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.