Unformatted Attachment Preview
The Conversion of the Jews
Philip Roth (1959)
“You’re a real one for opening your mouth in the first place,”
Itzie said. “What do you open your mouth all the time for?”
“I didn’t bring it up, Itz, I didn’t,” Ozzie said.
“What do you care about Jesus Christ for anyway?”
“I didn’t bring up Jesus Christ. He did. I didn’t even know
what he was talking about. Jesus is historical, he kept
saying. Jesus is historical.” Ozzie mimicked the
monumental voice of Rabbi Binder.
“That’s what Rabbi Binder says, that it’s impossible—“
“Sure it’s impossible. That stuff’s all bull. To have a baby
you gotta get laid,” Itzie theologized. “Mary hadda get laid.”
“That’s what Binder says: ‘The only way a woman can have
a baby is to have intercourse with a man.’”
“He said that, Ozz?” For a moment it appeared that Itzie
had put the theological question aside. “He said that,
intercourse?” A little curled smile shaped itself in the lower
half of Itzie’s face like a pink mustache. “What you guys do,
Ozz, you laugh or something?”
“Jesus was a person that lived like you and me,” Ozzie
continued. “That’s what Binder said—“
“I raised my hand.”
“Yeah? ... So what! What do I give-two cents whether he
lived or not. And what do you gotta open your mouth!” Itzie
Lieberman favored closed-mouthedness, especially when it
came to Ozzie Freedman’s questions. Mrs. Freedman had
to see Rabbi Binder twice before about Ozzie’s questions
and this Wednesday at four-thirty would be the third time.
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.
“That’s when I asked the question.”
“He was a real person, Jesus, but he wasn’t like God, and
we don’t believe he is God.” Slowly, Ozzie was explaining
Rabbi Binder’s position to Itzie, who had been absent from
Hebrew School the previous afternoon.
“The Catholics,” Itzie said helpfully, “they believe in Jesus
Christ, that he’s God.” Itzie Lieberman used “the Catholics”
in its broadest sense—to include the Protestants.
“Yeah? Whatja say?”
Itzie’s face lit up. “Whatja ask about—intercourse?”
“No, I asked the question about God, how if He could create
the heaven and earth in six days, and make all the animals
and the fish and the light in six days—the light especially,
that’s what always gets me, that He could make the light.
Making fish and animals, that’s pretty good—“
“That’s damn good.” Itzie’s appreciation was honest but
unimaginative: it was as though God had just pitched a
“But making light . . . I mean when you think about it, it’s
really something,” Ozzie said. “Anyway, I asked Binder if He
could make ail that in six days, and He could pick the six
days he wanted right out of nowhere, why couldn’t He let a
woman have a baby without having intercourse.”
Ozzie received Itzie’s remark with a tiny head bob, as
though it were a footnote, and went on. “His mother was
Mary, and his father probably was Joseph,” Ozzie said. “But
the New Testament says his real father was God.”
“You said intercourse, Ozz, to Binder?”
“His real father?”
“Yeah,” Ozzie said, “that’s the big thing, his father’s
supposed to be God.”
Itzie smacked the side of his head.
“Right in class?”
“I mean, no kidding around,” Ozzie said, “that’d really be
nothing. After all that other stuff, that’d practically be
Itzie considered a moment. “What’d Binder say?”
“He started all over again explaining how Jesus was
historical and how he lived like you and me but he wasn’t
God. So I said I understood that. What I wanted to know
What Ozzie wanted to know was always different. The first
time he had wanted to know how Rabbi Binder could call
the Jews “The Chosen People” if the Declaration of
Independence claimed all men to be created equal. Rabbi
Binder tried to distinguish for him between political equality
and spiritual legitimacy, but what Ozzie wanted to know, he
insisted vehemently, was different. That was the first time
his mother had to come.
Then there was the plane crash. Fifty-eight people had been
killed in a plane crash at La Guardia. In studying a casualty
list in the newspaper his mother had discovered among the
list of those dead eight Jewish names (his grandmother had
nine but she counted Miller as a Jewish name); because of
the eight she said the plane crash was “a tragedy,” During
free-discussion time on Wednesday Ozzie had brought to
Rabbi Binder’s attention this matter of “some of his
relations” always picking out the Jewish names. Rabbi
Binder had begun to explain cultural unity and some other
things when Ozzie stood up at his seat and said that what
he wanted to know was different. Rabbi Binder insisted that
he sit down and it was then that Ozzie shouted that he
wished all fifty-eight were Jews. That was the second time
his mother came.
“And he kept explaining about Jesus being historical, and so
I kept asking him. No kidding, Itz, he was trying to make me
bar-mitzvahed1 if he could help it. Then, Itz, then he starts
talking in that voice like a statue, real slow and deep, and
he says that I better think over what I said about the Lord.
He told me to go to his office and think it over.” Ozzie
leaned his body towards Itzie. “Itz, I thought it over for a
solid hour, and now I’m convinced God could do it.”
Ozzie had planned to confess his latest transgression to his
mother as soon as she came home from work. But it was a
Friday night in November and already dark, and when Mrs.
Freedman came through the door she tossed off her coat,
kissed Ozzie quickly on the face, and went to the kitchen
table to light the three yellow candles, two for the Sabbath
and one for Ozzie’s father.
When his mother lit the candles she would move her two
arms slowly towards her, dragging them through the air, as
though persuading people whose minds were half made up.
And her eyes would get glassy with tears. Even when his
father was alive Ozzie remembered that her eyes had
gotten glassy, so it didn’t have anything to do with his dying.
It had something to do with lighting the candles.
As she touched the flaming match to the unlit wick of a
Sabbath candle, the phone rang, and Ozzie, standing only a
foot from it, plucked it off the receiver and held it muffled to
his chest. When his mother lit candles Ozzie felt there
should be no noise; even breathing, if you could manage it,
should be softened. Ozzie pressed the phone to his breast
and watched his mother dragging whatever she was
dragging, and he felt his own eyes get glassy. His mother
was a round, tired, gray-haired penguin of a woman whose
gray skin had begun to feel the tug of gravity and the weight
of her own history. Even when she was dressed up she
looked like a chosen person. But when she lit candles she
looked like something better; like a woman who knew
momentarily that God could do anything.
“So what he finally do?”
After a few mysterious minutes she was finished. Ozzie
hung up the phone and walked to the kitchen table where
“Finally he starts screaming that I was deliberately
simple-minded and a wise guy, and that my mother had to
come, and this was the last time. And that I’d never get
I.e., he would be denied the ceremony of bar mitzvah that initiates a Jewish boy of
thirteen to his religious duties.
she was beginning to lay the two places for the four-course
Sabbath meal. He told her that she would have to see
Rabbi Binder next Wednesday at four-thirty, and then he
told her why. For the first time in their life together she hit
Ozzie across the face with her hand.
All through the chopped liver and chicken soup parts of the
dinner Ozzie cried; he didn’t have any appetite for the rest.
On Wednesday, in the largest of the three basement
classrooms of the synagogue, Rabbi Marvin Binder, a tall,
handsome, broad-shouldered man of thirty with thick
strong-fibered black hair, removed his watch from his
pocket and saw that it was four o’clock. At the rear of the
room Yakov Blotnik, the seventy-one-year-old custodian,
slowly polished the large window, mumbling to himself,
unaware that it was four o’clock or six o’clock, Monday or
Wednesday. To most of the students Yakov Blotnik’s
mumbling, along with his brown curly beard, scythe nose,
and two heel-trailing black cats, made him an object of
wonder, a foreigner, a relic, towards whom they were
alternately fearful and disrespectful, To Ozzie the mumbling
had always seemed a monotonous, curious prayer; what
made it curious was that old Blotnik had been mumbling so
steadily for so many years, Ozzie suspected he had
memorized the prayers and forgotten all about God.
“It is now free-discussion time,” Rabbi Binder said. “Feel
free to talk about any Jewish matter at all—religion, family,
There was silence. It was a gusty, clouded November
afternoon and it did not seem as though there ever was or
could be a thing called baseball. So nobody this week said a
word about that hero from the past, Hank Greenberg2-which limited free discussion considerably.
And the soul-battering Ozzie Freedman hadjust received
from Rabbi Binder had imposed its limitation. When it was
Ozzie’s turn to read aloud from the Hebrew book the rabbi
American baseball player (1911-1986).
had 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, and showed a great talent, but in the
midst of a long passage he stopped short and said he didn’t
understand a word he was reading, and started in again at a
drag-footed pace. Then came the soul-battering.
Consequently when free-discussion time rolled around none
of the students felt too free. The rabbi’s invitation was
answered only by the mumbling of feeble old Blotnik.
“Isn’t there anything at all you would like to discuss?” Rabbi
Binder asked again, looking at his watch. “No questions or
There was a small grumble from the third row. The rabbi
requested that Ozzie rise and give the rest of the class the
advantage of his thought.
Ozzie rose. “I forget it now,” he said, and sat down in his
Rabbi Binder advanced a seat towards Ozzie and poised
himself on e edge of the desk. It was Itzie’s desk and the
rabbi’s frame only a dagger’s-length away from his face
snapped him to sitting attention.
“Stand up again, Oscar,” Rabbi Binder said calmly, “and try
to assemble your thoughts.”
Ozzie stood up. All his classmates turned in their seats and
watched as he gave an unconvincing scratch to his
“I can’t assemble any,” he announced, and plunked himself
“Stand up!” Rabbi Binder advanced from Itzie’s desk to the
one directly in front of Ozzie; when the rabbinical back was
turned Itzie gave it five-fingers off the tip of his nose,
causing a small titter in the room. Rabbi Binder was too
absorbed in squelching Ozzie’s nonsense once and for all to
bother with titters. “Stand up, Oscar. What’s your question
Ozzie pulled a word out of the air. It was the handiest word.
window, the room was empty and everyone was headed full
speed up the three flights leading to the roof.
“Oh, now you remember?”
If one should compare the light of day to the life of man:
sunrise to birth; sunset—the dropping down over the edge—
to death; then as Ozzie Freedman wiggled through the
trapdoor of the synagogue roof, his feet kicking backwards
bronco-style at Rabbi Binder’s outstretched arms-at that
moment the day was fifty years old. As a rule, fifty or
fifty-five reflects accurately the age of late afternoons in
November, for it is in that month, during those hours, that
one’s awareness of light seems no longer a matter of
seeing, but of hearing: light begins clicking away. In fact, as
Ozzie locked shut the trapdoor in the rabbi’s face, the sharp
click of the bolt into the lock might momentarily have been
mistaken for the sound of the heavier gray that had just
throbbed through the sky.
“What is it?”
Trapped, Ozzie blurted the first thing that came to him.
“Why can’t He make anything He wants to make!”
As Rabbi Binder prepared an answer, a final answer, Itzie,
ten feet behind him, raised one finger on his left hand,
gestured it meaningfully towards the rabbi’s back, and
brought the house down.
Binder twisted quickly to see what had happened and in the
midst of the commotion Ozzie shouted into the rabbi’s back
what he couldn’t have shouted to his face. It was a loud,
toneless sound that had the timbre of something stored
inside for about six days.
“You don’t know! You don’t know anything about God!”
The rabbi spun back towards Ozzie. “What?”
“You don’t know—you don’t—“
“Apologize, Oscar, apologize!” It was a threat.
Rabbi Binder’s hand flicked out at Ozzie’s cheek. Perhaps it
had only been meant to clamp the boy’s mouth shut, but
Ozzie ducked and the palm caught him squarely on the
The blood came in a short, red spurt on to Ozzie’s shirt
The next moment was all confusion. Ozzie screamed, “You
bastard, You bastard!” and broke for the classroom door.
Rabbi Binder lurched a step backwards, as though his own
blood had started flowing violently in the opposite direction,
then gave a clumsy lurch forward and bolted out the door
after Ozzie. The class followed after the rabbi’s huge bluesuited back, and before old Blotnik could turn from his
With all his weight Ozzie kneeled on the locked door; any
instant he was certain that Rabbi Binder’s shoulder would
fling it open, splintering the wood into shrapnel and
catapulting his body into the sky. But the door did not move
and below him he heard only the rumble of feet, first loud
then dim, like thunder rolling away.
A question shot through his brain. “Can this be me?” For a
thirteen-year-old who had just labeled his religious leader a
bastard, twice, it was not an improper question. Louder and
louder the question came to him—“Is it me? Is it me?”—
until he discovered himself no longer kneeling, but racing
crazily towards the edge of the roof, his eyes crying, his
throat screaming, and his arms flying everywhichway as
though not his own.
“Is it me? Is it me Me ME ME ME! It has to be me—but is
It is the question a thief must ask himself the night he
jimmies open his first window, and it is said to be the
question with which bridegrooms quiz themselves before
In the few wild seconds it took Ozzie’s body to propel him to
the edge of the roof, his self-examination began to grow
fuzzy. Gazing down at the street, he became confused as to
the problem beneath the question: was it,
is-it-me-who-called-Binder-a-bastard? or, is-it-me-prancingaround-on-the-roof? However, the scene below settled all,
for there is an instant in any action when whether it is you or
somebody else is academic. The thief crams the money in
his pockets and scoots out the window. The bridegroom
signs the hotel register for two. And the boy on the roof
finds a streetful of people gaping at him, necks stretched
backwards, faces up, as though he were the ceiling of the
Hayden Planetarium.3 Suddenly you know it’s you.
“Oscar! Oscar Freedman!” A voice rose from the center of
the crowd, a voice that, could it have been seen, would
have looked like the writing on scroll. “Oscar Freedman, get
down from there. Immediately!” Rabbi Binder was pointing
one arm stiffly up at him; and at the end of that arm, one
finger aimed menacingly. It was the attitude of a dictator,
but one—the eyes confessed all—whose personal valet had
spit neatly in his face.
Ozzie didn’t answer. Only for a blink’s length did he look
towards Rabbi Binder. Instead his eyes began to fit together
the world beneath him, to sort out people from places,
friends from enemies, participants from spectators. In little
jagged starlike clusters his friends stood around Rabbi
Binder, who was still pointing. The topmost point on a star
compounded not of angels but of five adolescent boys was
Itzie. What a world it was, with those stars below, Rabbi
Binder below . . . Ozzie, who a moment earlier hadn’t been
able to control his own body, started to feel the meaning of
the word control: he felt Peace and he felt Power.
“Oscar Freedman, I’ll give you three to come down.”
Few dictators give their subjects three to do anything; but,
as always, Rabbi Binder only looked dictatorial.
“Are you ready, Oscar?”
Building in New York City that houses a device that projects a representation of the
heavens onto a domed ceiling for viewing by spectators.
Ozzie nodded his head yes, although he had no intention in
the world—the lower one or the celestial one he’d just
entered—of coming down even if Rabbi Binder should give
him a million.
“All right then,” said Rabbi Binder. He ran a hand through
his black Samson hair as though it were the gesture
prescribed for uttering the first digit. Then, with his other
hand cutting a circle out of the small piece of sky around
him, he spoke. “Onel”
There was no thunder. On the contrary, at that moment, as
though “one” was the cue for which he had been waiting, the
world’s least thunderous person appeared on the synagogue
steps. He did not so much come out the synagogue door as
lean out, onto the darkening air. He clutched at the
doorknob with one hand and looked up at the roof.
Yakov Blotnik’s old mind hobbled slowly, as if on crutches,
and though he couldn’t decide precisely what the boy was
doing on the roof, he knew it wasn’t good-that is, it
wasn’t-good-for-the-Jews. For Yakov Blotnik life had
fractionated itself simply: things were either
good-for-the-Jews or no-good-for-the-Jews.
He smacked his free hand to his in-sucked cheek, gently.
“Oy, Gut!” And then quickly as he was able, he jacked down
his head and surveyed the street. There was Rabbi Binder
(like a man at an auction with only three dollars in his
pocket, he had just delivered a shaky “Two!”); there were
the students, and that was all. So far
it-wasn’t-so-bad-for-the-Jews. But the boy had to come
down immediately, before anybody saw. The problem: how
to get the boy off the roof?
Anybody who has ever had a cat on the roof knows how to
get him down. You call the fire department. Or first you call
the operator and you ask her for the fire department. And
the next thing there is great jamming of brakes and clanging
of bells and shouting of instructions. And then the cat is off
the roof. You do the same thing to get a boy off the roof.
That is, you do the same thing if you are Yakov Blotnik and
you once had a cat on the roof.
When the engines, all four of them, arrived, Rabbi Binder
had four times given Ozzie the count of three. The big
hook-and-ladder swung around the corner and one of the
firemen leaped from it, plunging headlong towards the
yellow fire hydrant in front of the synagogue. With a huge
wrench he began to unscrew the top nozzle. Rabbi Binder
raced over to him and pulled at his shoulder.
“There’s no fire . . .”
The fireman mumbled back over his shoulder and,
heatedly, continued working at the nozzle.
“But there’s no fire, there’s no fire . . .” Binder shouted.
When the fireman mumbled again, the rabbi grasped his
face with both hands and pointed it up at the roof.
To Ozzie it looked as though Rabbi Binder was trying to tug
the .fireman’s head out of his bo ...