Thursday, December 14, 2017

"The Conversion of the Jews" (1958)

Story by Philip Roth not available online.

Philip Roth's comic anecdote came early in his career, published when he was 25, with themes and elements that have appeared in most of his work, notably the spectacle of Jews and Christians attempting to live together in New Jersey. It's skillfully done and a pleasure to read—he would get even better at language that is seductively easy to read, but he's already good here. The main charge of the story, however, strikes me as its most dated element now, which is the humiliation of forcing Jews to pray like Christians. Oscar "Ozzie" Freedman, who is 13 or 14, accomplishes this by threatening to jump to his death. It's all tied up with a poem by Andrew Marvell and biblical prophecy. In fact, if I understand things correctly, the parties most likely to be offended are the Catholics (using the term "in its broadest sense—to include the Protestants"), who might be inclined to see the actions of the Jews as mockery, if not indeed profanity. All of this is occasioned by Ozzie feeling the rabbi won't engage with him intellectually when he starts asking the kinds of questions people are always asking about religions. In this case, after the rabbi scoffs at the notion of a virgin birth, Ozzie wants to know why, if God is all-powerful, He couldn't impregnate a woman if He wanted to. The charge of the story is the profanity of the central event, or maybe I mean blasphemy. Threatening to jump from the synagogue roof, Ozzie forces the Jews witnessing the event, including especially the rabbi who won't take his questions seriously, to get on their knees and pray for the love of Jesus the Son of God. Ironically, the story has probably been losing power ever since it was published. It might have some charge to today's evangelicals, who might take it as some sign of formal End Times. I like to think that's an intellectual minority, but I probably have it exactly wrong. Anyway, I'm pretty sure none of them reads Philip Roth, let alone one of his early short stories. Roth is much more a novelist and I'm not even sure he's written that many short stories. So at best I'm going to have to file this under interesting (and entertaining) curiosity.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

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