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.