The Conversion of the Jews

by Philip Roth

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 580

Roth’s critical reputation for ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews’’ is the same as for the rest of his works: sharply divided. Sanford Pinsker sums it up best in his 1984 entry on Roth for the Dictionary of Literary Biography: ‘‘His readers tend to have strong attachment to one end or the other of the evaluative yardstick, which is to say, people either love his fiction or they hate it. Gray areas are rare indeed.’’ This trend began with Roth’s first book, Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories. Much of the Jewish community, critics and readers alike, were shocked and outraged at Roth’s negative or unflattering depictions of American Jews. As Pinsker says, the book ‘‘made it clear that Roth was a force to be reckoned with.’’ Pinsker also notes that the book ‘‘changed the ground rules by which one wrote about American-Jewish life.’’

Most critics who like Roth’s work have also liked ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews.’’ Many of them note the story’s use of themes that Roth revisits in much of his work. Even those who do not like the story, like Peter L. Cooper, agree that it is one of Roth’s seminal works. In his 1991 entry on Roth for American Writers, Cooper notes: ‘‘Although marred by a simplistic treatment of good and bad, a strained resolution, and a heavy-handed underscoring of ‘message,’ the story presents issues that pervade the later work.’’ As Judith Paterson Jones and Guinevera A. Nance note in their 1981 book, Philip Roth, these issues include ‘‘the difficulties of communication in a world in which materialism has replaced spirituality’’ and ‘‘representation of the individual in a society that values ‘normality’ and conformity more than the development of the individual.’’

Of course, these are generic themes. Many critics are more specific and note Roth’s application of these themes to Jewish life, which has continued to outrage much of the Jewish-American community. However, as Naseeb Shaheen notes in his 1976 article for Studies in Short Fiction, this negative criticism has not affected sales. Says Shaheen, ‘‘the fact that his works on Jewish themes have been by far the most successful of all his works indicates where his genius truly lies.’’ As Roth has come under repeated fire from the Jewish community, some critics who like Roth’s work have explored answers to Jews’ questions about why Roth would depict them in such a manner. In his overview of ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews’’ in Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Steven Goldleaf answers the question, posed by members of the Jewish community, of why Roth would portray Jewish people ‘‘as small-minded bigots who suppress Ozzie’s inquiries.’’ Goldleaf responds: ‘‘The reason is the same for both Roth’s affront and for Ozzie’s: because, by restricting free discussion, the community harms itself while claiming to defend itself.’’

Likewise, in their 1990 book, Understanding Philip Roth, Murray Baumgarten and Barbara Gottfried offer some historical background of actual events in the Jewish community at the time, which support Roth’s satirical attacks in the story: ‘‘Like many Jewish communal leaders in the 1950s Rabbi Binder spends the greater part of his energies in separating what is Jewish from what is non-Jewish.’’ Shaheen agrees, noting specifically the inability of Rabbi Binder and others in the story to acknowledge the possibility of Jesus’ virgin birth. Says Shaheen in 1976, two decades after the story was written: ‘‘The tenacity with which this conviction is held in some Jewish circles is disquieting.’’

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