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Gaining lessons from "The Plot Against America" by Philip Roth

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

When I first approached Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, I can honestly admit that I expected a generic tale of antisemitism faced by Jews. From Number the Stars, to The Tattooist of Auschwitz, works on highlighting the topic could generally be considered a genre of their own.

As a Jewish teen, I’ve read many of these books, yet Roth’s novel deviated from the rest. The novel is set in a World War II era America, in New Jersey. We follow the working class Roth family, told from the point of view of Philip as a child growing up in a Lindbergh presidency era. In reality, aviator Charles Lindbergh was a close friend of Adolf Hitler, who shared the same ideals, and perpetuated anti-semitic beliefs throughout society at the time.

Throughout the novel, Lindbergh is presented as an American hero, perhaps a savior, even to the character of the conservative Rabbi Bengelsdorf. The way Roth illustrates Lindbergh perfectly incorporates the irony of the reality behind the novel. Continuing throughout the book, the readers are given a glimpse of this distorted reality through the tinted lens of childhood. Philip doesn’t yet understand his father’s frustration, or the Rabbi’s behavior.

“For the moment, our lives were intact, our households were in place, and the comfort of habitual rituals was almost powerful enough to preserve a child’s peacetime illusion of an eternal, unhounded now” (Roth, 229).

The illusion of bliss compliments the reality faced by Jewish-American families in the 1940s. What I thought was most interesting, however, was the development of Rabbi Bengelsdorf’s character. The Rabbi is introduced into the family as the husband of Philip’s aunt Evelyn, and is seen to be in full support of Lindbergh, addressing it frequently throughout the novel.

The Rabbi’s character frustrated me for the majority of the book. How could a religious leader be in support of a man defining antisemitism?

However, I finally understood Roth’s approach when I neared the end of the book. Within the last 80 pages, the rabbi is arrested “under suspicion of being ‘among the ringleaders’ of the Jewish conspiratorial plot against America” (Roth, 320).

Consequently, Lindbergh disappears, FDR steps in, and life in America returns to normalcy with a bitter-sweet closing.

The Plot Against America sheds light on what could have happened, but didn’t. For that reason, it’s important to consider this simple, yet eye opening tale of a Jewish-American family.

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