The story isn’t too complicated and the author narrates. Philip is a precocious third-grader in 1940. He lives in a small apartment in Weequahic, N.J., with his father, mother, brother and 21-year-old cousin, Alvin, his parents’ ward. Everyone in his world is Jewish, and almost no one is religious. Everyone is patriotic: “Our homeland was America. Then the Republicans nominated Charles Lindbergh and everything changed.”
Lindbergh is elected on a platform to keep America out of the European War. The East Coast establishment of the Roosevelts mock Lindberg’s appeal to the people who don’t live in the big cities, and are surprised at the landslide. The red states win.
The book follows the expected structure of a speculative history, the entertainment is the flow of differences between what really happened and what the book describes, every change ringing congratulations for our recognizing it. That Walter Winchell is the book’s political hero, the voice of opposition, is delicious only to readers who remember the name..."Life is normal, then it changes a little, and then everything changes."
Herman Roth loses his job to anti-Semitism, gets a night job through Jewish gangster connections and protects his family. The government establishes the Office of American Absorption, and Sandy is shipped to live for a few months with a family of tobacco farmers in Kentucky as part of the Just Folks program, spreading Jews harmlessly around the country. Cousin Alvin runs to Canada to join the army in its fight against the Germans and comes back with a missing leg. Some Jews emigrate.
So all of this would be unexceptional, amusing but remote, if Roth had not invented one of the greatest characters in literature, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, and it’s through him that Roth establishes the book as his response to the present disaster. Bengelsdorf, the town’s Conservative rabbi, is Lindbergh’s apologist. He speaks at the Republican convention to calm the fears of the Jews “koshering Lindbergh for the goyim,” cousin Alvin screams at the radio. “Don’t you see, Uncle Herman, what they got the great Bengelsdorf to do. He just guaranteed Roosevelt’s defeat!”
The Rabbi stands for all those who know that George W. Bush is surrounded by a crowd who know that scientific creationism is superstition, but support him anyway. After all, their children get a private education based on science, not the public schools’ program of de-enlightenment. But they have sold their piety and conscience because he cut their taxes, or because they think he’s good for Israel — as though lowered taxes or chimerical support for Israel are worth the catastrophe in Iraq, the catastrophe in our drinking water, the catastrophe in public education or the catastrophe in the national debt. For this last catastrophe, his supporters are happily sacrificing their children and grandchildren by giving them the bill, and leaving them a future for this country that could look like Argentina without much more effort.
The only satisfaction that any Jew who voted for Sen. John Kerry can feel about any Jew who voted for Bush is that you’ll wake up one day, like Bengelsdorf and the rebbetzin, and discover the truth, because the truth will come. Christian fascists are never friends of the Jews.