The Conversion of the Jews

by Philip Roth

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 750

Rabbi Marvin Binder
Rabbi Binder is Ozzie’s teacher at the Hebrew school who constantly punishes Ozzie for his religious questions, which the rabbi sees as deliberately insolent behavior. The rabbi believes in order and does not like to have his explanations questioned. When Ozzie asks him about the possibility of Jesus Christ’s virgin birth, the rabbi says that Jesus was an historical figure, not a divine one. Ozzie says the rabbi knows nothing about God, and Rabbi Binder tries to lightly slap Ozzie on the face, but ends up giving Ozzie a bloody nose. Ozzie curses the rabbi and escapes onto the roof. The rabbi tries to be firm with Ozzie, commanding him to come down off the roof. This does not work and, at several points, it looks like Ozzie is going to fall or jump off the roof to his death. The rabbi falls to his knees, pleading with Ozzie to come down, then crying. At Ozzie’s request, he says that he believes God can make a child without intercourse, he believes in Jesus Christ, and he will never hit anybody again over a religious matter.

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Yakov Blotnik
Yakov Blotnik is the synagogue’s aged custodian, who calls the fire department. He is only interested in whether situations are good or bad for Jews. Ozzie believes that Blotnik’s constant praying is meaningless, since Blotnik appears not even to know the meaning of what he is saying anymore.

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Mrs. Freedman
Mrs. Freedman is Ozzie Freedman’s widowed mother. Mrs. Freedman is a devout Jew and reverently observes Jewish rituals such as the Sabbath. She is distressed that she has to keep going to see Rabbi Binder about Ozzie’s behavior and slaps Ozzie’s face after he tells her she must do so again. This is the first time that she has slapped Ozzie. When Mrs. Freedman comes to the synagogue for her appointment with the rabbi, she sees Ozzie on the roof and pleads with him not to jump. At Ozzie’s

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Philip Roth
request, she gets down on her knees and says that she believes God can make a child without intercourse, she believes in Jesus Christ, and she will never hit anybody again over a religious matter.

Oscar Freedman
Oscar Freedman is a thirteen-year-old Jewish boy whose persistent questions about the validity of Judaism eventually lead him to escape the classroom and go onto the synagogue roof. Oscar, known throughout most of the story as Ozzie, is an earnest young man who wants to understand his religion. As a result, he reads the Hebrew book very slowly, trying to comprehend each word, and questions his religion in ways that others do not dare. These actions constantly get Ozzie in trouble with Rabbi Binder, who feels that Ozzie is being deliberately insolent. Ozzie is particularly troubled by the fact that Jews do not acknowledge the possibility of Jesus’ divine birth, even though Jews believe that God is all-powerful. Ozzie persists in his question about this issue, and then he says that Rabbi Binder knows nothing about God. The rabbi hits Ozzie, who then curses Rabbi Binder. Ozzie escapes onto the synagogue roof and ignores the rabbi’s commands to come down. The fire department comes, and Ozzie makes them move back and forth, shadowing his movements as he runs from one end of the roof to the other, threatening to jump. While Rabbi Binder pleads with Ozzie to come down safely, Itzie Lieberman and the other children chant for Ozzie to jump and kill himself. Ozzie threatens to commit suicide unless his mother kneels. Then, Ozzie makes the largely Jewish crowd kneel, admit that God can make a child without intercourse, and profess their belief in Jesus Christ. After this mass conversion, Ozzie starts to cry and makes them promise that they will never hit anybody over a religious matter. Finally, he jumps safely into the firemen’s net.

Itzie Lieberman
Itzie Lieberman, Ozzie’s best friend, initially criticizes Ozzie’s outspoken behavior but later encourages Ozzie to jump off the synagogue roof. In class, while Ozzie persists in asking Rabbi Binder about the possibility of Jesus’ virgin birth, Itzie is content with making gestures behind the rabbi’s back. However, after Ozzie goes up on the synagogue roof, Itzie becomes more outspoken. While the rabbi pleads with Ozzie not to jump, Itzie starts chanting for Ozzie to jump and kill himself, inspiring other children to chant as well.

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