How Saul Bellow ‘Blew It’ With the Holocaust, Changed His Tune After Six Day War

May 7, 2013 2:15 pm 1 comment

Saul Bellow at the Miami Book Fair International festival in 1990. Photo: MDCarchives/Wikimedia Commons.

LOS ANGELES—Born in Canada into an immigrant Jewish family in 1915, Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow had a traditional Jewish upbringing, which included Torah study, Talmud, and Hebrew. Yet Rabbi David Wolpe observes that Bellow had an ambivalent relationship with Judaism.

“It was part of who he was, but he didn’t want to be thought of as a ‘Jewish’ author,” Wolpe, who has been the top-ranked rabbi on the Newsweek “50 Most Influential Rabbis in America” list, told JNS.org.

Wolpe, the leader of Sinai Temple of Los Angeles, recently sat down with Dr. Greg Bellow, 69, the oldest of Saul Bellow’s four children, to discuss the topic of Greg’s new book, Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir, before an audience of some 200 mature bibliophiles at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, Calif.

Saul Bellow is the only American Jewish author to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and has also won three Pulitzer Prizes. In his new book, Greg Bellow, who holds a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Social Work and was a practicing psychotherapist for many years, divides his father’s life into “Young Saul” and “Old Saul.” He describes Young Saul as a sociable and funny man, full of questions. During the 1930s and ’40s, Saul was a Marxist and a “genuine believer” in radical philosophy. He believed that World War II was a war between communism and capitalism, and he was convinced that “come the Revolution there will be a flowering of society,” according to Greg’s book.

As it turned out, “Young Saul” was wrong about World War II. As Greg put it to the audience at Temple Emanuel, “He blew it.” Moreover, speaking of the post-war “Old Saul,” Greg said his father “turned from a man of questions to a man of answers.” As he began to recognize the social evils that surrounded him in the post-war world, he felt that “mankind cannot govern itself any better than Hitler or Stalin” and grew ever more critical and pessimistic.

“He became irascible and angry, anti-black and anti-women’s lib,” Greg Bellow told the audience.

Saul Bellow’s attitude towards Judaism was changed completely by the Six Day War in June 1967. It transformed him from a socialist to a conservative. He had a need to get involved and, much to the surprise of his family, he left for Israel to cover the war as a correspondent for Newsday. “I had to go,” Saul explained at the time.

Greg said he is convinced that it was “seeing war at close-up that made [Saul] change his mind and awakened him to his Judaism.”

Not long thereafter, Saul went through what Greg called “a spiritual crisis.” It was then that he began to write Mr. Sammler’s Planet, which literary critic Adam Kirsch described as “a document of the cravings of 1960s America, and an attempt to bring the Holocaust to bear on America.” Greg told JNS.org that Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a “watershed novel” because it conveys not only a message about the Holocaust in general, but also “an indictment against the self-imposed blindness that prevented people from seeing the Nazi threat.”

Arthur Sammler, the protagonist of the novel, is a Holocaust survivor living in New York in the ’60s. He is an intellectual who has maintained many of his Central European attitudes about culture. While he marvels at Neil Armstrong landing on the moon and other evidence of progress and prosperity, Sammler is at the same time appalled by the excesses and degradations of city life. By the end of the novel he has learned to bridge the gap between himself and those around him, and has come to accept that a “good life” is one in which a person does that which is “required of him.”

Asked whether they believe there is a possibility that our world might once experience the kind of upheaval it did during World War II and the Holocaust, much as the world of Mr. Sammler collapsed in Saul Bellow’s novel, both Wolpe and Greg Bellow told JNS.org that Mr. Sammler’s Planet is recommended reading not just for Jews, but for everyone. They strongly believe that the history and lessons of the Holocaust must continue to be taught, with Rabbi Wolpe saying the Holocaust “shows the ease with which civilization can slip into barbarism.”

Wolpe wondered how many young people today even know Saul Bellow or read his work, but mused how wonderful it would be if more children of famous authors wrote about their parents, as Greg Bellow has.

Greg, asked to speculate on how his father might view today’s social values as compared to those of the ’60s, which Sammler criticized so strongly, told JNS.org that Saul Bellow probably would not have changed his opinion since “ours is a society with shallow moral values.”

“We’re not done with genocide on the basis of race and ethnicity, and we live at a time when death can come out of the sky at any moment,” Greg said.

1 Comment

  • Joel Steinberger

    That “death can come…at any moment” only means we have not learned that what happens in the world is the collective product of its inhabitants. Tikkun Olam.

    Read Marianne Meyerhoff’s healing memoir, FOUR GIRLS FROM BERLIN (John Wiley & Sons – 2008) for the deepest understanding of victim-hood and how to get out of it.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Israel Sports Israeli Judo Team Faces Antisemitic Harassment in Morocco: ‘We Will Murder You’

    Israeli Judo Team Faces Antisemitic Harassment in Morocco: ‘We Will Murder You’

    Israeli athletes at a world Judo championship in Morocco reportedly faced antisemitic slurs during the competition, news site WorldNetDaily reported on Monday. “We will murder you,” and “you’re not wanted here, go home,” were among the vituperative attacks directed at the Israeli Judo Association team, which was in Morocco last week for the World Masters Judo Tournament. According to Haaretz, each Israeli teammate was met with boos and jeers upon entering a fight. Additionally, no Israeli flags were present at [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Pop superstar Lady Gaga on Thursday accepted an award from Jewish human rights group the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on behalf of her Born This Way Foundation, which strives to combat bullying among young people. “Your philosophies are so in line with ours,” she said of the ADL upon accepting the Making a Difference Award in a videotaped message, which was shown at a ceremony in New York City. “We want to help young people know that their feelings and who they are on [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    JNS.org – Eighty years young, Leonard Cohen fits many descriptions—singer, songwriter, poet, novelist, monk. From his Jewish upbringing in Canada to the present day, Cohen has always explored his spiritual side. This month, the singer-songwriter released the CD (May 12) and iTunes (on May 8 of this year) formats of his latest album, Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, which features live recordings from his world tours in 2012 and 2013. Last year, Cohen’s Popular Problems was voted by Rolling Stone [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    JNS.org – Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) head Sepp Blatter said during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that contrary to Palestinian complaints, Israel has not violated any FIFA statutes and should not be suspended from international soccer’s governing body. “We should not come to one federation saying we will exclude them,” said Blatter, the Jerusalem Post reported. “If the national association is fulfilling its obligations then there is no need to intervene,” he said. “I’m on a [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Middle East Sports Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish human rights group the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) said on Tuesday it was “appalled” by a Palestinian Football Association initiative to suspend Israel from FIFA, calling it another “front waged in the context of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign.” “We are appalled at the temerity of the Palestinan Football Association (PFA) demand that FIFA suspend Israel at your forthcoming Congress in Zurich,” wrote the group’s international relations director, Dr. Shimon Samuels, in a letter to FIFA President Joseph [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    The lead actor in Son of Saul, an Auschwitz thriller featured at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, told the UK’s The Guardian that he believes God was “holding the hand” of each Jew who died in the Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust. “I do not for one nanosecond like to pretend that God is off the hook. He could and should have stopped it at a much earlier stage,” Géza Röhrig, 48, said. ”But I would not be able to get [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Backstreet Boys Singer Howie D Gushes Over Masada During Israel Trip

    Backstreet Boys Singer Howie D Gushes Over Masada During Israel Trip

    Backstreet Boys singer Howie Dorough took to Instagram on Tuesday to marvel about climbing the famed Masada fortress with his band during their visit to Israel, where they will perform this week for the first time. The group’s second day of sightseeing in the Jewish state included the Masada hike, and taking a mud bath at the Dead Sea. A picture from the band’s official Twitter page shows the five singers covered in mud. While relaxing in the Dead Sea, [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews US & Canada ‘Arms and the Dudes:’ New Book, Film Detail How Ex-Orthodox Yeshiva Guys Became Top Suppliers for Afghan Army

    ‘Arms and the Dudes:’ New Book, Film Detail How Ex-Orthodox Yeshiva Guys Became Top Suppliers for Afghan Army

    A new book and its upcoming film adaptation tell the true story of how three former yeshiva students who habitually smoked marijuana scored a $300 million contract from the U.S. government to supply weapons for the Afghan Army, the New York Daily News reported on Sunday. Arms and the Dudes details how the Miami Beach potheads became “the most unlikely gunrunners in history,” according to the book’s author, investigative reporter Guy Lawson. The tale begins with Efraim Diveroli, nephew of [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.