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Liel Leibovitz vs. Adam Kirsch on Philip Roth

The two Tableteers debate the author’s legacy ahead of his 80th birthday

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Earlier this week, despite an odd late March sleet storm, a large number of Philip Roth devotees filled a room at the New School to witness a conversation billed as “Philip Roth and the Modern Jewish Predicament.”

Put on the Posen Foundation, there was wine and cheese and veggie sliders as well as the main course: a chance to listen to Liel Leibovitz and Adam Kirsch duke it out over Philip Roth’s legacy while Jacques Berlinerblau calmly mediated. Of course, the best part is that no one likely expected a fight, only another of those soft tributes honoring Roth as the whole world (except for Sweden and Iran) celebrated the author’s 80th birthday. But they didn’t know what Liel had up his sleeve. And they didn’t see it coming.

Halfway through as Liel savaged Roth’s writing, calling it misanthropic and sophomoric, comparing Roth’s career to that of Britney Spears, a portion of the audience began to cluck their tongues and sigh each time Liel began anew. “He’s such a narcissist,” a woman said (of Liel, not Roth). The only problem was Liel knew his stuff.

Ably defending Roth was Adam Kirsch. The three men discussed how other writers from Virginia Woolf to Updike to Joyce to Bellow matched up against Roth and delved deep into the Jewish condition. More intellectually rigorous than contentious, it went on for nearly two hours.

Below is the video. It’s a master class in debate, literature, and the art of conversation. Enjoy.

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This was a very comprehensive assessment of Philip Roth’s literary output and his career. Adam Kirsch’s and Jacques Berlinerblau’s commentary revealed the major themes that Roth has be exploring and struggling with since the 1950’s. Liel Liebovitz, on the other hand, was insufferable. He certainly has a right to his many opinions, and disagreeing with sacred cows is usually welcomed. However, Liebovitz was unwilling to grant Roth any credit on anything. 95% of his comments were slams and put-downs.

The funny thing to me is that Liebovitz sounds very much like a character out of Roth. He reminds me of Jerry Lebov, the Swede’s younger brother and Zukerman’s friend in “American Pastoral.” He is a wise guy who thinks he is the smartest one in the room, totally without generosity or humility. Then there is his in-your-face/give no quarter resonance of the stereotype of the “New York Intellectual.” But Liebovitz isn’t even from New York! He is an Israeli whose personal and professional mission seems to be to teach us Americans (and especially the American Jews) about our own popular culture. Great accent and command of English, Liel. But he just doesn’t “get” it enough to make his pronouncements accepted by the natives themselves. Given his hostility toward the “solipsistic” expressions of American popular culture and his “yickus” as the descendant of a long line of haredi rabbis, I’ve got the perfect neighborhood for him–Williamsburg Brooklyn. You’ve got the Lena Dunham hipsters and the Satmar hasidim together in one setting–a participant observer’s dream!

Liebovitz’s kvetching has Rothian overtones to it. Another smart-ass Jewish boy, Wilhelm Reich, called it “character armor” before he went nuts. Then Roth quipped about a character and he could have been measuring Liebovitz: he is like the punchline in a Jewish joke. He complains the most about what is really inside of him.

    Gey Gezunterheyt says:

    You’re a mentsh, Dovidl. On the other hand, this Liebovitz is a gruber yung for sure.


That was an exceptionally sweet and well-written comment. You are entirely correct, regarding how much young Liebovitz’s aggrieved and critical tone resembles that of plenty of Roth’s fictional characters. I laughed, I truly did.

Portnoy’s Complaint stands out vividly in my memory, over 20 years later. The abuse to which the family dinner-to-be, that slab of butcher paper-wrapped cow’s or maybe calves liver… I am laughing again. Thank you!


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Liel Leibovitz vs. Adam Kirsch on Philip Roth

The two Tableteers debate the author’s legacy ahead of his 80th birthday

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