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Remembering Philip Roth’s ‘Defender of the Faith’

Today on Jewcy: The early short story exploded every sacred stereotype about Jewish life.

by
Emily Schneider
May 24, 2018

Every grieving Philip Roth reader who is Jewish understands that, as David Remnick of The New Yorker pointed out about the author who died Tuesday, “His sin was simple: he’d had the audacity to write about a Jewish kid as being flawed… He had violated the tribal code on Jewish self-exposure.”

Roth’s “Defender of the Faith,” from his 1959 collection Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories, is the tale of a Jewish kid who is not only flawed but self-serving, manipulative, and frankly repulsive. Stuck in Missouri for basic training during World War II, Private Sheldon Grossbart is a grotesque reflection of everything gentiles think about Jews. He connives to prey on the Jewish guilt and self-doubt of his sergeant, fellow New York Jew Nathan Marx, to achieve two goals: avoiding service in the expected invasion of Japan, and getting time off to eat a really delicious and totally treyf “Chinese goddam egg roll.”

Emily Schneider is a writer and educator in New York City who blogs about children’s literature at imaginaryelevators.blog.

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