The Conversion of the Jews

by Philip Roth

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Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 348

A brief conversation between Ozzie and his friend Itzie, who has missed a previous class, helps to establish the background of Ozzie’s conflict with Binder. Then, five short paragraphs describing the Freedman household on a Friday evening provide useful information on Ozzie’s family background. The remainder of the story concentrates on the crucial Wednesday afternoon on which Ozzie challenges the rabbi. With considerable narrative economy, Roth depicts a compelling battle of wills.

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Much of “The Conversion of the Jews” is presented as the dialogue of the principal characters. Most of the rest conveys important information through detached, third-person assertions. Simply by stating, for example, that class discussion time is often devoted to Hank Greenberg, a baseball star who was Jewish, Roth makes a telling point about the tenuousness of Jewish identity in a secular, tolerant society. Rarely does the author intrude with his own commentary. The effect of organizing the material so that it shows rather than tells is to provide a paradigm of the resistance to authority that Ozzie represents; readers cannot rely on a privileged voice for perspective but must arrive at their own conclusions.

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As Ozzie is the focus of the reader’s perceptions, one tends to be sympathetic to his aspirations and frustrations. The motivations of Binder are not nearly as well developed as are those of his defiant student. Because of the detached mode of narration, Ozzie’s fundamental theological questions are made to seem highly pertinent, impossible to dismiss from the perspective of an impatient adult. However, posed in the vernacular of a self-righteous thirteen-year-old, they are also simplistic and naïve. Roth maintains an ambivalent attitude toward the conflicts between faith and reason and between tradition and the individual talent he depicts. He relates, without commentary, how the young man in effect accomplishes what he sets out to do. However, the story’s final sentence recounts Ozzie’s return to earth, albeit with an aura, only partially ironic, of the sacred—“into the center of the yellow net that glowed in the evening’s edge like an overgrown halo.”

Historical Context

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The Attempted Annihilation of the Jews
To understand the historical context of the 1950s, when Roth wrote the story and when the story takes place, one must first look at the mass killing known as the Holocaust. During World War II (1939–1945), the German Nazi regime carried out a plan of genocide known as The Final Solution. The Nazis intended to wipe out European Jewry. They nearly succeeded. Prior to World War II, approximately nine million Jews lived in Europe. Of these, roughly six million Jews, or two-thirds, had died by the war’s end.

The Migration of the Jews
Following the defeat of the Nazis, many European Jews could no longer face life in Europe and became part of a mass migration to other countries. In 1948, the Jewish state of Israel, the first Jewish state in nearly two thousand years, was formed in Palestine. Some European Jews chose to migrate to this new Jewish homeland. However, Israel was economically disadvantaged and experienced nearconstant hostility from its Arab neighbors, so it was not an attractive choice for many European Jews, who had just been through a war. For those who did not go to Israel, a new opportunity presented itself in the United States. Jews had been living there since its founding, but anti-Semitism was prevalent in the States until and even during World War II. When the gruesome details of the Holocaust came to light, American anti-Semitic feelings dissipated.

The Assimilation of the Jews
Now that Jews were more welcome in the United States, they came in large numbers in the late 1940s and the 1950s, eager to take advantage of American freedom and other opportunities. The Jewish community as a whole, recognizing that Jewish prosperity in the States hinged on the ability to blend in, encouraged assimilation into American culture. The segregation of distinctly Jewish communities, which had been practiced in Europe, was now seen as a barrier to success. The rapid development of U.S. suburbs after World War II helped Jews assimilate rapidly. Except in certain neighborhoods where anti-Semitic tensions still existed, Jews moved next door to non-Jewish neighbors and formed multi-faith friendships.

The Education of the Jews
One area in which Jews, especially children, were rapidly assimilated was in their education. Traditionally, Jews receive extensive education in their faith from both their parents and the community. To help their children fit in as Americans, many Jewish parents sent their children to public schools. As a result, most Jewish children received their Jewish education in Hebrew school, a supplementary schooling that took place in the afternoons after the public schools let out.

Literary Style

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Satire
Satire is a form of criticism that makes its point through biting irony and ridicule. Satire can be more effective than direct discussion because satire leaves a lasting image. In the story, Roth’s satirical target is Jewish formalism in the 1950s, particularly in Jewish communities like the one depicted in the story. In this community, Jews take to ludicrous and dispassionate extremes the belief that they are God’s chosen ones. For example, Ozzie’s mother studies a newspaper article describing a plane crash and only declares the accident a tragedy when she sees that eight of the victims have distinctly Jewish names. Roth satirizes this Jewish community in other ways, too, such as in Rabbi Binder’s insistence that Ozzie read fast from the Hebrew book, even though he does not understand the words. Of course, the ultimate satire is the fact that the rabbi, a representative of Jewish religious authority, refuses to acknowledge the possibility of a virgin birth, even though this refusal means denying the fact that his Jewish God is all-powerful.

Imagery
Unlike the Jewish community in the story, which Roth portrays as very closed-minded, Ozzie is an independent thinker who views his world in an expressive way. Nothing is boring for Ozzie. His mind, which depicts even simple acts and situations as vivid images, influences the narration. The imagery in the story is particularly expressive when it applies to Ozzie’s religious beliefs. For example, he likes watching his mother perform the ritual of lighting candles: ‘‘When his mother lit the candles she would move her two arms slowly towards her, dragging them through the air, as though persuading people whose minds were half made up.’’ Ozzie is enthralled by the spiritual nature of this simple yet meaningful ceremony. The power of this image makes him think that his mother will support his religious inquiry into the possible divine birth of Jesus. Says the narrator, ‘‘when she lit candles she looked like . . . a woman who knew momentarily that God could do anything.’’ For this reason, he is crushed when his mother hits him for asking his question in class.

Ozzie thinks he is going to receive an even harsher punishment from the rabbi when he curses him and escapes onto the synagogue’s roof. Ozzie locks the trap door and sits on it to prevent the rabbi from coming after him. However, Ozzie is still tied to the traditional Jewish belief that one should never disrespect a rabbi, and so he imagines violent consequences. As the narrator notes, ‘‘any instant he was certain that Rabbi Binder’s shoulder would fling it open, splintering the wood into shrapnel and catapulting his body into the sky.’’ When this does not happen, Ozzie begins to realize that his religion is not as powerful as he had assumed. Although this gives him a sense of power, it also puts him in a state of confusion, since he does not know where to go for guidance for serious issues such as whether he should die for his religious beliefs. In one of the most expressive images in the story, Ozzie looks to the heavens for answers: ‘‘Yearningly, Ozzie wished he could rip open the sky, plunge his hands through, and pull out the sun; and on the sun, like a coin, would be stamped JUMP or DON’T JUMP.’’

Symbolism
Some of the images in the story also have symbolic meanings. A symbol is a physical object, action, or gesture that represents an abstract concept, without losing its original identity. A symbol can be local, with a meaning that is dependent upon the context of the story. It can also be universal, with a meaning that remains the same regardless of its context. The most prominent examples of local symbols in the story are the last names of Ozzie and the rabbi. Ozzie’s last name is ‘‘Freedman,’’ which symbolizes his quest for religious freedom, in which his rebellion makes him a freed man. His main opponent is Rabbi ‘‘Binder,’’ who constantly tries to restrict Ozzie’s religious inquiries and bind him to formal Jewish doctrine.

The story also contains several universal symbols. One that evolves throughout the story is connected to the crowd of Jewish children that gathers on the street outside the synagogue to watch Ozzie on the roof. When Ozzie first observes this crowd, the narrator describes it as follows: ‘‘In little jagged starlike clusters his friends stood around Rabbi Binder.’’ Whenever a star is used in conjunction with Jews or Judaism, it usually refers to the Magen of David. This six-pointed star, which is located on the flag of Israel—the world’s only Jewish state—is a recognized symbol of Jewish solidarity. When the children form themselves into star-shaped groups around the rabbi, the shape suggests the idea of cultural unity. However, as Ozzie realizes that he has the power to rebel against his religion, the children in the crowd follow his example, starting with Itzie. ‘‘Itzie broke off his point of the star and courageously, with the inspiration not of a wise guy but of a disciple, stood alone.’’ The use of the word ‘‘disciple,’’ a term generally used to refer to the followers of Jesus in his lifetime, underscores even more the religious significance of Itzie’s defiant gesture. As more children follow suit, the star disintegrates, a clear symbol of religious rebellion.

Compare and Contrast

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1950s: Following the Holocaust during World War II, which kills an estimated six million Jews, many European Jews emigrate to other countries such as Israel and the United States. In 1957, due to this migration, the United States attains the world’s largest Jewish population.

Today: The majority of the world’s estimated thirteen million Jews live in either the United States, which hosts almost six million Jews, or Israel, which hosts almost five million Jews.

1950s: Most American Jews encourage assimilation with American culture as a way to get ahead and make a better life for themselves.

Today: The biggest problem facing American Jewry is the loss of its Jewish identity as a result of assimilation into American culture. Judaism, like other major religions, is in a state of flux as it attempts to reconcile secular issues with religious traditions.

1950s: Intermarriage is frowned upon, and a mere 6 percent of Jewish marriages are to non-Jews.

Today: More than 50 percent of all Jewish marriages are to non-Jews.

Media Adaptations

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Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Other Short Stories was adapted as an unabridged audio file by Audio Literature. It is available on the Web at www.audible.com and features several narrators, including Theodore Bikel and Harlan Ellison.

Goodbye, Columbus was released by Paramount Pictures in 1969 as a feature film entitled Goodbye Columbus. The film, which was directed by Larry Peerce, featured Richard Benjamin, Ali MacGraw, and Jack Klugman. It is available on VHS from Paramount Home Video.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Baumgarten, Murray, and Barbara Gottfried, Understanding Philip Roth, University of South Carolina Press, 1990, p. 45.

Cooper, Peter L., ‘‘Philip Roth,’’ in American Writers, Supplement 3, Vol. 2, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991, pp. 401–29.

Goldleaf, Steven, ‘‘‘The Conversion of the Jews’: Overview,’’ in Reference Guide to Short Fiction, 1st ed., edited by Noelle Watson, St. James Press, 1994.

Jones, Judith Paterson, and Guinevera A. Nance, ‘‘Good Girls and Boys Gone Bad,’’ in Philip Roth, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1981, pp. 9–85.

Pinsker, Sanford, ‘‘Philip Roth,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 28: Twentieth-Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers, edited by Daniel Walden, Gale Research, 1984, pp. 264–75.

Roth, Philip, ‘‘The Conversion of the Jews,’’ in American Short Story Masterpieces, edited by Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks, Laurel, 1987, pp. 440–55, originally published in Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories, Houghton, 1959.

Shaheen, Naseeb, ‘‘Binder Unbound, or, How Not to Convert the Jews,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 3, Summer 1976, pp. 376–78.

Further Reading
Brodkin, Karen, How Jews Became White Folks: And What That Says about Race in America, Rutgers University Press, 1998. Brodkin explores her own racial status as a Jewish American and discusses how Jews have shifted from the non-white to the white category in the American social consciousness. She also applies this discussion to the greater issue of how racial-ethnic backgrounds help to define social identities in the United States.

Cooper, Alan, Philip Roth and the Jews, State University of New York Press, 1996. Cooper examines and dispels the common impression that Roth is either a self-hating Jew or a writer bent on making fun of the Jewish community. Cooper reviews Roth’s life and works and compares the author’s experiences to the experiences of Jewish Americans in general.

Dershowitz, Alan M., The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century, Little, Brown and Company, 1997. Dershowitz says that modern Jewish Americans face a different challenge than previous generations, which fought against an anti-Semitic attitude that has largely disappeared. Instead, today’s Jewish Americans, who have been widely assimilated into American culture, stand to lose their Jewish identity through the increase in intermarriage and the lapse of Jewish practices. Dershowitz proposes some steps to ensure that a permanent loss of identity does not happen.

Heilman, Samuel C., Portrait of American Jews: The Last Half of the Twentieth Century, University of Washington Press, 1995. Heilman draws from his dual background as sociologist and Jewish Studies professor to demonstrate the sociological changes that have taken place in the Jewish-American community since the 1950s.

Robinson, George, Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs, and Rituals, Pocket Books, 2000. Robinson offers an up-to-date, one-volume overview of Jewish practices and beliefs. Written in an accessible style, the book includes several sidebars that highlight specific aspects of Judaism, answer the most commonly asked questions, and explore current controversies.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 131

Halio, Jay L. Philip Roth Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Halio, Jay L., and Ben Siegel, eds. “Turning Up the Flame”: Philip Roth’s Later Novels. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004.

Lee, Hermione. Philip Roth. London: Methuen, 1982.

Milbauer, Asher Z., ed. Reading Philip Roth. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.

Pinsker, Sanford. The Comedy That “Hoits”: An Essay on the Fiction of Philip Roth. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1975.

Pinsker, Sanford, ed. Critical Essays on Philip Roth. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.

Rodgers, Bernard F., Jr. Philip Roth. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

Schechner, Mark. After the Revolution: Studies in the Contemporary Jewish American Imagination. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Schechner, Mark. “Up Society’s Ass, Copper”: Rereading Philip Roth. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

Shostak, Debra. Philip Roth—Countertexts, Counterlives. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.

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