Philip Roth took his Jewishness seriously, but he had no use for  religious ritual. He expressly forbade any Jewish rites at his funeral, according to his biographer, Blake Bailey. And so there were none when he was laid to rest on May 28 at the Bard College Cemetery in upstate New York near a plot reserved for his friend, Norman Manea, a Romanian Jewish writer who teaches at Bard. 

What did being Jewish mean to Roth? The question of Jewish identity runs through much of Roth’s fiction, of course. And it played out in his real life, in a little-known but revealing literary quarrel between Roth and Bernard Malamud, one of the pioneers in the emerging golden age for Jewish writers in post-war America.

Their argument revolved partly around Malamud’s most revered novel, “The Assistant,” written in 1957. The novel tells of Morris Bober, a wretchedly poor Jewish grocer in Brooklyn, and his relationship with his Catholic assistant, Frank Alpine. 

Like father and son, Morris and Frank discuss religion. How is it, Frank asks, that Morris disobeys Judaism by eating ham? And why does he accept the suffering of his meager life with so little complaint?

Morris tells Frank that Judaism is not about ritual, but rather about leading an ethical life, about doing good in the world. And, he tells him, suffering is inevitable. “I suffer for you,” Morris says.

In this revealing dialogue, Malamud equates suffering with Judaism and anoints Morris as a kind of Jesus figure. In other words, “The Assistant” follows a classic Christian narrative: a man suffers, is transformed by his suffering, and finds salvation. In his introduction to the widely read paperback edition of “The Assistant,” Jonathan Rosen writes bluntly, “Jews in Malamud’s world are the true Christians.”

Writers Philip Roth (L) and Primo Levi (R) in 1988. Wikimedia Commons

In a 1974 New York Review of Books essay, Roth took on Malamud, his friend and literary father-figure, criticizing him for creating characters that were suffering Jews, virtuous victims, full of “righteousness and restraint,” lacking any “libidinous or aggressive activities.” Though he didn’t use the phrase, Roth painted them as Christ-like in their poverty, pain, moral goodness, and quest for redemption. By contrast, the Christian characters, like Frank Alpine, were full of sexual lust and transgressive behavior — the bad goy to Morris Bober’s good Jew. “The Assistant,” Roth wrote, was a book of “stern morality.”

Roth contrasted Malamud’s protagonists to the exuberant Jewish characters created by Saul Bellow, especially the picaresque Augie March, and his own hypersexual Alexander Portnoy. In effect, Roth said, Malamud had created Jews who were stereotypes, not fully realized human beings.

Malamud was stunned. He drafted two letters to Roth, refuting his arguments, but never sent them, according to a Malamud biography by Philip Davis. Instead, Malamud mailed only a few words to Roth: “It’s your problem.”

Roth wrote back, audaciously insisting that he had pointed out “fictional skeletons” that perhaps Malamud himself didn’t see.

U.S. President Barack Obama presents the 2010 National Humanities Medal to novelist Philip Roth during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, on March 2, 2011 in Washington, DC. Getty Images

Little wonder that Malamud refused to talk to Roth for several years. They were reconciled in May 1978, when Malamud and his wife, Ann, accepted a dinner invitation in London from Roth and Claire Bloom, who were then living together. The two men kissed on the lips and resumed their friendship, according to a memoir by Malamud’s daughter, Janna Malamud Smith.

However, in a letter to his daughter a week after that dinner of reconciliation, Malamud voiced his true feelings: Roth, he said, had written a “foolish egoistic essay about my work” and had “certainly misinterpreted” “The Assistant.” The letter was not made public until 2006, some 20 years after Malamud’s death.

What do we learn from this exchange about Jewish identity? Is it to do good in the world, as Malamud’s Morris Bober explains? Or are Jews as transgressive as the next guy, as Roth would have it? Is suffering a key to Jewish identity, a view embraced by Malamud but rejected by Roth? And perhaps most important: Can you be Jewish without being religious?

Roth’s answer to that question was a profound yes. A Jew to the core, there was no trace of official Judaism in his last rites — no rabbi, no prayers. But some of the 90 or so mourners did shovel dirt on his casket, as is sometimes done unofficially at Jewish funerals. A fitting end, perhaps.

The author’s new book is “A Literary Journey to Jewish Identity: Re-Reading Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Ozick and Other Great Jewish Writers” (Bayberry Books).