(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.
In a phone interview, the seminary’s chancellor, Arnold Eisen — a sociologist and the only non-rabbi to lead JTS since World War II — called Roth the “greatest sociologist on American Jewish life, without doubt.”
Eisen said that in his previous job at Stanford University, he frequently assigned Roth’s books to students in his classes on American Judaism. Eisen noted his admiration for the Roth novels that examined the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, such as “The Counterlife” and “Operation Shylock,” as well as works that explored the American scene, like “The Human Stain” and “American Pastoral.”
“We are a community that treasures someone who holds up such a penetrating and insightful mirror to who we are and reveals the dilemmas and contradictions and aspirations of the community,” Eisen said. “We are grateful for the mirror even if not everything you see in it is easy.”
Elisa Albert, a fiction writer and the author of an epistolary short story in which her alter ego offers to have a baby with Roth, called the JTS recognition “a small honorary justice.”
“I’d imagine it’s an irresistible offering: a major institution of the very community that once upon a time so narrow-mindedly shunned him and his work now honors him, decades later,” she wrote in an email.
Roth, however, has not exactly been a communal pariah over his long career. Three of Roth’s books were honored with the American Jewish Book Award, and in 1998 he won the Jewish Book Council’s Lifetime Literary Achievement Award.
The JTS honor seems to have elicited little controversy. Though Roth has faced criticism from feminists over his depictions of women, a query from Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg to the listserv for female Conservative rabbis soliciting reactions to the honorary doctorate yielded no responses.
The president of the Philip Roth Society, Aimee Pozorski, said that Roth and JTS are not so different in their values.
“Ultimately, for the last 50 years, and despite opinions to the contrary, they have fought for the same ideals all along,” Pozorski added. “From the very beginning of his career, he has been deeply invested in representing the lives and fates of Jewish youth.”
Roth, however, has demurred when it is suggested that he should be defined as an American Jewish writer.
“I did not want to, did not intend to, and was not able to speak for American Jews; I surely did not deny, and no one questioned the fact, that I spoke to them, and I hope to others as well,” Roth wrote in his essay “Writing About Jews.”
At JTS, though, appreciation abounded for Roth’s contributions to the Jewish world.
“If the Western world views itself through the lens of the modern Jewish experience, it is in large measure due to the novels, novellas and short stories of Philip Roth,” wrote David Roskies, a JTS Jewish literature professor, in a note to the class of 2014.
He added that Roth “has done more than anyone to further the literary exploration of the Holocaust, in his own writings, and by promoting great works and writers throughout the world.”
At the JTS commencement, the honorary doctorate recipients received their hoods, tribute to their various services to the Jewish people: Ruth Calderon, Knesset member and Talmud teacher; Rabbi David Ellenson, chancellor and former president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; and Stanley Fischer, former governor of the Bank of Israel.
When Roth was given his hood, he received a sustained standing ovation.
And at the ceremony’s end, Roth walked off stage in the final procession, bareheaded among the kippah-clad crowd.