Philip Roth’s ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews’’ was first published in 1959 in his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories. The book’s novella and five short stories offended many Jewish Americans, who quickly lashed out at Roth for his unflattering depictions of Jewish Americans. However, most non-Jewish critics loved the book, and it received a 1960 National Book Award, an impressive achievement for a short-story collection, much less one from a new author. This polarized sentiment about Roth’s works has persisted throughout his career, making him both controversial and adored. For critics who like Roth’s writing, ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews’’ is viewed as a seminal story, which includes themes he has since examined in many other works.
The title of the story is derived from ‘‘To His Coy Mistress,’’ a seventeenth-century poem by British poet Andrew Marvell in which the poet refers to the conversion of the Jews that some Christians believe will take place before the Last Judgment. The story was written and takes place in the 1950s, following the Holocaust of World War II, a time in which many Jews immigrated to the United States from Europe. Most Jews embraced assimilation into American culture but still attempted to maintain some degree of cultural solidarity. In the story, Ozzie Freedman, a Jewish teenager, questions the hypocrisy that he witnesses as a result of this solidarity and devotion to Jewish formalism. His rabbi’s efforts to suppress Ozzie ultimately lead to Ozzie’s escape onto the synagogue roof, where he achieves religious freedom by forcing the Jewish community to convert to Christianity. This story can be found in American Short Story Masterpieces, which was published by Laurel in 1987.