03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Philip Roth Reader: Love Means Always Having to Say You're Sorry

Pertinent personal history: I wanted to go to Hebrew school and landed instead in confirmation class because girls didn't go to Hebrew school in my 'burb in my era. In the final year of confirmation class, the rabbi himself came to speak to us. He was a chilly, cerebral little man, and when he asked with the slightest of smirks if anyone in the class still did not believe in God, I raised my hand.

Not because I didn't believe in God, but because I couldn't stand the smug assumption that all of us did.

I was given the shortest reading in the confirmation service. Barely two lines. I'm not kidding.

I dreamt of God, once, during that period. He appeared at a dinner party my parents were giving, but not as a guest. In my dream, God wore a tuxedo and carried a snow-white linen towel over the arm bent across his waist.

He was a maitre'd, it seems, and He was very good at his job; everyone had a marvelous time.

The five short stories that sit between Goodbye, Columbus and Letting Go dislodged these memories for the first time in, oh, decades, because the stories are full of people who just can't figure it out -- it being faith, memory, heritage, and elusive logic. Like Ozzie in "The Conversion of the Jews," who ponders a God who can create light just like that but can't quite engineer an immaculate conception.

Ozzie and Marx the assimilated Army sergeant and Eli the -- well, the fanatic, poor guy -- are among the defendants, along with the Patimkins and the Klugmans of Goodbye, Columbus, in one of the longest-running literary class action suits in recent memory. No, actually, Roth was convicted of being a Jew-hater without a trial, and then of being a misogynist, and while I turned away a couple of times, unable to see past the girl stuff, I never wavered in the early years. These stories don't hate anybody.

In fact, if you map the course of post-war Jewish-American stories, it's a straight shot from Ozzie and Marx and Eli to the Coen brothers' latest movie, 'A Serious Man,' the tale of a hapless but well-intentioned fellow who lags a half-step behind his own life, toiling in the shadow of a shtetl past that may or may not have any direct link to his Job-like existence.

He's got everything a good Roth hero has, including a blindingly insensitive wife, a teenage daughter who seems to have shampooed her brains away, and a brother who has a brain to kvell over and the common sense of a pillowcase. His search for enlightenment gets him (spoiler alert) Jefferson Airplane lyrics, and then, just when things couldn't possibly get any worse, they do.

And yet I haven't read any reviews that take the Coen brothers to task either for being self-hating Jews or misogynists, although I could build a decent argument for the latter off of the very sympathetic and delightful son and the very ridiculed and one-note daughter. In the post-feminist age, it seems we no longer need to worry about fairness -- now there's a laugh -- because we're all one equally happy family.

But I'm not protesting in front of the theater; in fact, it was all I could do to get out of my seat at the end, when what I really wanted was to it through it a second time. I love that movie as I love these early Roth stories. I'll endure a dollop of political incorrectness for the sake of an insanely smart story; in this post-feminist world, I'm just that confident.

Happily, for the more doctrinaire among us, there are no women in "Defender of the Faith," and the wife and mom in the other two stories are relatively reasonable types, so it's possible to take a short tour of Rothland without running into the Issue of Women, at least not yet.

As though Roth invented it: When my grandfather died, my father, well on the road to assimilation from his orthodox boyhood, still went to the synagogue every night at sundown to say the mourner's prayer. He needed ten men for a minion, He could have had nine men and a hundred wives and daughters and female cousins, but we did not count, not in God's eyes.

So much for the chosen people, or at least half of them. Which makes Philip Roth what, exactly -- the fall guy?