What Philip Roth Taught Me About My Own Childhood

By Binnie Klein

In recent days following the death of Pulitzer-prize winning author Philip Roth, we’ve been treated to a little storm of opinion pieces about what he didn’t get right:

He didn’t accurately portray Jewish women.

Forget just Jewish women — he was a misogynist obsessed with sex.

He traded in Jewish stereotypes.

He was narcissistic. All his characters were versions of himself.

Philip Roth in Newark

I’m not here to engage in a dialogue with these critiques. I just want to mention what he gave me, a girl from Newark who went to Weequahic High School (his alma mater) for two years.

Roth graduated Weequahic in 1950, when the high school was rated one of the best in the country, producing graduates who often went on to earn PhDs (many teachers were former university professors). His Newark was the neighborhood developed by second-and-third generation Jews who were “making it,” running factories, owning stores, developing the booming insurance industry (where Roth’s father worked). His Newark was an enclave of leftist-leaning Jews who valued education, who enjoyed the proximity of homey delicatessens, butcher shops, tailors, all owned or run by families everyone knew. People sat on porches and kids ran around without worry.

My own years at Weequahic occurred in the 1960s, when many of us were looking to separate from our parents’ provincial-seeming lives, and when the spirt of “America” and the strivings of immigrants were harder to celebrate, with the shock of the Vietnam War and the continuing struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. Things were changing rapidly. As children, most of us had lived in similar wood-framed 2 family buildings, in claustrophic apartments. Now families with more money started moving to the suburbs, and although critics say they don’t recognize the Patimkin family of Goodbye Columbus, I did. Brenda Patimkin was one of the girls who got nose jobs, and the whole family, in their sprawling suburban home, yelling through the rooms, was recognizable to me.

As a fellow Weequahic-er told me, “I woke up one morning, and it’s like everyone was…just gone…people just started disappearing…I didn’t know what was going on…civil rights, busing, integration…when my best friend said they were moving to Livingston that was it…we never saw each other again.”

Roth seemed to have been nostalgic for his Newark. He and others of his generation remained devoted to a time that would not come again.

I felt differently — like many of my generation, I was just passing through my hometown, and eager to leave. I knew little about Newark’s history or its geography. I didn’t know that Newark was a seaport, one of the largest in the country. I didn’t know that Weequahic Park, where we cavorted after SDS meetings to get high while pumping the swings, had a beautiful 80 acre lake where you could take out boats. I didn’t know that at one point Weequahic Park had its own racetrack.

In a sense, Philip Roth re-introduced my own neighborhood — even my Jewishness — to me, by making it famous instead of just a way station on the road to adult freedom.

I was 8 when Goodbye Columbus was published, but when I saw the film adaptation in 1969, and then went on to read Roth’s novels, I was thrilled. I rode the same #107 bus Portnoy rode to New York and the #14 to downtown Newark and the public library. I drank black and white sodas at Margie’s and Harjay’s, the stores Roth loved. So many of his characters sounded like my extended family, mixing English with Yiddish, spouting familiar words, like “jahrzeit,” “schmuck,” “mazeltov,” “shtarke,” and “schmaltz.” Neil Klugman of Goodbye Columbus (Roth’s first fictional alter ego) lived with his Aunt Gladys who seemed to always be in the kitchen, cooking, pushing pot roast and boiled potatoes on him. I knew the smell of that kitchen, but I understood so little of what it took for the wave of Jewish immigrants to create this world. Roth was close to the pride of how hard they worked.

It’s not often you get to see details of your one small world depicted in literature or film, and because we shared some of that history, even in different decades, I’ve never been inclined to be an objective critic about his writing. I just soaked up the atmosphere.

Over time, I began to trade on Philip Roth as being a famous alum of “my” high school. I began to see that there were tons of alums and former Newark dwellers who did the same and found websites like “Old Newark” with photographs and memories that I pored over.

When a dear Newark friend died in 2015, I was asked to provide photographs for a memorial. I tracked down my best Newark friends and acquaintances and interviewed them by phone. My heart raced (as it had when reading Roth’s references) when places we frequented were mentioned, Burgerama, Ming’s Chinese restaurant, Syd’s Hot Dog Stand, Amato’s Pizza. Many people have versions of these in their memories, wherever they grew up. But Roth, by channeling his own memories, his own losses, into fiction that captured, with amazing granularity and accuracy, the neighborhood I grew up in, made the past so much more vivid, so much more accessible to me. Roth taught me, a restless child of the 60s, nostalgia for what was.

I’ve tried to retrieve more memories of Newark. Things are hazy but haunting. In the late 1960s, I watched stores close and more of the wealthier among us move to the suburbs. That wasn’t my family; we wound up in a barren, bland part of New Jersey. John F. Kennedy Memorial High School was virtually the ‘anti-Weequahic.’ I had come from a school where you were either Jewish or Black, which gave the school a distinctive diversity. Now both groups were in the minority. No one looked like me. I tried to escape back to Newark when I could, but I knew I had to eventually return to our new isolation.

The Weequahic section, since then, has gone through significant changes, some of which are depicted in the documentary Heart of Stone. One thing has remained from Roth’s time to the present, and it is an image that returns to me again and again.

The Enlightenment of Man by Michael Lenson, 1937, Weequahic High School Mural

When I stepped into the lobby of Weequahic High School as a freshman, following the path of my two older sisters who were alums, I was overwhelmed by the elaborate and colorful murals on the walls. They were created in 1937, commissioned to an artist named Michael Lenson, by the Works Project Administration — a federal program which put artists to work (no kidding; there was such a thing). The mural was called “The Enlightenment of Man,” and depicts groups of vigorously working and striving figures, muscular men and women. All the figures looked gigantic to me, like gods. In one corner cave men — in another — Ancient Greeks, Michelangelo and modern scientists, and farming couples — striving, creating, praying. It welcomed you to the impressive Art Deco structure on Chancellor Avenue, a street where Roth and I both bought comic books and candy cigarettes. Roth was besotted with the postwar strivings of the “settlers” of Newark’s Weequahic section, once known as the “Jewish Frontier.” I’ll bet he found the mural stirring. I always found it a bit frightening.

Those figures in the mural — those giants — perhaps they frightened me because the message was “you better do something — something BIG.”

Philip Roth did.

Binnie Klein is working on a podcast memoir, Ten Days in Newark, about first love and first heartbreak in the summer of 1967. She is host of A Miniature World, a radio show on WPKN-FM and wpkn.org. Audio work available at www.binnieklein.com. She is the author of Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind (SUNY Press, 2010).