Roth's 80th cause for Newark, NJ, celebration

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — "Sitting there in the park," Philip Roth wrote in "Goodbye Columbus, "I felt a deep knowledge of Newark, an attachment so rooted that it could not help but branch out into affection."

On the novelist's 80th birthday Tuesday, Newark returned the sentiment to one of its most celebrated natives.

The city that played a seminal role in many of Roth's novels played host to a series of events honoring Roth, including a conference of scholars, a bus tour, an exhibit of Roth's personal photos and a birthday party Tuesday night at the Newark Museum, where Roth cuts a cake made to look like a stack of books.

"Newark has been to Roth's writing what whaling is to Melville," said Rosemary Steinbaum, dean of instruction at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, N.J., and a photo exhibit curator.

"Philip Roth: An Exhibit of Photos from a Lifetime" opened Tuesday at the Newark Public Library. Many of Roth's personal photographs are featured: Roth and his brother eating popsicles at the beach as children, Roth acting in plays at Bucknell University, surrounded by friends including the writer William Styron, and photos of Roth's brother, parents and grandparents.

Roth was born and raised in Newark's Weequahic neighborhood, populated almost entirely by Jewish families at the time. Roth would bike back from its library with books in tow and attended the neighborhood's art deco high school. The city features prominently in his novels, including "American Pastoral," ''Nemesis," ''The Plot Against America" and "Portnoy's Complaint."

The Philip Roth Society held a symposium called Roth(at)80, and many members who dedicated careers to studying Roth, but never visited Newark, piled on three tour buses that wound through the city streets.

Liz Del Tufo, president of the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee, started giving Roth bus tours in 2005. She and the society were instrumental in getting Roth to celebrate his birthday in Newark.

"Whenever Liz Del Tufo calls him (Roth), which is at least monthly, he says, 'Am I 80 yet?'" said Roth's biographer, Blake Bailey.

Del Tufo narrated a tour that was as much a history of Roth's life in Newark as it was an account of the city's past. Each time the bus entered a neighborhood or passed a building that played a role in one of Roth's works, the bus stopped and Del Tufo asked a passenger to read a pertinent passage.

After leaving Newark Museum blocks away, the bus pulled over on Washington Street, parallel to Washington Park.

"Down Washington Street, behind me, was the Newark Museum — I could see it without even looking; two oriental vases in front like spittoons for a rajah, and next to it the little annex to which we had traveled on special buses as schoolchildren," a man read in part from "Goodbye Columbus." Passengers applauded when he finished.

The bus continued past the Essex County Courthouse, mentioned in "I Married a Communist," and went down Clinton Avenue. It drove through the Olmsted-designed Weequahic Park and Roth's old neighborhood, where large homes gave way to more modest structures as the bus chugged up a hill.

It pulled over in front of Weequahic High School and everyone aboard was asked to recite a chant from "Portnoy's Complaint."

"Ikey, Mikey, Jake and Sam

We're the boys who eat no ham

We play football, we play soccer —

And we keep matzos in our locker!

Aye, aye, aye Weequahic High!"

Passengers burst out laughing and got off the bus to snap photos in front of the high school. Blocks later they bounded off the bus to see Roth's childhood home, now a yellow-sided structure with faux rocks on the front and a small sign proclaiming it a historic site.

"It's remarkable how many monuments from his literature are here," said Michael Kimmage, a Roth scholar at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Sarah Shieff, a professor of Jewish literature at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, flew to Newark for the event with her husband. Roth's descriptions of places were foreign to Schieff, a New Zealand native, and seeing Newark was a way to round out her study.

"This is a way of putting it in three dimensions," she said. "He writes his settings incredibly vividly. It's a bonus to see them in the flesh."