League of their own: the competition for Jewish-American identity in the novels of Philip Roth

Rebeccah Amendola

Document Type Dissertation/Thesis


In his insightful and sometimes troubled contemporary writings, Philip Roth demonstrates a nuanced understanding of how the development of Jewish-American identity is a painful and often hilariously paradoxical journey of discovery as Jewish traditions intersect (and often collide) with the American ideal of vertical advancement. Since the successful fulfillment of the American Dream requires some measure of assimilation into the majority American culture known as Americanization, Roth's Jewish-American characters are continually and precariously ill-balanced between retaining and abandoning their Jewish heritage in favor of a new American identity. Thus, if Americanization necessitates Anglo-conformity and the abandonment of immigrant mores, the Jewish characters who people Roth's stories and novels attempt to assimilate by replacing their own cultural identifiers with those of the majority American culture. Yet this form of cultural surrender is shown to be a conversion in the name of upward mobility; a conversion which forsakes foundational identity to engage in the formation of a new, and often inauthentic, American identity. In this sense, Roth's American Dream of personal revision and upward conversion presents an ironic quandary for the Jewish characters: to convert or not to convert? Conversion for American Jews, of course, extends far beyond ecclesiastical bread-breaking and enters into the metaphorical realm of social subtleties. The perverse conversion of Jew to American necessitates a ritualistic performance involving the adaptation of particularly American forms of competitive interplay, cuisine and language. But Roth, as authorial commentator on the Jewish 'condition,' seems to suggest, through his characters and story-lines, that to be wholly American and to be wholly Jewish actuates a perilous cultural split-personality. Accordingly, Roth presents his reader with what he conceives to be the bipolarity of Jewish-Americans, a chronic duality afflicting every American who claims to be a Jew (and, conversely, every Jew who claims to be American). In this representation, Jewish-Americans are not only multi-faceted fractured selves, they also inhabit and participate in a divided culture. Jewish-Americans confront competing pressures: to proceed from their home and heritage and achieve success and acceptance in the larger society, and to maintain their ties to family and religio-ethnic origins. Thus, Roth presents Jewish-American characters divided by the competing prerogatives of the group and the individual.