Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Joseph Roth, part 2

Yesterday I sketched some of the most important details of Joseph Roth’s life, as they affected his view of what I have not so charitably termed “losers.” Now I will examine one of his works, Job, to demonstrate how Roth wove those themes into his literary work.

In Job Roth chronicles the life of a typical Russian Jew named Mendel Singer, such as he grew up among in Brody. Mendel Singer’s world changed, and the world did not want to help him. Mendel begins as a Bible-teacher, an ordinary, God-fearing Jew. His wife Deborah, though, is a shrew. His oldest son, Schemarja, leaves Brody, sails to America and becomes Sam. His next son, Jonas, voluntarily joins the Russian army. His daughter, Mirjam, sleeps around with Cossacks. And his youngest son, Menuchim—his Benjamin—is born crippled and dumb, probably epileptic. The only hope to which Mendel and his wife can cling to is the prophecy made by a local rabbi that Menuchim would one day be healed. Years later, Menuchim is still not well, and Mendel, Deborah, and Mirjam leave him in Russia to join Sam in America. In America Mendel feels deprived of purpose and unsure of this new world. The rest of his family loves America, but Mendel does not. Why should he assimilate?

Then, Mendel’s already fragile world simply breaks apart. Upon the news of Sam’s death as an American soldier and Jonas’ disappearance as a Russian soldier in the First World War, Deborah herself dies of grief. Soon afterwards, Mirjam, who brought her old habits with her to America, goes insane after sleeping with Herr Glück—Mr. Happiness. At this point, Mendel cannot comprehend why God is punishing him, and tries to burn his prayer book until his neighbors stop him. He tells them he is trying to burn God. However, after months of living only in order to hate God, Mendel is brought something unexpected: his youngest son. At a Passover meal with his neighbors, at the point in the ceremony when the Jews await the coming of the Prophet, Menuchim knocks at the door. He has been healed of his epilepsy (at a Russian hospital),and is now a famous composer whose work Mendel already admires. This miracle—for that is what it is—ends the book. What was impossible has been accomplished; God loves Mendel.

Roth shows his affection for losers quite clearly at two other points in the novel. First, after coming to America, Mendel does not see the point of assimilating, and seems rather lazy compared to all his Jewish neighbors who go to night school to learn English. Mendel’s stubbornness in following strict moral laws makes his wife reproach him for “behaving like a Russian Jew.” Mendel’s only response: “I am a Russian Jew.” Mendel cannot change his identity, and does not see the desirability of even trying. He does not like America, and if that makes him a loser, so be it. Unfortunately, Mendel is rather inarticulate; he relies completely on his actions. Mendel simply cannot find words to express what he is thinking and feeling, even at key junctures in the story when the reader expects him to justify his actions. Mendel the loser cannot communicate. He has come to a country he does not understand. Yet, even in his Jewish enclave in New York City, he is surrounded by fellow Jews who do not understand him either. They have settled in America, and have ceased practicing their ancestral religion with any true fervor. They neglect mandatory prayers, and they work on the Sabbath. Their devotions are quickly becoming mere taboos, and their beliefs nothing more than old wives’ tales. There is a wall of silence separating Mendel from the entire world, even his fellow Jews, even his own family. No amount of rhetoric will break it down. Mendel can only call upon God. And when God refuses His help, what good is success for Mendel? How can he continue?

The second point is Roth’s short discourse on hope and miracles. Shortly before emigrating from Russia, Mendel reflects on the promise the rabbi made concerning Menuchim. What he needs is a miracle, but Mendel acknowledges that he has no right to demand one from God. And yet, Mendel’s only hope is for a miracle. It is here that Roth inserts the most important line in the book: “He who has no unhappiness does not believe in miracles.” In context Roth seems to cast doubt on this maxim, by speculating on why God has not performed any miracles since the time when Israel dwelt in Palestine. In reality, though, the novel’s ending demonstrates that this is the lesson Roth wished to impart to his readers. If we were all successful in God’s eyes, why should we need His grace?

In Mendel Singer we see the loser who refuses to change with the world, but who ultimately keeps on hoping.
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