Eli, The Fanatic

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Short Story by Philip Roth, 1959

Like all the other stories in Goodbye, Columbus, "Eli, the Fanatic" is distinctly Jewish in its subject and tone, and yet it is assuredly American, too. Indeed, all the stories reflect the Jewish experience of America as a testing ground for equality, liberty, and the infinite opportunities denied to their immigrant forebears who fled Russia and Europe. The stories resonate with an underlying conflict of identity that continues to engage Roth's interest: Can a person identify himself as an American and still hold on to those ethnic traits that distinguish him as different? This conflict seems to have grown out of the more basic, archetypal query: Who am I?

The answers to these questions are made all the more poignant in "Eli, the Fanatic," the only story in Goodbye, Columbus to deal with the Holocaust. Roth weaves a kind of rabbinic parable that describes the ways in which the more modern concerns with the self have superseded for many Jews the traditional biblical dictum to be their brother's keepers. Thus the story relates how the peril for a group of Hasidic Jews, a Holocaust victim in particular, ironically comes from other Jews, not Gentiles.

Roth is sensitive to the fact that while American Jews were galvanized by the Holocaust and united against anti-Semitism, many also felt an underlying imperative to discard what had outwardly marked them as Jews. They wanted to avail themselves of the chance to shed their image as outsiders despite the fact that assimilation had not protected Jews in Hitler's world. Roth fictionalizes what happened to American Jews who, with newly acquired financial means and increased social mobility, feel their achievements threatened.

Having ventured beyond their self-imposed ghettos of urban America into Gentile suburbia, the secular Jews of Woodenton are anxious to evict some Hasidic Jews who have taken up residence on the outskirts of their newly found paradise. They are especially disturbed by the presence of one embarrassing interloper who, with his black frock coat, black pants, and black hat, is a nagging reminder of their Jewish ancestry whenever he parades past the manicured lawns and upscale shops.

Roth singles out the Hasid's black suit as a highly visible sign of being a Jew and makes it a dual symbol of what assimilating Jews have tried to forget and, ironically, what they need to remember: their link to Judaism and their tie to victims of anti-Semitism. This message is encoded in the story of Eli Peck, the lawyer persuaded by his fellow secular Jews to use the law, if need be, to evict the Hasidim from encroaching on their territory. Since eviction seems a drastic step, Eli insists that Mr. Tsuref, the head of the Yeshiva, at least tell the young Hasid to change from the black outfit that his clients find so objectionable. Such attire, Eli heartlessly suggests, probably made victimization of the Jews much easier. Eli's obtuseness about the condition of Holocaust survivors forces Tsuref to starkly inform the lawyer: "The suit the gentleman wears is all he's got." This unalterable fact prompts Eli to donate his own Brooks Brothers tweed suit to the survivor, who in return gives Eli his black one. After Eli impulsively dons the black garb, a transformation ensues. Slowly Eli becomes aware, perhaps for the first time, of what it has meant to be a Jew—the ostracism, the persecution, the stigma of being different, and also the fierce commitment to a moral code that involves compassion, charity, and a sense of justice.

Eli's wife and the doctors at the hospital where she has just given birth to a son judge his epiphany to be a sign of a nervous breakdown. Their assessment of Eli's madness reaffirms symbolically the position of America's secular Jews who kept not only a geographic but also an emotional and philosophical distance from their more religious, less fortunate, fellow Jews. Reading this story as a quasi sermon also suggests that Eli is the sole wise man, destined perhaps to be misunderstood. In terms of the Holocaust, Roth's story reflects the inability or the refusal of American Jews to know about and to have sufficient compassion for the indescribable suffering of their own people.

—Ellen Gerstle

Daniel Walden