Polio? Sex? Greek gods? At JHSGW? Last night, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington launched its first ever book club with Philip Roth’s Nemesis. Twenty of us, from a wide range of ages, religions, and genders, gathered in the historic 1876 synagogue on what turned on to be the perfect reading day…nice and rainy. Our fearless leader for the evening was Robin B. Jacobson, Director of Library Services at Adas Israel Congregation.
Nemesis follows the experiences of a young man, Bucky, as his predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey is plagued by a polio outbreak during the summer of 1944. Bucky is of military age, but has been rejected by the army because of his poor eyesight while his friends are all off fighting in the Second World War. He is hired as the gym teacher at a local playground for the summer, where he quickly takes it upon himself to shield the boys in his care from contracting polio. As polio ravages the town, Bucky finally decides to transfer to a summer camp in the country to be with his fiancée, Marcia. Once polio breaks out at the camp, Bucky becomes convinced that he is to blame. Throughout the book, Bucky combats all sorts of obstacles and challenges to protect those around him. Yet he cannot overcome his greatest nemesis, himself.
In the process of trying to figure out more about the characters, and Roth’s intentions, we learned more about each other by sharing stories. For that hour, it made no difference where we had just come from, be it work, home, or running errands. Of course, we didn’t always agree. Let’s face it-what a boring book club it would be if we did! Hearing those stories, though, was the highlight of my evening. As a Generation Y-er, I grew up in a world where I only had to fear nurse’s syringe as she injected my polio vaccine. The idea that a single illness could inspire fear in an entire country, and place whole camps under quarantine, was foreign. Post book club, I find myself wondering two things: 1) What will we discuss during our next book club on August 23 when we explore Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, and 2) Do any of you out there have memories about polio or other public health scares?