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Does 'Portnoy' Really Need to Come Out of the Closet?

July 30, 2009 By:
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Warren Hoffman

Since its publication 40 years ago, Portnoy's Complaint -- the salacious and perhaps still best-known work by literary icon Philip Roth -- has been hailed both as a breakthrough novel, and labeled as a demeaning portrait of certain women and slanderous to all Jews. But few have ever claimed it has homosexual undertones.

Until now, that is.

Could it actually be that Alexander Portnoy -- the infamously neurotic, sex-obsessed narrator of the book -- is, in fact, a closeted homosexual?

Not exactly, according to first-time Philadelphia author Warren Hoffman, a Broomall native who holds a doctorate in Jewish American literature from the University of California Santa Cruz.

But, says the 33-year-old, there's enough material in Portnoy -- including the existence of an imaginary gay lover -- to include the work in his study The Passing Game: Queering American Jewish Culture, published this past spring by Syracuse University Press. (Editors pressed him to change the title, since it appeared in the same year as Passing Game: Benny Friedman and the Transformation of American Football. Hoffman declined.)

"Queerness is not just about gay identity," said the Center City resident. "Anything that sort of strays from normative sexuality can be considered queer. Portnoy's Complaint totally fits that definition." (Roth may not have bought into the idea; perhaps for obvious reasons, he wouldn't give permission to Hoffman to quote from the book at length.)

Hoffman -- who had a reading and book-signing a few weeks ago at a West Philadelphia yoga studio -- largely worked on his study of various "classics" of Jewish American literature, whether composed in English or Yiddish, during his spare time.

Laura Levitt, outgoing director of Jewish Studies at Temple University, noted that it was a minor miracle that the book managed to get printed at all, especially at a time when educational publishers are cutting back and being super-selective -- let alone the fact that Hoffman managed to do it without a full-time academic appointment.

'Labor of Love'

Hoffman acknowledged that he'd always planned on being a college professor, but finding a tenure-track position has proved difficult. Instead of residing in the proverbial ivory tower, Hoffman is involved in numerous, more prosaic endeavors: He teaches part-time at Temple University, directs arts-and-cultural programming at the Center City Gershman Y, has penned a play currently being developed by a local theater company and even co-founded a small minyan in Center City. It meets once a month, and is open to both men and women.

Yet his book, which began as his dissertation nearly a decade ago, has been an unquestioned "labor of love," he said.

Hoffman, who attended Temple Sholom in Broomall, noted that he'd always "been interested in where I come from, what is my history as a Jewish American."

But it was in his early 20s -- after he earned his degree from the University of Pittsburgh and while he began his graduate work -- when he came to terms with his gay identity. Soon, he couldn't help but notice a plethora of gay-related themes and references in the cannon of Jewish American literature.

His study spans the period from the early 20th century to the 1970s, stopping just before a cohesive gay-rights movement began to emerge. Instead, it mines a cultural landscape where references to queer themes largely resided beneath the surface, but were nonetheless present, he argues. The work includes discussions of novels, dramas and the idiosyncratic career of Molly Picon, a star of the Yiddish stage who dressed as a man in several performances.

With the exception of novelist Ruth Seid, who wrote under the pen name Joe Sinclair, Hoffman generally examines the work of writers who did not identify as gay -- at least not openly.

"For Jews, it's often been [about] issues of religion, issues of ethnicity, issues of race and class. I'm saying, 'Yes, it's all those things, but it's also sexuality,' " said Hoffman, who argued that overcoming the cultural stereotype of the soft, effeminate Jewish male -- as opposed to tough, unwieldy gentile ones -- became part of the story of Jewish assimilation here.

Some of the books that he's examined lack explicitly gay themes, although they touch upon the role of sexuality in the process of becoming fully American. In this category, Hoffman cites Abraham Cahan's 1917 classic The Rise of David Levinsky, often considered a quintessential immigrant, rags-to-riches tale.

But there's an underside to that work; Levinsky can't find happiness in a relationship -- and, in fact, feels far more comfortable around men than women -- a theme that Hoffman said reverberates in later cultural touchstones, such as Portnoy and a host of Woody Allen films, and even in "Seinfeld."

At the same time, the critic said that Jewish authors have also dealt with explicitly gay themes long before there was a cohesive gay movement or identity. His book includes a chapter on the 1907 Yiddish play "God of Vengeance," which features a lesbian love affair.

"I think what is political about this book, why I think people need to read it, is to see that these issues have been around for a long time. We're talking about them now as if they have just sprung up," said Hoffman, adding that he thinks the Jewish world has made great strides in becoming more welcoming and accepting of gays and lesbians.

"By recognizing that queer Jews have always been part of the American Jewish community, I think we can step back and say, 'Oh, we need to make a space for this,' " he said. "This is part of who we are, and it needs to be embraced."

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