It sounds strange now, in the post-Soon-Yi era, but Woody Allen’s classic films of the 1970s and especially the 1980s made him one of American cinema’s most important moral voices. Behind the neurotic shtick and the clumsy narcissism, Allen in films such as "Zelig," "Broadway Danny Rose" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors" created comic-tragic dramas highlighting the need for personal responsibility, the value of intense self-reflections, and the danger of veering from a moral compass, however personally defined.
At the same time, Allen’s work engaged in what can only be called a fantasy of escape, a breathtaking need to assimilate into gentile society presented most compellingly in "Zelig," where the hero transforms himself physically in order to fit in, and in "The Purple Rose of Cairo," in which a Depression-era woman is seduced by a movie star who has miraculously left the silver screen.
What is so shocking about his stylish new film "Match Point," about an Irish tennis pro of modest means who marries into London high society, is how far Allen has left his Jewish and moral concerns behind. In this film, Allen’s most consequential in many years, the married protagonist kills his girlfriend (and future sister-in-law), and after some shock and awe has a baby with his wife as the symbol of new life. The murder feels more like a rite of passage into a certain kind of adulthood, centered on the protection of sexual and financial urges, than a sin. Compare this film to 1989’s "Crimes and Misdemeanors," in which Allen’s adulterous protagonist, after having his girlfriend killed, suffers from deep moral anguish, represented by the presence and pronouncements of a rabbi.
An analysis of Allen’s moral, Jewish and aesthetic development gains something by comparison with a look at the fiction of Philip Roth. While both men, starting in the early 1960s, presented a satirical view of Jews hoping to "make it" with non-Jewish women and in non-Jewish society, their work in the last decades diverges radically. At the same time that Allen severed his Jewish concerns and even sensibility, Roth intensified his interrogation of Jewish life, becoming even more interested in how Jews shouldn’t leave behind Jewish identity. Even more interesting is the way in which Allen’s rejection of Jewish themes and issues has coincided with the destruction of his moral compass, while Roth’s increasingly Jewish sociological imagination has fine-tuned his moral concerns.
Hana Wirth-Nesher’s new book, "Call it English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature" (Princeton University Press), makes the compelling case that the killings committed by Merry Lvov in Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 novel "American Pastoral" stem not merely from the radical political ideas circulating in the 1960s, but as a kind of punishment for the sin of her assimilating father, Seymour "The Swede."
Roth ended this book as far from the final kvetching gag of "Portnoy’s Complaint" as possible, noting that The Swede’s deeply Jewish parents (not the assimilating son or radical daughter) represented the best of America.
Roth’s recent novel, "The Plot Against America," continued this theme. This historical fantasy is a paean to the author’s Newark neighborhood, where the deeply Jewish values and lifestyle of his family and friends are praised to high heaven. For Roth’s characters, the realities of escape and assimilation are as fraught with peril as the claustrophobia they strive to jettison.
In their recent works, Woody Allen and Philip Roth represent two views of American Jewish history. Allen believes that people can reinvent themselves, and that the particularist, moral ideas of Jewish tradition and culture can and should be shucked. Allen’s continuing journey into his American heart is an un-self-conscious one and is marked by a stunning disengagement from moral violation.
Roth, on the other hand, seems to believe that America is no magic land of easy self-invention, and that a close connection to Jewish civilization provides some important measure of identity and even sanity. His journey into this country (what in "American Pastoral" Roth famously called "the indigenous American berserk") is a heavily annotated one. He moves painfully yet nimbly in the gray area between Jewish self and Jewish community in which ethical behavior seems more and more a privilege and less and less a burden.
Daniel Schifrin is the editor of "Across the Great Divide: The Selected Essays of Abraham Coralnik."