Roth's 80th cause for Newark, NJ, celebration

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 19, 2013 at 6:28 pm •  Published: March 19, 2013

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — "Sitting there in the park," Philip Roth wrote in "Goodbye Columbus, "I felt a deep knowledge of Newark, an attachment so rooted that it could not help but branch out into affection."

On the novelist's 80th birthday Tuesday, Newark returned the sentiment to one of its most celebrated natives.

The city that played a seminal role in many of Roth's novels played host to a series of events honoring Roth, including a conference of scholars, a bus tour, an exhibit of Roth's personal photos and a birthday party Tuesday night at the Newark Museum, where Roth cuts a cake made to look like a stack of books.

"Newark has been to Roth's writing what whaling is to Melville," said Rosemary Steinbaum, dean of instruction at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, N.J., and a photo exhibit curator.

"Philip Roth: An Exhibit of Photos from a Lifetime" opened Tuesday at the Newark Public Library. Many of Roth's personal photographs are featured: Roth and his brother eating popsicles at the beach as children, Roth acting in plays at Bucknell University, surrounded by friends including the writer William Styron, and photos of Roth's brother, parents and grandparents.

Roth was born and raised in Newark's Weequahic neighborhood, populated almost entirely by Jewish families at the time. Roth would bike back from its library with books in tow and attended the neighborhood's art deco high school. The city features prominently in his novels, including "American Pastoral," ''Nemesis," ''The Plot Against America" and "Portnoy's Complaint."

The Philip Roth Society held a symposium called Roth(at)80, and many members who dedicated careers to studying Roth, but never visited Newark, piled on three tour buses that wound through the city streets.

Liz Del Tufo, president of the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee, started giving Roth bus tours in 2005. She and the society were instrumental in getting Roth to celebrate his birthday in Newark.

"Whenever Liz Del Tufo calls him (Roth), which is at least monthly, he says, 'Am I 80 yet?'" said Roth's biographer, Blake Bailey.

Del Tufo narrated a tour that was as much a history of Roth's life in Newark as it was an account of the city's past. Each time the bus entered a neighborhood or passed a building that played a role in one of Roth's works, the bus stopped and Del Tufo asked a passenger to read a pertinent passage.

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