The Conversion of the Jews Summary
by Philip Roth

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The Conversion of the Jews Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Ozzie Freedman has been attending a synagogue Hebrew school in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah confirmation. He is a bright student, but entirely too inquisitive for the comfort of his teacher, Rabbi Marvin Binder. Binder is irritated by Ozzie’s inability to accept traditional doctrinal answers to fundamental religious questions, and he has summoned Mrs. Freedman three times to discuss her son’s disruptive influence on his class.

During the Wednesday afternoon class prior to their third scheduled meeting, tensions between Ozzie and Binder precipitate a crisis. Earlier, Ozzie resisted Binder’s facile dismissal of Christian claims for the divinity of Jesus. He was also dissatisfied with Binder’s explanation for an airplane crash and for why Jews were particularly grieved over the number of Jews on board. Now they clash over the issue of God’s omnipotence.

During the free discussion period, none of the boys volunteers any comments or questions. Binder, however, sensing that Ozzie has something on his mind, goads him into speaking. Ozzie wants to know why, if God can do absolutely anything, it was not possible for Him to have arranged a virgin birth for Jesus. His insistence that Binder does not know what he is talking about provokes an uproar in the class and an angry reaction from the rabbi.

When Binder slaps him, Ozzie runs up onto the roof of the synagogue. The fire department is summoned, and Ozzie soon finds himself looking down at a growing crowd of spectators. Binder first demands and then pleads that Ozzie come down from the roof, but Ozzie’s fellow students cheer his stand against the rabbi and urge him to jump. Ozzie’s mother, arriving for her appointment with Binder, becomes part of his audience.

Stimulated by this unexpected turn of events, Ozzie exerts his power over the assembled crowd. He declares that he will jump off the building unless everyone—Binder, his mother, the students, the firefighters, even pious old Yakov Blotnik the synagogue’s custodian—kneels before him on the ground. Then he demands that Binder and all the others acknowledge vocally that they believe “God can make a child without intercourse.” Finally, after exacting a promise that no one will ever be punished because of God, Ozzie descends—by jumping into the yellow net held up by the kneeling firefighters below.


(Short Stories for Students)

‘‘The Conversion of the Jews’’ starts with a theological conversation between Ozzie Freedman and his friend, Itzie Lieberman, two Jewish teenagers. Ozzie recounts an argument that he had that day with Rabbi Binder in Hebrew school at their synagogue, or Jewish place of worship. The rabbi had denounced the virgin birth of Jesus as impossible. Ozzie was confused because he had been taught to believe that God was all-powerful, which would mean that He could create a divine birth if He chose. Ozzie pushes the issue, and Rabbi Binder says he needs to speak with Ozzie’s mother. This is the third time that Ozzie’s widowed mother will have to come speak to the rabbi about Ozzie’s religious questions. (The first two times were sparked by Ozzie’s rebellion against the belief that Jews are the chosen people.) That night, Ozzie delays telling his mother about his day, waiting patiently while his mother performs...

(The entire section is 848 words.)