Monday, January 29, 2007

A self-hating Jew and a self-hating Negro walk into a bar… (pt. 1)

Old books are cool. I’m not talking about the classics. (Who has time to read all of those?) I’m talking about weird, obscure books that most people have never heard of.

Like Samuel Roth’s “Jews Must Live” (self-published in 1934) and William Hannibal Thomas’s “The American Negro” (published in 1901).

Those two books share something in common: a seething – and shocking – racial self-hatred at their core.

“The American Negro” and its author were the subject of a fascinating book in 2000, “Black Judas,” by historian John David Smith. Prof. Smith set out to understand “why a Negro would write one of the most racist books ever published.” (Would you believe… chronic pain?)

“Jews Must Live” hasn’t received a book-length analysis, though it’s surely one of the most anti-Semitic texts ever published, and it’s much easier to get your hands on these days than “The American Negro.” Such neo-Nazi outfits as National Vanguard and Stormfront are selling reprints of “Jews Must Live” online.

So let’s start there, with a most peculiar American character named Samuel Roth.

Back in journalism school, I learned of Roth v. United States, a landmark 1957 obscenity case in which the Supreme Court established its “prurient interest” and “community standards” criteria for defining illegal smut. Scholars refer to this as “the Roth decision.”

Samuel Roth was that Roth. On First Amendment grounds, he had challenged his federal conviction for selling obscene materials through the mail. The Supreme Court upheld that conviction, and Roth served five years. (It wasn’t his first time in prison; he got locked up for smut-peddling as far back as the 1920s.)

Prior to his Supreme Court moment, Roth was called to testify before the famed Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency (led by Estes Kefauver) because of a nudie magazine he published. This prompted one scandal sheet to describe Samuel Roth as “the dirtiest pig in the world.”

Obscenity wasn’t his only claim to notoriety. Among James Joyce scholars, Roth is remembered as a shameless literary bootlegger. He published Joyce’s “Ulysses” in the United States without the author’s permission (leading to an early obscenity conviction). He took similar liberties with “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and other European books.

Roth never apologized for this, telling one interviewer toward the end of his life: “I’ve never published anything that wasn’t good. I’ve put the classics into every American home.”

Nor did Roth ever apologize for “Jews Must Live,” in which he wrote:

“I am not prepared to speak for any religion but the religion I was born into, and which has followed me about for forty years like an evil shadow. I have no hesitation in declaring that if the Jew’s sole chance of survival lies in the preservation of his religion, it is time for him to throw his cards on the table and call quits. …

“Every synagogue we Jews build in Christian countries is a finger of scorn we point at our hosts, a sore finger we stick into their eyes, like the leering of a senile old woman who does all sorts of foul mischief before you, and feels safe in the knowledge that you will not lay hands on her to remove her, for fear of contamination.”

Judaism “must go,” Roth wrote. It “has been the cause of untold evil both to the Jew and the world about him.”

This he published in 1934, with Adolph Hitler newly risen to power in Germany. The infamous propagandist Julius Streicher quoted “Jews Must Live” at Nazi rallies, according to an unpublished essay by Jewish scholar Milton Hindus, cited in historian Jay A. Gertzman’s “Bookleggers and Smuthounds.”

Samuel Roth was born into an Orthodox family in central Europe in 1894. He emigrated to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1903.

As a young man, Roth owned the Poetry Shop, a Greenwich Village bookstore purportedly patronized by the likes of John Barrymore, Sholem Asch, Edna St. Vincent Millay and legendary Bohemian poet Maxwell Bodenheim.

Sam Roth, for decades thereafter, boasted of having revived the poetry career of Edwin Arlington Robinson, who ultimately won three Pulitzer Prizes. In a new biography of Robinson, however, author Scott Donaldson makes just one mention of Roth in 500 pages, calling him a “bumptious litterateur” who had sponsored a poetry contest.

Roth, above all else, fancied himself a serious writer. He wrote a lot of books, and published almost all of them himself.

As a young Zionist, he penned a book of poetry called “Europe: A Book for America,” published in 1919 by Boni and Liveright (which would later publish a couple of young novelists named Hemingway and Faulkner). “Europe” begins, in part:

Europe, let me be your doctor!
With a hammer let me break open those iron jaws and pour a pail of your bitterest spleen down you throat.
O, I know a way to make eunuchs of the most terrible men;
For twelve months I would like to feed you on a diet of dung.

Samuel Roth was a lousy writer. But he persisted throughout his life as if unaware of this fact. The merits of his 1947 picaresque novel “Bumarap” can be measured by this obviously self-penned jacket note:

“It strikes us – but, of course, we are prejudiced – that the reading and re-reading of BUMARAP should become, in time, one of the steadiest and most reliable of American industries.”

Then there’s “My Friend Yeshea” (1961), in which Roth is visited in federal prison by Jesus Christ, who takes Roth back through time to witness the Crucifixion and Resurrection so Roth can deliver a message of hope to the world. (There’ll be more to say about “My Friend Yeshea” later.)

I’ll say this for “Jews Must Live”: it’s the most compellingly readable thing Sam Roth ever wrote. If you’ve got a strong stomach.

Here’s Roth on predatory Jewish business practices:

“The Jew better than anyone else in the world knows how to dispossess the poor and the members of the middle classes. To fit this case, the old P.T. Barnum adage needs only a little changing. A gentile enters business every minute, with two Jews waiting to take him out of it.”

Roth on Jews in the legal profession:

“The old-world lawyer regards himself as an officer of the court. If the American lawyer realizes that he is an officer of the court, he certainly does not take this phase of his function seriously. This callousness is the result of the practice of the Jewish lawyer who swarms the American courts in such numbers that the average lawyer’s office has become about as safe, for the poor layman, as a nest of rattlesnakes. …

“Has anyone reckoned out what financial havoc is caused yearly in our society by the letting loose of this swarm of vultures on a defenseless people?”

Roth on the Jew-as-pimp in show business:

“Equipment for entering the theater the Jew had very little of. No sense of form or even the capacity to enjoy its expression in others. Ditto traditions. No spiritual experiences to explore and set into a fine mold. No reverence for dramatic performances of the past or even hope of the future. The Jew had only one thing – a secret. He knew what the people would pay to see. Had he not been running brothels for Europe ever since anyone could remember?”

Roth on Jewish crime:

“What becomes of the young Jews who cannot attain to one of the professions, have not the money with which to buy a newsstand or the mental resourcefulness to create a selling line? Most of them remain on the street corners of their neighborhoods and become the petty thieves, hold-up men, strikebreakers, back-store crapshooters, street-corner mashers, dope-peddlers and dope-smugglers, white-slave traffickers, kidnappers and petty racketeers of every peaceful community in America. …

“The Jewish gangster imbeds himself deeply in the flesh of society. He becomes a permanent if not a fatal tumor.”

So… why on earth did Samuel Roth write such things about his fellow Jews?



ItAintEazy said...

Well, the thing Roth said about it being an insult that Jews practice their religion in Christian countries recalls the rhetoric of some early Zionists, especially Theodore Herzl who said that Christian anti-semitism could be attributed to "understandable reaction to Jewish defects", which therefore spurred the need for a Jewish homeland. And since Roth was a Zionist, he might have taken that idea too much to heart. Tim Wise discusses this unexplored part of early Zionism here.

odo coileus said...

Quite the act break there. Ya got me hooked.

Undercover Black Man said...

odo: Hope you can wait another day or two!

itainteazy: Thanks for pointing me to the Tim Wise piece. I'm no kind of expert on Israel... my self-study of anti-Semitism is driven by a curiousity about the racist mind.

But in my own reading about the early years of political Zionism, I was surprised to discover that the claim to Palestine has not been an unalterable element of Jewish thought.

By the mid-1800s, the Reform branch of Judaism which emerged in Germany disavowed this nationalistic goal, and removed from its ritual "the prayers for the return to the land of our forefathers and for the restoration of the Jewish state."

Likewise, at a formative rabbinical conference of the American Reform movement in 1885, the rabbis declared: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community; and we therefore expect neither a return to Palestine... nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning a Jewish state."

None of this has to do with Samuel Roth, I'd wager. That guy was just fucked-up in the head.

ItAintEazy said...

"None of this has to do with Samuel Roth, I'd wager. That guy was just fucked-up in the head."

If that isn't the best example of Occam's razor, I don't know what is :^)