In search of Roth’s Newark

In search of Roth’s Newark

Philip Roth greets Roberta Harrington during 2005 visit to his childhood home on Summit Avenue.
Philip Roth greets Roberta Harrington during 2005 visit to his childhood home on Summit Avenue.

Goodbye, Columbus, and hello, Newark!

The release of two new movies based on Newark-set novels by city bard Philip Roth — Indignation, which came out this summer, and American Pastoral, to be released next month — sent me in search of the author’s hometown roots. Much has changed since Roth’s birth there in 1933 and his years growing up in the then mostly Jewish section of Weequahic, I discovered. But there was also much that he would still recognize — and his readers would, too.

If anyone knows Newark as well as Roth, that would be Liz Del Tufo, the blue-eyed, spryly energetic 82-year-old president of the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee. A longtime fan of Roth’s work, she helped spearhead the 2005 campaign that succeeded in making his childhood home a landmark, and cochaired the committee for Roth’s 80th birthday party celebration, which had taken place where we met, outside the stately 1920s-era Newark Museum on Washington Street. Situated close by was the bucolic, triangular-shaped, tree-filled Washington Park, which was originally laid out as a town common in colonial times.

It is here, Del Tufo tells me now — and Roth himself points out, in Goodbye, Columbus, that Gen. George Washington trained his troops. “Sitting there, in the park,” Roth’s character muses in the book that first made his literary reputation in 1959, “I felt a deep knowledge of Newark, an attachment so rooted that it could not help but branch out into affection.”

In book after book, Roth displays a similarly deep affection and regard for a city that has gone through iterations documented as much in history books and media headlines as in Roth’s work. Together, they reveal Newark as “the most American city imaginable in that it welcomed wave after wave of immigrants,” says Michael C. Kimmage, professor of history at Catholic University in Washington, DC, and author of In History’s Grip: Philip Roth’s Newark Trilogy. Roth’s Eastern European paternal grandparents were among the teeming masses who arrived in the late 19th century; so, too, no doubt, were the parents and grandparents of the Italian teenagers with whom Roth’s characters tussled outside World War II-era Newark’s Chancellor Avenue Playground in Nemesis, the novel that, Roth announced to his disappointed fans in 2013, would be his last work of fiction.

And so Roth’s novels — from his first to his last — make Newark not just a backdrop to his work, but a continuing presence, almost a character in itself.

Kimmage sees the Newark trajectory in these novels as “a story of urban growth and then decline.” But a visitor to Newark itself also sees continuity and renewal, as exemplified by the glorious Branch Brook Park, whose site was conceived during the city’s 19th-century heyday by New York’s Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted. As I viewed the expansive lawns, playing fields, and walking paths and the streams, pools, and lakes that stretch across four city miles, I could not help but think of this vibrant space, clearly being enjoyed by people of all ages on a balmy September afternoon, as Newark’s very own Central Park.

That is a strikingly different image from the one most people think of when Newark is mentioned: the 1967 riots that killed 26, injured more than 1,000 and caused $10 million in damage. American Pastoral depicts the horror vividly, and some blocks are still blighted. But by no means all. Del Tufo points to tidy streets and neighborhoods lined with attractive, well-maintained middle-income town houses that have in the last decades replaced many of the old projects. And new upscale residential buildings and shopping areas are also under construction, as reflected in a recent New York Times headline, “In Newark, a New Chapter Unfolding.” Look in one direction, and you’ll see the bright sign advertising the “24 Jones” apartment complex, in another, an announcement that Whole Foods is coming soon.

And regardless of where you go, layers of the city’s history — and settings for Roth’s books — pop out at you. Just down the street from the Newark Museum is the main branch of Newark Public Library. This elegant turn-of-the-20th-century four-story limestone structure, modeled after an Italian Renaissance palazzo, replete with arched doorway and windows, is where the fictional Neil Klugman (played by Richard Benjamin in the movie version of Goodbye, Columbus) worked. Stop at the foot of the broad staircase leading up to the handsome, columned Essex County Courthouse, dating to 1904, and you’ll find another landmark honored by Newark and Roth alike: the bronze statue by famed Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum of Lincoln, “seated and waiting welcomingly on a marble bench before the courthouse, in his social posture and by his gaunt bearded face revealing that he is wise and grave and fatherly and judicious and good,” Roth wrote in I Married a Communist.

We drive down Clinton Avenue, past the once elegant, now sadly dilapidated Riviera Hotel, which the narrator (who happens to be named Philip Roth) of The Plot Against America, notes as the spot his parents spent their wedding night. Keep driving along, and you will see looming ahead, just as Roth (both author and narrator) described in that novel, “Temple B’nai Abraham, the great oval fortress built to serve the city’s Jewish rich and no less foreign to me than if it had been the Vatican.”

At one point, Newark had about 60 synagogues, Del Tufo said. Many — including the one where Roth had his bar mitzva — no longer exist. (Some relocated to the suburbs; B’nai Abraham moved to Livingston in 1973.) Several structures, like this one, remain standing, though repurposed, most often as churches. As for currently active Jewish congregations, I could find listings for no more than three, the most robust being Congregation Ahavas Sholom, the longest continually operating synagogue in the city and home to the Jewish Museum of New Jersey.

That speaks to the fact that today relatively few Jews live within Newark’s city limits — virtually all who lived there in Roth’s time and the succeeding generation have long since left for the suburbs (though an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union have since the ’80s made the Ivy Hill neighborhood their home), like the Patimkins of Goodbye, Columbus, who decamped for Short Hills. But when Roth was growing up, Newark’s Jewish community was estimated at being between 60,000 and 70,000 out of a total city population of about 450,000. And many of those Jews lived in the Weequahic neighborhood, where Roth and his family resided in a five-room flat on the second floor of a multi-family home.

“This was the childhood home of Philip Roth, one of America’s greatest writers of the 20th and 21st centuries,” reads the simple plaque outside the unassuming two-and-a-half story clapboard house at 81 Summit Ave. “Numerous scenes in his 2004 novel The Plot Against America occur in this house and on this street.” Then, as now, the location remains respectably middle class. With the Chancellor Avenue School and the Weequahic High School attended by Roth and his older brother Sandy a block away, a yellow school-crossing sign warns drivers to watch for children. The fictional Alexander Portnoy of Portnoy’s Complaint went there, too, regaling his psychoanalyst in that sexually explicitly 1969 best-seller with the local cheer, “Ikey, Mikey, Jake and Sam,/ We’re the boys who eat no ham,/ We play football, we play soccer —/And we keep matzohs in our locker!/ Aye, aye, aye, Weequahic High!”

Was that what I heard faintly whistling through the trees at the nearby corner of Summit and Keer avenues, where a street sign announces, “Philip Roth Plaza”? Or was that an extension of the double vision I was also experiencing by tour’s end, my head now filled with images of the real-life Newark alongside and superimposed upon the Newark that Roth had brought to life so vibrantly on the page.

I wondered: Would Roth have still been Roth had he lived anywhere else other than Newark? When I asked Aimee Pozorski, an English professor at Central Connecticut State University and a former president of the Philip Roth Society, she replied without hesitation, “Wherever he lived, he would have used that place as his material. But,” she paused, “it wouldn’t be the same — because it wouldn’t be Newark.”

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