There is a charming romantic comedy called “Keeping the Faith” starring Edward Norton (who also wrote and directed it), Ben Stiller and Jenna Elfman. It’s about a priest and a rabbi, best friends, who fall for the same woman. It’s a lovely, heartwarming and funny movie that I’m puzzled never got much attention. Anyway, Anne Bancroft plays the rabbi’s mother and is very convincing as a Jewish mother. In the commentary, Norton talks about how convincing she is, even though Bancroft herself was not Jewish — though she used to say that she was an “honorary Jew” for having been married to Mel Brooks for decades.
I have a feeling that when I make it through all of Philip Roth’s books, I will feel much the same way. It’s unlikely I will ever again have such sustained exposure to Jewish culture as I will have reading Roth’s ouevre unless I marry a Jewish man myself.
I have now finished my first Roth book. Yay! Only…twenty-eight to go. Hoo boy. I am nothing if not a woman up for a challenge.
Not that reading Roth is a hardship. His prose is exquisite. There is a reason that he won the National Book Award for this, his first published novel. The titular novella is a multilayered and deceptively simple story about a young man’s summer love affair with a Radcliffe student. Neil Klugman, the narrator, is so caught up in his romance with upper-class Brenda Patimkin and so certain that he must eventually lose her that, as with all self-fulfilling prophecies, he finds a way to make it happen.
This novella is a good read, but it’s followed by five short stories, each of which really pack a whallop. My favorites are “Defender of the Faith,” about a Jewish army sargeant who is taken advantage of by a soldier who rather ruthlessly exploits their religious connection to get favors from him, and “Eli, the Fanatic.” This last, the final story in the collection, is exquisite and heartwrenching and it’s going to stay with me for a long time. Others of the shorts are less successful, but none of them are less than harbingers of Roth’s future greatness.