A Pilgrimage to Philip Roth's Hometown

On 80th Birthday, Fans Tour Newark, Novels in Hand

nate lavey

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published March 20, 2013, issue of March 29, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

Two police cars with flashing lights escorted the buses through the rain. Newark’s reputation left room to wonder whether the cops were there just to help the Roth fans navigate midday traffic — or to watch the scholars’ backs a bit, too. Newark Mayor Corey Booker probably wouldn’t want three busloads of international guests getting jumped somewhere between Roth’s old high school and his old house just as Booker is launching his campaign for the U.S. Senate.

The Roth fans on the buses weren’t just a local crew. The tour was a centerpiece in a multiday conference celebrating Roth’s birthday that drew scholars from around the world. There was Witcombe, who is working on a doctoral thesis about Roth and sex. “Kind of the obvious thing, in a way,” he said. Felipe Franco Munhoz (favorite Roth novel: “Sabbath’s Theater”), a young writer from Sao Paolo, was handing out copies of a translated excerpt of his Roth-inspired Portuguese novel. Gurumurthy Neelakantan (favorite Roth novels: several, including “Sabbath’s Theater”) had come all the way from the Indian city of Kanpur, where he teaches English at the Indian Institute of Technology.

Roth himself didn’t attend the tour. In the back of the first bus, however, there was a man who could have passed for the author’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. Like Roth, he had wild black eyebrows and a shock of hair around the temples. The “Operation Shylock”-style doppelganger, Howard Singer (favorite Roth novel: “American Pastoral”), even went to the same high school as Roth, albeit nearly a decade before the novelist.

Singer was taking the tour with his younger brother, Robert Singer (favorite Roth novel: “Goodbye, Columbus”). As the buses rolled up to Weequahic High School, an art deco building in the middle of a crumbling neighborhood, the brothers noted that the fences around the front yard hadn’t been there when they — and Roth — had attended.

That’s not much of a change in five and a half decades. Inside, however, the school could hardly be more different. When Roth and the Singer brothers attended, Weequahic High was known for churning out students who went on to earn doctorates. In a 2009 documentary, the school’s principal wore a bulletproof vest to patrol outside the building.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.