Roth in the archives: 'Eli, the Fanatic' and the Nitra Yeshiva controversy of 1948.

Author:Levinson, Julian
Position:Philip Roth - Critical essay

To take what there is, and use it ... to dig deep into the actual and get something out of that ...

Henry James, notebook entry, London, May 12, 1889

A special fascination has hovered around Philip Roth's short story "Eli, the Fanatic" since it appeared in Commentary magazine in 1958. An account of a lawyer who descends into madness while working to reconcile a group of Holocaust survivors with their Americanized Jewish neighbors, Roth's text has been celebrated for its shrewd social commentary and parable-like density (one critic has called it a "medieval morality play"). (1) Scholars have focused on multiple aspects of the text--its insights into the psychic fallout of assimilation, its use of the doppelganger motif, its running parody of psychoanalysis, and more. (2) But one fact about "Eli, the Fanatic" has almost entirely eluded critics--that its basic scenario is drawn from an actual episode that occurred in 1948 in Mount Kisco, New York. Indeed, in the same year that Roth's story takes place and in a town identical to his fictitious town of Woodenton, New York, a zoning controversy erupted that bears an unmistakable resemblance to the events of "Eli, the Fanatic." As in the story, a group of Holocaust survivors sought to establish a yeshiva in an old mansion they had purchased; local residents complained that the school was out of character with the neighborhood; and a legal drama erupted that exposed the town's class, ethnic, and religious tensions. (3) Though largely neglected by American Jewish historians, this episode gained some notoriety at the time, receiving coverage in the New York Times and in Commentary, while also sparking the imagination of an aspiring writer from Newark with a taste for controversy, who seized upon the basic scenario to create one of the earliest literary works about Holocaust survivors on American soil. As it turns out, then, the Mount Kisco zoning controversy of 1948 has remained in the public awareness (at least among readers of Roth), though in the guise of fiction rather than as historical fact.

What difference does it make to read "Eli, the Fanatic" in relation to this historical event, the Jamesian donnee that evidently inspired Roth? To explore this question, I draw on journalistic accounts, letters to local newspapers, personal correspondence, documents from the American Jewish Committee (AJC) archives, and New Castle town records to reconstruct the Nitra Yeshiva controversy of 1947-1948. Beyond the intrinsic interest created by this episode and beyond the antiquarian interest aroused by its more-than-apparent connection with Roth's story, this exercise raises pertinent questions in the context of the recent "archival turn" in literary studies. (4) There are, to begin with, questions intrinsic to any act of annotation: How thick an account of the surrounding context should we provide when glossing a text that is evidently a canny mixture of documentation and invention? How do we account for divergences between the story and the actual historical events? How do we interpret moments in the text that seem deliberately to work against the historical record?

We can also expand our inquiry by considering anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler's claim that the archival turn in the humanities reflects a turn "from the archive-as-source to the archive-as-subject." (5) Here, we begin to broach meta-questions about the aims and limits of archival work in relation to literary analysis, about what can and should count as an archive and how and to what effects it can be used. From this perspective, Roth's text becomes one among a collection of multiple documents in a broader web of discourse surrounding the yeshiva controversy. New questions include the following: What specific role(s) can we allocate to a literary text--with its embellishments, implicit and explicit intertextuality, hypothetical scenarios, reworkings, and distortions--in relation to other sorts of documents written for different purposes? What do we do with materials that the author did not have access to, such as, in this case, the prehistory of the yeshiva or the behind-the-scenes machinations during the controversy? And, finally, are there ethical concerns that impinge on the choice to use historical materials, and are these heightened, as philosopher Berel Lang and others have argued, when these materials touch on the Holocaust? (6) The complexity of such questions is compounded in the case of "Eli, the Fanatic," I will argue, because there is good reason to believe that Roth thought he was rearranging the actual facts of the case, while an obscure personal letter suggests that he was closer to the truth than he may have realized. As it turns out, Roth's fiction may be closer to the truth than the "non-fictional" accounts that Roth seems to have relied upon, and yet the power of "Eli, the Fanatic" may depend to some extent on its being read as fiction and not fact.

  1. Backgrounds to the Controversy

    Let us begin by recalling the outline of Roth's story. When a collection of Jewish refugees establishes a school in the Westchester town of "Woodenton," local Jews are alarmed at the appearance of Old World Jews in manicured suburbia, and they send in the (Jewish) lawyer Eli Peck to urge them to leave. In the course of exchanges with his distressed pregnant wife at home and with the yeshiva leader at the school, Eli becomes psychically unhinged and shifts his allegiance to the refugees. In an effort to protect the refugees by masking their foreignness, he gives his own suit to one of the yeshiva teachers, referred to as "the DP," or "the greenie." When the greenie unaccountably leaves his own old black suit for Eli, Eli puts in on and confronts the greenie in a mysterious exchange during which Eli has the "strange notion that he was two people." (7) He then makes his way through town in an altered state of mind, dressed in the clothes of the DP and greeting passersby with "Sholom." In the final scene, Eli greets his newborn son in the hospital just as he is administered a tranquilizer that cannot, however, "touch [his soul] down where the blackness had reached" (298). Thus, by the end of the story, in what is either a fit of insanity or an assertion of heroic moral choice (or a combination of the two), Eli has seemingly merged his identity with that of the scorned refugee. The focus of the story, it bears emphasizing, is not on the refugees themselves, neither their reactions to the ordeal nor the ultimate fate of their school, but on the Jewish lawyer Eli, whose transformation into a lunatic or a prophet or a quasi ba'al t'shuvah (literally, "master of repentance," or one who returns to Torah) completes itself by the conclusion of the story's arc.

    The episode behind "Eli, the Fanatic" can be seen as part of the larger history of the Nitra Yeshiva, which flourished in prewar Hungary before its members were dispersed or murdered during the Holocaust. Standard accounts of modern Jewish history rarely consider the specific histories of different yeshivas, so to glean the history of the Nitra Yeshiva, it is necessary to rely largely on "insider" accounts. (8) My reconstruction culls information from sources that Roth could not have known, but which might be considered part of a broader archive surrounding this episode. The Nitra Yeshiva was, by the mid-1950s, one of the jewels in the crown of Hungarian Judaism, home to approximately three hundred students from regions stretching from Germany to Romania. (9) Conforming to the Talmud-centered pedagogy associated with the ultra-Orthodoxy of Chatam Sofer and his disciples, the school trained a number of students who eventually served as local rabbis throughout Hungary. It should be noted at the outset that while the criticism on "Eli, the Fanatic" tends to identify the Orthodox figures as Hasidim, the history we are tracing concerned a group of determinedly non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews. (10) This scholarly tendency reflects a common slippage in the American vernacular, whereby all ultra-Orthodox Jews get categorized under the heading of "Hasidim," and this has undoubtedly influenced the reception of the story. While Roth himself was evidently unconcerned by such distinctions when he wrote the story, the association of "Eli, the Fanatic" with Hasidim has tended to activate sentimental associations with Hasidism in general. (11) (One might note that the spread of the Chabad Lubavitch form of Hasidism since the 1970s and the naturalization of Hasidim in the public sphere has made it that much more difficult to recover the dynamics of the original controversy.)

    A key figure in the history of the Nitra Yeshiva during and after World War II was Rabbi Chaim Michael Dov Weissmandel (1903-1957). It was he who emerged as the de facto leader of the yeshiva after the war, and it was he who shepherded its surviving members to their new home in the United States. Born in Debrecen, Hungary (today, part of Slovakia), Weissmandel was a product of the yeshivas at Sered and Tirnoy before associating himself in 1931 with the Nitra Yeshiva, where he married Bracha Rachel, daughter of the head of the yeshiva (Shmuel Dovid Ungar). (12) Despite the internal focus of the yeshiva, Weissmandel's scholarly activities brought him into the secular world. Throughout the 1930s, he spent time at the Hebrew collection at the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, researching textual variants among rabbinic manuscripts in an effort to publish a new prayer book and other materials for Nitra Yeshiva students. He also traveled to Palestine to a meeting of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) political party Agudas Yisroel, an experience that did nothing to mitigate his ambivalence about the Zionist project, which would deepen over the years.

    Weissmandel's activities were interrupted by the outbreak of the war, which transformed him into a modern-day shtadlan, an intercessor on behalf of Jewish political...

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