The Conversion of the Jews

by Philip Roth

Start Free Trial

Foils and Religious Imagery in The Conversion of the Jews

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1446

Ozzie is quickly identified as the moral voice in Philip Roth’s ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews.’’ He is respectful of Jewish ceremonies, he is quick to point out hypocrisies that he sees committed by his Jewish community, and he refuses to be silenced in his quest for the truth. However, in addition to these noble characteristics, Roth also uses foils and religious imagery to emphasize Ozzie’s superior morality and strength of conviction.

A foil is a character who contrasts strongly with another character to make the second character seem more prominent in a specific way. In this story, several characters are deliberately depicted as weak in their morals or religious convictions, which makes Ozzie appear even stronger in these areas. Since these foils are all Jewish, Roth has taken fire from some Jewish readers at their negative portrayal. Says Steven Goldleaf in his overview of the story for the Reference Guide to Short Fiction: The story ‘‘offends its audience by addressing a serious theme in terms of low-comic characters.’’

Indeed, Ozzie’s counterparts in the story are a motley bunch of characters. The rabbi, who is positioned as Ozzie’s nemesis, is so bent on denying the legitimacy of the Christian faith that he is willing to deny the legitimacy of his own faith in the process. Judaism advocates the belief in an allpowerful God, one who can do anything. If one applies this belief to the virgin birth of Jesus, as Ozzie does, then Jesus’ divine birth would be possible. Yet, the rabbi stubbornly refuses to agree with this logic. This is only the first of many moral paradoxes in the rabbi’s ministry. He also gives Ozzie a ‘‘soul-battering’’ for reading from the Hebrew book too slowly. Ozzie tries to explain that ‘‘he could read faster but that if he did he was sure not to understand what he was reading.’’ However, the rabbi is not interested in whether Ozzie understands. He only wants him to show progress in his reading speed. Finally, the rabbi outwardly encourages people to discuss any Jewish question with him but makes it clear through examples like Ozzie’s punishment that what he really wants is conformity.

Ozzie’s friend, Itzie, demonstrates both a lack of religious conviction and a questionable morality. Ozzie is extremely impressed with the fact that God created heaven and earth in six days, especially God’s ability to make light: ‘‘the light especially, that’s what always gets me, that He could make the light.’’ Itzie, however, does not have Ozzie’s degree of reverence. ‘‘Itzie’s appreciation was honest but unimaginative; it was as though God had just pitched a one-hitter.’’ Itzie’s behavior demonstrates that he is childish and mostly interested in creating disorder, which eventually affects his morality. When Ozzie and Itzie start talking about the possibility of Jesus’ virgin birth, Itzie is very crass and uses sexual slang: ‘‘‘To have a baby you gotta get laid,’ Itzie theologized. ‘Mary hadda get laid.’’’ Ozzie, on the other hand, is trying to keep the conversation at an academic level and so uses the neutral term ‘‘intercourse’’ instead. Even this inspires a juvenile response in Itzie. ‘‘For a moment it appeared that Itzie had put the theological question aside. ‘[Binder] said that, intercourse?’’’ The thought makes Itzie smile, and he focuses on the idea of intercourse for the rest of the conversation. Itzie exhibits this same childishness when Ozzie is on the roof, although this time it affects his morality. When Itzie first breaks off from the rabbi, it appears to be a courageous move. He soon proves that he is really only interested in creating disorder, even at the expense of his friend’s life. He is the first to tell Ozzie to jump and kill himself, and he incites the rest of the children to try to get Ozzie to jump, too.

Ozzie’s mother is another paradoxical character. Although she observes the Sabbath and is stronger in her religious convictions than most of the other foils in the story, she still exhibits some disturbing moral quirks. Ozzie witnesses his mother and grandmother looking through the paper after a plane crash to count the Jewish names. Since his mother finds eight names, ‘‘she said the plane crash was a ‘tragedy.’’’ Ozzie is sickened by the thought that the fifty-eight deaths on the plane are not enough to make the crash a tragedy in his mother’s mind.

The most comical foil in the story is Yakov Blotnik, the seventy-one-year-old custodian. Yakov is completely clueless about his surroundings, ‘‘unaware that it was four o’clock or six o’clock, Monday or Wednesday.’’ Yakov’s religious conviction is equally clueless. He is the ultimate example of the effects of blind devotion to doctrine and ritual without understanding. He has been mumbling his Jewish prayers to himself for so many years that Ozzie suspects he has ‘‘memorized the prayers and forgotten all about God.’’ Yakov has lost all objectivity outside of his limited sphere of Jewish exist- ence. For Yakov, the public reputation of the Jews takes precedence over understanding what he is praying about or anything else for that matter, including the physical safety of one of the Jewish community’s members. As a result, life events are defined only as whether they are good or bad for Jews. When Ozzie first goes up on the roof, Yakov panics, thinking that if he does not get the boy down, somebody will see and the Jews will look bad. Yakov calls the fire department, like he did in the past to get a cat off the roof. Because he does not think that Ozzie will be any different than the cat, he is befuddled when Ozzie runs around the roof. As Yakov notes to himself: ‘‘It wasn’t like this with the cat.’’ Instead of worrying about Ozzie’s safety, Yakov is still more focused on the potential for bad publicity, since a crowd has gathered to watch the event: ‘‘In the excitement no one had paid the crowd much heed, except, of course, Yakov Blotnik, who swung from the doorknob counting heads.’’

In addition to the foils, Roth also includes a number of descriptions and images that underscore Ozzie’s depiction as a superior religious person. When Ozzie tells off his rabbi, he does so in ‘‘a loud, toneless sound that had the timbre of something stored inside for about six days.’’ By deliberately choosing six as the number of days for this description, Roth is referring to the six days in which God made heaven and earth, which is mentioned earlier in the story. By associating Ozzie with God in this way, it helps to make Ozzie appear more holy. Other references in the story add to this positive depiction of Ozzie. When the rabbi asks him if he is ready for the rabbi to count to three, Ozzie realizes that a divine change has come over him. ‘‘Ozzie nodded his head yes, although he had no intention in the world—the lower one or the celestial one he’d just entered—of coming down even if Rabbi Binder should give him a million.’’ Noting that Ozzie has entered a ‘‘celestial’’ world once again makes him seem holier than everybody else. Another image of his holiness comes at the end of the story, when Ozzie jumps safely off the building, ‘‘right into the center of the yellow net that glowed in the evening’s edge like an overgrown halo.’’ By giving Ozzie a symbolic halo, Roth elevates Ozzie even higher.

In fact, throughout the story, Roth elevates Ozzie to a higher place than the other characters, physically by placing him on the roof and spiritually by making him seem so holy in comparison to the other characters. In fact, what Roth is doing becomes apparent if one follows this elevation idea along to its natural conclusion: Roth is turning Ozzie into a Christ figure. Both Christ and Ozzie were born Jews. Both had the utmost reverence for the Jewish God. Both spoke out against religious hypocrisy in the Jewish faith. Both succeeded in converting a number of Jews to Christianity. By making Ozzie into a Christ figure, Roth sharpens the edge of his satirical sword even more. Now, he is doing more than just symbolically converting Jews to Christianity. He is doing it through a boy who evokes an image of Christianity’s most revered figure, Jesus—the same figure whose divine birth the Jewish characters in the story refuse to acknowledge.

Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2003.

For with God All Things Are Possible: Philip Roth's The Conversion of the Jews

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2872

The term ‘‘other’’ can express a relation of simple opposition—the reverse, ‘‘the other side of the coin,’’ or a relation of simple identity—the additional, ‘‘the other penny.’’ Very often, though, the relation presented by the ‘other’ involves a complex and dynamic fusion of opposition and identity. Literature and philosophy and religion may reasonably be thought of as attempts to disclose the laws by which that fusion works, to make its energy our own. The natural sciences and the humanistic disciplines have long given the name ‘‘conversion’’ to the process by which opposition yields up identity. For centuries the phrase ‘‘conversion of the Jews’’ has been a trope for the pragmatically unlikely, the tragically impossible, the heroically resisted, the idealistically sought for event. Andrew Marvell plays wittily on all these meanings in his carpe diem love lyric ‘‘To his Coy Mistress.’’ If the two had ‘‘World enough, and Time,’’ the speaker promises gallantly, he would woo her indefinitely while she could, if she ‘‘please, refuse/Till the Conversion of the Jews.’’ The complex reversal invoked and forestalled by axiomatic reference to the ‘‘conversion of the Jews,’’ is, of course, the acceptance by the Jews of Christ’s, and Christianity’s claim that Jesus is the fusion raising all oppositions into redemptive identity, that he is God for us and with us, our life, whether we are for him or not, our joy if we are. Two faiths separated by a common dogma, monotheism, Christianity and Judaism are locked in a simple credal opposition—God is One, that One is Three. God is not only the unmultiplied other, but most crucially the unassimilable and unassimilating other for Jews; from Jesus forward, he is another one of us, any one of us, all of us, for Christians. The history of the Jews in Christian times has been a struggle with assimilation. They are the paradigmatic ‘‘other,’’ always struggling with the simple and complex meaning of being different, and always bringing Christians to struggle with the same problem. Christians have carried out the struggle violently, almost entirely antagonistically, and mostly unsuccessfully; Jews have prevailed by suffering stubbornly and righteously past the Christian campaign of assimilation through annihilation. Wittily, elegantly, and with elemental humanistic dignity, Philip Roth takes all these matters up in the story of obdurate Ozzie Freedman’s unconventionally righteous preparation for his Bar Mitzvah.

Ozzie, like Socrates, confronts the false necessities of his world by persistently exceeding them. As Roth puts it, ‘‘What Ozzie wanted to know was always different.’’ During afternoon Hebrew school, which Roth depicts with genially burlesque comedy, Ozzie has wanted to know something different three times. Each desire has ended in the dreaded summons of his mother to the Rabbi’s office. The first time he required Rabbi Binder to resolve the contradiction between his instruction that the Jews are God’s chosen people and the Declaration of Independence’s claim that all men are created equal. When Binder offered a distinction between political and spiritual identities, Ozzie discounted it, insisting that what he wanted to know was something different. The implication Roth makes here is that Ozzie wanted to know why the Rabbi made the incoherent statement to begin with, not how he can get himself out of it, why, in other words, being Jewish can never mean being created equal. The second question is similar: why did his mother single out the eight Jewish deaths in a plane crash as tragic, ignoring the rest. To Binder’s inadequate citation of cultural unity, Ozzie responds not only that he wanted to know something different, but when pressed to accept it, blurts out that he wishes all fifty-eight victims had been Jews. Mrs. Freedman is summoned again. The exasperated response again annuls the privilege of Jewish ‘‘difference,’’ substituting a comically punitive, absurd compassion, a Marx brother’s quip, along with the anger— if they all had been Jews, his cracked logic runs, there would be less of what Ozzie cannot understand and more compassion.

The third connundrum is the worst, and centers on the dividing line of Christianity and Judaism: the human and divine status of Jesus. If God is omnipotent, Ozzie asks, how can Binder claim that he could not father Jesus on Mary without intercourse? Roth makes much of the snickering comedy attending thirteen year-old male inquiry into this subject, as in this exchange: ‘‘‘Sure its impossible. That stuff’s all bull. To have a baby you gotta get laid,’ Itzie theologized. ‘Mary hadda get laid.’’’ As the story begins, Ozzie has not yet responded to Binder’s evasive restatement that the historicity of Jesus excludes his divine status, except to say again that he wants to know something different. The implied object of inquiry here is how can being Jewish, an identity established in righteous worship of an omnipotent God, require a stiffnecked limitation of that omnipotence. The bulk of the action takes place on Wednesday afternoon, the day his mother has to come and account a third time to Binder for her son’s insubordinate recalcitrance. Ozzie has told her why she’s been summoned again, and her response, over Sabbath supper, has been to slap his face.

Before she arrives Ozzie and Binder have a blowout, in which Ozzie challenges the Rabbi with the question, ‘‘Why can’t He make anything He wants to make?,’’ and then assaults him with the rebellious insult ‘‘You don’t know! You don’t know anything about God!’’ Binder responds with an accidental blow to Ozzie’s nose; a nosebleed, and a chase ensue, and the scene ends with Ozzie on the roof of the synagogue, and the other boys, with Binder, on the sidewalk staring up at him. Binder commands Ozzie to descend, unavailingly, at which point the dotty caretaker of the synagogue calls the fire department to get Ozzie off the roof, because he once got a cat off his roof that way. Going to the roof to flee repudiated and discredited religious instruction, Ozzie starts his real initiation into manhood. Accordingly, he’s confused about what he’s done, initially. The first question, Is it me up here?, yields quickly to a subtler pair—is the question Is it me on the roof, or Is it me who called Binder a Bastard? The split inquiry presents the split status of the boy straining to become the man in Ozzie, and the division is quickly dispelled once his identity as defier is established by Binder’s command that he descend immediately. Establishing him as Ozzie, the command ironically fills him with a feeling of peace and power. The first strain toward adulthood is finished, and the irenic potency it bestows will swell soon into comic resolution of Christian and Jewish theological and cultural difference as Ozzie compels, in his peculiar way, childrens’ and adults’ submission to his righteousness, his difference.

Enter the firemen. Roth turns the escalating circumstances deftly thematic by having Binder opportunistically respond to the fireman’s appropriate but mistaken questions Is the kid nuts, Is he going to jump? with the terrified lie ‘‘Yes, Yes, I think so. . .He’s been threatening to. . .’’ Ozzie registers Binder’s cowardly fraud, and responds to the matter of fact fireman’s challenge . . . jump or don’t jump. ‘‘But don’t waste our time, willya?’’ by playing with the power incompetent and indifferent adults have just accidentally and formally bestowed on him. The moment is a comic masterpiece, and teasingly ethnic, sounding what Joyce in Ulysses calls the Jewish ‘‘accent of the ecstasy of catastrophe’’ in a sequence of events that fractures and preserves the formal logic of cause and effect. To torment the Rabbi, impress his friends, lord it over the firemen, and match the new man he’s becoming to the boy he still is, Ozzie calls back, ‘‘I’m going to jump.’’ He runs back and forth on the roof, feigning to jump from one side and the other, pulling the crowd with him like a puppet-master. A competition then ensues, as Itzie, who’s caught on to the anarchic power Ozzie wields, counters Binder’s ‘‘Please don’t jump,’’ with his call for Ozzie to do so, a call taken up by all the other boys. Eventually they reduce Binder to tears, in a triumph of the adolescent will.

Enter, at precisely that moment, the mother. When she asks Binder what Ozzie’s doing on the roof, the Rabbi stays mute with humiliated fear and anguish. To her plea that Binder get Ozzie down from the roof and prevent him from accidentally killing himself, the Rabbi pleads impotence, explaining to Mrs. Freedman that Ozzie wants to kill himself to please the boys urging him to do so. The mother finishes the cleric’s logic by calling her son down: ‘‘Don’t be a martyr, my baby.’’ Binder repeats this last plea to Ozzie, and the boys immediately turn the infantilizing parental counsel to their advantage. Following Itzie’s lead they all shout out in chorus to their heroic rebel leader to gawhead and ‘‘Be a Martin, be a Martin. . .’’ Their ignorance of what they’re asking, comically indicated by their changing of the sacred role into a common name, signals that Ozzie’s championing of Jesus has reached a new ironic level in the story.

The scene Roth evokes here is from the three temptations Jesus undergoes in the wilderness before he starts his ministry. Matthew 4, 5–7:

Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.

The logic of the story casts Binder as the original tempter here. He put Ozzie onto the pinnacle of the synagogue, and first put the idea of jumping into Ozzie’s head. The boys have usurped and transformed that unintended seduction. The Rabbi doesn’t want the martyrdom at all, unlike Satan; the boys do, but not exactly for Satan’s reason. Unlike the Biblical seducer, they have the angels immediately at hand, those put upon firemen, and they are boys, and therefore can’t belief in death and so don’t envision or require any self-destruction in Ozzie’s self-aggrandizing leap. The parental figures do, of course, see that death is really possible now, despite the firemen. Here Roth makes his criticism of Christian culture: its worship of martyrdom may too much resemble an incoherent adolescent frenzy delusionally aspiring to utopian and vain rebellion.

And where is Ozzie in all this? He’s finally realized how strange the boys’ request for him to jump is. The question he now poses to himself is no longer Is it me that counts up here on the roof, but ‘‘Is it us? . . . Is it us?.’’ The issue, in other words, is cultural. Ozzie wonders if he can create an order of values for his fellows if he jumps. He asks himself if the singing would turn to dancing at his leap, if the jumping would stop anything in the culture of the parents or the boys. He has a fantasy of plucking a coin from the sun with an inscription do or don’t written on it, and then hallucinates that each part of his body is taking a vote, independently of his will, on what he should do. The sum makes the decision for him, but not as he expected. The late afternoon gets suddenly darker, and the voices are subdued by the oncoming night. Ozzie makes his mother, the Rabbi, the boys, the caretaker and the firemen with their net all kneel. In this omnipotent posture he forces Binder to go through a catechism that ends with the Rabbi saying ‘‘God . . . can make a child without intercourse.’’ The mother the caretaker and the boys and the firemen are then all forced to make the same confession to Ozzie, who then requires the multitude to confess singly and then in chorus that they believe in Jesus Christ. There is yet a triumph to compel. Ozzie turns an exhausted, weepy voice, his boy’s voice which Roth says has the sound of an exhausted bell-wringer’s, to his mother, tells her she shouldn’t hit him, or anybody ever about God, and when she asks him to come down, makes her promise first that she’ll ‘‘never hit anybody about God.’’ Although he’s only asked the grey-haired madonna (Ozzie’s earthly father is teasingly symbolically absent from the story through death) everyone kneeling in the street makes the promise. Roth ends Ozzie’s impossible performance this way.

Once again there was silence.

‘‘I can come down now, Mamma,’’ the boy on the roof finally said. He turned his head both ways as though checking the traffic lights. ‘‘Now I can come down. . .’’ And he did, right into the center of the yellow net that glowed in the evening’s edge like an overgrown halo.

Both senses of ‘‘other’’—the reverse and the additional—which were invoked at the beginning of this essay play through Ozzie’s conversion of the Jews. He has compelled Binder to tell him the different thing he wanted to know, to reverse himself and admit that Jewish exclusiveness cannot bind God. This much is righteousness and converts Jews not to Christianity, but back to the ethos of loving and exemplary obedience to God which their status as ‘‘chosen’’ was meant to secure when it was first announced to Abraham. Ozzie’s prophetic compelling of the crowd to confess belief in Jesus Christ is pure bravado, the exuberance of an Alexander in short pants, and certainly not an acceptance on their part or on his of Christian dogma or worship. Indeed the whole scene is a burlesque of both. Roth’s comic reduction of salvation through martyrdom makes that much perfectly clear. But something Christian is required by the boy of his people, something Christians have consistently proved to be exemplary failures in, something Christians were told by Jesus himself was the basis of the law and the prophets. In his commandment that no one violate their neighbor for God’s sake, Ozzie condenses what Jesus in Mark 12, 29–31 cites to demonstrate his authority as a religious teacher against the scribes, the Binders of his day, who view him as a subversive interloper.

And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God in one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

Jesus claims, and Christians believe, that he not only obeys and preaches these commandments, but exemplifies them uniquely by instantiating, in his living presence, the God who set them forth to establish the proper relation of human life to him. God is now no longer the reverse of you, but another one of you, and loving him should be all that more compelling, immediate, and pure. This fusion of otherness as difference and as similarity in the logic of the Incarnation is the conversion Jesus urged on his contemporary Jews. Ozzie also feels himself to be an exemplary instantiation of God’s power and peace, and the mixture of delusion and insight on his part may very well be Roth’s final word in the story on Christ’s mentality. But the ethos of the Incarnation is certainly included in the broken-hearted injunction Ozzie closes the story with. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself Jesus says is like the first commandment, thou shalt love thy God exclusively and exhaustively. The identification here of exclusive and exhaustive love is the theological basis for the humanism, Christian in one aspect, Jewish in another, of Ozzie’s belief, to which he converts the Jews, that ‘‘You should never hit anybody about God.’’ Exclusive love of God means exhaustive love of humankind. Exclusive and exhaustive love are two sides of the one Jewish coin, and of the additional Christian coin, and of the coin that is Judeao-Christian. In Ozzie Freedman’s glorious tantrum on the pinnacle of a synagogue, Philip Roth comically condenses a strife over Jewish ‘‘otherness’’ that has in many ways defined the Christian world as much as it has the Jewish one. Ozzie is able to turn martyrdom as a resolution of that strife into a boyman’s righteous game. Whoever has meditated on the cross might profit much from imagining the look on Ozzie’s face as he leaps into the firemen’s net that Roth has made this new man’s halo.

Source: Theoharis C. Theoharis, ‘‘‘For with God All Things Are Possible’: Philip Roth’s ‘The Conversion of the Jews,’’’ in Journal of the Short Story in English, No. 32, Spring 1999, pp. 69–75.

Good Girls and Boys Gone Bad

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4239

Goodbye, Columbus contains not only the title piece but also five of Roth’s short stories. Among these, ‘‘Epstein,’’ ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews,’’ and ‘‘Eli the Fanatic’’ are thematically consonant with the novella in their concern with the conflicts associated with love, the family, and the difficulties of communication in a world in which materialism has replaced spirituality. These stories also introduce another theme that will pervade Roth’s later books and which exists, submerged, in Goodbye, Columbus. This theme emanates from Roth’s representation of the individual in a society that values ‘‘normality’’ and conformity more than the development of the individual. In the essay in which he maintains that choosing is the ‘‘primary occupation’’ of protagonists like Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin, Roth goes on to make choosing the principal activity of the characters in his short stories as well. He says:

Then there are the central characters in the stories published along with Goodbye, Columbus, ‘‘Defender of the Faith,’’ ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews,’’ ‘‘Epstein,’’ ‘‘Eli, the Fanatic,’’ and ‘‘You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings,’’ each of whom is seen making a conscious, deliberate, even willful choice beyond the boundary lines of his life, and just so as to give expression to what in his spirit will not be grimly determined, by others, or even by what he had himself taken to be his own nature.

All the major characters in these short stories, in the process of resisting the dominion of others over their lives, must also resist their own previous acceptance of the roles that the family, society, and the people they love have said they should play. As always, the struggle for the Roth protagonist is complicated by the duality of an enemy that is at the same time internal and external.

Of the three stories, ‘‘Epstein’’ connects most closely to the dual themes of family restraint and the conflict of the individual identity with the social expectations he and those around him have imbibed. A stalwart father and successful first-generation American businessman, Lou Epstein feels at fiftynine that ‘‘everything is being taken away from him.’’ His son Herbie, who was to have been heir to the Epstein Paper Bag Company, is dead of polio; his rosy-complexioned baby Sheila has grown into a pimply, fat socialist who curses him for being a capitalist; and his once beautiful and sexually adventurous wife, Goldie, has become an unappetizing cooking and cleaning machine with pendulous breasts, who smells like Bab-O.

One night, Epstein’s discovery of his nephew passionately making love on the living room floor with the girl from across the street, Linda Kaufman, finally jolts him into realizing the full extent of his impoverishment and leads him to an emotional and sexual involvement with Ida Kaufman, Linda’s widowed mother. The result is comedy that borders on the tragic. Epstein develops a rash that he fears indicates syphilis; and in a comic scene in which everyone in the house winds up in Epstein’s and Goldie’s bedroom, Goldie declares that she wants a divorce. Displaced from his bedroom and from his usual duties as husband and father, Epstein seeks refuge in Ida Kaufman’s house, where he has a heart attack. In the final scene, Goldie asserts her prerogative as Lou’s wife and rides beside him in the ambulance, urging him to come to his senses and live a normal life.

Like many of the fathers in Roth’s fiction, Epstein has accepted fully the responsibilities of citizenship, marriage, and parenthood but has missed out on pleasure. He has lived a sensible, structured life of conformity to the images his culture has taught him. Pleading his case to his nephew, Michael, after he has been banished from his own bedroom, Epstein offers the rationale that has governed his life: ‘‘All my life I tried. I swear it, I should drop dead on the spot, if all my life I didn’t try to do right, to give my family what I didn’t have. . .’’ The irony of this statement is fully realized in the double meaning of Epstein’s attempting to give what he ‘‘didn’t have.’’ The surface meaning is, of course, that Epstein has tried to provide for his family those material possessions which he had not had. But the submerged implication is that Epstein tried to give his family what he did not have to give. He has tried to give them a self duty-bound to accept the loss of his dreams—to be a ‘‘good’’ father and a ‘‘good’’ husband despite the little he receives in return. The affair with Ida, however, causes him to confront an uncharacteristic side of himself—a side that is passionate and, more significant, adulterous. As Roth points out in one of his essays, Epstein’s adultery does not ‘‘square with the man’s own conception of himself.’’ Having acted in a way contrary to what he had perceived to be his own nature, Epstein sounds like so many of Roth’s characters when they exceed the limits of the image that they and others have of them: ‘‘I don’t even feel any more like Lou Epstein.’’

If Lou sees his actions as uncharacteristic, his wife regards them as positively aberrant. Ordered, meticulous, and resolute, Goldie is associated repeatedly in the story with cleanliness, restriction, and normality. When she is told by the doctor in the ambulance that Lou can recover if he will forgo trying to act like a boy and live a life normal for sixty, Goldie repeats his message as if it were an incantation: ‘‘You hear the doctor, Lou. All you got to do is live a normal life.’’ Much of the pathos of this story turns on the meaning of the normal life. Experiencing it as attrition and restriction, Lou has, for a time, attempted to free himself; but, as Roth says in synopsizing the story, ‘‘in the end, Epstein . . . is caught—caught by his family, and caught and struck down by exhaustion, decay, and disappointment, against all of which he had set out to make a final struggle.’’ The extent to which Epstein is caught is evident in the last lines of the story. The doctor assures Goldie that he can cure Epstein’s rash ‘‘so it’ll never come back,’’ and Epstein’s grim future is forecast in his words.

‘‘Epstein’’ is one of Roth’s short stories that has attracted considerable hostility from the Jewish community. It has drawn charges of anti-Semitism against Roth and has been condemned for presenting a negative picture of Jews in America. In defending himself and the story against readers who resent the presentation of an adulterous Jew, Roth reasonably asserts that his interest is principally in the man Epstein, not the Jew, and that his focus on a man who is an adulterer is intended primarily to reveal the condition of the man. That the adulterous man is a Jew seems, in itself, to set up the kind of internal conflict Roth wishes to explore in a character who ‘‘acts counter to what he considers to be his ‘best self,’ or what others assume it to be, or would like it to be.’’ Part of Epstein’s sense of his ‘‘best self’’ is inextricably tied up with the religious and cultural fact of his being Jewish, with all the attitudes toward marriage, the family, and adultery that socialization implies; and it is with his acting contrary to that image of himself that Roth the fictionist becomes engaged.

This emphasis upon fidelity to ‘‘characterological’’ truth rather than moralistic truth leads Roth to make some important distinctions between the apologist and the artist and between moralism and literature. He maintains that it is not the purpose of fiction to ‘‘affirm the principles and beliefs that everybody seems to hold’’ but rather to free our feelings from societal restrictions so that we may respond to imaginative experience without the compulsion to judge in the same way that we would in everyday experience, where we might be expected to act on our judgments. ‘‘Ceasing for a while to be upright citizens,’’ Roth suggests, ‘‘we drop into another layer of consciousness. And this expansion of moral consciousness, this exploration of moral fantasy, is of considerable value to man and to society.’’

In ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews,’’ written when Roth was twenty-three, moral fantasy and moral fable are intertwined. As in ‘‘Epstein,’’ Roth explores the dilemma of the individual caught by his family and in conflict with the constraints of his immediate environment, but this story is less realistically rooted than ‘‘Epstein.’’ Elsewhere, Roth calls it a ‘‘daydream’’ and describes it in a way that suggests its fabulous qualities: ‘‘A good boy named Freedman brings to his knees a bad rabbi named Binder (and various other overlords) and then takes wing from the synagogue into the vastness of space.’’ On a less mythical level, the story deals with religious myopia, cultural limitation, and power. Ozzie Freedman, a young student in the Hebrew school of Rabbi Binder, comes into conflict with his teacher when the rabbi contends that Jesus was historical but not divine and that a virgin birth defies biological possibility. Building on the logic that God was omnipotent in making what he wished, when he wished, during the six days of the Creation, Ozzie reasons that surely God could ‘‘let a woman have a baby without having intercourse.’’

Binder’s insistence on a major difference between Judaism and Christianity—that Christ was human but not God—and Ozzie’s refusal to deny that God could make anything he chose leads to a physical confrontation in the classroom. For the second time, Ozzie is struck in the face over the issue of God’s omnipotence and Christ’s divinity. When his mother had learned why he was once again in trouble with the ‘‘authorities,’’ she had hit Ozzie across the face ‘‘for the first time in their life together.’’ When Rabbi Binder strikes Ozzie, the boy flees to the roof of the building, after calling his teacher a bastard. Amazed at the extent of his defiance, Ozzie Freedman on the roof of the synagogue confronts an unrealized side of his nature and, at the same time, comes to discover the meaning of power. Because the crowd below, which eventually includes the rabbi, his fellow students, his mother, and the fire department, construes Ozzie’s taking refuge on the roof as a threat that he will jump, Ozzie turns their fears against them and begins to control the crowd by threatening to jump. Seeing Rabbi Binder on his knees in an unprecedented pose of supplication, Ozzie realizes the full extent of his power and makes everyone kneel in ‘‘the Gentile posture of prayer.’’ He begins to catechize the rabbi and then his mother, making them both admit that God can ‘‘make a child without intercourse,’’ and, finally, he extracts from everyone in the crowd a verbalization that they believe in Jesus Christ.

Having accomplished at least a ritualistic, if not actual, conversion of the Jews, Ozzie directs his final demand to his mother—a promise that she will never ‘‘hit anybody about God.’’ The religious symbolism that pervades the story and the positiveness with which Roth obviously intends to present Ozzie Freedman are accentuated in the concluding line, when Ozzie jumps ‘‘right into the center of the yellow net that glowed in the evening’s edge like an overgrown halo.’’

On the level at which ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews’’ reads like a fable, with Ozzie Freedman’s personifying the urge for individualistic freedom and Rabbi Binder the social and religious constrictions which seek to bind that freedom, the story suggests that defiance is heroic when one’s soul is in jeopardy. It also illustrates in a general way, through its focus on the particular constraints imposed by the Jewish community, that the sustaining influences of family and culture are also often the most powerful forces working to inhibit the spiritual and psychological development of the individual. The soul-battered Ozzie is literally driven to defiance out of frustration when he is forced either to deny his own perceptions and be ‘‘good’’ or to deny the teachings of religion and family and be ‘‘bad.’’ Such a double bind leaves him with no clear-cut options.

Bernard F. Rodgers, Jr., has suggested that a parallel exists between Ozzie’s position and that of the young Roth during and after the writing of Goodbye, Columbus. He sees ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews’’ functioning as

an effective metaphor for the pressures of the Jewish community which combine with the self-righteousness of its young author to prompt the satiric thrust of Goodbye, Columbus itself. Rabbi Binder, Mrs. Freedman, and Yakov Blotnik personify all that Roth was determined to reject in the attitudes of the Jewish environment which had surrounded him for the first eighteen years of his life; and Ozzie Freedman’s adolescent revolt against their xenophobia and closedmindedness, their constant concern for ‘‘what-isgood- for-the-Jews,’’ reflects Roth’s own artistic revolt.

Although in approaching the story metaphorically Rodgers makes some questionable assumptions about Roth’s intention—that he was ‘‘determined’’ to reject portions of his early Jewish environment, for example—he appropriately suggests that the piece is grounded in personal experience. Roth’s comments on the story indicate that he wrote from what he knew. He says that it ‘‘reveals at its most innocent stage of development a budding concern with the oppressiveness of family feeling and with the binding ideas of religious exclusiveness which I had experienced firsthand in ordinary American-Jewish life.’’ Out of this early personal knowledge of constraint, Roth has proceeded to construct a diversity of fictional worlds in which the characters attempt to work through a dispute over control between themselves and some outside authority; thus ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews’’ occupies an important place in Roth’s career—as the first indication of a concern that becomes pervasive.

‘‘Eli, the Fanatic’’ bridges the predominant themes of ‘‘Epstein’’ and ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews’’ on the one hand and Goodbye, Columbus on the other. It recalls ‘‘Epstein’’ in its presentation of an uncertain and somewhat pathetic man in conflict with what he and others around him regard as normal, and it extends the ‘‘what-is-good-for-the- Jews’’ attitude of ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews’’ in a way that becomes ironic in light of the previous story. It also anticipates Roth’s emphasis in Goodbye, Columbus on the moral and spiritual vacuousness of the assimilated, suburban Jew whose pursuit of the materialistic American Dream has cut him off from the sustaining aspects of Jewish culture and tradition.

Eli Peck, the ‘‘fanatic’’ in this story whose title ironically takes the perspective of those opposed to him, is a successful Jewish lawyer living in the secular suburb of Woodenton (Wooden Town), He and his Jewish friends have been assimilated into the once exclusively gentile community by distinguishing themselves as little as possible from the Gentiles—by seeking to become largely inconspicuous as Jews. They manage successfully to secure a peaceful coexistence out of this compromise until a group of Orthodox Jews—displaced persons from Germany—establish a ‘‘yeshivah’’ in the community and disturb the security of the assimilated Jews by being in dress and manner conspicuously Jewish. Particularly offended by one of the emissaries from the school who comes into town dressed in an antiquated black suit and a talmudic hat, whom they refer to as the ‘‘greenie,’’ the Americanized Jews hire Eli Peek to use the law in ridding them of these reminders of their own difference from the rest of the community—of their Jewishness. Eli’s commission as the spokesman for this Jewish constituency brings him into contact with Leo Tzuref, the director of the yeshivah, and the mysterious greenie; and from that point the story focuses predominantly on Eli Peck’s strange involvement with the yeshivah and his progressive identification with the greenie until, finally, he is dressed in the greenie’s rabbinical garb and becomes his ‘‘Doppel-ganger,’’ or double. At the conclusion of the story, Eli, considered insane by his friends and family, has taken on the characteristics of religions fanaticism that had previously been associated only with the dispossessed Orthodox Jews living on the edge of Woodenton.

The story begins with Eli in conflict with Jewish orthodoxy and ends with him in conflict with modern, assimilated Jewishness. Initially, in speaking for the progressive upper-middle-class Jews of Woodenton, Eli urges Leo Tzuref and his companions to conform to the customs of the community, pointing out that the amity which Jews and Gentiles have established has necessitated that each relinquish ‘‘some of their more extreme practices in order not to threaten or offend the other.’’ Ironically, he builds his case for conformity to these remnants of Hitlerian Germany on the notion that if Jews in prewar Europe had been less obviously Jewish—had not given offense to those in power by differentiating themselves from the ‘‘norm’’—the persecution of the Jews might not have occurred. On the continuum from the ‘‘normal’’ to the ‘‘abnormal,’’ the progressive Jews of Woodenton obviously stand in relation to the Orthodox Jews as the Gentiles in restrictive communities have generally stood in relation to assimilated Jews. The Gentiles have required of the Jews that they conform to traditional, normal American practices in order to live peacefully in the community, and these Americanized Jews, in their turn, require of the yeshivah members that they conform to the standards of their segment of the society in order to live satisfactorily with the Jewish community.

Seen from this perspective, the ‘‘what-is-goodfor- the-Jews’’ motif of ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews’’ takes on ironic overtones in his story. In both instances, that which is good for the Jews is whatever protects the Jew from the disapproval of the ‘‘goyim’’—usually inconspicuousness. In ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews,’’ Yakov Blotnik is concerned with Ozzie Freeman’s making a spectacle of himself on the roof of the synagogue, and in ‘‘Eli, the Fanatic,’’ the assimilated Jews are concerned with the traditional Jews’ making a spectacle of their religious distinctiveness.

There are significant differences, however, in the way the two stories deal with what may be called ‘‘Jewishness.’’ In ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews,’’ Ozzie’s intellectual progressiveness is at odds with religious exclusiveness, and Roth treats his resistance to the restrictions of Jewish dogma sympathetically. His unwillingness to conform to what others want him to believe, although perhaps not good for the Jews, is represented as being good for him. In ‘‘Eli, the Fanatic,’’ Eli’s progressive acculturation is initially at odds with religious orthodoxy, and Roth treats his and the Jewish community’s antipathy for Jewish exclusiveness, or distinctiveness, unsympathetically. His and his neighbors’ insistence that the refugees from the yeshivah conform to their secular way of life, although perhaps good for the Jews, is represented as being insupportably restrictive and ultimately not good for the very sensitive Eli. In his own way, the unstable Eli Peck is as much an identity in flux, seeking to ground itself in an individuality of its own choosing, as the adolescent Ozzie Freedman; and when his compromised modern Jewishness comes up against uncompromising traditional Jewishness, he seems to lose his balance.

Whether Eli actually loses his balance or gains it at last depends entirely upon the perspective one chooses; and Roth has constructed the story deftly so that it supports either conclusion. What the Jewish community and Eli’s family regard as insanity, Eli experiences as revelation. And because the story is clearly about identity and the standards that define it as normal or abnormal, the question of how Eli Peck is finally to be regarded is ironically consistent with the principal issue of the story. To call him insane because his behavior is inconsistent with social expectations, or to call him whole because he embraces a severed portion of his past and comes to know who he is, implies something about the perspective of the judge. At the beginning of the story, speaking for legalism and compromise in his initial encounter with Leo Tzuref, Eli is clearly associated with the Americanized Jewish community, which desires to rid itself of an obtrusive reminder of its nonmaterialistic, non-American, immoderate past. Asked by Tzuref to distinguish his position from that of the community, Eli responds, ‘‘I am them, they are me, Mr. Tzuref.’’ He is, then, by the standards of his neighbors, sane—normal. But what Eli comes slowly to realize is that he must say of his relationship to the yeshivah the same as he has said of his relationship to the Jewish-American community: ‘‘I am them, they are me.’’ As he begins to acknowledge his kinship with the ‘‘fanatical’’ Jews, his neighbors determine that he is insane.

Both the literal and the symbolic indications of Eli’s identification with the Orthodox Jews and with Jewish orthodoxy revolve around clothes. Clothing, in fact, is a central metaphor in the two predominant conflicts in the story—the Jewish community’s conflict with the yeshivah and Eli’s internal conflict between secular and religious Jewishness. The relation of clothing and identity emerges when Tzuref responds to Eli’s insistence that the greenie wear modern attire by saying, ‘‘The suit the gentleman wears is all he’s got.’’ It becomes clear that Tzuref is referring to the rabbi’s identity, his connection with his past, and not to his clothes. The clothes are all that he has of what he was. Later, the connection between appearance and identity reaches its culmination when Eli and the greenie exchange clothing. Putting on the discarded clothing that the greenie has left on his doorstep, Eli feels himself transformed into a Jew. When his suburban neighbor, busy with the meaningful task of painting the rocks in her yard pink, tells him that there is a Jew at his door, Eli responds, ‘‘That’s me.’’ And when he goes up the hill to the yeshivah dressed in the greenie’s garb and encounters the greenie clothed in his own best green suit, Eli at first has the notion that he is two people and then that ‘‘he was one person wearing two suits.’’ To Eli, the intermingling of the two identities is so complete that for a moment ‘‘his hands went out to button down the collar of his shirt that somebody else was wearing.’’ The ‘‘Doppel-gänger’’ motif here indicates that in facing the ‘‘fanatic,’’ the rabbinist who stands for the unassimilated Jewish tradition, Eli also confronts a part of himself—that part of his identity represented in his religious and cultural heritage.

When the rabbi, without uttering a word, points down the hill to the town of Woodenton, Eli has a revelation. It is the awareness toward which he has been moving throughout the story—the recognition that he is connected with the Jews of the yeshivah in a way that his fellow American Jews deny. His earlier words, ‘‘I am them, they are me,’’ now refer to Old-World Jews rather than modern Jews. Like Moses descending from the mountain with a holy commission, Eli walks down the hill into Woodenton and among those who were his people. For the first time Eli seems to know who he is and to feel that he has the ability to choose. He worries for a moment that he has chosen to be crazy but then decides that it is when a person fails to choose that he is actually crazy. Therefore, he makes a conscious decision to remain in his rabbinical garb as he goes to the hospital to see his newborn son, whose birth happens to coincide with Eli’s spiritual rebirth.

The story ends with the hospital attendants humoring Eli long enough to tear off his jacket and give him a sedating shot that ‘‘calmed his soul, but did not touch it down where the blackness had reached.’’ Since Eli has associated blackness with the clothes of the rabbi, and Roth has constructed the story so that clothing stands symbolically for identity, the conclusion implies that the spiritual assimilation Eli has achieved remains untouched by sedation. In the sense that normality in this story means moderation, compromise, and alienation from the religious and cultural past, Eli will never be normal again.

In this story, as in ‘‘Epstein’’ and ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews,’’ Roth explores the conflicts between conformity and identity, between the individual and his social environment, and the conflict within the individual as he makes a choice that challenges not only what others would like him to be but also his own sense of his ‘‘best self.’’ In the introduction of these themes, the stories in the Goodbye, Columbus volume are auguries of the predominant issues to emerge in Roth’s novels. Throughout his fiction, Roth is preoccupied with the moral imperatives that a person imposes on himself and their relationship to the dictates of family, culture, and religion. In the absence of heroes of epic proportion, he draws protagonists characteristically modern in the sense that their battleground is the self and their struggles are with the forces that shape, and attempt to impose limitations upon, that identity.

Source: Judith Paterson Jones and Guinevera A. Nance, ‘‘Good Girls and Boys Gone Bad,’’ in Philip Roth, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1981, pp. 9–86.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Critical Overview