The Conversion of the Jews Style and Technique

Philip Roth

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.

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.

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.”