Applause: HBO takes on anti-Semitism in new series

A scene from HBO's "The Plot Against America," premiering March 16, 2020.

A scene from HBO's "The Plot Against America," premiering March 16, 2020.

Contributed / HBO

“When Philip Roth wrote his novel, ‘The Plot Against America,’ its fears of an anti-Semitic fervor in the United States seemed outlandish and unnecessarily alarmist to many, including me,” said Rabbi Michael Friedman, of Westport’s Temple Israel.

That fear is now more real, so much so that the 2004 novel has been adapted as a series of six episodes, starring John Turturro and Winona Ryder, beginning March 16 on HBO. Although written during the George W. Bush administration, Roth’s work about the rise of fascism in the U.S. has unmistakable echoes for today. Take the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottsvlle, Va., whose slogan was “Jews will not replace us.”

The HBO series’ co-writer David Simon (“The Wire”), speaking recently to members of the Television Critics Association, said, “Anti-Semitism is resurgent in America, and great effort is being made to define people as ‘less American.’ The rise of xenophobia and fear of the other, that is the reason this got made. The piece is incredibly relevant.”

Proof resides in recent events — bombed synagogues, home invasions, street violence, inscribed swastikas. Indeed, the first paragraph of Roth’s chilling dystopian novel reads, “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been president or if I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews.”

Yes, you read that right. The premise that Charles Aloysius Lindbergh beat Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 election is the subject of Roth’s book. Taking the form of a memoir, it centers on a Newark, N.J., family named Roth, fictional counterparts of the real Roth family (changed to Levin for TV).

The novel is told in the first person by the family’s younger son, Philip, introducing the reader to a time when the nation came under the fist of Lindbergh, an America firster who devised a fascist state that mirrored Nazi Germany, trumpeting isolationism, populism, bigotry, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. The catchphrase was “Vote for Lindbergh, or vote for war.” Lindbergh, who spent his final years in a Darien house overlooking Long Island Sound, blamed Britain, FDR and “the Jewish race” for pushing America into World War II.

In the novel and TV version, the Roth/Levin family has been living in a peaceful, productive Jewish neighborhood. In 1940, everything changes when the heroic Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic, becomes U. S. president. When “elected,” Lindbergh signs a non-aggression pact with Adolf Hitler. Soon the new president is moving non-Jews into Jewish neighborhoods to “Americanize” them, despite the loyalty and patriotism of “Pledge of Allegiance” citizens like young Philip.

Some Jews, like Sandy, Philip’s older brother, are forced to live with Midwestern Christian families. Returning to New Jersey, thoroughly brainwashed, Sandy accuses his family of being “ghetto Jews.” Disasters follow: A mother is murdered by the KKK; anti-fascist radio commentator Walter Winchell is assassinated; some flee to Canada, making it there before the border is closed. Alvin, Philip’s cousin, joins the Canadian Army, loses a leg fighting in Europe, becomes disillusioned and ends up a racketeer.

Prize-winning author Philip Roth, who had a house in Warren, died in 2018 at age 85. Despite his Jewish background and his many novels on Jewish themes, he was an atheist, said Roth scholar Aimee Pozorski, whose interest in trauma studies led her to the author. Living in New Britain, Pozorski is a professor of contemporary American literature at Central Connecticut State University, was the one-time president of the Roth Society and co-edits a Roth journal.

“For Roth, the plot against America was a plot to destroy democracy, hacked by anti-democratic forces,” she said in an interview. “The novel shows how deeply American he and his parents felt. The American myth was defined by its belief in democracy. In my thinking about the trajectory our country is headed in today, it seems like our democratic values are being eroded.”

Although Roth did not set out to predict the future, the novel may be read as a premonition and warning. In a 2017 New Yorker interview, however, Roth said, “My novel wasn’t written as a warning. I was just trying to imagine what it would have been like for a Jewish family like mine, in a Jewish community like Newark, had something even faintly like Nazi anti-Semitism befallen us in 1940, at the end of the most pointedly anti-Semitic decade in world history.”

Still, Pozorski explains, “There are references to fear and disaster in the novel which seem very telling for our moment. It can happen here. Roth says anti-Semitism is an ‘intoxicant.’ All of his works are really interested in the democratic project and how fragile it is. It takes work. We can’t take our founding principles for granted. Despotic leaders, fascist leaders, can be democratically elected.”

Of course, she’ll watch the series. “Although it will probably give me nightmares,” she said.

“I recently had the chance to re-read the book in light of recent events,” Friedman said. “And what once seemed outlandish now seems not far from reality. We are living in scary times. Anti-Semites have been emboldened by those in power. In 2020, ‘The Plot Against America’ reminds us that all we need for bigotry and hate to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

Norwalk resident David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater and entertainment scene appears monthly.