A Pulpit Review of Nemesis, by Philip Roth

Sermon delivered March 4, 2011, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


When I was a child, my grandmother taught me how to shake hands.  “Look the other person in the eye.  Give them a firm handshake.  Not like a fish!”  I have begun to provide the same guidance to my own sons; my father, channeling his mother, has done the same for his grandsons.

When I first met an Ultra-Orthodox Jew, one of my first thoughts was, “My grandmother wouldn’t approve.”  Well, she wouldn’t, but the handshake is another matter.  Most Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men do not give a firm handshake, not because they weren’t raised right, but because they were raised differently.

The firm handshake is viewed – not just by the Ultra-Orthodox, but also by feminist scholars and others – as a demonstration of male power.  Not very far removed from animals in the jungle, engaging in contests to gain territory or claim the prized female, when we squeeze another man’s hand, we may be said to be projecting our machismo.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men are raised to understand that a man’s strength is to be found in spiritual, not physical matters.  The highest attainment in life is to be a scholar.  Learning, not physical prowess, is prized.  The greatest respect, and even the best marital match, goes to the most widely respected scholar.

Philip Roth’s 2010 novella, Nemesis, wades into the debate over what makes a man – specifically, a Jewish man – a man.  The protagonist, Bucky Cantor, is a physical specimen.  A physical education teacher and summer recreation director, Bucky is fit and trim, well muscled, and active.  All the same, Bucky is short and his vision is poor.  We may understand his limited stature and his thick glasses as symbols of a weakness that may be identified with Jewishness, even bookishness.  The muscles are pure American male.

The story is set in the summer of 1944.  Bucky is distressed to have been disqualified fromU.S. military service because of his poor vision.  We take note that this powerful physical education instructor is nevertheless physically disabled from defending the country.  Bucky feels cheated of the opportunity to fight the Nazis and the Japanese, a burden that has fallen on his closest friends and nearly all of his contemporaries.  Bucky feels particularly inadequate when a dear friend is killed in battle.  Irrationally, Bucky seems to blame himself for his inability to serve.

All the while, Bucky really is serving.  The Jewish pre-adolescent boys of Bucky’s own neighborhood need him.  Each day, a large crowd of these boys, together with some girls, gather at his playground and benefit from Bucky’s athletic prowess and his sensitive guidance.

Quickly, the community is threatened by a polio epidemic.  In those days before the vaccine, and prior to good scientific knowledge about how polio is transmitted, an outbreak led quickly to panic.  Bucky struggles with the Jewish parents – Jewish mothers, primarily – who seek to shield their children from polio by keeping them home from the playground.  Bucky protests.  He believes that the boys need the activity and fresh air.  Bucky, Jewish but not religious, believes that he can overcome polio through physical activity.

In one dramatic scene, Bucky is called upon to stand up to a group of hooligans from another neighborhood, who come to the playground and spit on the sidewalk, threatening to spread polio.  Bucky holds his ground, and the delinquents retreat.  Bucky disinfects the sidewalk; he physically protects his young charges.

And yet, Bucky is not able to protect them.  One after another, the children fall ill.  One dies, and then another.  Bucky is bereft.  He seeks to provide comfort to the families.  He is present to them.  He pays what we understand to be a shiva call, comforting the mourners.  Bucky doesn’t see his presence in religious terms.  He has an important role in the community.  Bucky believes he protects his boys from polio, or at least guards their strength, by keeping them at the playground.

Bucky, we’re told, has been raised by his grandparents.  He is devoted to his aging grandmother and to the memory of his grandfather.  A passage about his late grandfather is particularly instructive:

“The violent aggression against Jews that was commonplace in the city during his slum boyhood did much to form his view of life and his grandson’s view in turn.  He encouraged the grandson to stand up for himself as a man and to stand up for himself as a Jew, and to understand that one’s battles were never over and that, in the relentless skirmish that living is, ‘when you have to pay the price, you pay it.’  The broken nose in the middle of his grandfather’s face had always testified to the boy that though the world had tried, it could not crush him.”

No mention is made of Zionism, but this view of Jewish physicality dovetails with much of Zionist theory.  A.D. Gordon and other important thinkers viewed Zionism as an opportunity to return Jews to a normal physicality and relationship with the land.  Throughout the history of Jews in Christian Europe, our people were not permitted to own or work the land.  We were not able to defend ourselves against our oppressors.  We did not serve in the military, except occasionally as canon fodder in somebody else’s struggle.  Zionism afforded the Jew the opportunity to work with his hands and to work his own people’s land, and to defend himself from his own enemies.  Yes, in the Socialist Zionist settlements, women joined in these physical roles.  However, we cannot ignore the extent to which early Zionism sought to undo what its leaders regarded as the feminizing effects of the Diaspora.  Jewish strength, they argued, must be physical, not merely scholarly.  The bookish image of the Eastern European Jewish male was rejected by the Zionists and by Bucky’s grandfather.

This struggle for the Jewish male image did not begin in the 20th Century.  When the third generation of our people is born, in the Book of Genesis, twins emerge from the womb of our matriarch Rebekah.  Esau, born first, is ruddy.  He is a hunter.  He is a manly man.  Jacob, on the other hand, is called yoshev ohalim, literally “a tent dweller.”  Our rabbis interpret this phrase to Jacob’s credit; he is viewed as a scholar.  Jacob, who becomes Israel, is our ancestor.  Jewish men are defined by him overagainst the macho, physical, manly Esau.  A real Jewish man, we are led to believe, stays indoors.

Bucky wants nothing more than to be outdoors.  He would prefer to be fighting in Europe or the Pacific; but failing that, he builds his muscles and his athletic skills and those of his charges on the playground.

Despite his own self-image issues, Bucky really is a wonderful person.  A hero to the young in his community, he is strong in every way, physically and morally.  He cares for his grandmother and for others in need.  He is attractive.  He is bright.  We are not surprised that he falls in love with Marcia Steinberg, who is magnificent in every way.  Bucky has grown up in a poor household, raised by his grandparents after the death of his mother and the desertion of his good-for nothing father.  Now, with Marcia, he is absorbed into a loving and well-to-do family.

Marcia provides Bucky with an escape hatch, as the polio epidemic gets closer to shutting down the city’s playgrounds and ending Bucky’s summer employment.  He has a new job, at a sleep-away camp, and Marcia is there.

Comically, the camp’s population is entirely Jewish, but all the rituals are those of Native American Indians.  I went to camps like that as a child, and several still exist.  These camps replace traditional Jewish physical weakness with a physical strength native to this land.  As a swimming and diving instructor, Bucky is the ideal role model, mentor, and athlete.

Tragically, Bucky’s happiness ends there.  His physical strength betrays him, and he is lost.  Yes, Bucky has a plethora of other resources:  mental, emotional, and moral.  However, he blames himself for his own weakness and for the illnesses and deaths of others close to him.  Bucky cannot stand the person he has become without his muscles and his athleticism.

Bucky’s story is tragic.  He seems so much like a hero, but he is unable to overcome forces outside his control.  He cannot summon his own manhood in the face of physical weakness.

Bucky’s story is a cautionary tale to Jewish men.  In Israel and in America, we have adopted a definition of manhood that was previously foreign to Jewish men.  We are proud that Israeli men have defended our Jewish people and our Jewish State.  In America, we have prospered.

Let us celebrate all of our strengths:  Physical and mental, emotional and spiritual.  Let us give a firm handshake and let us value our books.  Let us build our bodies and our minds.  Let us fight our own battles, always preferring peace.

Amen.