Roth’s Conversion Tale: “Promise me you’ll never hit anybody about God”
Even for those who are not especially religious, speaking out against religious oppression can become a moral necessity. “The Conversion of the Jews” by Philip Roth is a short story about Oscar “Ozzie” Freedman who learns about the Jewish religion in Hebrew school from his partisan of a teacher, Rabbi Marvin Binder; this teacher makes Ozzie question the Jewish religion during the class discussions. The narration even explains that “consequently when free-discussion time rolled around none of the students felt too free” (685). Ozzie has numerous issues with the ethical dilemmas brought up by the rabbi, and he does not want to be forced into a religion he doesn’t understand, especially if he cannot freely ask questions about it. Ozzie Freedman’s desire to ask questions and speak freely about his religious confusions is in conflict with Rabbi Marvin Binder’s closed-mindedness and religious intolerance regarding the Jewish religion, leading Ozzie to be physically and psychologically harmed numerous times.
At the beginning of the story, Ozzie expresses how he didn’t bring up the issue of Jesus Christ in class, but instead Rabbi Binder does, this is the first instance that proves that Ozzie seldom brought up arguments in class. Ozzie rarely tries to speak out and express his confusions about Rabbi Binder’s lessons until the Rabbi turns them into issues, somehow making Ozzie the culprit of the religious arguments. One question that Ozzie asked was “why couldn’t [God] let a woman have a baby without having intercourse” (683). As a response, Rabbi Marvin Binder completely ignored Ozzie’s question, and Ozzie says “[the rabbi] started all over again explaining how Jesus was historical and how he lived like you and me but he wasn’t a God. So I said I understood that. What I wanted to know was different” (683). This is a sentence that Ozzie said often, that “what [Ozzie] wanted to know was different” (683) and it created many dilemmas with him and his teacher. Rabbi Binder’s closed-mindedness to see what Ozzie was trying to understand was seen as defiance of his religion, an issue that often got Ozzie’s mother, Mrs. Freedman, involved in correcting Ozzie’s rebelliousness. As the teacher and Ozzie were always battling, the teacher often involved Ozzie’s mother, which led Ozzie to try and be quieter in class, to accept his confusing religion. However, the rabbi would never let Ozzie off so easily; this is only the beginning of the issues between these two and their religious differences.
Another instance of Ozzie trying not to cause dilemmas was in the middle of the story, when Ozzie openly refuses to speak up in class, but Rabbi Binder purposefully attempted to make Ozzie argue yet again so he would be the victor and Ozzie would be the disobedient rebel. Ozzie told his mother about her having to come into the school for the third time due to his disobedience, and “for the first time in their life together she hit Ozzie across the face with her hand” (685). This occurrence shocked Ozzie so much that he knew he had to try harder to accept his religion; he didn’t want to be hit again by Mrs. Freedman, so he didn’t make any more issues in class. However, the day Mrs. Freedman had to come in, Rabbi Binder worked hard to rile Ozzie up so his disobedient nature would be more pertinent for his mother’s arrival. Ozzie’s refusal to play the rabbi’s game was seen as an act of defiance, so Ozzie got angry and yelled at the rabbi, saying “You don’t know anything about God!” (686). The rabbi attempted to cover Ozzie’s mouth – an attempt to silence Ozzie’s insubordinations – but the rabbi accidently hit him, causing Ozzie to bleed from his nose and run from the classroom in fear. Ozzie was tired of being hit in God’s name, and he was about to get his chance to change that, and change everyone into better, more understanding people.
At the end of the story, Ozzie runs in fear to the rooftop accidently, but that is exactly where he was always meant to be: above everyone else so he can make them realize that they are all wrong for the things they’ve done, especially the rabbi. Ozzie told the crowd below to change their ways, and said “promise me, promise me you’ll never hit anybody about God” (692), though he originally just wanted his mother to agree to this. This line signifies how much Ozzie struggled throughout the story: he was hit by his mother, he argued numerous times about religious differences and confusions with his teacher, and he was hit by that teacher as well, which drove him to run off and try and deal with all the negativity in his life. This promise made by everyone also signified how everyone knew they were wrong for the harm they caused Ozzie. As Ozzie is on the rooftop pacing and trying to make sense of everything, he realizes that he was never the person at fault, but instead it was the people below him who want him to be the wrongdoer, wondering if it was him who was bad, or “is it us?” (691). On that rooftop, Ozzie “started to feel the meaning of the word control” (687) and it was exactly what he needed to get his followers to understand him and learn a new way of life by ‘converting’ to a more open and accepting lifestyle.
Rabbi Marvin Binder attempted to maintain his chauvinism towards the Jewish religion during his class sessions, even though he was the initiator of all the arguments of religious variance between him and Ozzie Freedman. However, Ozzie worked to get all of his questions answered, even if he got in trouble for it. These two contrasting characters fought all throughout this story – even with Ozzie getting physically hurt for his differing opinions – and it led Ozzie to finding the religious truth and freedom he desired on the rooftop of the synagogue. In the end, Ozzie was finally able to understand religion through the catechisms he asked from all the observers below the rooftop, and he became a devotee for his newfound Catholic religion. He became a symbol for all of the people who fight for religious freedom, and he has a new religious outlook on life. Ozzie was finally free to speak out; he’d never be hit in the name of God again.
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