Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 17, 2015

Eli’s coming

I Swear

Vic Fleming

"Once again, as Eli swung around the dark trees and onto the lawn, the children fled.” Philip Roth, in “Eli, the Fanatic” (1959).

Eli means “my god” in Hebrew. There are some famous Elis in history: Whitney, Lilly, and Wallach come to mind. Wikipedia says Eli was the “43rd most popular given name [in the United States] as of 2013.”

Eli Peck is the protagonist of the Roth story quoted above. Which I’d never read before teaching it the first time, in a 2003 seminar at the Bowen School of Law. I now read it at least twice a year.

In a 2005 article, Samuel Freedman labels this tale a “narrowly cast farce.” Hmm. “At the outset of the tale, nothing is fanatical about Eli, except his desire to fit in,” Freedman writes. “He has ridden a law degree and the wave of postwar prosperity from working-class Newark into ... the sort of suburb ... that had [once] barred Jews with restrictive covenants on home sales ....” This much Freedman gets right.

“[W]hen two survivors [of World War II], one of them Hasidic, open a yeshiva out of a ramshackle home in what is supposed to be a residential neighborhood,” Freedman continues, “Eli fears that their oddity will undermine his fragile new niche. He instructs the men in the importance of obeying zoning laws ....” At and from this point, Freedman misreads the story. It’s easy to do (just ask my students).

Eli’s suburb, Woodenton, is about half-Jew, half-Protestant, with each faction being proud of its inter-ethnic achievements. Eli’s predicament, though, is multi-faceted: He works for a firm in Manhattan and has a grueling daily commute. His wife is pregnant with their first child. He’s had a nervous breakdown at some point in the past.

To boot, he’s representing a de facto neighborhood association, all members of which feel threatened by the yeshiva’s 20 displaced persons. Which includes 18 children, who run from Eli whenever they see him.

The man Freedman refers to as Hasidic, we learn, was the victim of Nazi medical experimentation, his vocal cords damaged beyond use. The rabbi’s go-fer, whom the townspeople call “the greenie,” comes around every day to shop, right alongside the wives of Woodenton.

The only real complaint from the Woodenton “community” is the guy’s appearance. He wears the same tattered black suit and top hat each day, reminding all of a different time and circumstance. When Eli zeroes in on this, offering to forego zoning litigation if the dude will just wear something different, the rabbi lets us know that “[t]he suit the gentleman wears is all he’s got.” Literally.

To write more here would spoil the plot. I don’t want to do that. I want you to read it. Farce or not, “Eli, the Fanatic” is a poignant narrative around which I ask students to discuss discrimination, ethics, family, negotiation techniques, self-awareness, sympathy, empathy, and more. I ask them to pay attention if ever they notice children fleeing at the sight of them. And to remember one quotation, from the rabbi: “When is the law that is the law not the law? And vice versa.”

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.