Tonight we delve into the magical world of Philip Roth’s stories….of one in particular: “The Conversion of the Jews” (You can read it HERE).
The Conversion of the Jews was published in The Paris Review in 1958 — was added to Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 — and was granted the National Book Award in 1960.
Philip was born in 1933 in Newark, New Jersey. His father was an insurance salesman — in 1945 he wanted to sell frozen food and stared a business to do so — but the business failed. Roth’s work was considered controversial…especially Portnoy’s Complaint (1962/3), which caused uproar in the Jewish community.
So onto the story….have you read it yet? (if not, Here it is again!) So this young man, Oscar. He wants to know stuff. He has a lot of questions. He wants validation. The whole business of the “Chosen People” makes him uncomfortable (like many).
Before he can realize it, his situation has become out of his control. (No spoilers here.) He asks himself “Who am I now?”
Like so many of us, scenes follow in our lives, one after another, and before we can even realize it a situation has gotten out of our control. “Who are we now”?
Young Oscar has the sky above him and the star formation of his friends below him. He is between heaven and the stars. Between heaven and earth. Is he as a prophet upon a mountain?
Is Oscar as Isaiah? Because you know, a prophet is one who is chosen by God at a young age. There was Abraham, of course…why was he chosen? He smashed the ideas of his father’s time — that which came before…and brought the idea of God to the people.
Then of course there was Moses — he lived a lonely life in the Pharoah’s palace. He organized sheep. He was affected by Tzipporah and Yitro — his wife and father-in-law.
Both Abraham and Moses taught that God cares about human behavior. They both also went up on mountains to talk to God.
In the voice of Moses speaking about God….God redeems the oppressed. God listens to prayer. These two ideas are some that might particularly interest our young Oscar of The Conversion of the Jews.
But of Isaiah — there are sixty-six chapters in Isaiah. Isaiah spoke of kings: “There is no earthly king — only king is God.” The Jews at the time, you see, wanted a king as well.
Isaiah was political. He named his children political names; His son: “Sh’ar Yeshuv” (A Remnant Will Return) and his other child: “Maher Shalal Hashbaz” (Spoil quickly, plunder speedily).
He also said — as a matter of course: “Eat, drink and be merry — for tomorrow we die”.
Might be interesting to note, from Isaiah, the following passages which pertain to this Roth story:
From Isaiah 45:20:
“Come, gather together,
Draw nigh, you remnants of the nations!
No foreknowledge had they who carry their wooden images
And pray to a god who cannot give success.
Speak up, compare testimony —
Let them even take counsel together!”
And from Isaiah 45:23:
“By Myself I have sworn,
From My mouth has issued truth,
A word that shall not turn back:
To Me every knee shall bend,
Every tongue swear loyalty.”
(God is the only strength and force we need worry about)
Chapter 53 — can speak of one who is singled out, mistreated and submissive — interesting that it can describe the character Oscar — but also interesting that it is sometimes used to describe Jesus:
“Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppression[a] and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.[b]
9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes[c] his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life[d] and be satisfied[e];
by his knowledge[f] my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,[g]
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,[h]
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.”