Philip Roth on Intermarriage


American PastoralI recently finished reading Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1997. Roth of course has written extensively about Jewish men who fall in love with non-Jewish women–and the parents who disapprove–and American Pastoral is no different. Except when it is.

Unlike most of his other protagonists, the central character in American Pastoral is not a Roth-surrogate. The hero of American Pastoral (and to be sure, a hero is what he is), is a tall, athletic, endlessly optimistic blonde businessman and former high school sports star nicknamed “the Swede.” In short, he is the anti-Roth. But like Roth’s typical parade of Zuckermans and Portnoys, he is Jewish, and he is from New Jersey.

The novel tells the story of the Swede’s charmed life–and how it all turns to chaos when his teenaged daughter commits an act of misguided late ’60s anti-government terrorism.

But years before his daughter’s tragedy, the Swede falls in love with Dawn Dwyer, a beautiful petite Irish Catholic who happens to be Miss New Jersey. Late in the book, as the Swede reflects on how he went from perpetual bliss to perpetual angst, he remembers his father’s opposition to the union:

…[The Swede] was twenty-three years old and could only say, “I’m in love with her.”

“‘In love,’ what does that mean? What is ‘in love’ going to do for you when you have a child? How are you going to raise a child? As a Catholic? As a Jew? No, you are going to raise a child who won’t be one thing or the other–all because you are in ‘in love.'”

His father was right. That was what happened. They raised a child who was neither Catholic nor Jew, who instead was first a stutterer, then a killer, then a Jain. He had tried all his life never to do the wrong thing, and that was what he had done. All the wrongness that he had locked away in himself, that he had buried as deep as a man could bury it, had come out anyway, because a girl was beautiful. The most serious thing in his life, seeingly from the time he was born, was to prevent the suffering of those he loved, to be kind to people, a kind person through and through. That was why he had brought Dawn to meet secretly with his father at the factory office–to try to resolve the religious impasse and avoid making either of them unhappy. The meeting had been suggested by his father: face to face, between “the girl,” as Lou Levov charitably referred to her around the Swede, and “the ogre,” as the girl called him.

Roth recounts the meeting between Dawn and Lou Levov word-for-word, as if it were the transcript of a cross-examination. Levov grills her endlessly about her cross necklace, the church-going habits of her parents and her feelings about Jews. But the ultimate endgame is Dawn’s and the Swede’s future children and how they will be raised. Typical for a pugnacious entrepreneur like Lou, he turns a conversation into a negotiation: she wants the child baptized, he wants the child to have a bar mitzvah; he gives her Easter and Christmas but not the Eucharist (“I have the highest respect for whatever you do,” says Lou, “but my grandchild is not going to eat Jesus.”). But negotiations break down when he asks to turn their agreement into a contract. The Swede ends up marrying her anyway–and ends up raising his daughter as an American, neither Catholic nor Jew, but a Christmas-celebrating irreligious American.

The consequences of the Swede’s and Dawn’s indecision on how to raise their child are far more extreme than any normal interfaith couple will ever face. But their daughter’s drift into political extremism provides an interesting metaphor for the consequences of not choosing a religion for your child. If you don’t choose a value system for your child, he or she will choose one for him or herself–and it won’t necessarily be one you approve of. The Swede’s greatest flaw (perhaps his only one) is that he expects good fortune to befall everyone around him, because that’s what happened to him. He sees no need to be demanding about religion with his child because, well, everything always works out. Unlike his perpetually divorcing younger brother, he sees no need to impose his will on the world because his will and the world’s fate are the same. 

The conflict between Dawn and Lou also illustrates the way parental pressure can backfire. Indeed, Lou’s resistance was not an uncommon response to intermarriage from Jewish parents in the ’50s, when the dialogue between the two takes place. By demanding everything, Lou Levov gets nothing. When the Swede and Dawn move to an idyllic town in the New Jersey countryside, the Swede resists, and resents, attempts to get him to join the local synagogue.

At the same time, since Roth deals in the complexities of family dynamics and not ideology, neither the Swede, nor Dawn, nor Lou can be blamed for the child’s rebellion. To the outside observer it’s clear that her act of terrorism is not her family’s fault. But that does nothing to reduce the family’s own sense of guilt. The Swede dissects his memories to figure out the turning point when his daughter went from sweet and loving to angry and rebellious. Every life decision is fodder for his internal inquisition. The most innocent acts are mined for their potential horrible consequences.

There’s a lesson in the Swede’s self-flagellation too. As much as parents do–and should–assume responsibility for their children, their children’s decisions are ultimately their own. When they fail or make bad decisions, a parent can only observe, offer his or her opinion and provide a place of sanctuary. Once children have reached young adulthood–the Swede’s daughter was 19 when she committed her terrorist act–the molding process has mostly ended. We can write our own American pastoral to the best of our ability, but our children are responsible for authoring their own.

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