By Peter L. Rothholz/JNS.org
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.
Click photo to download. Caption: Saul Bellow at the Miami Book Fair International festival in 1990. Credit: MDCarchives/Wikimedia Commons.
“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 Greg’s new book, Saul Bellow
and the Holocaust, 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
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.”