Jersey boy Philip Roth turns 80 today. Once the bad boy of literature and popular target of feminists, he has aged into the preeminent man of American letters. People seem to believe that a Nobel Prize in Literature is due.  (I said that about John Updike.) Even some feminists have been won over.

I never met Philip Roth. I saw him up close at a ceremony in Newark once. But Roth’s Newark is just a few miles from where I grew up. I knew his neighborhood from visits to my grandparents house in Newark every Sunday back 50 years ago.

He grew up in a small clapboard house at 81 Summit Ave. I went there a few years ago when there was a dedication for a plaque that says “Historic Site: Philip Roth Home” and at the corner of Summit and Keer avenues, a third street sign that says “Philip Roth Plaza.”

My own childhood house was also a clapboard from the same time period, but since I lived in “suburban” Irvington, we had a bigger side and back yard and probably a few more trees.

His neighborhood was the Weequahic section of the city. Many places from Newark find their way into the books: Washington Park (Goodbye, Columbus) Clinton Avenue, Weequahic Park and Temple B’nai Abraham (The Plot Against America).

Weequahic comes from the Lenni-Lenape Native American word meaning “head of the cove”.  (Although I see the pronunciation listed as wih-QWAY-ik, we always said WEEK-wake.)  It may have been farmland into the late nineteenth century, but it became a middle-class, non-industrial neighborhood  with single-family homes and no apartment buildings. Weequahic Park was kind of the center of it all. I lived in Irvington on the western border. Weequahic was mostly a Jewish neighborhood prior to the 1960s and was the home to synagogues, yeshivas, Jewish restaurants and Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, where I was born, although I wasn’t Jewish.

From his bedroom window on the second floor, he could look out on Summit Avenue with his older brother and roommate, Sandy. On a hot summer day in a time when no one had air conditioning in their house, he says “All the windows are wide open. The radios are on. You hear Walter Winchell, Fred Allen, Jack Benny. You hear people talking in the alley ways. They’d have beach chairs in the driveway, so you’d hear laughter and radios. I’d put the ball game on, the Dodgers. Red Barber was the voice of the Dodgers.”

Spaldeen

He went to Weequahic High. In Portnoy’s Complaint, he writes “At football our Jewish High School was notoriously hopeless (though their band, I may say, was always winning prizes and commendations). He includes a chant the boys from Weequahic used to serenade their losing teams: “Ikey, Mikey, Jake and Sam We are the boys who eat no ham. We play football, we play soccer — We keep matzohs in our locker, Aye aye aye, Weequahic High!”

His weekends and summer vacations in Newark were pretty close to mine. Baseball, softball or stickball games (he played on the field behind the Chancellor Avenue Elementary School — I played at Orange Avenue Park or West Side Park if we were at my grandparents’ house)

“I still have a bad arm from throwing a Spaldeen against the brick wall,” Roth says.

He has twenty years on me, but his dates in those days were not so different from my social world – a movie and off to a diner. His was the Weequahic Diner for hot pastrami sandwiches or burgers at the White Castle. I was usually at Don’s Diner or Kless’ Diner in Irvington or at the White Castle in Union.

diner

Weequahic Diner

I know he rode some of the same buses as I did from reading Portnoy’s Complaint. It’s the first novel I can recall reading that had places that I actually knew and had been to in it. Fiction entered reality.

Next, I read Goodbye, Columbus.  I really liked this story of Neil who falls for Brenda. He’s poor kid from Newark. He works at the main Newark Library – a gorgeous building next to the museum – two places I still love to visit.  Brenda lived in very posh Short Hills. One summer, I fell for a girl from Millburn (next to Short Hills) who was my Brenda. Reading Romeo and Juliet sophomore year, the plot made total sense to me. The novella is a fast read. It was made into a popular film too.

In summer, his family went to Bradley Beach. My family went to Seaside Park. We each had our own boardwalk memories.

He had that common Jewish summer camp experience. He was a counselor in the Poconos at 17. Other than some CYO day camp days and the pool at Olympic Park, most of my summer was spent hanging out on my block and working a few terrible summer jobs.

He went off to Bucknell University to major in English. I couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition and majored in English at Rutgers. (As I recall, Neil in Goodbye Columbus went to Rutgers.)

Of course, now Roth has thirty-one novels on his CV. Local boy makes good. When I became a college professor, I enjoyed his college professor characters, though most of them were not very admirable.

Last October, Philip Roth announced that he would be retiring from being an author. An unusual move for an author. I find it admirable, leaving while you are on top. Still, hard to believe that he won’t be putting pen to paper, even if it is to leave something for posthumous publication.

The Philip Roth Society organized a two-day conference, “Roth@80,” at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark that started yesterday and continues today with writers, tributes, and a tour of “Roth’s Newark.”

There will be an upcoming PBS American Masters episode on him:  Philip Roth Unmasked.

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