Getting Personal and Universal in Joseph Roth’s Job

By Katherine Sanders

As translator Ross Benjamin said during his discussion with The New Republic‘s senior editor Ruth Franklin this past February at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Job: The Story of a Simple Man was “a turning point for Joseph Roth.” Not only did Job lead up to his masterpiece The Radetsky March, but Job represented a return to his childhood. Roth was raised in a small Jewish community, called Brody (Zuchnow in the book) on the edge of the Russian border in what was then Austria-Hungary, now Ukraine. Throughout his life, Benjamin reminded us, Roth was a writer who seemed to transcend borders and contain multiple identities: often lying about his background, changing his name, writing for both left-wing and right-wing publications, and even converting to Catholicism near the end of his life. In the same way, Job flouts these boundaries, bringing together Judaism and Christianity, Austria-Hungary and America, childhood and adulthood, while merging universal myths with personal myths.

Roth creates a new parable based on the story of Job, a figure who is appreciated by both Jews and Christians as a pillar of faith in an uncertain world. Roth’s Job-figure is Mendel Singer, “pious, God-fearing and ordinary, an entirely everyday Jew” who supports his family by teaching young students the word of God “with genuine enthusiasm and without spectacular success.” Mendel’s family consists of his wife Deborah, his two sons Jonas and Shemariah, and his daughter Miriam when his youngest son Menuchim is born with epilepsy. Deborah takes her young son to a wonder rabbi, hoping for a miracle, or at least some useful advice. She is told that the boy will one day become well, but only “After long years,” and indeed, ten years later Menuchim still cannot speak. Time marches on with a rigorous clip as Jonas joins the military, Shemariah becomes a successful merchant, and Miriam grows into a beautiful young woman.

Throughout the book, Roth developed what Benjamin called an “inner subjectivity” within characters. Roth had a strong background as a journalist where he learned how to quickly turn a story and make every word count. He also studied under Alfred Polgar, writing feuilletons—short, highly stylized pieces of literary journalism featured at the end of newspapers. One of Roth’s early assignments, Benjamin pointed out, was in 1927 when he wrote dispatches about Eastern European Jews, now collected and published as The Wandering Jews. “Turning away from realism freed his style and his imagination,” said Benjamin. And in turning away from realism, he turned toward parable.

The prose in Job feels simple but moves quickly, as we expect from Roth, and focuses most of our attention on the actions of the characters rather than on their thoughts. In describing Mendel, Benjamin translates: “His body was wrapped in a customary half-long Jewish caftan, the skirts of which fluttered when Mendel Singer rushed through the street, knocking with a hard regular wing beat against the shafts of his high leather boots.” His clothing is customary, his life regular; yet we are taken into Mendel’s inner world, feeling the rhythm of his step within his own boots. Likewise his body is “wrapped in” his caftan, not “stuck in” it (as Dorothy Thompson translated in 1931). Benjamin’s attention to these details reminds us that though these characters may appear to be ordinary, the narrator is always just about to unveil the unexpected.

A new opportunity literally knocks on the door as Shemariah, now living in America and calling himself “Sam” sends for the family to move to New York. Mendel realizes that leaving his ancestors’ home and his familiar lifestyle will mean a completely new identity, “Mendel will no longer be a teacher, he’ll be the father of a rich son.” He learns that Miriam is “going with a Cossack” and the decision is made: the family will move. “It was as if they, Deborah and Mendel, had not voluntarily made the decision to go to America, but rather as if America had come over them, set upon them.”

Perhaps America had a mystical effect on Roth as well, for he wrote “A Jew can wish for nothing better than to reach America.” Though as Benjamin said, it was a country Roth had never been to. His fellow journalist and original translator Dorothy Thompson served as his informant while he was writing the second half of the book, which takes place in New York City. Roth’s feelings about America were uncertain, and his feelings about his audience seemed just as conflicted. Roth chose to write about a Jewish family in Christian terms. For example, Mendel “imparted to children knowledge of the Bible,” not the Torah; the Jewish Passover feast, Pesach, is called Easter; matzoh is called “Easter bread.” Despite his own closeness to Jewish traditions, Roth wanted to make sure his Western Christian readers could understand. Benjamin attributes this choice to Roth’s desire to tap into “universal emotions,” to render more than a detailed portrait of Jewish life.

Just as quickly as the dream of America begins for the Singer family, the curse of America consumes it. Even though they seem to be as poor as they were before, life just as difficult, Mendel “took his children at their word that America was God’s country, New York the city of miracles and English the most beautiful language.” Mendel learns to wear “contentment like strange borrowed clothing” and “in America, where everything hurried, Mendel Singer had first learned to walk slowly.”

But the onslaught of WWI takes Mendel’s sons overseas, to fight, disappear, and die. The news causes his wife Deborah to drop dead and his daughter Miriam to go insane. The place that had once been full of promise now becomes “a deadly fatherland.” Mendel embodies his suffering, taking up residence with a friend and becoming pitied or hated by all know him.

But then again, time in the novel always turns with hope and good humor and an unexpected visitor transforms Mendel, allowing the greatest miracle of all, happiness, to be born within him like beautiful music. Benjamin writes in his translator’s note that Job conveys “the fundamental homesickness at the heart of the author’s life and work.” Descriptions like “the smell of hot and flavorful meals, the black and white shimmer that emanated from their father’s beard and face, the echo of their mother’s sighs…millions of unnamable regular and special events” show Roth’s nostalgia for the comforts of his homeland. Perhaps this novel was Roth’s way of reconnecting with what was irreparably lost. This sensitivity gives us a novel that is both mythical in its reach and surprisingly personal in its depth. “Inner subjectivity” combine with “universal emotions” in a work that transformed Roth as a writer and continues to affect his readers today.

Photo: Ross Benjamin, by the author.


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