Acclaimed American author Philip Roth, who passed away on Tuesday, will not be having a Jewish funeral.
The writer of classics such as ‘Portnoy’s Complaint,’ ‘American Pastoral’ and ‘The Human Stain,’ will be buried on Monday at the Bard College Cemetery, his biographer, Blake Bailey, told JTA.
Roth had originally looked into being buried next to his parents at the Gomel Chesed Cemetery in Newark, New Jersey, Bailey said in a phone interview on Friday. However, the area surrounding the Jewish burial ground had in recent years become rife with crime, and Roth was unable to find a plot next to his parents, Bailey said.
Instead Roth decided about 10-15 years ago to be buried at the Bard College Cemetery, where he could be near his friend Norman Manea, a Romanian-Jewish author who works as a professor at the college, Bailey said. Roth was also friends with Bard College President Leon Botstein, who is also Jewish.
“He said he wants to be buried near Jews so he has someone to talk to,” Bailey said.
Jewish author and philosopher Hannah Arendt is also buried in the Bard College Cemetery, next to her husband Heinrich Blucher.
Roth “expressly forbade” any religious rituals from being part of his funeral, according to Bailey.
“There was no metaphysical dimension to Philip. He just flatly refused to believe in it. He thought it was fairy tales,” Bailey said.
Though Roth “was bored out of his mind when he had to attend Hebrew school as a boy,” he was happy to be Jewish, Bailey said.
“He liked Jews as human beings. He liked their warmth, he liked his male friends’ filial piety, which he made a lot of fun of too, in ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ especially,” Bailey said, referencing Roth’s 1969 novel that depicts the therapy sessions of a sexually frustrated Jewish man.
Early in his career, Roth drew outrage from some in the Jewish community who feared his harsh portrayals of Jewish life would stoke anti-Semitism. In more recent years, however, Roth was embraced by American Jews. In 1998 he won the Jewish Book Council’s Lifetime Literary Achievement Award and in 2014, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Conservative Judaism’s flagship educational institution, bestowed him with an honorary doctorate.
“I welcomed the honor,” Roth told a friend after the ceremony, suggesting that for all his aversion to religion he still felt a strong Jewish bond. “Who takes Jews more seriously than the J.T.S., and what writer takes Jews more seriously than I do?”