The Conversion of the Jews

by Philip Roth

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 624

“The Conversion of the Jews” is the story of the coming-of-age of a boy on the brink of manhood as defined by the Jewish ritual of Bar Mitzvah. Set in a modern American city where Jews are a tolerated minority, it raises questions about the continuing vitality of Jewish culture and about the coherence of a Jewish community within a pluralistic society. In Ozzie’s refusal to accept traditional dogma, it also takes a critical look at strategies to justify the ways of God to young men.

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As befits his last name, Freedman, Ozzie is not tied to historical explanations for fundamental questions that he is confronting for the first time. Alone of all his classmates, Ozzie dares to challenge the authority of the rabbi, whose name, Binder, suggests his own fealty to tradition. Binder, a tall, handsome, and imposing man, is a sort of surrogate father to Ozzie, whose deceased father is commemorated by the ceremonial sabbath candles his mother lights each Friday at sunset. Ozzie is intoxicated by the sense of power he feels his defiant, independent stance can exert over the others. He sees himself as a lone champion of truth battling the obscurantist forces of tribal superstition. He is also asserting his own personal dignity against a condescending elder who is merely patronizing toward the young man’s quest for explanations.

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When he climbs up onto the roof alone, Ozzie realizes that he has passed a turning point in his life and that there is no possibility of reversal. His mother begs him to come back, not to become a martyr. Though they do not understand the term, his classmates invert the request, urging him indeed to be a “Martin.” Caught in this dramatic situation, Ozzie feels too committed to retreat from the principles that suddenly seem more important to him than life. His dedication to the ideals of free thought provides him with the moral force to perform, symbolically, a task that is proverbially impossible: convert the Jews. When he finally jumps off the roof, into the safety net provided by the community, it is as if Ozzie the child has died and Ozzie the man is born.

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Latest answer posted November 13, 2011, 7:50 pm (UTC)

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The transformation of this bold adolescent is explicitly related to a sexual theme: the possibility that Mary conceived Jesus without having had intercourse. The very euphemism “to have intercourse” is somewhat shocking and titillating to the boys when they hear it employed by their rabbi. Binder would just as soon not discuss the subject at all, but when Ozzie refuses to accept Binder’s dismissal of Jesus as merely historical, the teacher is forced to deal directly with that feature of the Christian story that most troubles the boys: Mary’s sexuality. The thirteen-year-old’s curiosity over the mysteries of religion also suggests a burgeoning interest in sex.

The Gentile firefighters are bemused by and impatient with the entire confrontation. They do not understand Jewish separatism any more than the Jewish boy on the roof does. Ozzie can find no reason why his mother is most distressed about eight of the fifty-eight casualties in a plane crash, simply because they were Jews. For him, Jewish tradition is represented by grotesque, incoherent old Blotnik and the tyranny of a Hebrew school that attempts to inculcate by rote ideas that do not accord with reason. Written in the 1950’s, when American Jewish literature was emerging as a major and respected force, “The Conversion of the Jews” helped establish Philip Roth as a peer of Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, yet it also marked his alienation from an ethnic tradition that he was often to satirize as having grown complacent and obtuse. His assimilated Jews cling to meaningless vestiges of ancient allegiances and values.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1110

Hypocrisy
Ozzie is a truth-seeker who does not deal well with factual inconsistencies, especially in his religion. He is passionate about Judaism and deeply respectful of its beliefs and rituals. When his mother lights candles on the Sabbath, he picks the ringing phone off the hook but does not answer it; instead, he holds it ‘‘muffled to his chest.’’ He does not want anything to disturb his mother’s ritual: ‘‘When his mother lit candles Ozzie felt there should be no noise; even breathing, if you could manage it, should be softened.’’ However, as much as he strives to be a respectful Jew, he has problems claiming allegiance with any religion that supports hypocrisy—the act of claiming to be something that one is not or believing in something that one knows is not true. Ozzie knows that Jews believe in the allpowerful nature of God. As a result, he is surprised when the Jewish elders to whom he looks for guidance—his mother and his rabbi—fail to acknowledge even the possibility of Jesus’ divine birth. Ozzie is even more shocked when his mother and rabbi hit him as a result of his attempts to point out this hypocrisy.

Ozzie sees evidence of this hypocrisy in other areas of the Jewish life. He notices Yakov Blotnik, the seventy-one-year-old custodian, who constantly mumbles prayers to himself that he does not seem to understand. Ozzie believes that it is more important to understand one’s prayers than to mouth them ritualistically without understanding. Ozzie follows the same belief when he reads slowly from the Hebrew book in order to increase his comprehension. But doing so gets him in trouble with Rabbi Binder: ‘‘Ozzie said he could read faster but that if he did he was sure not to understand what he was reading.’’ However, the rabbi does not care whether Ozzie can understand. As far as the rabbi is concerned, the important thing is that Ozzie follows the rules.

Freedom
When Ozzie asks questions about his religion, he is not trying to be ‘‘deliberately simple-minded and a wise guy,’’ as the rabbi assumes. He is earnestly trying to understand his religion. Nevertheless, in his quest for truth, he comes up against a restrictive wall of religious authority, represented mainly by Rabbi Binder. On the surface, the rabbi encourages students to ask him questions. However, the students also witness the rabbi’s ‘‘soul-battering’’ of Ozzie after Ozzie tries to question the idea of reading faster at the expense of comprehension. For them, the rabbi’s actions speak louder than his words: ‘‘Consequently when free-discussion time rolled around none of the students felt too free.’’ The students do not ask any questions, and the silence is filled only with Blotnik’s rote, uninspired prayers. This detail underscores the fact that what Rabbi Binder really wants is conformity. Blotnik is an obedient Jew, one who adheres totally to his faith. Roth states: ‘‘For Yakov Blotnik life had fractionated itself simply: things were either goodfor- the-Jews or no-good-for-the-Jews.’’ When he witnesses Ozzie up on the roof, Blotnik surveys the situation and sees that nobody outside of the synagogue is watching, so ‘‘it-wasn’t-so-bad-for-the- Jews. But the boy had to come down immediately, before anybody saw.’’ Blotnik is concerned more with his religion’s reputation or image than with Ozzie’s safety.

However, Ozzie has no intention of coming down from the roof, at least not right away. He escapes to the roof to get away from his rabbi but soon realizes that his position on the roof gives him great power. When Rabbi Binder commands Ozzie to come down, Ozzie can see that the rabbi is bluffing, because he has no way of making Ozzie follow his order. ‘‘It was the attitude of a dictator, but one—the eyes confessed all—whose personal valet had spit neatly in his face.’’ When Ozzie realizes that he is in charge, not the rabbi, he starts ‘‘to feel the meaning of the word control: he felt Peace and he felt Power.’’ Once Ozzie realizes that the crowd also thinks he is going to kill himself, and the rabbi and his mother do not want him to do so, he gains even more power. He uses the freedom of his newfound power to once again address his question about the possibility of Jesus’ virgin birth. This time, he takes it one step further, by forcing the assembled crowd—including the rabbi, his mother, and even Blotnik—to say they believe God can do anything, they believe in the possibility of a virgin birth, and they believe in Jesus. By forcing the crowd to acknowledge his beliefs, Ozzie beats the system of religious authority and achieves the freedom that he has been seeking.

Irreverence
The story raises the issue of what constitutes irreverence, or lack of respect, for one’s religion. Characters in the story variously interpret the concept. The rabbi thinks that Ozzie’s questions are deliberately disrespectful. He is shocked when Ozzie, frustrated that he is not getting answers, tells him: ‘‘You don’t know! You don’t know anything about God!’’ He is even more astounded when Ozzie curses him after he smacks Ozzie for this comment. ‘‘Ozzie screamed, ‘You bastard, you bastard!’ and broke for the classroom door.’’ For Rabbi Binder, these are all clear signs of irreverence. As for Ozzie, he does not think his questions are irreverent, since he is asking them out of a genuine desire to understand. However, even Ozzie is surprised that he has cursed his rabbi and wonders whether he is still himself—‘‘For a thirteen-year-old who had just labeled his religious leader a bastard, twice, it was not an improper question.’’ However, upon further examination, Ozzie believes that he is not being irreverent. On the contrary, he feels that, by taking a stand against religious hypocrisy, he is more reverent than his rabbi or any other conformist Jew. In fact, he feels so comfortable with his actions that he briefly considers the possibility of jumping off the roof and dying for his cause. Finally, there is the case of Itzie, who is deliberately irreverent but who practices a passive form of disrespect. Itzie has seen Ozzie’s outspoken behavior get him in trouble to the point where Ozzie’s mother has to come talk to the rabbi. Itzie, who is irreverent for the thrill of misbehaving not because he has serious issues with his faith, does not think getting in trouble is worth it. ‘‘Itzie preferred to keep his mother in the kitchen; he settled for behind-the-back subtleties such as gestures, faces, snarls and other less delicate barnyard noises.’’

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