I know the rabbi in “The Plot Against America”

"The Plot Against America" is a wake up call. Even and especially for rabbis.

I shall never forget the day that I first read Philip Roth’s book The Plot Against America.

It was in the autumn of 2004. The book had just arrived in my local bookstore.

I bought the book at 11 am, then sat down to read it non-stop, finishing at around 4 pm.

It was erev Yom Kippur, and the book so engrossed me that I ignored my usual pre-Day of Atonement preparations. I should have been thinking about sin and redemption. But, all I could think about was the Levin family of Newark, New Jersey.

For years, I have deemed “The Plot Against America” the ultimate American Jewish novel. It is the best literary depiction of the Holocaust to not take place in Europe.

That is why I think that HBO’s depiction of “The Plot Against America” is must viewing for every American Jew.

“The Plot Against America” is an alternative history of the early 1940s. It imagines that the Jew-hating aviator and American First advocate Charles Lindbergh becomes president of the United States, and initiates a wave of antisemitism.

We experience this through the eyes of the Levin family of Newark (modeled on the Roths themselves), which includes young Philip and his older brother, Sandy. The Levin nephew, Alvin, goes to Canada to join the anti-German forces, and who loses part of his leg in battle.

We see Herman and Bess Levin’s fear over the increase in antisemitism. They travel to Washington, DC, where a hotel clerk expels them from their lodgings because they are Jews, and where they experience raw Jew-hatred in a restaurant.

There is also Aunt Evelyn. She falls for Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, a local Conservative rabbi and Lindbergh supporter (played masterfully by John Turturro). The rabbi and Evelyn take roles in the Lindbergh administration. In one ghastly scene, the couple are at a party at the White House, where Evelyn dances with none other than German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, who is in Washington to proclaim German-American friendship.

Rabbi Bengeldorf develops Just Folks, a program which encourages (or deports) urban Jews to the American heartland, so that they can learn the ways of “real” Americans and become assimilated into American life.

Is there any historical truth in “The Plot Against America?”

Yes. The conditions in America were ripe for fascism. Lindbergh really was an isolationist with antisemitic tendencies. In 1939, he wrote in Readers’ Digest: “It is time to turn from our quarrels and to build our White ramparts again. This alliance with foreign races means nothing but death to us.”

Father Charles Coughlin had a regular antisemitic radio program with huge audiences.

But, let me return to Rabbi Bengelsdorf.

Like Lindbergh, the rabbi is an isolationist, and does not want Americans to die in a European war.

The rabbi proclaims his unadulterated Americanism, the primacy of his American (even Southern; even Confederate) identity, his desire to de-hyphenate Jews of their ethnic identity. In that sense, he is a Jewish version of Henry Ford, who himself winds up in the Lindbergh administration.

Worse, the rabbi makes excuses for Lindbergh’s Jew-hatred. The rabbi equivocates even on Germany, despising Hitler’s antisemitism, but believing that we should work with them.

Finally, as a rabbi, Bengelsdorf is a hack.  “It’s been a while since I’ve written a sermon from scratch,” he admits. He is besotted with celebrity, as is Evelyn, who rejoices as her newly found power propels her out of her mediocrity.

But, there is a historical error in the portrayal of Bengelsdorf.

Rabbi Bengelsdorf is a Conservative rabbi.

In reality, a Conservative rabbi in 1940 would not have been an assimilationist.

No, Benglesdorf would have been a Reform rabbi.

Many Reform rabbis of the period were social and political activists — both in their opposition to Nazism and segregation. I think specifically of Stephen S. Wise, in particular.

And yet, other Reform rabbis called for assimilation, who stressed good citizenship over Judaism, who did not want the Jews to stick out.

They were anti-Zionist. They equated Zionism with dual loyalty. They loudly proclaimed that Judaism was just a religion, and not a nation.

They led the American Council for Judaism, lobbying against the creation of a Jewish state. They took their opposition into the State Department itself, even going so far as to oppose the emigration of Jewish refugees to the shores of Palestine.

And yet, Rabbi Bengelsdorf is a metaphor. His presence in the narrative reminds us of a grim truth.

  • There have always been Jews who have been far too open to the seductions of celebrity and imagined power and influence. Sometimes, as with the hofjuden (court Jews), they could be useful in gaining advantages for their people. All too often, however, like in Germany, those pseudo-powerful Jews realized, too late, that they had been dupes.
  • There have always been Jews who are far too willing to cling to a popular ideology, blinding themselves to its implications to their people and to others.
  • There have always been Jews who are far too willing to think that rising tides of hatred will not include them, that they will somehow be the exceptional Jews.
  • They have always been Jews who misjudge and/or minimize and/or pirouette around Jew-hatred and Israel-hatred. They are on the left and the right.

By the end of the series, Bengelsdorf and Evelyn discover themselves to be characters in a Greek tragedy — their hubris paving the road to ruin.

“The Plot Against America” is a warning — far deeper than even Roth could have imagined,

There is a scene in “The Plot Against America” in which Lindbergh supporters foment violence at a rally, which turns out to be a prelude to widespread antisemitic violence, which winds up being heartbreaking in its scope.

Fast forward to 2020.

A sitting president calls for right-wing protesters to “liberate” states from social distancing requirements.

Is it beyond your realm of imagination that violence could erupt?

It shouldn’t be. Read the book. Watch the series.

And commit yourselves to making sure that Roth’s vision does not become our reality.