Jews, Leather, and Becoming American: Philip Roth’s American Pastoral…and Mine

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When I first read Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral, I was blown away by the plot.  It was based on something very close to my own life-story: the decline of a Jewish family (the Levovs) which coincides with the rise and fall of the leather business in upstate New York. Indeed, Roth’s words on Gloversville, New York – where my father and grandfather worked in the leather business and where I grew up – and its ailing leather industry have deep resonance for me.  If I were to read myself into the plot, I would be in the position of the third-generation, which, for Roth, completely turns against the family tradition and its Jewish-American values.  This story, to be sure, is Roth’s allegory for post-WWII Jewish life in America and its descent into assimilation and madness.  Reading this, I wondered how close Roth’s novel about this leather family and its decline was to my own.  Although the narrative was strangely reminiscent of my own, was it my story?  And how could a story like this give birth to the schlemiel, a comic character?

This last question is my question, not Roth’s.  For, if anything, the novel ends on a tragic and not on a comic note.

Before reading American Pastoral, I often wondered whether the story of how my family ended up in Gloversville in the leather business and what happened to that business – and my family – touched on a larger, yet more tragic story; namely, the story of Jews becoming Americans.   I, like one of the main characters in Roth’s novel, am the last of three generations.  My grandfather Menachem Menkis, who I am named after, died before I was born.  He was raised in the mountains of Hungary in a house whose first floor was a synagogue.  His father, a Rabbi, taught him to stay close to his Jewish heritage.  And when he went off to Vienna to join the army, fight in the war (serving as a corporal over a Jewish platoon), learn a trade, and make a living, he brought this tradition with him.

After fighting in the First World War and learning the leather trade in Vienna, he went on to sell leather in Odessa.  At a certain point, he decided that the leather business would do better in America than in Europe.  With this in mind, he and his family left for the United States on the cusp of Hitler’s coming to power.   In America, he built a large leather corporation which had its home base in Gloversville, New York.  He would travel weekly to Gloversville from his nine-room apartment on 89th and West End Avenue in Manhattan (where my father grew up).

Menkis (the name he went by) made a fortune during World War II and, as the years progressed, he became one of the largest deerskin producers in the world.  His children – my father and his brothers – eventually took the helm of the business when my grandfather, in the late 1960s, decided to retire.

What happened after they took over was tragic. They fought with my father, their youngest brother, and kicked him out of the family fortune and the leather business.  I was not allowed to see my cousins from the Feuer side of the family, and even my grandmother was forbidden to see me.  (Near her death, she broke the rules my uncle set down for her – “talk to them and I’ll cut you off” – and called us to see her in her Central Park West apartment.  I was only 17 years old and her apology for never seeing me was a little late in coming, and…it hurt.)   My father spent his life trying to get back what was taken from him.  He hired many lawyers, received many threats (which included threats to me and my family), and eventually gave up on getting back the millions he was cheated out of.

Meanwhile, the leather business was going down the tubes.  I grew up in the midst of this decline and I watched it all break down (“all” includes my father, my family, and the leather business).  Like the third generation of American Jews in American Pastoral, I wanted nothing to do with the business or with any of the mess that I grew up with.

This brings me to Roth’s novel, his real life models for the story, his description of Gloversville, and the decline of the leather business.

There are two real life models in Roth’s novel that are of interest to me: 1) a legendary Jewish sports star from Gloversville named David Smukler (“Dynamite Dave”) and 2) the real decline of the leather business in Gloversville.

If I were to situate myself into Roth’s novel, Swede, the main character, would be my father.  What would this imply?  Swede embodies Roth’s vision of the totally assimilated Jew.  He is the son of an immigrant leather businessman who has risen above all stereotypes of the Jew to become, in effect, an American.  He is, without a doubt, not a schlemiel.  The narrator’s description of him is, to the say the least, heroic and mythic:

Fifty or sixty kids gathered along the sidelines at practice to watch Swede – in a battered leather helmet and the brown jersey numbered, in orange, 11 – working out with the varsity against the JVs…I haven’t forgotten the Swede, after being smothered by tacklers, climbing slowly to his feet, shaking himself off, casting an upward, remonstrative glance at the darkening fall sky, sighing ruefully, and then trotting undamaged back to the huddle.  When he scored, that was one kind of glory, and when he got tackled and piled on hard, and just stood up and shook it off, that was another kind of glory, even in scrimmage. (19)

Swede is “one with his America.”  And Swede’s Jewishness is not a heavy burden for him, but it does evoke a sense of shame in those who look at him:

The Jewishness that he wore so lightly as one of the tall, blond athletic winners must have spoken to us too – in our idolizing the Swede and his unconscious oneness with America.  I suppose there was a tinge of shame and self-rejection.  Conflicting Jewish desires awakened by the sight of him were simultaneously becalmed by him; the contradiction in Jews who want to fit in and want to stand out, who insist they are different and insist that they are no different, resolved itself in the triumphal spectacle of this Swede…Where was the Jew in him? You couldn’t find it and yet you knew it was there. (20)

The narrator, when looking at him, is confused about Jewishness; yet, somehow, he thinks that Swede is the “resolution” of the dichotomy between being Jewish and being American.  And we see this in the last words: “You couldn’t find it and yet you knew it was there.”

This ambiguity is based on the fact that Swede, unlike many American Jews, is the embodiment of the American athletic hero.  Although Roth never discusses this in any of his interviews, the model for Swede was most certainly Dave Smukler: the Jewish football star who was born and raised in Gloversville and who, in fact, spent a little time in Roth’s hood – Newark, New Jersey. He, like Swede, was a Jew who also happened to be a star athlete when Jews were represented as schlemiels and nebbishes (in the most negative sense).  Smukler, like Swede, went on to professional football, left sports for the military, and upon his return, takes up the mantle of the leather business.  And while Swede succeeds, the business does not.

And this is where Gloversville and its decline come in.  Swede bears witness to this. Strangely enough, this narrative about Gloversville is one I am very familiar with: it is personal. I heard it, and I still hear it today when I go out to breakfast with my father and his friends who spent their lives in the leather business:

When the first guy left Gloversville, New York, in ’52 or ’53 and went to the Philippines to make gloves, they laughed at him, as though he were going to the moon.  But when he died, around 1978, he had a factory there with four thousand workers and the whole industry had gone essentially from Gloversville to the Philippines.  Up in Gloversville, when the Second World War began, there must have been ninety glove factories, big and small. Today there isn’t a one – all of them out of business or importers from abroad. (27)

With the decline of Gloversville and its industry, we also see a decline in the generations of the Levov family.  Swede’s daughter ends up resenting money and power; she rejects her family and resents her father.

I can understand where Roth is going with this and of how the decline is paralleled with the Jew, Swede, becoming a fully assimilated and proud American.  My father’s story is different insofar as my father wasn’t an athlete so much as an academic and an engineer.  He was the Valedictorian at Bronx Science and at Columbia University.  He was the NASA fellow at Johns Hopkins University and envisioned himself as being on the crest of a new America.

But, like Swede, he gave all of this up for a leather business that, when he arrived in Gloversville, ejected him.  The leather business ruined whatever greatness he had.  And, like Swede, as the business went down, so did he.

In the last blog entry, I discussed Ben Katchor and Saul Bellow’s representations of upstate New York.  The point I was trying to make was that, for them, upstate New York was a space where the Jew went “wild” and lost his Jewish identity.  What Roth adds to this urban legend of upstate New York (and Gloversville) is a wasting away of Jewishness that goes hand in hand with the decline of the leather industry.

But this wasting away really starts when the Jew goes from being a schlemiel to being an American hero, an athlete like Swede.  As the narrator notes above, it was hard to see where the Jewish part in Swede was; he was “one with America.”  But was he “one with America” when he went into decline?  How is losing one’s Jewishness about becoming one with America?  And is the story of going from riches to rags an American story? What does a generation of Jews, born outside of this tradition do?  Are they lost in the American wilderness?

These are general questions that one can draw out of Roth’s novel, but, as you can see, I have personal questions.  Here are a few:

Was I born to be a Jew or born to be wild?  Since I was born in upstate New York to two generations of leather men who went into decline, am I living Roth’s American Pastoral or….my own?

Perhaps the main difference between my American Pastoral and Roth’s is the fact that while Roth has no room for the schlemiel in his American Pastoral (to be sure, Swede is the anti-thesis of Roth’s Portnoy) I do.  After all, although my father was an academic success with big dreams, he has more in common with the schlemiel than with Swede and David Smukler.  And that, perhaps, makes all the difference.  Unlike Swede, he was almost “one with America.”

…to be continued…

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