Samuel Kerbel

Portnoy’s Complaint
by Philip Roth
Vintage, 304 Pages

On April 11, 2008, Columbia’s American Studies Department and the Library of America co–sponsored a symposium celebrating American Jewish writer Philip Roth’s 75th birthday. The event featured novelists, essayists and critics from across the country. One such figure, the Brooklyn writer Jonathan Lethem, described Roth as “the necessary American writer who refused to leave the room.” Roth, who began his literary career a little over a decade after World War II, reigns as one of the most prominent postwar American Jewish authors, and Lethem’s comments hinted at Roth’s role within this context. He said that Roth challenged the evolving tenets of postwar American Judaism while “refusing to be self–exiling.”

Roth championed this insular method of examination. Some Jewish authors, such as Saul Bellow, explored American Judaism from an overwhelmingly intellectual standpoint, while others, like Bernard Malamud, depicted the social dilemmas facing new Jewish immigrants by anachronistically relocating the “Old World” shtetl to the 20th century American city. But Roth, with brutal honesty and vision, critically explored the inner–workings of the American Jewish community.

Throughout the earlier part of his career, Roth explored American Jewish life through the window of young male sexual angst. While his more recent novels have dealt with elderly men and the spiritual consequences of physical aging (see Exit Ghost, Everyman, and The Dying Animal), many of these earlier novels were concerned with younger protagonists and their bouts with sexuality (including two of his recurring characters: Nathan Zuckerman, his doppelganger, and David Kepesh).

The most distinguished of stories is Roth’s third novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, a work in which he examines the effects of assimilation on American Judaism through the sexual debacles of his protagonist, Alexander Portnoy. Sexuality serves as a direct window into the question of Jewish continuity. Intermarriage, that dread phenomenon so feared by the organized Jewish community, was as prevalent in Roth’s time as it is today. Unsurprisingly, then, his frank method of scrutiny regarding such a sensitive issue chagrined many Jewish leaders across America. Some of his works, Goodbye, Columbus in particular, even earned him the title of “self–hating Jew” from many within the Jewish world. Critics have noted many similarities between Roth’s literary repertoire and that of contemporary Jewish writers, such as Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote Everything is Illuminated, and Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, in terms of their portrayal of American Jewry. To be sure, they and other modern American Jewish writers have addressed young male sexuality and its relationship to twenty–first century Judaism. Yet a close reading of Foer and Chabon suggests that their exploration of the Jewish world is substantially different from Roth’s, and ultimately less compelling. While Roth’s literary influence is easily detectable in their works, the supposed acerbic pessimism of Portnoy’s Complaint may not deserve the polemic it attracted upon publication half a century ago compared with these latest contributions to American Jewish literature.

Roth wrote Portnoy’s Complaint, his salacious 1969 novel, in large part as a response to these critical accusations of being a “selfhating Jew.” Unlike some of his other works, it focuses less on the socioeconomic consequences of suburbanization and more so on the religious sacrifices it entails. Written as a verbose personal confession by middle–aged Alexander Portnoy about his adolescence to his psychologist, Portnoy’s Complaint presents Jewish religion as central to Alex’s life and moral quandaries. Alex often wonders whether he should behave like a “nice Jewish boy,” as his parents profess him to be, or to acquiesce to the wanton forces of his circumcised penis. He consciously recognizes the irreconcilability of his religious observance (which, according to strict Jewish law, forbids the touching of the opposite gender before marriage, let alone sexual relations) and simultaneous sexual promiscuity, a contradiction that beleaguers his existence.

Throughout the novel, Alex blames Judaism for his inability to control his licentiousness. In Alex’s universe, religion imposes barriers of shame against innate drives that he feels individuals should be able to express freely—masturbation in particular (which he does, a lot). Even as he advances in age to young adulthood, his failure to reconcile his sexual yearnings with Jewish practice stunts his emotional growth and prevents him from starting a family. While he may be out of puberty’s clutches at the time of his actual confession, Alex still feels emasculated by such memories as his mother potty–training him by tickling the underside of his member while standing over the toilet.

Indeed, Alex’s Jewish mother proved as detrimental as religion in stifling his sexual confidence. Overprotective and overbearing, Alex’s mother constantly infuriates him, suggesting a relationship which, even in the tensest moments, is comically Oedipal. But Alex’s frustration with his mother arises largely from her domination of his obsequiously submissive father, whose meekness invokes a feeling of emotional castration within Alex. This provokes severe resentment towards his father and, consequently, the entire Jewish adult male population when he cries: [I]f my father had only been my mother! and my mother my father! But what a mix–up of the sexes in our house...Who should be scolding, collapsing in helplessness, enfeebled totally by a tender heart... Oh thank God! thank God! at least he had the cock and the balls! (PC 42).

Ultimately, Alex conflates his religion with his parents, and while he wants to love his parents and his Judaism simultaneously, he stubbornly seeks liberation from their combined restriction. Although he desires the “American Dream” of prosperity and family, he can’t help but wonder if he seeks this for the sake of his family and the Jewish people rather than for himself. This internal conflict lands Alex in bizarre situations representative of his dilemma, such as an orgy in Rome with his girlfriend and a prostitute. Nevertheless, he cannot drive away his guilt, leaving his psyche so frail that he cannot progress on his search for physical and spiritual renewal.

Despite the pornographic nature of the novel as a whole, Alex himself is a character with whom young Jewish men can identify. Young men masturbate—often—and sometimes in the seediest of locations. They also worry about their sexual potency, an abstract level of masculinity crudely measured by genital size and sexual experience. The question of Jewish observance, however, adds a dimension to the equation, and transforms Portnoy’s Complaint into a pseudo–bible for young American Jewish males. Alexander Portnoy illustrates that even the nicest and cleanest of young boys, including himself, masturbate frequently and may choose to have premarital sex. Through Alex, Roth declares that sexual behavior cannot and should not determine proper Jewish observance and moral integrity. In Roth’s view, young men engage in sexual promiscuity not because they are bad Jews but because they’re human.


In Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth’s protagonist encapsulates the ideal American Jewish male teenager: one who struggles with reconciling the values of class, wealth and sexual prowess with his religious faith’s teachings. Conversely, Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2002 debut novel, Everything is Illuminated, does not illustrate a similar tension. In the book, Foer—born in 1977 and often recognized as a leading voice among the new generation of American Jewish writers—tells the tale of a young American Jew, also named Jonatahn Safran Foer, who travels to the Ukraine in search of his family’s history, hidden amongst the wreckage of WWII. The fictional Foer seeks a woman named Augustine, who supposedly saved his grandfather Safran’s life during the Holocaust. Foer skillfully balances quirky, sometimes lewd humor with poignant episodes of nostalgic, Eastern European Jewish life and devastating accounts of the Nazis’ destruction of European Jewry. Without a doubt, the novel owes much to Roth’s legacy, primarily for its ironic wit, daring humor, and willingness to disparage modern Jewish religious practice. Like Roth, Foer explores these themes through the lens of male sexuality.

Unlike Roth, however, Foer sets his most obscene sexual encounters in 18th and 19th century Ukraine in vignettes interspersed throughout Foer’s modern–day trek through the Ukranian countryside. Foer exploits the irony of the situation—Eastern European Jewry is far more assimilated than American Jews today—and uses it to disparage American Jewish views on sexuality and their romanticization of their ancestors’ ostensibly pure lives in the shtetls (small, exclusively Jewish villages) of Eastern Europe. This concept permeates most clearly within the scenes involving Jonathan’s grandfather, Safran. In one particular scene, Safran begins a certain business venture that entails prostituting himself to elderly women in the shtetl, and quickly reaps financial reward. Even though his parents remain oblivious to the source of this sudden influx of wealth, they “were relieved by his enthusiasm to make money and spend time with the elderly, both of which had become important concerns as they descended into poverty and middle age” (Everything, 169). Though the third woman he sleeps with happens to be “a young gypsy girl,” he feels no guilt about her non–Jewish status. The only anxiety he experiences, in classically Portnoyian fashion, is an unyielding and overwhelming affection towards his mother:

He told [the gypsy girl] his darkest secret: that unlike other boys, his love for his mother had never diminished, not even the smallest bit since he was a child, and please don’t laugh at me for telling you this, and please don’t think any less of me, but I would rather have a kiss from her than anything else in the world (234).

Yet unlike Portnoy, Safran fails to consider the religious repercussions of his actions. Instead, he focuses on the banal definition of love sans spirituality.

While dry sexual humor shapes the novel akin to Portnoy’s Complaint, Foer’s novel lacks a thematic “religious struggle” that complicated the former’s sexual candidness. Because of this, Foer’s inexorable deprecation of the shtetl residents’ Jewish observance seems contemptuous rather than humorous. For instance, when the rabbi of the so–called “Upright Synagogue” reached a solution for separating men and women during prayer (“the women were allowed to pray in a dank and cramped room beneath a specially installed glass floor”), this only perpetuated the male congregants’ inability to concentrate on anything besides “the chorus of cleavages below.” This triggers a quite unsuitable alteration of the weekday liturgy: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Holey is the Lord of Hosts!” (19). Since these men base their decisions on Epicurean impulse without any intention to redeem their rather unseemly actions, the result is significantly more fatalistic about Jewish observance than Roth dared to imagine—but more importantly, significantly less complex as well.

Illustration of Roth, © Joseph Ciardiello

Michael Chabon’s critically acclaimed novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is no less sanguine. Though somewhat older than Foer at 45, Chabon is considered a prominent member of the same literary class. Kavalier and Clay chronicles the lives of two young Jewish men, Brooklyn–native Sammy Klayman and his cousin, Josef Kavalier, who become major figures during the “Golden Age” of American comic books. Kavalier, who fled from Nazi–occupied Europe using his training in escapology, lives with his cousin Sammy in Brooklyn, and the two become immersed in the comic book world of New York City. Simultaneously, Josef frequently worries about the family he left in Czechoslovakia and tries to bring his younger brother to the States. Together, nonetheless, Josef and Sammy create the Amazing Midget Radio Comics, which features an anti–Fascist superhero called “The Escapist.” Not coincidentally, one of the novel’s central themes is escapism: Joe slipping out of Europe, Sammy attempting to hide homosexuality and polio, and the duo together eluding their corporate employers, who inevitably cheat them out of much of their earnings.

Although the novel contains a plethora of Jewish figures and themes (the Golem, Harry Houdini, and a variety of famous Jewish figures all make appearances), there is a complete absence of the internal Jewish struggle present in Portnoy’s Complaint. Indeed, Josef’s only connection to the plight of Europe’s remaining Jews is through his stranded family. Sheldon Anapol, the boys’ boss, repeatedly demonstrates evidence of American Jewish detachment from the European catastrophe, even going as far to use it for fiscal gain when he asserts that they can publish Nazi–fighting superheroes “as long as it sells enough comic books” (Kavalier and Clay, 173). Sammy changes his last name from the Jewish–sounding “Klayman” to “Clay” because it sounds “more professional,” although it is clear that he does this less out of security and more so out of shame (71).

As with Roth and Foer, this religious detachment conveys itself most poignantly through the characters’ sexual conquests. In Chabon’s case, magic and comic books, two of the most potent symbols of the novel, induce the strongest sexual yearnings within his male characters. Sammy and Josef, for instance, express their sexual frustrations by crafting highly arousing female comic book characters. One such example is Luna Moth, depicted as a “woman with the legs of Dolores Del Rio, black witchy hair, and breasts each the size of her head,” or in other words, “the first sex object...created expressly for consumption by little boys” (275). By imbuing comic books with pornographic status for young American boys, Sammy and Josef seemingly corrupt the innocence of an entire generation without blinking. Their illustrations of Luna, based off their shared love interest Rosa Saks, become so genuinely eroticized that Josef cannot even control his own art, becoming so “libidinous and daring... until [Luna] verged, in some panels that took on a sacred and totemic significance for the boys of America, on total nakedness” (325). For Sammy, the erotic women in their comic books symbolize his futile attempts to run from his homosexuality. After Joe leaves to join the Navy, Sammy underscores these efforts by marrying Rosa Saks.

In Kavalier and Clay, WWII American capitalism acts as a symbolic backdrop for contemporary America, just as Old World Ukraine did in Everything is Illuminated. But the critical similarity between the two is that both purposefully seem to ignore Jewish tradition and ritual observance, mentioning it only to reinforce their notion of Jewish law as outmoded. This passivity towards Judaism reflects an unprecedented decline in the American Jewish population. According to a 2001 National Jewish Population Survey, the U.S. Jewish population declined 5 percent during the past decade, falling from 5.5 million to 5.2 million self–identifying Jews.

Moreover, while Josef, Sammy, and Rosa are all Jewish by birth, there is no evidence to suggest any contemplation about Jewish observance as an issue in their romantic affairs. A statistic from the 2004 United Jewish Communities Survey illustrates this indifference in the real world, showing that 44 percent of young Jewish adults believe marrying a Jewish spouse is “not very important” or “not important at all.” Our generation’s disregard for Jewish tradition would liberate Alexander Portnoy from his theological shackles as swiftly as the most talented escapist.


While Roth grapples with Jewish practice in the modern world, Foer and Chabon seem happy to abandon it. Yet more importantly, Roth’s Portnoy palpably carries the weight of Judaism’s future upon his shoulders. Indeed, each of Portnoy’s sexual escapades riddle him with the infamous plague known as Jewish guilt. The protagonists constructed by Foer and Chabon, on the other hand, feel no such qualms in their sexuality. Though they participate in contemporary culture in ways that Portnoy never can, ever–involved in artistic and scholarly pursuits, their characters easily shed Judaism’s chastening principles. Unlike Portnoy, they seem to care nothing for the welfare of the Jewish community, or the safety of their fellow Jews.

For those interested in Jewish continuity, then, Roth’s troubled protagonists are role models for young American Jews. They may struggle between romantic love and religious affiliation, may try to reconcile Judaism and secularism despite the outcome, but a part of their being will always be connected to the Jewish people. Furthermore, the realities present in Foer and Chabon makes Roth’s critics look like crotchety, out–of–touch curmudgeons. Robert Greenberg’s comments in “Transgressions in the Fiction of Philip Roth,” in which he criticizes Roth as being saturated by “a kind of alienation that is enlivened and exacerbated by what it binds,” not only seem ignorant of Roth’s intentions but also completely unwarranted in comparison with more recent Jewish literature. Roth’s characters, if nothing else, hanker for a time that is now lost.

If only incessant masturbation was still the biggest folly among today’s Jewish adolescent males.

SAM KERBEL is a Staff Writer of The Current, is a sophomore in the Joint Program between Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He can be reached at

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