The Defender of the Faith

by Philip Roth
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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1062

"Defender of the Faith" is a 1959 short story by Philip Roth. In the opening pages, we meet Sergeant Nathan Marx, who has just returned from Germany to America "only a few weeks after the fighting had ended in Europe" in May of 1945. Marx tell us that in his two years spent fighting abroad, he had "been fortunate enough to develop an infantryman's heart, which, like his feet, at first aches and swells but finally grows horny enough for him to travel the weirdest paths without feeling a thing." Marx assumes a position at Camp Crowder, Missouri, overseeing a training company.

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One of the trainees in this company is Sheldon Grossbart, who infers from Marx's last name that he and Marx share something in common: they are both Jewish. Hoping to use their shared faith as a bridge between them, Grossbart asks Marx if he can be excused from the weekly Friday evening barracks cleaning in order to go to temple. Grossbart says to Marx, "This is a matter of religion, sir . . . I don't want to make trouble, Sergeant . . . I just want my rights!" Marx has taken an immediate disliking to Grossbart, but he does tell the CQ (Charge of Quarters), Corporal Robert LaHill, to remind the men that they're free to attend religious services whenever they're held. On Friday evening, Marx observes Grossbart and two other soldiers lining up to go to temple. Grossbart introduces them as Larry Fishbein and Mickey Halpern. Grossbart invites Marx to attend temple with the other three soldiers, but Marx initially refuses. However, after he "[indulges himself] in a reverie so strong that [he] felt as though a hand were reaching down inside [him]" and thinks back to "the dying [he'd] refused to weep over," Marx follows after the other three men, saying that he is "in search of more of me." At the service, Marx observes that Halpern seems to be the only one truly paying attention to and participating in the religious rituals. At the end of the evening, Grossbart maintains that services are important when a man is away from home because "it gives one a sense of his Jewishness."

A week later, Marx's commanding officer, Captain Barrett, summons Marx to explain why Grossbart's father wrote a letter to a congressman to lodge a complaint about the lack of kosher food available to the trainees. Barrett takes Marx with him to talk to Grossbart, whom they find at the firing range. Barrett asks Grossbart, "What is it you want? The little piece of paper? You want out?" to which Grossbart replies, "No, sir. Only to be allowed to live as a Jew." Captain Barrett then compares Grossbart to Marx, saying,

When you were in high school, Sergeant Marx was killing Germans. Who does more for the Jews—you, by throwing up over a lousy piece of sausage, a piece of first-cut meat, or Marx, by killing those Nazi bastards?

After Captain Barrett drives away, Grossbart confesses to Marx that the letter was actually written by Grossbart himself (Grossbart's father can barely speak English, never mind write it) and that he did it to help Halpern and Fishbein. A few days later, a letter from "Samuel E. Grossbart" (really Sheldon, writing as if he's his father) arrives, thanking and praising Sergeant Marx for "[helping] Sheldon over some of the first hurdles he's had to face in the Army."

Grossbart doesn't bother Marx for a while, until he seeks Marx out to ask for permission to go to St. Louis for a Passover dinner with his aunt. When Marx denies the request, Grossbart claims Marx is persecuting him, working himself into an emotional state and saying, "It's a hard thing to be a Jew. But now I understand what Mickey says—it's a harder thing to stay one." In tears, he walks away from Marx. Later that evening, Marx spots Grossbart trying to leave the camp. Knowing Grossbart will be sent to the stockade for leaving without permission, Marx ultimately gives Grossbart a pass, thinking to himself, "It was a great relief to stop fighting Grossbart, and it had cost me nothing." Minutes later, Grossbart returns with Fishbein and Halpern in tow, asking if they can come to St. Louis, too. Worn down, Marx gives all three of them passes. Later that afternoon, Marx does some self-reflecting at a bar. There, he

tried to look squarely what I'd become involved in, and began to wonder if perhaps the struggle with Grossbart wasn't as much my fault as his. What was I that I had to muster generous feelings? Who was I to have been feeling so grudging, so tight-hearted? After all, I wasn't being asked to move the world.

That night, Grossbart comes to Marx and asks if Marx knows where the trainees are being sent after they complete training camp. He wants to know if they're going to the Pacific to fight against the Japanese. Marx, who knows they are, ultimately tells Grossbart this. Grossbart asks Marx if Marx has the power to make a change to the orders so they can go somewhere less dangerous, but Marx says nothing can be done. He then asks for the gift he had requested Grossbart bring him back from the Passover service: a piece of gefiltefish. Grossbart tosses Marx an egg roll, claiming that his aunt wasn’t home, that he had misread her letter and the invitation was for next week. Realizing that Grossbart is a liar and a manipulator, Marx rants,

You’re a liar! You’re a schemer and a crook. You’ve got no respect for anything. Nothing at all. Not for me, for the truth—not even for poor Halpern! You use us all.

A week later, the orders for the trainees arrive: they are all going to Camp Stoneman in California, and from there to the Pacific. That is, all but one: Sheldon Grossbart is going to be sent to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Realizing that Grossbart has manipulated somebody else into granting him a “special request,” Marx takes action. He uses his power to get Grossbart added to the list of the men who are going to the Pacific. When Grossbart finds out what Marx has done, he accuses Marx of being an anti-Semite. Grossbart weeps. The story ends with the trainees, Grossbart, and Marx all accepting their inevitable fates.

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