informs but also relativizes the thematic content, including the controversial statements about Jewishness in both works, which have caused perennial offense among readers. What the authors/ protagonists say at any given juncture of the text is of subordinate importance to the way they say it. The upshot of this provocatively “Jewish” writing, I will argue, is assimilation. Roth and Seligmann seek to demonstrate the power of `Jewish” speech through laughter, asserting a specific minority voice within the mainstream and thereby making an implicit bid for social and cultural integration. The divergent reception of their literary efforts by their respective audiences illustrates the differences between the societies that Roth and Seligmann depict and in which their works exist. This essay will thus conclude with reflections on the crucial and controversial topic of assimilation versus minority particularity in American and German society.
The similarities between Portnoy’s Complaint and Rubinsteins Versteigerung suggest that Seligmann must have used Roth’s early work as a model for his own first novel.’ The affinity, however, results not so much from direct imitation as from mutual participation in a discursive tradition. The type of speech that I term Judenwitz arose in conjunction with a trio of German writers-Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Borne, and Moritz Saphir-and the steady stream of controversy their journalistic and literary works engendered from the 1820s to the 1840s (see Chase 1-19). The most often identified feature of this supposedly Jewish mode of humor was satiric sharpness, although Judenwitz was also seen to reside in frivolous punning and phrase-making, in the equation of culture with commerce, and in the treatment of sexual situations and content. For adversaries, such Jewish humor was wantonly destructive and inimical to the interests of the self-appointed respectable mainstream. The concept of Judenwitz was, however, adopted to various degrees and in various ways by the three writers to define themselves, as outsiders marginalized by their Jewish backgrounds, against reactionary elements in the mainstream that they were at the same time trying to join. For all its pejorative connotations, the tag of satiric Judenwitzler inspired in adversaries the fear of public ridicule, and the attending controversies attracted attention to the three first-generation free-lance writers and their works. In reality, the speech acts most Germans uncritically accepted as a discrete form of Jewish wit ran in various directions, encompassing everything from the selfdeprecating anecdotes characteristic of the ghetto to the satiric polemics of professional journalists writing in the standard idiom. The aura of alien threat clinging to such speech acts when performed by those categorized as Jews sufficed, however, to give the illusion of homogeneity. The influence of the original Judenwitzler continues today: Philip Roth still mentions Heine as one of his heroes and predecessors (Operation Shylock 98).
A number of authors-most obviously, Kurt Tucholsky,6 more subtly, Franz Kafka7-continued to write in the Judenwitz mode up until 1933, when, for obvious reasons, the tradition of Jewish humor in German literature was effectively broken. In the waves of late-nineteenth-century Jewish emigration to the United States, however, the wit perceived to be typical of German-speaking Jews was transported and translated. It made its presence felt in turn-of-the-century vaudevilles and was crucial to many Hollywood comedies in the years surrounding World War II, particularly the films of Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder.’ Jewish wit was also the wellspring of another form of twentieth-century American humor, stand-up comedy, with its set routines concerning both ethnicity and sex (see Lewis). Pioneers of that genre, such as Henny Youngman and Milton Berle, also introduced Jewishness itself as a theme of their routines.” Although the merits and indeed amusement value of borscht-belt stand-up comedy are debatable, its rise signaled an important change in American culture. In the context of humor, public figures were allowed to voice the experiences of a disadvantaged minority and to speak in a voice that was itself understood as Jewish. The status of the “Jewish comic” was elevated further during the 1960s with the popularity of Lenny Bruce, and around the same time a number of North American writers, including Mordechai Richter, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow, began publishing novels not dissimilar in tone to Bruce’s ranting, calculatedly provocative monologues. Although initially scandalous”-and, as the academic popularity of the idea of Jewish self-hatred attests,12 perennially controversial-Jewish-American Judenwitz succeeded in establishing itself as a part of mainstream culture both nationally and internationally. One need look no further than such classic pieces of Americana as the films of Woody Allen to see the level of acceptance that this Jewish outsider discourse has achieved (see Spiegel).
Before moving on to a comparison of Portnoy’s Complaint and Rubinsteins Versteigerung, I want to devote a few words to the social import of humor in general. It is no accident that laughter has perennially been a crux for questions of minority/majority exclusion and integration, but the connection may seem obscure, the types of humor too bewilderingly various to admit of a single functional model. The two seminal theories of laughter-Henri Bergson’s Le ire and Sigmund Freud’s Der Witz and seine Beziehung zum UnbewuBtsein-reach diametrically opposed conclusions regarding the function of humor in society. The “social gesture” (geste social) of humor, according to Bergson, is to discipline extremists and encourage them to conform to social rules by making them into the butts of conventionalized humorous routines (101). For Freud the upshot of humor’s “social procedure” (sozialer Vorgang) is covert individual rebellion against collective constraint via seemingly inconsequential wordplay (136). In order to get at both potential functions of humor, I employ the vocabulary of Susan Purdie’s recent Comedy: The Mastery of Discourse. Synthesizing theoretical insights from Saussure, Levi-Strauss and Lacan, Purdie argues for humor as a nexus of constantly shifting social hierarchies carried by language. Summing up this perspective, she writes:
Because joking marks transgressions on the site of their genuine occurrence, it confirms us strongly as able to keep the rule of same and different, as well as to break it. The effect of joking is to emphatically instate the law, and ourselves as those who master discourse in defining as well as producing the usages which conform to it. (30)
This outlook encompasses both the disciplinary and the oppositional potential of humor as social practice: Freudian “transgressions” may be allowed to stand against established values-which, following Levi-Strauss, Purdie calls “the Law” -or they may be reversed a la Bergson in order to reinforce the status quo. Humor thus emerges as a political free agent, equally available for attacking or enhancing the authority of an existing social order. The common factor is the abstract social exchange between humorist and audience, the swapping of pleasure for the security of social acknowledgement. The laughter that the humorist receives acknowledges his or her “full discursive capacity” (Purdie 96) and, with it, confirms his or her membership in the audience community. If we accept the characterization of humor as a bid for mastery of discourse, it becomes obvious that the production of laughter carries special significance for questions of minority and majority membership. By being funny, outsiders can gain access to and purchase on a social mainstream from which they might be excluded. Even if the audience is predisposed toward rejecting minority bids for inclusion, a display of humor can elicit a reflexive positive response not under the audience’s full control. Moreover, in its satiric mode, humor offers a means of self-defense. A humorist can neutralize enemies who otherwise would have the upper hand by turning them into the butts of jokes, calling their discursive competence and community member-ship into question.
The pun is cheap but an appropriate segue into the comparison of Portnoy’s Complaint and Rubinsteins Versteigerung. Both works share an obsessive concern with the welfare of their protagonists’ genitalia and, by extension, their social potency. Both Portnoy and Rubinstein are tyrannized by stereotypical smothering mothers, who interfere in the most intimate aspects of their sons’ daily lives. Sophie Portnoy, for instance, stands over her son with a bread knife when he refuses to eat and demands to inspect his feces because she suspects that he has consumed hamburgers and French fries after school, foods she insists are tantamount to poison. She also unwittingly inflicts a raging Oedipus complex upon her son by sending him at the age of four to buy tampons, by “tickling his prickling” in order to teach him to urinate while standing upright, and by casually referring to his “little thing” when he attempts to purchase an athletic supporter. Klara “Esel” Rubinstein’s interventions, in part because Seligmann’s novel deals mainly with his protagonist’s late adolescence, focus on larger life issues: her son’s career and mandatory marriage to a “good Jewish girl.” Yet she, too, makes her presence felt in the bath- and bedroom, eavesdropping and obtrusively bringing cookies or watering plants whenever her progeny has succeeded in arranging a tete-a-tete with one of his female classmates. This maternal influence places both Portnoy and Rubinstein in the unenviable position of hapless son often found in Jewish jokes. “Meinen Test als schlappschwanziger judischer Sohn,” concludes Rubinstein after one bedroom intrusion, “babe ich soeben mit Auszeichnung absolviert and damn die besten Anlagen zum judischen Pantoffelhelden bewiesen”(45; “I’ve just passed my test as dickless Jewish son with flying colors and thus have proved I have the makings of a first-rate bullied Jewish husband”) .”
The fondest wish of both adolescent protagonists is to escape maternal domination. “A Jewish man with his parents alive is half the time a helpless infant!” Portnoy complains to his psychologist (111 ). “Listen, come to my aid, will youand quick! Spring me from this role I play of the smothered son in the Jewish joke! Because it’s beginning to pall a little, at thirty-three!”
Neither Roth’s nor Seligmann’s protagonist is fully able to resist infantilization. Instead, they counter their mothers’ “training program” (125) or “Dressur” (41) with verbal hostility, the intensity of which would be shocking were it not comically exaggerated. Sometimes, verbal rebellion takes the form of punning:
“Jonathan, willst du vielleicht doch einen Lejkach rm Tee-ren will ich dich, du Nervensage. (45)
(“Jonathan, would you like a Leikach and some tea?” I’ll tea-ch you some respect, you buttinsky.)
More often than not, however, the Jewish son’s response to maternal intervention is shear aggression. Rubinstein’s invectives in the first few pages of the novel include: “Das geht dich einen Dreck an” (12); “Wenn du nicht sofort deinen Rand haltst, werde ich bosartig” (14); “Wenn du nicht sofort deinen Mund haltst, komme ich so wie ich bin [aus dem Badezimmer] raus and werfe dich mitsamt deinen Klamotten in die Wanne” (14) (“That’s none of your fucking business;” “If you don’t get back in your place immediately, I’m going to get nasty;” “If you don’t keep your trap shut, I’ll come out [of the bathroom] as I am and throw you fully clothed in the tub”). Roth is no less blunt. Relating a childhood incident in which he bit and kicked his mother in the shins, Portnoy offers collective frustration as an explanation. In screaming capitals, he asserts: “BECAUSE WE CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE! BECAUSE YOU FUCKING JEWISH MOTHERS ARE JUST TOO FUCKING MUCH TO BEAR!” (121). Such oaths of loathing are ironically defused by the implausibility of their intensity and also by the concern that both sons display on occasions of serious family illness, Sophie Portnoy’s hysterectomy and Fred Rubinstein’s mild heart attack. Readers thus ultimately understand the constant stream of parentally directed bile as humorous exaggeration, as a release valve for the frustrations attending the mother-son relationship. Significantly, language emerges as a crucial component in the son’s struggle for autonomy. Doing things with one’s words replaces being able to do what one wants with one’s life.
Another obvious point of comparison between Portnoy’s Complaint and Rubinsteins Versteigerung is the protagonists’ mutual obsession with sex and their difficulties in achieving sexual fulfillment. The plot and the humor in both works revolve around the obstacles encountered by Portnoy and Rubinstein on their erotic-quixotic quests. Of the two, Portnoy is the more polymorphous and perverse. Roth’s adolescent hero is a masturbation addict, servicing his needs before, after, and sometimes during meals, as well as on the bus from New York City to his home in Newark, New Jersey. Portnoy’s adolescent compulsion with what he terms his “battering ram to freedom” (33) programs one of his central conflicts as an adult, the inability to square the demands of sexual voracity with an equally strong desire to attach himself to a partner of middle-class respectability. An early Gentile girlfriend is dismissed because of her refusal/inability to perform fellatio, whereas a later one-nicknamed “The Monkey”-is given her walking papers, despite being sexually equal to the job, because she is too tacky and illiterate, too obviously the cheap sexpot.14 Portnoy is caught between the rock of respectability and his own hard-on. Rubinstein’s situation is similar. Like Portnoy, he is obsessed with sex. Though twenty-one years of age, Rubinstein is still a virgin who compensates for his frustrated desire by achieving ejaculation via frottage. Rubinstein’s dilemma, however, is more obviously connected with a specific social Catch-22 than Portnoy’s is. The most immediate target audience for Rubinstein’s libido is the small clique of Jewish girls in Munich, but because of the prohibition on their having premarital sex, any act of consummation would lead inevitably and terrifyingly to the altar. His only recourse is to the shikses, the daughters of Nazi-Deutschland, against which he rails with all the superficial hysterics and hyperbole of a confused adolescent. It is with a Gentile that he does in the end succeed in ridding himself of his hated virginity, overcoming his antiGerman fanaticism in the process, only to encounter an insurmountable obstacle in the young woman’s familial past. Thus Portnoy and Rubinstein emerge as a pair of stock comic heroes, torn between the demands of two conflicting needs, whereby the fulfillment of the one automatically precludes the satisfaction of the other.
In both works, sexual performance is conflated with manifestations of power in language, which is in turn conflated with the issue of social integration and exclusion. True to Lacanian theory, the penis is not just a corporeal implement of sexual pleasure, but a totemistic phallus representing authority negotiated via speech (see Forrey). Portnoy, for instance, describes his father as follows:
… to me, with that fingertip of a prick that my mother likes to refer to in public (once, okay, but that once will last me a lifetime) as my “little thing,” his schlong brings to mind the fire hoses coiled along the corridors at school. Schlong: the word somehow catches exactly the brutishness, the meatishness, that I admire so, the sheer mindless, weighty, and unselfconscious dangle of that living piece of hose through which he passes streams of water as thick and as strong as rope-while I deliver forth slender yellow threads that my euphemistic mother calls “a sis.” A sis, I think, is undoubtedly what my sister makes, little yellow threads that you can sew with . . .”Do you want to make a nice sis?” she asks me-when I want to make a torrent, I want to make a flood: I want like he does to shift the tides in the toilet bowl. (50)
Linguistic and penile potency are here indistinguishable: to take a piss through a schlong instead of making a sis with one’s little thing is to be empowered as the possessor of the phallus, and vice versa. Humor plays an important, if ambivalent, role in this language game. By engaging in comic monologue, Portnoy is attempting to attach himself to the power the word schlong carries, the power to shock and impress. The attachment is hardly complete, as the joke depends upon the speaker’s self-deprecating admission of his own physical shortcomings. At the same time, Portnoy’s monologue has something of a “mindless, weighty and unselfconscious” capacity to impose itself upon its audience. Moreover, this capacity itself is understood to be Jewish. Significantly, the term Roth selects to represent phallic power in discourse is a Yiddish word that has been taken over into mainstream American slang.
Rubinstein lacks an expression of comparable power with which to articulate his situation and is, not surprisingly, somewhat less eloquent than his American counterpart about the social import of length and girth. Nonetheless, his monologues also connect sex, language, power, and identity in Lacanian fashion. Ever in quest of opportunities to satisfy the demands and demonstrate the potency of his Schmuck, Rubinstein screws up the nerve to ask a Gentile classmate for the use of his apartment for an ultimately ill-fated triste. His reaction to his classmate’s affirmative answer is telling:
Die Kerle kommen wenigstens gleich zur Sache. Kraxa haste Hilde [eine Lehrerin, die seine sexuellen Annaherungsversuche zur-ackgewiesen hat] die passende Antwort auf ihr Flehen nach Vernunft and moralischer Rucksicht gegeben-daB ihr Horen and Sehen vergangen wire. Das ist ein echter deutscher Ficker, kein Wichser and Hosenspritzer wie unsereins. (75)
(At least these guys get straight down to business. Kraxa would have given Hilde [a schoolteacher who rejected Rubinstein’s sexual advances] the appropriate answer to her desperate plea for reason and moral understanding-by fucking her brains out. That’s a genuine German stud, not some pant-staining jerk-off like me and my kind.)
A bit further on, the text continues:
Geschafft! Fur den Kern ist es offenbar die reinste Routine. Und ich habe mich angestellt wie ein Jeschive-Bocher im Bordell. Ich hatte den Typen schon langst fragen mussen! Diesmal geht’s ans Eingemachte! (75)
(I did it! Apparently it’s all just routine for the guy. And there I was futzing around like some stupid Yeshiva-student in a bordello. I should have asked the guy long ago for his apartment. This time all the stops get pulled out!)
As with Portnoy, the valence of specific words and expressions communicates sexual potency and the lack thereof. But with Rubinstein, it is not Yiddishisms like “Schmock” and “Bocher” but Gentile idioms like “zur Sache/ans Eingemachte gehen” and “daB einem H6ren und Sehen vergeht,” as well as the word “Ficker,” that carry the phallic power. Throughout the novel, Rubinstein slides between Yiddish-inflected and Gentile slang depending on his level of self-confidence. This tendency has to do with the specific sexual mores of the German-Jewish subculture. Part of thejoke in these two passages is the fact that Rubinstein knows that he won’t lose his virginity, even after securing Kraxd’s apartment, since the girl in question is Jewish and therefore prohibited from premarital intercourse. The relationship between German and Yiddish also points up the different status of majority-minority identity in the society about which Seligmann is writing. Ultimately, Portnoy’s position as a Jewish-American will prove a lot happier than Rubinstein’s status as a German Jew. The scene in question ends with a drunken Kraxa turning up before expected, behaving in a threatening manner, and uttering anti-Semitic slurs. Although Rubinstein as Jew is hardly threatened by German society in a physical sense, he is constantly reminded of his marginal position.
Before I analyze this crucial difference, however, I turn my attention to the similar styles in which Portnoy’s Complaint and Rubinsteins Versteigerung are written. For starters, there is an abundance of puns, good and bad, genial and satiric, harmless and offensive. Like his German predecessors, Roth lets no opportunity for wordplay pass him by. Whether describing sex with The Monkey-“she puts the id back in Yid, I put the oy back in goy” (209)-or his mother’s cancer”. . . like b’nai or Boruch-benign! Boruch atoh Adonai, let it be benign! “(66)Portnoy plays with words. Though less relentless, Rubinstein also repeatedly avails himself of punning wit. Even with his father hospitalized, Seligmann’s hero cannot resist the opportunity for a cutting pun in an exchange with Esel:
“. . . ich fahre in einer Stunde hin.” “Du fahrst nicht hin, wir fahren zusammen.’ “Wenn ich dich sehe, fahre ich immer zusammen.” (117)
(“. . . I’m driving here in an hour.” “You’re not driving, I’m driving you.” “Driving me crazy is what you’re doing.”)
For both protagonists, wordplay is not just a linguistic means to communicate certain messages but an autonomous mode of speech in which they engage whether or not it is suitable to the situation or sympathetic to others. This sort of punning for its own sake flows from both characters’ status as outsiders to mainstream society and to the set phrases of its dominant discourse. Rubinstein, for example, articulates his disgust at the necessity of writing a hypocritical essay in praise of German Vergangenheitsbewiiltigung (overcoming the past) with a riff on the connotation of the words: “Technisch bewfiltigen! Deine deutschen Mitburger haben schon genug `technisch bewaltigt,’ unter anderem fast das gesamte europaische Judentum” (126; “Overcoming obstacles. Your fellow German citizens have ‘overcome’ enough obstacles, including practically the entire Jewish population of Europe”). He goes on to accuse himself of speaking the language of his imagined oppressors, but in fact his voice dates back to the original Jewish master of puns, Moritz Saphir. In wordplay, the imagination of the individual as outsider is turned loose upon the strictures of social convention inherent in normal patterns of significance. The results can be tasteless, offensive, adolescent, and often counterproductive. At the same time, puns allow those on the social margins to speak a mainstream, biased idiom without utter hypocrisy or self-negation.
Another related discursive tendency is the use of satiric irony, especially sarcasm. Much of the humor in Rubinsteins Versteigerung comes from the discrepancy between what the protagonist says and his real thoughts, which are starkly juxtaposed with his spoken words. A simple example:
“Na,Jonny, wie gefalle ich dir heute?” Bis auf das Kilo Make-up wirklich: “Hervorragend!” (114)
(“So,Jonny, how do you like me today?” Aside from two pounds of make-up, really: “Great!”)
The discrepancy in Roth’s text is diachronic-past-tense narration collides with present-tense direct address-but the results are hardly less vituperative. Holding forth on what he considers to be the smugness of his childhood rabbi, Portnoy exclaims:
… instead of crying over he-who refuses at the age of fourteen to set foot inside a synagogue again, instead of wailing for he-who has turned his back on the suffering of his people, weep for your own pathetic selves, why don’t you, sucking and sucking on the sour grape of a religion! Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew! It’s coming out my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jews! Do me a favor, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass – I also happen to be a human being! (76)
Vituperation of this sort, of which Heine and B6rne were the great masters, is also a central feature of judenwitz, the reverse side of the coin to seemingly inconsequential Saphirian wordplay. Roth repeatedly identifies “kvetching” (94), “kibbutzing” and “invective” (both 242) as specifically Jewish modes of speech, and at one point Portnoy characterizes Jewish conversation as a “crossfire where you shoot and get shot at” (221). Like punning, scorn has its own autonomous momentum. It is turned loose, often with offensive results, by the rebellious individual in order to assert a personal perspective over and against the conformist demands of the group. The fun to be had-the resulting laughter, if indeed laughter is the result-stems from the audience’s joy at pure aggression being allowed to flow indiscriminately in whatever direction happens to be open to ridicule.
Among the objects available for attack are Jewishness and the humorous protagonists themselves: Judenwitze have always been part of Judenwitz. This has led various critics in the past century-and-a-half, across the spectrum of attitudes toward Jewishness, to diagnose a wantonly destructive, self-hating impulse within `Jewish wit.” Such diagnoses, however, overlook two fundamental aspects of the situation. Humor is one of the few discursive means for outsiders to establish their presence in an often hostile mainstream, and even self-directed Judenwitz engages in and promotes what is understood as a Jewish mode of speech. The first point emerges in a concise yet complicated scene from Rubinsteins Versteigerung, where the protagonist responds to a teacher’s sanctimoniously leading question about the changes in German society since the end of the Third Reich with the answer “eine deutliche Zunahme des Einflusses der NSDAP in der Regierung” (65; “a marked increase in the influence of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party upon the government”). This elicits the laughter of his classmates and gives rise to a number of frivolous an ti-Kiesinger jokes (1969 German chancellor and ex-NSDAP member) such as “Lieber Schnauzbart als Dachsfriseur” (“better a Hitler moustache than a pompadour”). Via his humorous remark, Rubinstein succeeds in establishing himself temporarily as a member of a group from which he is otherwise excluded. Moreover, he pointedly, indeed jewishly, underscores the superficiality, if not hypocrisy, of a liberalhumanistic education made to serve the aim of Vergangenheitsbewdltigung. He thereby achieves, if only provisionally, a mastery of discourse in much the same way that he hopes to achieve personal and sexual mastery by losing his virginity.
Roth’s Portnoy explicitly draws this connection between sexual, social, and comic potency. Discussing his pursuit of Gentile females, he admits:
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. Conquer America… Columbus, Captain Smith, Governor Winthrop, General Washington-now Portnoy. (235)
The humor here arises from a pair of self-deprecating discrepancies: the equation of Portnoy’s animalistic libido and a mythologized vision of the founding of America, and the juxtaposition of his own Jewish-sounding name with the AngloSaxon ones of Pilgrims and founding fathers. Nonetheless, as a bid for discursive mastery, this passage is anything but self-deprecatory. By getting his at least partly Gentile audience to laugh at such a potentially offensive diatribe, Roth also gets them to accept his membership in their community, his right to discover and conquer America in ways as seedy and sex-driven as any other American male’s. The gender issues raised are quite sensitive. Portnoy’s means of penetrating society in the above-cited passage is exclusively male, and Roth’s novel, for all it satirizes Portnoy’s sexual compulsion, rarely allows the voice of those being penetrated to be heard. Extending this line of thought, one might argue that aggressive satiric humor is a fundamentally male, if not chauvinistic, mode of discourse. Although nothing essential prevents women from wielding Lacan’s phallus, the paucity of female humorists in both the U.S. and German cultures points up a tendency for women to use other forms of discourse. Dorothy Parker would be an exception, one with a voice not dissimilar to Roth’s, but otherwise Judenwitz would seem to be a discursive tool more available to the minority male.
In their uncompromising pursuit of provocation, Portnoy’s Complaint and Rubinsteins Versteigerung choose not to dwell on these issues. Yet even without considering the female perspective, both Portnoy and Rubinstein harbor ambivalent feelings toward Judenwitz, weeping tears of regret after moments of cruelty toward their brow-beaten fathers. Conversely, both Roth and Seligmann connect ease of language with the mainstream Gentile society in which Portnoy and Rubinstein, despite the latter’s adolescent pretense toward radical Zionism, 15 ultimately want to participate. Roth’s hero at one point explicitly longs for a less agonistic type of discourse, one where words are “a form of conversation” (221) and “little gifts, containing meanings” (222). Nonconfrontational Gentile discourse is also invoked in a description of perhaps the most American of pastimes, baseball: … center field like some observation post, a kind of control tower, where you are able to see everyone and everything, to understand what’s happening the instant it happens. . .”It’s mine,” you call, “it’s mine,” and after it you go. For in center field, if you can get to it, it is yours. Oh how unlike my home it is to be in center field, where no one will appropriate unto himself anything that I say is mine! (69)
The simplicity of the center fielder’s calling the ball typifies the discourse of the self-appointed mainstream, the uncomplicated, non-ironic “good morning’s” and “did you sleep well’s” of an early Midwestern Gentile girlfriend’s family, whom Portnoy visits one Thanksgiving vacation from college (221). It is the language of integration and security, as Portnoy puts it again in reference to baseball, “the ease, the self-assurance, the simple and essential affiliation with what’s going on” (72).
Although the hokey ingenuousness of Midwest American English at first appears utterly at odds with Portnoy’s urban Judenwitz, the two do prove compatible in the end. Portnoy’s Complaint may depict minor instances of anti-Semitism -his family’s move to a predominantly Jewish section of Newark is prompted by his sister’s being pursued by Jew-hating thugs early in their childhood (52-53)but ultimately and at least partly on his own terms the protagonist enters mainstream society. Late in the novel, he fondly reminisces about how the Jewish men of his neighborhood also gathered for ballgames:
I tell you, they are an endearing lot! I sit in the wooden stands alongside first base, inhaling the sour springtime bouquet in the pocket of my fielder’s mitt-sweat, leather and vaseline-and laughing my head off. I cannot imagine myself living out my life any other place but here … The laughing, the joking, the acting-up, the pretending-anything for a laugh! I love it! … How I am going to love growing up to be a Jewish man! Living forever in the Weequahic section, and playing softball on Chancellor Avenue from nine to one on Sundays, a perfect joining of clown and competitor, kibbitzing wiseguy and dangerous longball hitter. (244)
Portnoy’s life doesn’t take precisely this course-he moves to New York City and becomes Deputy Commissioner for Human Rights-but he does establish a place for himself in Gentile America. Indeed, in the novel’s final ironic twist, he travels to Israel only to discover that he is unable to sustain an erection in the Promised Land. Additionally and (within the logic of the novel) not coincidentally, his kvetching humor falls on hostile ears. Echoing real-life accusations against Roth and his work, Portnoy’s humorless Israeli lover accuses him of practicing selfhating ghetto humor. “Mr. Portnoy,” she tells him “you are nothing but a selfhating Jew.” “Ah, but Naomi,” he responds with typical double-edged irony, “maybe that’s the best kind” (264-65).Judenwitz-his primary mode of speech, which he himself finally admits to cherishing-is bound with the situation of the partial social outsider. The mainstream may speak with greater ease and self-assurance, but not with any particular wit, whereas Portnoy, for all his ethnic-discursive anxiety, has the power to win over others by eliciting laughter. His Achilles heel is his best weapon. It is in Israel, where Jews constitute the undisputed mainstream, that Portnoy loses all potency whatsoever.
Portnoy needs America, and, conversely, America seems to need or at least like Portnoy. Portnoy’s Complaint represented a massive popular breakthrough in 1969 and remains Roth’s most widely read work to date (Roth, Reading Myself 220). The popularity of this novel is, I would argue, an index of the integration and acceptance of Jews and Jewishness into mainstream America, which Roth himself describes as “the brilliant Americanization of millions of uprooted Jewish immigrants and refugees” (Reading Myself 245). The central issue today concerning late-twentieth-century Jewish-American “relations” is the extent to which assimilation entails an unacceptable or undesirable renunciation of minority tradition and identity. 16 Portnoy’s Complaint has been a crux of this debate, from the initial denunciation of the work as degrading to the Jewish-American community to the subsequent disagreements among academics as to whether the novel represents a secular continuation of Jewish culture or tolls its death-knell.” Opinions differ according to the relative value critics place upon cultural peculiarity and the extent to which they think the American mainstream has itself changed to become, at least in some respects,Jewish. My own reading of Roth’s novel is positive and assimilationist. For all its kvetching negativity, Portnoy’s Complaint suggests that a primarily American sense of self is a legitimate prospect for individuals like Alexander Portnoy. In fact, given his distance from his ancestors and his feelings of connection with the mainstream, a primarily American identity appears as the only option. Not everyone may agree with Roth’s depiction, but the possibility for melding Jewish and American culture and identity should be acknowledged. The very popularity of Portnoy’s Complaint among a prominently Gentile audience suggests the identification of the American mainstream with “Jewish” culture. In the end, the debates about the novel’s legitimacy as a work of a particular Jewish culture have become somewhat irrelevant. Whether one likes it or not, the judenwitz of Portnoy’s Complaint has been effectively claimed by the American mainstream.
Although it resists the valorization of minority peculiarity currently in academic vogue, Roth’s depiction and promotion of assimilation seem all the more desirable when we contrast them with the situation related at the end of Rubinsteins Versteigerung. Seligmann’s novel offers no vision of mainstream integration or identification comparable to that of the baseball or Israel scenes from Portnoy’s Complaint. Like Portnoy, Jonathan Rubinstein is cured of his romanticized picture of Israel by coming into contact with it, in his case with an unsympathetic Israeli general who, while collecting funds for the Arab conflict, practically boasts of his troops’ using napalm. Shortly thereafter, Rubinstein’s identity seems to be re-oriented by a Gentile, Suse, with whom he falls in love and finally succeeds in losing his virginity. He stands up to his domineering mother and introduces Suse as his partner, even though for Esel she represents the dreaded shikse. But although Rubinstein now acknowledges his desire for mainstream assimilation, the final ironic plot twist in Seligmann’s novel takes the opposite direction to that in Roth’s. Having constantly railed in adolescent-hysterical fashion against Nazi-Deutschland and SS-Tochter, Rubinstein discovers that Suse’s father was in fact a member of the Schutzstaffel (SS). Rubinstein wants to continue the relationship, but she refuses, undermining his attempts at liberation from maternal dominance and connection to the German mainstream. She argues:
“Jonathan, wieso machst du dir standig was vor? Du bist nicht so stark and gefuhllos. Du bist deiner Mutter nicht gewachsen. Du bist von ihr abhangig, glaub es mir. Und die Vergangenheit ist such in dir noch sehr lebendig. Du muBt dich nur mit einem Mann wie Herrn Frankfurter [einem Holocaust-Uberlebenden] unterhalten, and schon traumst du, daB du vergast wirst. Du kannst these Vergangenheit nicht fiber Bord schmeiBen, nur weil du mich kennengelernt hast. (185-86)
( “Jonathan, why do you keep pretending? You’re not that strong or that heartless. You’re not equal to your mother. You’re still tied to her apron strings, believe me. And the past is still very much alive inside you. No sooner do you talk with a man like Herr Frankfurter [a Holocaust survivor], than you start dreaming about being in the gas chamber. You can’t toss the past overboard just because you’ve met me.”)
In one sense, Seligmann’s hero is better off than Roth’s. He may have a touch of Portnoy’s complaint, but as far as we know, his sexual desires will not prevent him from having a satisfying relationship with a single partner. Culturally, however, his lot is by far the worse. Although Seligmann does not depict everyday anti-Semitism in 1969 West Germany as being markedly worse than in Roth’s representation of 1950s America, the presence of a collective criminal past of such magnitude precludes a Jewish-German symbiosis along Jewish-American lines.”8 The problem is not a lack of public political engagement or Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung: in its classroom scenes, Rubinsteins Versteigerung depicts the considerable energy spent in indoctrinating Germans with anti-Nazi ideas. The problem is private citizens’ failure to engage with the Nazi past in their immediate familial and personal circles, a failure typified by Suse’s refusal to bring her exNazi father and Jewish boyfriend into contact. This ending suggests that the sheer weight of the unacknowledged familial past precludes a melding of the mainstream with the minority, such as is depicted in Portnoy’s Complaint and exemplified by that novel’s popularity.in the U.S. The past, as it were, closes off the historical route toward assimilation taken by German Jews: namely, achievement in the nationally defined culture. Jews living in post-1945 Germany, as numerous historians and sociologists have pointed out,” remain outsiders who do not identify with the German nation. Conversely, as Seligmann dramatizes in his 1997 novel Der Musterjude, the German public tends to treat individuals of Jewish origin as representative spokespeople. One owes them a considerable measure of guilt-ridden attention, and one seeks to learn from their thoughts and ideas, but one cannot identify with the `Jewish” perspective. The reception of post-1945 German-Jewish literature bears witness to this impasse. Despite the prominence of Seligmann-as well as that of his predecessors Jurek Becker and Edgar Hilsenrath, and his contemporaries Maxim Biller, Robert Schindel, and Robert Menasse-there has been no German Portnoy’s Complaint, no work of latter-day Judenwitz that has been embraced and appropriated as typically German.
Both Portnoy and Rubinstein end up with unresolved problems and hybrid identities, but the balance between minority and mainstream components is reversed. “Ich bin ein deutscher Jude,” cries the heartbroken Rubinstein at the end of Seligmann’s novel. And in a bit of grammar lies the basic difference between the two societies, the two ethnic-discursive situations treated in this essay. Portnoy is a Jewish American, whereas Rubinstein remains a German Jew. The difference originates in the historical definitions of citizenship in the two societies: the Anglo-American ius soli versus the German ius sanguinis. For Germans, this distinction has been transformed and reinforced by twentieth-century history. Legally, Rubinstein is a German. Culturally, he is not. His Jewish particularity has been preserved, ironically, at a cost few would deem acceptable.
With the passage of time, the situation could change. Certainly one would expect the German capacity to acknowledge the direct and indirect complicity of family members in the crimes of Nazism to increase as the figures directly concerned recede ever further into the past. In the process, the possibilities for an assimilation of German and Jewish culture into one another might improve. Would the ending of Rubinsteins Versteigerung significantly change, I asked Seligmann during a recent interview (see footnote 5), if the story were set in 1999, not 1969, and it were Suse’s grandfather, not her father, who had been in the SS? “Ich weiB nicht,” was his answer. “Das ware eine andere Geschichte.” This other story/history, were it to become reality, would represent a further Jewish triumph over Nazi anti-Semitism, a triumph confirmed by mocking laughter.
1 All quotations refer to the paperback 1995 Vintage reprint of Portnoy’s Complaint. The novel has generated extensive secondary literature, so for simplicity’s sake I will cite wherever possible the essays in Pinsker (ed.), Critical Essays on Philip Roth, a good compendium of positive and negative Roth criticism and reviews.
2 Rafael Seligmann was born in 1947 in Tel Aviv and emigrated to Munich at the age of ten. He studied history and politics at the University of Munich, where he received a doctorate and later held a teaching post. Seligmann began his authorial career as a journalist and political pundit, writing for a range of periodicals including the Jidische Zeitung and the tabloid Bild-Zeitung. His major novels are Rubinsteins Versteigerung, Die jiddische Mamme (1991), Der Musterjude (1997), and Der Milchmann (1999). He has lived in Berlin since 1996.
3 See Sander Gilman’s published series of lectures, Jews in Today’s German Culture, pp. 47-58. As Gilman notes, the phrase was used both on the book jacket of the first edition and by Henryk M. Broder in an early review in Die Zeit (18 Aug. 1989). Gilman points out some basic similarities between Roth and Seligmann, emphasizing the importance of Roth for Seligmann’s authorial reputation, but doesn’t offer any substantial comparison of the two texts.
4 There are no articles or monographs solely devoted to any of Seligmann’s works. Rubinsteins Versteigerung is treated by Gilman (see footnote 3) and Nolden in general discussions of contemporary German-Jewish authors, although neither focuses on humor. Critical interpretations of Portnoy’s Complaint are, of course, numerous, but few critics locate Roth within a German tradition. The exceptions will be discussed in the course of this essay.
5 In his volume of essays, Seligmann specifically mentions Roth as an influence on the generation of German-Jewish writers to which he himself belongs (Mit beschrankter Hoffnung 184). In a private interview conducted on 25 May 1999 at Warwick University (U.K.), Seligmann confirmed to me that Roth’s work did indeed influence the composition of Rubinsteins Versteigerung, although he asserted that he was thinking more of Goodbye, Columbus than Portnoy’s Complaint.
6 Seligmann characterizes post-1945 German-Jewish authors as “Tucholskys and anderer Enkel” (Mit beschrankter Hoffnung 129-88).
7 Roth himself makes the connection between comedy and Kafka in Reading Myself pp. 21-22.
8 See Snyder 62-63, 117-20; Slide 17-19, 31-35, 62-65, 107-8, 269-72, 336-39, 436-37, 508-13; and Nahma Sandrow, “Yiddish Theater and American Theater”; Mark Slobin, “Some Intersections of Jews, Music, and Theater”; and June Sochen, “Fanny Brice and Sophie Tucker: Blending the Particular with the Universal” in Sarah Blacher Cohen (ed.) 18-28, 29-43, 33-57, respectively.
9 See Whitfield, who locates the beginning of Jewish humor or wit with Heine and Borne and traces its development in the United States with particular reference to stand-up comedy.
10 Roth, Reading Myself 80-82, explicitly affiliates himself with Henny Youngman, just as Portnoy invokes the borscht belt comics Berle, Sam Levensen, and Myron Cohen, as well as Youngman (pp. 111-12). Curiously, Roth’s published remarks about Lenny Bruce and later generation Jewish standup comics are more distanced (Reading Myself 21).
11 The appearance of Portnoy’s Complaint and Roth’s early short fiction engendered a huge controversy among some Jewish-American readers, including a large number of rabbis and spokespeople for the Jewish community.” Roth chronicles the various scandals and rebuts his attackers in his essays “Writing about Jews” and “Imagining Jews” in Reading Myself, pp. 149-70 and 215-46, respectively. See also Guttman, “Philip Roth and the Rabbis”; and Isaac. Rubinsteins Versteigerung inspired a similar controversy among some German-Jewish readers when it appeared. See Mit beschrankter Hoffnung, pp. 148-49 and 152-54 for Seligmann’s descriptions of the hate mail and disrupted readings that came in response.
12 The most widely known version of this thesis can be found in Gilman’s Jewfish Self-Hatred, in which Roth is discussed (354-82). Gilman’s evaluation of Roth is ambiguous. While pointing out that Roth ironically took up the idea of Jewish self-hatred in the wake of the Portnoy’s Complaint controversies, Gilman doesn’t offer a clear conclusion as to whether this authorial response was successful.
13 All quotations refer to the 1991 paperback reprint of Rubinsteins Versteigerung. Seligmann explores the dominant mother topos to an even greater degree in his second novel, Die jiddische Mamme.
14 Portnoy’s disillusionment with The Monkey begins with his discovering a note from her that contains a number of primitive misspellings (184-85). The scene is significant because it points up the connection between mastery of language and mastery of social situation. This equation of correct use of language and social integration is repeated throughout the novel (90, 145, 164, 224).
15 Rubinstein’s naively romantic Zionism reflects a general cultural trend among Jews living in post-war Germany. See Burgauer, 53-57.
16 See Fischel and Pinsker, 48-52; Steven M. Cohen, 1-24,110-25; and Goldscheider, 170-84.
17 For relatively negative treatments of Roth, which argue for the author’s shortcomings vis-a-vis his putative Jewishness, see Friedman and Landis. For the view that Roth represents a secular continuation of a popularly accepted yet nonetheless particular Jewish culture, see Wirth-Nesher. For the contrasting view that Roth’s works illustrate the inevitability of assimilation and unavoidable dissolution of Jewish particularity, see Guttman, “The Conversion of the Jews.”
18 Gilman, it seems to me, misstates the situation when he writes of Rubinstein/Seligmann’s “contradictory desire for visibility and anxiety aroused by being visible in the `new Germany”‘ (Jews in Today’s German Culture 57). The prevailing mode at the end of Rubinsteins Versteigerung is not anxiety, but frustration at living in a society to which one cannot fully belong. Interestingly, when asked about the ideological content of his decision to make Suse’s father a former member of the SS, Seligmann informed me that the incident was based on biographical fact (25 May 1999 interview).
19 I See Burgauer, 49-53; and Schoeps, 96-113. Their analysis is confirmed by the interviews collected in Sichrovsky, and in Broder and Lang. See also Seligmann’s brief essay “An Stelle eines Nachworts: Deutsche Juden staff Juden in Deutschland,” Mit beschrdnkter Hoffnung 315-16.
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