This was my Dvar Torah on May 26, for Parashat Naso.
I know one person, and maybe only one, who would have loved the beginning of this Torah reading – Philip Roth, the great American Jewish author who died this week at the age of 85. He was not really a Torah person, but the scenario about a jealous husband suspicious of his wife would have been right up his alley. And the best part for Roth might have been where the Kohen writes down a curse with the name of God and dissolves it into bitter water. The one time that we are actually commanded to erase God’s name, which is one of the blasphemies of the Torah! Philip Roth, may his memory be for a blessing, was insistently anti-religious and was called blasphemous plenty of times, from plenty of pulpits. His characters were often Jewish but he fought against being called a Jewish writer. He might have just loved that opening passage -- and I’m just as sure he would hate the idea that rabbis would make him the subject of a sermon in the synagogue.
In recent years a lot of Jews like us reclaimed Philip Roth, or felt he had come back to us, after his novel The Plot Against America in 2004, in which he imagined the anti-Semite Charles Lindberg becoming president at the time of World War II. But I’d like to go back to the beginning of his career, to story from 1958. When Roth was 25 years old, he published a wicked funny and wickedly funny short story in the Paris Review called “The Conversion of the Jews.” The following year it was published with a few others at the end of his first novel, Goodbye Columbus.
It’s set in a fifth- or sixth-grade yeshivah class, where one of the boys, Ozzie Freedman, loves to pester Rabbi Marvin Binder with questions. All the other boys, like his good friend Itzie Lieberman, just want to keep quiet and laugh and make faces and obscene gestures behind the rabbi’s back. But Ozzie asks questions. Like why the rabbi can call the Jews “The Chosen People” if the Declaration of Independence says that all men are created equal. And why, when a plane crashed at LaGuardia and 58 people died, the fact that eight of them were Jewish made it a tragedy. Mrs. Freedman had already been called in to speak to Rabbi Binder because of those two questions. The rabbi had answers, but Ozzie kept saying, “I’m asking something different.”
Now for a third time Mrs. Freedman has to come in, and this is why. For some reason Rabbi Binder was talking about Jesus in class – the rabbi brought it up, Ozzie says -- and how Jesus was a historical person and not God. And Ozzie tells Itzie how he asked, after a very dramatic introduction about God’s powers of creation: “Anyway, I asked Binder if He could make all that in six days, and He could pick the six days He wanted right out of nowhere” -- why God couldn’t make a woman have a baby without a human father.
Itzie, his friend, is more interested in the sex part of the question. Maybe Rabbi Binder is upset about both. Anyway, Rabbi Binder reiterated that Jesus is not God, and Ozzie explains to his friend, “I understood that. What I wanted to know was different.”
It happens on a Friday, and Ozzie is going to tell his mother about what happened and why she was going to be summoned again. It’s just the two of them, his father is no longer living, and first Mrs. Freedman lights the Shabbat candles. I just love Roth’s description of how she appeared to Ozzie: “When his mother lit candles she would move her 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 she was dressed up she didn’t look 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.”
But when Ozzie finally fesses up, his mother smacks him in the face, the first time she’s ever done that.
The following Wednesday arrives, the day of the meeting with the rabbi and Ozzie’s mother. There is some time at the end of the class day, so Rabbi Binder says there will be open discussion on any question. No one has any questions, and Ozzie doesn’t want to say another word. But Rabbi Binder makes him stand up and ask a question. Ozzie finally screams out another version of his question about God. The rabbi flips out, so does Ozzie, and eventually Ozzie runs out of the classroom and onto the roof and he locks the door behind him.
All the kids run outside the building, the firemen are called, and Ozzie’s mother too. Ozzie threatens to jump, and makes the firemen with their net chase as he trots from one side of the roof to another. One of my favorite characters in the story is the custodian or caretaker, Yokov Blotnik, who is capable of only two ways of evaluating any situation – good-for-the-Jews and no-good-for-the-Jews. That’s with hyphens – good-for-the-Jews, no-good-for-the-Jews. Ozzie’s mother pleads with him to come down from the roof: “Don’t be a martyr.” But his friend Itzie yells up to the roof, “Gawhead, be a Martin!” And all the boys begin to chant, “Be a Martin! Be a Martin!”
Eventually, Ozzie says that he will come down safely if Rabbi Binder says in front of everyone that God can make anything. And then he has to say that God could have made Jesus, and then he makes everyone bow on the ground and say it. He makes his mother promise that she will never hit anybody about God – probably the truest thing anyone in the whole story says -- and everyone repeats that too. And he jumps down – safely, we think, “right into the center of the yellow net that glowed…like an overgrown halo.”
I think everyone who teaches Hebrew School should have to read this story every year.
Anyway, what kind of a story is “The Conversion of the Jews”? Maybe it’s just plain satire; maybe it’s just a great example of in a Jewish tradition making fun of cheders and befuddled rabbis. Maybe Ozzie Freedman is just an annoying pisher, a nudnik who happens to be clever. Maybe Philip Roth wasn’t yet one of the greatest authors in America, but a 25-year-old kid with an audience, horsing around.
But one of Philip Roth’s themes was about writing itself, and how authors were constantly facing audiences who came up with their own sometimes-crazy theories of what the author had in mind. That was one of his favorite subjects.
So Philip Roth said he wasn’t a Jewish writer, not interested in Jewish questions… well, bigshot author, may your memory be for a blessing, I’m bringing you to shul, and this is why.
Because this one short story has all the characters we are still grappling with six decades on:
The one who can only think in terms of good-for-the-Jews or no-good-for-the-Jews.
The one, the poor rabbi, who is trying to wrap his head around America and the Christian majority, and who is smart and wants to be relevant, but just can’t keep up with these kids who are more American than he is.
The kids in the story represent two incredibly important types of American Jews. The one who has all the right questions about being Jewish in America, and thinks there must be a good answer, a good Jewish answer, but can’t find anyone who knows how give it to him.
The group, who are probably the most classic Philip Roth-y, who are just living in the moment and in the physical, in the body.
That’s four sons, Seder style, and Roth does it for laughs. (I’m not sure what to do with the mother – a feminist writer, he was not.)
There is no chacham in the story, no upstanding and coherent wise man in sight. Roth’s critique of religion was summed up by my friend and critic Stephen Hazzan Arnoff: “Roth desires to shove traditional answers about ethereal questions aside because of their perceived attachments to religious absurdity, oppression, or boredom.”
That’s what the kids in the story hate – absurdity, oppression, and boredom. Ozzie thinks his rabbi is absurd and oppressive. Itzie and the others think he is oppressive and boring. And we know that for a whole generation or two of Jews in America, when Philip Roth was becoming a great writer, that was the problem with our synagogues and with our neighbors’ churches. And by the time we religious leaders got wise to it, by the time we were trying to respond, a lot of people were…. asking something different.
Roth is important in the synagogue because he represents both the wicked child of the Seder, and a new one, the one who has no interest anymore in asking. So religious Jews and rabbis hated him, or ignored him back, for a long time.
But I think we should honor Philip Roth in shul during his shiva, and give him his due for holding up a mirror to us shul people. For laughing at us and making us laugh at ourselves, if we’re smart enough to do that. In one hand, we need to be carrying Heschel, who was writing at the exact same time and scolding us for the exact same reasons and lecturing us to change before it’s too late. In the other, Philip Roth, laughing at us.
We should honor Philip Roth for reminding us that hearing his questions is not the same as giving a satisfying answer.
And as we remember Philip Roth, we have to give him his due as a Jewish artist of American individuality. He didn’t claim to be anyone’s leader, to give an answer to anything. He was a writer, accountable only to his individual voice. We ought to remember -- we who want people to come to synagogues -- that each Jew out there is an individual, observing and writing and creative about their lives. And we won’t know anything until we read all their stories the way they write them, in their own distinctive and beautiful way. Even when they make fun of us. Even when they point out what seems absurd, oppressive, or boring. If we’re going to offer an answer, we’re going to have to do it at Philip Roth’s level -- just as beautiful, just as interesting, and just as funny.