(JTA) — What is being done to silence this man?” an American rabbi asked in a 1963 letter to the Anti-Defamation League.
He was talking about the novelist Philip Roth, whose early novels and short stories cast his fellow American Jews in what some considered a none-too-flattering light.
Fast-forward half a century.
On Thursday, the writer whose works were once denounced as profane was honored by one of American Jewry’s sacred citadels: The Jewish Theological Seminary, Conservative Judaism’s flagship educational institution, awarded Roth an honorary doctorate at its commencement ceremony.
“From enfant terrible to elder statesman. Time heals all wounds,” Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles remarked to JTA via email.
Early in his career, Roth drew outrage with sometimes stinging depictions of Jewish life, as well as his graphic portrayal of a protagonist’s sexual desires in his 1969 novel “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Some worried that his work would endanger American Jews, providing fodder for anti-Semites.
In one notorious incident, Roth was shaken by a hostile reception he received at a 1962 literary symposium at New York’s Yeshiva University. Recalling being shouted at by hostile students after the event, Roth vowed to “never write about Jews again” — a promise, of course, that he did not keep.
“There is a certain amount of poetic justice, an aesthetically satisfying irony, in Philip Roth’s beginning his career with a brouhaha at Yeshiva University and ending it with an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary — an honor perhaps more significant than the Nobel Prize that eludes him,” Michael Kramer, associate professor of literature at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, wrote in an email. “Would Roth himself have imagined such a plot? His endings tend to the tragic.”
Now the 81-year-old Roth’s own career is itself at an end. In 2012, Roth announced that he would not be writing more books. Earlier this month, he declared after a reading at New York’s 92nd Street Y that he was done with public appearances.
“This was absolutely the last appearance I will make on any public stage, anywhere,” said Roth, although on Wednesday news broke that he will appear as an interview guest on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” in July.
Roth, in his books, poked fun at the wrath he incurred from segments of the community. One of his recurring protagonists, Nathan Zuckerman, is a novelist whose own writings have similarly upset many Jews.
But after decades as one of America’s leading literary lights, the anger Roth once evoked has been eclipsed by acclaim.