The Conversion of the Jews by Philip Roth, 1959

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by Philip Roth, 1959

"The Conversion of the Jews" is a young man's fantasy. Philip Roth wrote it by the age of 23, and it concerns Roth's youngest protagonist, Ozzie Freedman, age 12. The simple conflict in "The Conversion of the Jews" is developed in Roth's later, complex, fully-adult fiction, as his protagonists challenge the values of their oppressive communities.

Ozzie succeeds in this challenge as Alex Portnoy, David Kepesh, and Roth's other adult protagonists can only imagine succeeding. In the course of the fantasy Ozzie literally compels a crowd of Jews to kneel "in the Gentile posture of prayer" and to "say they believed in Jesus Christ." The character's aim isn't to humiliate his rabbi, his mother, or other members of his synagogue, although he surely does that. Rather, his goal is perversely to proclaim the power of their God. As he puts it, if God can do anything, how can his rabbi so smugly deny Christ's divine birth?

Roth's story was received by the Jewish community much as Ozzie's questions were received by his: with fierce hostility. Why would Roth expose the Jewish people, critics asked, as small-minded bigots who suppress Ozzie's inquiries? The reason is the same for both Roth's affront and for Ozzie's: because by restricting free discussion the community harms itself while claiming to defend itself. (In the story's Hebrew school, "when free discussion time rolled around, none of the students felt too free," a paradox that also applies to the nominal freedom Jewish writers of the 1950s felt in criticizing contemporary Jewish values.)

Characters' names in "The Conversion of the Jews" highlight the issue of individual freedom. (In broad farces such as Our Gang and The Great American Novel Roth's characters took emblematic names such as Senator Innuendo and Word Smith and Gil Gamesh and Base Baal.) Ozzie's last name is Freedman, and his repressive rabbi is named Binder.

The struggle between individual freedom and binding authority, in Roth's view, is eternal. Outsiders will always want in, so their struggles will always have a comic tinge, too. Whether these outsiders are Jews, adolescents, sexual libertines, idealists, or any other marginalized figures Roth might use, they resist and seek to purify the values of the mainstream into which they wish to assimilate. "The Conversion" offends its audience by addressing a serious theme in terms of low-comic characters.

Always particularly sensitive to lampooning, the Jewish community took offense at Roth's work because, like Ozzie's, his voice resounded with earnest articulation. The opening scene of "The Conversion" mixes serious literature with travesty: the dignified Jamesian device of the ficelle (a confidant functioning as the protagonist's sounding board) here takes the ludicrous form of Ozzie's friend Itzie, a coarse Hebrew-school truant whom Ozzie fills in on the events leading up to the story's conflict. The comic pair, Ozzie and Itzie, discuss the rabbi's denial of Mary's virgin motherhood. "'That stuff's all bull. To have a baby you gotta get laid,' Itzie theologized. 'Mary had to get laid."' Over Itzie's vulgar inanities Ozzie outlines his serious intellectual problem: what can restrain an omnipotent God from performing any miracle he chooses?

Itzie's prurient interruptions isolate Ozzie from his friends just as surely as Binder's attempts to mute Ozzie's inquiries isolate him from his enemies. Ozzie, Roth's youngest "good Jewish boy," yearns to cleanse his community of muddied ideas, but he wants more to be his own man. The need for autonomy estranges Ozzie from his culture, and he needs to be alone.

After Rabbi Binder tries bullying him into agreeing that New Testament miracles are more absurd than Old Testament miracles, Ozzie flees to the synagogue's roof, where he is misconstrued as threatening suicide. This misunderstanding gives Ozzie the power to make the crowd of Jews below swear to Jesus Christ's divinity. "The Conversion of the Jews," a title drawn from Andrew Marvell's poem "To His Coy Mistress," where it signifies the end of recorded time, ironically signifies here a very short-lived conversion. No reader expects Ozzie's converts to embrace Christianity once he is safely off the roof. But the story ends with Ozzie still triumphant, having imposed his individual beliefs on his community.

Roth celebrates the individual's primacy in much the same boisterous spirit as Ralph Waldo Emerson did a century before Roth was born. Both Roth and Emerson earned the scorn of their religious communities by stressing individual intellectual freedom. Both writers, curiously, made an issue of the divinity of Christ, the Christian-rebel Emerson by denying its necessity, the Jewish-rebel Roth by affirming its possibility. In his divinity school address Emerson castigated the Unitarian ministry for turning religion into "a hollow, dry creaking formality," charging that wherever "the pulpit is usurped by a formalist then is the worship-per defrauded"; soon afterward he resigned his ministry. Jewish formalism is Roth's target in "The Conversion," where Ozzie suspects one elderly Jew muttering prayers of having "memorized the prayers and forgotten all about God."

Like Emerson, Ozzie is a purifier of a religion he sees as corrupt and defiled. He yearns to have his eyes opened, but his religion insists he follow its forms blindly:

[Rabbi Binder] asked him petulantly why he didn't read more rapidly. He was showing no progress. Ozzie said he could read faster but that if he did he was sure not to understand what he was reading. Nevertheless, at the rabbi's repeated suggestion Ozzie tried.

Ozzie's heartfelt wonderings about God are subordinated to the primacy of mere appearance: the rabbi wants Ozzie to seem to understand the text he reads far more than he wants Ozzie genuinely to understand it.

The imagery in "The Conversion of the Jews" is visual: Rabbi Binder repeatedly averts his eyes from the sight of Ozzie on the edge of the roof, as if not seeing Ozzie would make him disappear. Ozzie finally threatens to jump off the roof only because he "wanted to see Rabbi Binder cover his eyes one more time."

Roth expresses the conflict from the community's point of view: "The boy had to come down immediately before anybody saw." Before any passing Christian, that is, saw the scandalous sight. Even the rescuing firefighter's "net stared up at Ozzie like a sightless eye." (Eyes and vision, unsurprisingly, are Emerson's favorite metaphors: "I become a transparent eyeball, I am nothing, I see all," he exults in "Nature," whose ultimate image is of a man achieving oneness with God, specifically "a blind man … restored to perfect sight." Roth, a graduate student in American studies around the time he wrote "The Conversion of the Jews," was certainly reading and noting his Emerson.) Ozzie restores the sight of his blinded community and, however briefly, returns them to oneness with God.

—Steven Goldleaf


The Conversion of the Jews by Philip Roth, 1959