When Samuel Roth died in 1974 at the age of 79, the New York Times ran an obituary highlighting his role in a landmark Supreme Court obscenity case, and his famously “pirated” publication of James Joyce’s “Ulysses”:
“Mr. Roth was a tall bespectacled man with a courtly manner who was a constant critic of efforts to restrict publication of any materials.”
But the New York Times didn’t mention “Jews Must Live,” Roth’s bitter denunciation of Jews as a race of predatory businessmen, shyster lawyers, money-grubbing doctors, soulless land-grabbers and uncultured show-business hustlers. (I quoted passages from this 1934 self-published book here.)
Since stumbling upon “Jews Must Live” years ago in my self-study of racist and anti-Semitic literature, I’ve been curious to know the story behind it. Why did Samuel Roth, a man who at least pretended to aspire to literary seriousness, write such a thing? And how did its publication affect the rest of his life?
I couldn’t find much biographical material out there on Sam Roth. His picture appears on the cover of a 1974 edition of the Journal of Modern Literature. And Leo Hamalian’s accompanying article (“Nobody Knows My Names: Samuel Roth and the Underside of Modern Letters”) includes quotes from his interview with the man. But Hamalian’s focus is on book piracy and obscenity. There’s no mention of “Jews Must Live.”
I wrote Leo Hamalian a letter in 2000, and he replied: “Yes, I read ‘Jews Must Live’ but was too embarrassed on behalf of Roth to discuss it with him.”
Hamalian did send me a photocopy of a 1980 letter from folklorist Gershon Legman, who told Hamalian: “[T]he only serious lacuna in your article seems to me the total silence as to the book that created most of the enmity against him, ‘Jews Must Live,’ an attack written when he thought Hitler might win and wanted to execute a hurried cross-jostle. His lawyer, Atlas, once said to me that when they would ‘get’ Roth, whatever the pretext would be, the real reason would be Jews M. L.”
It turns out Roth’s motivation can be found in his own writing.
The paperback version of “Jews Must Live” now sold through neo-Nazi websites has several chapters missing from Roth’s original. When I got hold of a vintage hardback a couple of years ago, I read the chapter titled “The Life and Death of William Faro.”
In these 30 pages, Roth tells the story of how he purportedly got swindled out of his publishing company, William Faro, Inc., over debts of a few thousand dollars to various creditors. He tells this story in excruciatingly tedious detail. And he describes his creditors and their sinister agents – along with other Jews he had done business with in the past – by such phrases as “Jew shyster,” “a crafty old Jew,” “another Jew vulture,” “an ugly little socialist-Jew with burlesque Jewish accent and manners,” and so on.
So… “Jews Must Live” was Samuel Roth’s revenge against the Jews who had cheated him in business. That’s it!
Or is it? Roth’s original hardback contains another chapter I hadn’t seen before, “Farewell to Judas.” It ends with a bizarre literary flight-of-fancy… a five-page dialogue between Roth and a character called “Judas,” an apparent embodiment of the Jew as Jew. Get a load of this:
JUDAS: You hate me, don’t you?
I: Yes, I hate, I loathe you.
JUDAS: I can’t understand why?
I: I don’t fully understand it myself. But I do know that I hate you. I particularly hate your face, face of a Judas, of a Satzkin. The revengeful heels left their tracks on that horrible face of yours. It is a face which has absorbed an ocean of outraged spit, and it is drooping with a dark greenness out of the mean corners of your mouth.
JUDAS: And that you think is a good enough reason for your hatred?
I: Look at you. … You have no honor, no decency, and yet you talk continually of your pride. You have no real possessions of your own, yet you are always prepared to advise other people how to divide what is their own. … [I] abhor you even more than I abhor lice, spiders, diseased orifices of the body, roaches, the germs of syphilis and gonorrhea, and those rebellious little aristocrats who compose cancer. You seem to me to be some unhealable disease in the blood of the race. Without you, life for humanity might be as free, joyous, happy-go-lucky and adventurously fatal as it must be for the rest of animal creation…”
The kicker comes at the end of this dialogue, when Roth raises a drinking glass to hurl at Judas’s “horrible skull.” Then:
The mirror fell in a thousand shattered fragments at my feet.
Self-hatred, thy name is Roth.
Searching the Internet in recent weeks for more information on Roth, I found a stunning irony. Roth’s grandson is James L. Kugel, a renowned biblical scholar at Harvard… and at Israel’s Bar Ilan University.
I emailed Prof. Kugel and asked what insights he might be able and willing to provide regarding his grandfather. Prof. Kugel sent a brief but polite reply:
“I really can’t tell you much about Samuel Roth, and nothing at all about ‘Jews Must Live’ -- the person who really knows is his biographer, Professor Jay Gertzman. I suggest you contact him.”
I haven’t tried to contact Prof. Gertzman, but I did purchase his book, “Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940,” which discusses Roth in more detail than any text I know of.
In fact, Gertzman attempts to psychoanalyze Sam Roth, drawing a connection between his persecution as a pornographer and his public spasm of self-hatred.
“For a Jew to write an anti-Semitic book in order to show the world how fellow Jews have abused his confidence in them” is clearly rooted in self-hatred, Gertzman writes. “It is as if the writer were willing to forfeit everything, including an honest, realistic view of the world, and the respect of peers, to escape the life experience that has raised the specter of total vulnerability, of being nothing but a victim. …
“The path Roth took was masochistic; it forced its victim to cleanse himself of an illusory ‘infection’ that he accepted as somehow genetic. The concept of spiritual infection of ‘decent’ society by alien carriers of the virulence of sex was central to the thought and action of the law-enforcement officers fighting the ethnic middleman erotica dealer. Roth, the victim, wanted to exorcise in himself ‘Jewish’ motives and feelings.”
Gertzman continued: “For the self-hater who had internalized the majority’s contempt, the American Dream became skewed – when expressed by members of the minority group in which he did not want to be included – into greed, deception, laziness, and ugliness. Roth did not look, act, or talk like his Lower East Side neighbors. He affected the clothing and haberdashery of the 1890s dandy. Observers remarked on his broad-brimmed hats, cane, bow ties, and, occasionally, lemon-yellow gloves and even spats.”
Gertzman, in the end, offers a kind of absolution to Samuel Roth: “The only truth ‘Jews Must Live’ embodies is its author’s dependence on the authority figures who identified him as a pariah in the first place, and who were in reality responsible for his woes. Roth allowed them to define him. His book took the shame they foisted on the erotica dealer as venal, duplicitous, and prurient and magnified it into a condemnation of not only his colleagues, but his own people as a whole.”
Roth, had he lived to read this, might’ve appreciated the absolution. As it stood, he had to settle for his own fantasy of being forgiven by Jesus Christ.
Toward the end of “My Friend Yeshea,” his 600-page book self-published in 1961, Roth describes a long “dream” in which he stands trial in a “Heavenly Court.” In this dream, Roth refers to himself by his Jewish name, Mishillim; Jesus he refers to by the Hebrew name Yeshea. The prosecuting attorney is called “the Accusor” (Satan?); Roth’s defense counsel is the angel Azrael.
The Accusor describes for the court Mishillim’s hunger for revenge “after being robbed by a group of merchants whom he engaged in trade”:
“… [H]e conceived, in the poisonous and violent vats of his mind, a public assault such as would destroy his former enemies… in the writing and publishing of a book calculated to raise the animosity of his countrymen against Jews to such a frenzy, that his betrayers together with the rest of his people on this continent would pass into the jaws of death in a slaughter belonging to history. I demand that he be questioned along these lines immediatedly.”
“The reference is to your book Jews Must Live,” said Yeshea. “Is the charge true or not, Mishillim?”
“As to the book and the hate, all is true,” I replied. “… Like the One on Horeb [Moses] I have had moods in which I wanted to see my people undone. But I never could have uttered the wish with the intent that it be carried out. Much as I may have hated my people for the moment, I never loved it less than I loved myself.
“Anger in betrayal impassioned this ugly book of mine and blew it up into mountainous heights of inaccuracy and unreadableness. As for the connection between my anger against my despoilers and my subsequent displeasure with all Israel except the intrepid settlers of our sacred land – whom I paused to bless among the loudest of my invectives – it was tenuous and of the moment. … I plead guilty.”
“Guilty of what?” Azrael asked, and I answered:
“Of hatred, lying, and evil intent, as charged. Jews Must Live has none of the qualities of gentleness or informativeness which are needed to turn events into the words of a book. It demands punishment. And who am I that I should escape it?”
But Jesus doesn’t punish Sam Roth, nor pronounce him guilty. Instead, Jesus says this:
“Since the unanimous opinions of Jews Must Live, including that of its author, is that it’s an excessively ugly book, I so accept it. But it doesn’t prejudice Mishillim’s case. The first function of a book is, not to be beautiful, but true to the prevailing passion of its creator. This having been affirmed, as well as its ugliness… I consider the complaint disproved, and will entertain no further argument regarding it.”
“But Mishillim has pleaded guilty,” the second Accusor objected.
“True. But it doesn’t alter my decision,” Yeshea answered. “We’ll let his plea remain on the Record as a delineation of his state of mind. The recognition of a wrong done, coupled with a true hunger for penance, remains one of the Four Pillars of The Temple, in and out of Exile.”
So there you have it.
And if you think Samuel Roth wasn’t right in the head, wait until you meet William Hannibal Thomas, the black man (mulatto, actually) who authored “The American Negro” a century ago. In that book, Thomas declared that, due to infusions of white blood, the American Negro was transformed from “a sensuous savage animal into a rational human creature, with a possible attainment to manhood and spiritual consciousness.” But attaining that, he said, would take some work.
His story is coming up.
[TO BE CONTINUED]