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Roth's 80th is cause for native city's celebration

books Updated: Mar 20, 2013 15:25 IST

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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, the New Jersey city returned the sentiment to one of its most celebrated natives.

The city that played an important role in many of Roth's novels played host to a series of events including a birthday party at the Newark Museum, where the author cut 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, a curator of "Philip Roth: An Exhibit of Photos from a Lifetime" that opened Tuesday at the Newark Public Library.

Roth was born and raised in a neighborhood populated almost entirely by Jewish families at the time. The city features prominently in his novels, including American Pastoral, Nemesis, The Plot Against America and Portnoy's Complaint.

Newark, a brief train ride from New York City, is often more well-known these days for its poverty and dysfunction.

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 the city.

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