Philip Roth


The Conversion of the Jews

    "You're a real one for opening your mouth in the first place," Itzie said. "What do you open your mouth all the time for?"

    "I didn't bring it up, Itz, I didn't," Ozzie said.

    "What do you care about Jesus Christ for anyway?"

    "I didn't bring up Jesus Christ. He did. I didn't even know what he was talking about. Jesus is historical, he kept saying. Jesus is historical" Ozzie mimicked the monumental voice of Rabbi Binder.

    "Jesus was a person that lived like you and me," Ozzie continued. "That's what Binder said-"

    "Yeah? . . . So what? What do I give two cents whether he lived or not. And what do you gotta open your mouth!" Itzie Lieberman favored closed-mouthedness, especially when it came to Ozzie Freedman's questions. Mrs. Freedman had to see Rabbi Binder twice before about Ozzie's questions and this Wednesday at four-thirty would be the third time. Itzie preferred to keep his mother in the kitchen; he settled for behind-the-back subtleties such as gestures, faces, snarls and other less delicate barnyard noises.

    "He was a real person. Jesus, but he wasn't like God, and we don't believe he is God." Slowly, Ozzie was explaining Rabbi Binder's position to Itzie, who had been absent from Hebrew School the previous afternoon.

    "The Catholics," Itzie said helpfully, "they believe in Jesus Christ, that he's God." Itzie Lieberman used "the Catholics" in its broadest sense--to include the Protestants.

    Ozzie received Itzie's remark with a tiny head bob, as though it were a footnote, and went on. "His mother was Mary, and his father probably was Joseph," Ozzie said. "But the New Testament says his real father was God. "

    "His real father?"

    "Yeah," Ozzie said, "that's the big thing, his father's supposed to be God."

    "Bull."

    "That's what Rabbi Binder says, that it's impossible--"

    "Sure it's impossible. That stuff's all bull. To have a baby you gotta get laid," Itzie theologized. "Mary hadda get laid."

    "That's what Binder says: 'The only way a woman can have a baby is to have intercourse with a man.'"

    "He said that, Ozz?" For a moment it appeared that Itzie had put the theological question aside. "He said that, intercourse?" A little curled smile shaped itself in the lower half of Itzie's face like a pink mustache. "What you guys do, Ozz, you laugh or something?"

    "I raised my hand."

    "Yeah? Whatja say?"

    "That's when I asked the question."

    Itzie's face lit up. "Whatja ask about-intercourse?"

    "No, I asked the question about God, how if He could create the heaven and earth in six days, and make all the animals and the fish and the light in six days--the light especially, that's what always gets me, that He could make the light. Making fish and animals, that's pretty good--"

    "That's damn good." Itzie's appreciation was honest but unimaginative: it was as though God had just pitched a one-hitter.

    "But making light. . . I mean when you think about it, it's really something." Ozzie said. "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 couldn't He let a woman have a baby without having intercourse."

    "You said intercourse, Ozz, to Binder?"

    "Yeah."

    "Right in class?"

    "Yeah."

    Itzie smacked the side of his head.

    "I mean, no kidding around, " Ozzie said, '"that'd really be nothing. After all that other stuff, that'd practically be nothing."

    Itzie considered a moment. "What'd Binder say?"

    "He started allover again explaining how Jesus was historical and how he lived like you and me but he wasn't God. So I said I understood that. What I wanted to know was different."

    What Ozzie wanted to know was always different. The first time he had wanted to know how Rabbi Binder could call the Jews "The Chosen People" if the Declaration of Independence claimed all men to be created equal. Rabbi Binder tried to distinguish for him between political equality and spiritual legitimacy, but what Ozzie wanted to know, he insisted vehemently, was different. That was the first time his mother had to come.

    Then there was the plane crash. Fifty-eight people had been killed in a plane crash at La Guardia. In studying a casualty list in the newspaper his mother had discovered among the list of those dead eight Jewish names (his grandmother had nine but she counted Miller as a Jewish name); because of the eight she said the plane crash was "a tragedy." During free-discussion time on Wednesday Ozzie had brought to Rabbi Binder's attention this matter of "some of his relations" always picking out the Jewish names. Rabbi Binder had begun to explain cultural unity and some other things when Ozzie stood up at his seat and said that what he wanted to know was different. Rabbi Binder insisted that he sit down and it was then that Ozzie shouted that he wished all fifty-eight were Jews. That was the second time his mother came.

    "And he kept explaining about Jesus being historical, and so I kept asking him. No kidding, Itz, he was trying to make me look stupid."

    "So what he finally do?"

    "Finally he starts screaming that I was deliberately simple-minded and a wise guy, and that my mother had to come, and this was the last time. And that I'd never get bar-mitzvahed if he could help it. Then, Itz, then he starts talking in that voice like a statue, real slow and deep, and he says that I better think over what I said about the Lord. He told me to go to his office and think it over." Ozzie leaned his body towards Itzie. "Itz. I thought it over for a solid hour, and now I'm convinced God could do it."

    Ozzie had planned to confess his latest transgression to his mother as soon as she came home from work. But it was a Friday night in November and already dark, and when Mrs. Freedman came through the door she tossed off her coat, kissed Ozzie quickly on the face and went to the kitchen table to light the three yellow candles, two for the Sabbath and one for Ozzie's father.

    When his mother lit the candles she would move her two 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 his father was alive Ozzie remembered that her eyes had gotten glassy, so it didn't have anything to do with his dying. It had something to do with lighting the candles.

    As she touched the flaming match to the unlit wick of a Sabbath candle, the phone rang, and Ozzie, standing only, a foot from it, plucked it off the receiver and held it muffled to his chest. When his mother lit candles Ozzie felt there should be no noise; even breathing, if you could manage it, should be softened. Ozzie pressed the phone to his breast and watched his mother dragging whatever she was dragging, and he felt his own eyes get glassy. His mother was a round, tired, gray-haired penguin of a woman whose frail skin had begun to feel the tug of gravity and the weight of her own history. 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.

    After a few mysterious minutes she was finished. Ozzie hung up the phone and walked to the kitchen table w here she was beginning to lay the two places for the four-course Sabbath meal. He told her that she would have to see Rabbi Binder next Wednesday at four-thirty, and then he told her why. For the first time in their life together she hit Ozzie across the face with her hand.

    All through the chopped liver and chicken soup part of the dinner Ozzie cried; he didn't have an: appetite for the rest.


    On Wednesday, in the largest of the three basement classrooms of the synagogue, Rabbi Marvin Binder, a tall, handsome, broad-shouldered man of thirty with thick strong-fibered black hair, removed his watch from his pocket and saw that it was four o'clock. At the rear of the room Yakov Blotnik, the seventy-one-year-old custodian, slowly

    polished the large window, mumbling to himself: unaware that it was four o'clock or six o'clock, Monday or Wednesday. To most of the students Yakov Blotnik's mumbling, along with his brown curly beard, scythe nose, and two heel-trailing black cats, made of him an object of wonder, a foreigner, a relic, towards whom they were alternately fearful and disrespectful. To Ozzie the mumbling had always seemed a monotonous, curious prayer; what made it curious was the old Blotnik had been mumbling so steadily for so many years, Ozzie suspected he had memorized the prayers and forgotten all about God.

    "It is now free-discussion time," Rabbi Binder said. "Feel free to talk about any Jewish matter at all--religion, family, politics, sports--"

    There was silence. It was a gusty, clouded November afternoon and it did not seem as though there ever was or could be a thing called baseball. So nobody this week said a word about that hero from the past, Hank Greenberg--which limited free discussion considerably.

    And the soul-battering Ozzie Freedman had just received from Rabbi Binder had imposed its limitation. When it was Ozzie's turn to read aloud from the Hebrew book the rabbi had asked him petulantly why he didn't read more rapidly. He was showing no progress. Ozzie said he could read faster but that if he did he was sure not to understand what he was reading. Nevertheless, at the rabbi's repeated suggestion Ozzie tried, and showed a great talent, but in the midst of a long passage he stopped short and said he didn't understand a word he was reading, and started in again at a drag-footed pace. Then came the soul-battering.

    Consequently when free-discussion time rolled around none of the students felt too free. The rabbi's invitation was answered only by the mumbling of feeble old Blotnik.

    "Isn't there anything at all you would like to discuss?" Rabbi Binder asked again, looking at his watch. "No questions or comments?"

    There was a small grumble from the third row. The rabbi requested that Ozzie rise and give the rest of the class the advantage of his thought.

    Ozzie rose. "I forget it now," he said, and sat down in his place.

    Rabbi Binder advanced a seat towards Ozzie and poised himself on the edge of the desk. It was Itzie's desk and the rabbi's frame only a dagger's-length away from his face snapped him to sitting attention.

    "Stand up again. Oscar," Rabbi Binder said calmly, "and try to assemble your thoughts."

    Ozzie stood up. All his classmates turned in their seats and watched as he gave an unconvincing scratch to his forehead.

    "I can't assemble any," he announced, and plunked himself down.

    "Stand up!" Rabbi Binder advanced from Itzie's desk to the one directly in front of Ozzie; when the rabbinical back was turned Itzie gave it five-fingers off the tip of his nose, causing a small titter in the room. Rabbi Binder was too absorbed in squelching Ozzie's nonsense once and for all to bother with titters. "Stand up, Oscar. What's your question about?"

    Ozzie pulled a word out of the air. It was the handiest word "Religion."

    "Oh, now you remember?"

    "Yes."

    "What is it?"

    Trapped, Ozzie blurted the first thing that came to him. "Why can't He make anything He wants to make?"

    As Rabbi Binder prepared an answer, a final answer, Itzie, ten feet behind him, raised one finger on his left hand, gestured it meaningfully towards the rabbi's back, and brought the house down.

    Binder twisted quickly to see what had happened and in the midst of the commotion Ozzie shouted into the rabbi's back what he couldn't have shouted to his face. It was a loud, toneless sound that had the timbre of something stored inside for about six days.

    "You don't know! You don't know anything about God!"

    The rabbi spun back towards Ozzie, "What?"

    "You don't know-you don't-"

    "Apologize, Oscar, apologize!" It was a threat.

    "You don't-" Rabbi Binder's hand flicked out at Ozzie's cheek. Perhaps it had only been meant to clamp the boy's mouth shut, but Ozzie ducked and the palm caught him squarely on the nose.

    The blood came in a short, red spurt on to Ozzie's shirt front.

    The next moment was all confusion. Ozzie screamed, "You bastard, you bastard!" and broke for the classroom door. Rabbi Binder lurched a step backwards, as though his own blood had started flowing violently in the opposite direction, then gave a clumsy lurch forward and bolted out the door after Ozzie. The class followed after the rabbi's huge blue-suited back, and before old Blotnik could turn from his window, the room was empty and everyone was headed full speed up the three flights leading to the roof.


    If one should compare the light of day' to the life of man: sunrise to birth; sunset-the dropping down over the edge-to death; then as Ozzie Freedman wiggled through the trapdoor of the synagogue roof, his feet kicking backwards bronco-style at Rabbi Binder's outstretched arms--at that moment the day was fifty years old. As a rule, fifty or fifty-five reflects accurately the age of late afternoons in November, for it is in that month, during those hours, that one's awareness of light seems no longer a matter of seeing, but of hearing: light begins clicking away. In fact, as Ozzie locked shut the trapdoor in the rabbi's face, the sharp click of the bolt into the lock might momentarily have been mistaken for the sound of the heavier gray that had just throbbed through the sky.

    With all his weight Ozzie kneeled on the locked door: any instant he was certain that Rabbi Binder's shoulder would fling it open, splintering the wood into shrapnel and catapulting his body into the sky, But the door did not move and below him he heard only the rumble of feet, first loud then dim, like thunder rolling away.

    A question shot through his brain. "Can this be me?" For a thirteen-year-old who had just labeled his religious leader a bastard, twice, it was not an improper question.

    Louder and louder the question came to him-"Is it me? Is it me?"-until he discovered himself no longer kneeling, but racing crazily towards the edge of the roof, his eyes crying, his throat screaming, and his arms flying every which way as though not his own.

    "Is it me? Is it me ME ME ME ME! It has to be me--but is it?"

    It is the question a thief must ask himself the night he jimmies open his first window, and it is said to be the question with which bridegrooms quiz themselves before the altar.

    In the few wild seconds it took Ozzie's body to propel him to the edge of the roof, his self-examination began to grow fuzzy. Gazing down at the street, he became confused as to the problem beneath the question. Was it, is-it-me-who-called-Binder-a-bastard? or, is-it-me-prancing-around-on-the-roof? However, the scene below settled all, for there is an instant in any action when whether it is you or somebody else is academic. The thief crams the money in his pockets and scoots out the window. The bridegroom signs the hotel register for two. And the boy on the roof finds a streetful of people gaping at him, necks stretched backwards, faces up, as though he were the ceiling of the Hayden Planetarium. Suddenly you know it's you.

    "Oscar! Oscar Freedman!" A voice rose from the center of the crowd, a voice that, could it have been seen, would have looked like the writing on a scroll. "Oscar Freedman, get down from there. Immediately!" Rabbi Binder was pointing one arm stiffly up at him; and at the end of that arm, one finger aimed menacingly. It was the attitude of a dictator, but one--the eyes confessed all--whose personal valet had spit neatly in his face.

    Ozzie didn't answer. Only for a blink's length did he look towards Rabbi Binder. Instead his eyes began to fit together the world beneath him, to sort out people from places, friends from enemies, participants from spectators. In little jagged starlike clusters his friends stood around Rabbi Binder-- who was still pointing. The topmost point on a star compounded not of angels but of five adolescent boys with Itzie. What a world it was, with those stars below, Rabbi Binder below. . . Ozzie, who a moment earlier hadn't been able to control his own body- started to feel the meaning of the word control: he felt Peace and he felt Power.

    "Oscar Freedman, I'll give you three to come down."

    Few dictators give their subjects three to do anything; but, as always, Rabbi Binder only looked dictatorial.

    "Are you ready, Oscar?"

    Ozzie nodded his head yes, although he had no intention in the world--the lower one or the celestial one he'd just entered--of coming down even if Rabbi Binder should give him a million.

    "All right then," said Rabbi Binder. He ran a hand through his black Samson hair as though it were the gesture prescribed for uttering the first digit. Then, with his other hand cutting a circle out of the small piece of sky around him, he spoke. "One!"

    There was no thunder. On the contrary, at that moment, as though "one" was the cue for which he had been waiting, the world's least thunderous person appeared on the synagogue steps. He did not so much come out the synagogue door as lean out, onto the darkening air. He clutched at the doorknob with one hand and looked up at the roof.

    "Oy!"

    Yakov Blotnik's old mind hobbled slowly, as if on crutches, and though he couldn't decide precisely w hat the boy was doing on the roof: he knew it wasn't good-that is, it wasn't-good-for-the-Jews. For Yakov Blotnik life had fractionated itself simply: things were either good-for-the-Jews or no-good-for-the-Jews.

    He smacked his free hand to his in-sucked cheek, gently. "Oy, Gut!" And then quickly as he was able, he jacked down his head and surveyed the street. There was Rabbi Binder (like a man at an auction with only three dollars in his pocket, he had just delivered a shaky "Two"); there were the students--and that was all. So far it-wasn't-so-bad-for-the-Jews. But the boy had to come down immediately, before anybody saw. The problem: how to get the boy off the roof?

    Anybody who has ever had a cat on the roof knows how to get him down. You call the fire department. Or first you call the operator and you ask her for the fire department. And the next thing there is great jamming of brakes and clanging of bells and shouting of instructions. And then the cat is off the roof. You do the same thing to get a boy off the roof.

    That is, you do the same thing if you are Yakov Blotnik and you once had a cat on the roof.

    When the engines, all four of them, arrived, Rabbi Binder had four times given Ozzie the count of three. The big hook-and-ladder swung around the corner and one of the firemen leaped from it, plunging headlong towards the yellow fire hydrant in front of the synagogue. With a huge wrench he began to unscrew the top nozzle. Rabbi Binder raced over to him and pulled at his shoulder.

    "There's no fire. . ."

    The Fireman mumbled back over his shoulder and, heatedly, continued working at the nozzle.

    "But there's no fire. There's no fire:" Binder shouted. When the Fireman mumbled again, the rabbi grasped his face with both his hands and pointed it up at the roof.

    To Ozzie it looked as though Rabbi Binder was trying to tug the Fireman's head out of his body, like a cork from a Bottle. He had to giggle at the picture they made: it was a family portrait--rabbi in black skullcap, fireman in red fire hat, and the little yellow hydrant squatting beside like a kid brother, bareheaded. From the edge of the roof Ozzie waved at the portrait, a one-handed, flapping, mocking wave; in doing it his right foot slipped from under him. Rabbi Binder covered his eyes with his hands.

    Firemen work fast. Before Ozzie had even regained his balance, a big, round, yellowed net was being held on the synagogue wall. The firemen who held it looked up at Ozzie with stern, feelingless faces. One of the firemen turned his head toward, Rabbi Binder. "What, is the kid nuts or something?"

    Rabbi Binder unpeeled his hand, from his eyes, slowly, painfully, as if they were tape. Then he checked: nothing on the sidewalk, no dents in the net.

    "Is he gonna jump or what?" the Fireman shouted.

    In a voice not at all like a statue, Rabbi Binder finally answered. "Yes, yes, I think so. . . He's been threatening to. . . ."

    Threatening to? Why, the reason he was on the roof, Ozzie remembered, was to get away; he hadn't even thought about jumping. He had just run to get away and the truth was that he hadn't really headed for the roof as much as he'd been chased there.

    "What's his name, the kid?"

    "Freedman," Rabbi Binder answered. "Oscar Freedman."

    The fireman looked up at Ozzie. "What is it with you, Oscar? You gonna jump or what?"

    Ozzie did not answer. Frankly, the question had just arisen.

    "Look, Oscar. If you're gonna jump, jump--and if you're not gonna jump, don't jump. But don't waste our time, willya?"

    Ozzie looked at the fireman and then at Rabbi Binder. He wanted to see Rabbi Binder cover his eyes one more time.

    "I'm going to jump."

    And then he scampered around the edge of the roof to the corner, where there was no net below, and he flapped his arms at his sides, swishing the air and smacking his palms to his trousers on the downbeat. He began screaming like some kind of engine, "Wheeeee: wheeeee," and leaning way out over the edge with the upper half of his body. The firemen whipped around to cover the ground with the net. Rabbi Binder mumbled a few words to Somebody and covered his eyes. Everything happened quickly, jerkily, as in a silent movie. The crowd, which had arrived with the fire engines, gave out a long, Fourth-of-July fireworks oooh-aahhh. In the excitement no one had paid the crowd much heed, except, of course, Yakov Blotnik, who swung from the doorknob counting heads. "Fier und tsvansik . . . finf und tsvantsik . . . Oy, Gut!" It wasn't like this with the cat.

    Rabbi Binder peeked through his fingers, checked the sidewalk and net. Empty. But there was Ozzie racing to the other corner. The firemen raced with him but were unable to keep up. Whenever Ozzie wanted to he might jump and splatter himself upon the sidewalk, and by the time the firemen scooted to the spot all they could do with their net would be to cover the mess.

    "Wheeeee. . . wheeeee . . ."

    "Hey, Oscar," the winded fireman yelled, "What the hell is this, a game or something?"

    "Wheeeee . . . wheeeee . . ."

    "Hey, Oscar-"

    But he was off now to the other corner, flapping his wings fiercely. Rabbi Binder couldn't take it any longer--the fire engines from nowhere, the screaming, suicidal boy, the net. He fell to his knees, exhausted, and with his hands curled together in front of his chest, like a little dome, he pleaded, "Oscar, stop it, Oscar. Don't jump, Oscar. Please Come down. . . Please don't jump."

    And further back in the crowd a single voice, a single young voice, shouted a lone word to the boy on the roof.

    "Jump!"

    It was Itzie. Ozzie momentarily stopped flapping.

    "Go ahead, Ozz-jump!"

    Itzie broke off his point of the star and courageously, with the inspiration not of a wise-guy but of a disciple, stood alone. "Jump, Ozz, jump!"

    Still on his knees, his hands still curled, Rabbi Binder twisted his body back. He looked at Itzie, then, agonizingly, back to Ozzie.

    "OSCAR, DON'T JUMP! PLEASE, DON'T JUMP . . . please please. . ."

    "Jump!" This time it wasn't Itzie but another point of the star. By the time Mrs. Freedman arrived to keep her four-thirty appointment with Rabbi Binder, the whole little upside down heaven was shouting and pleading for Ozzie to jump, and Rabbi Binder no longer was pleading with him not to jump, but was crying into the dome of his hands.


    Understandably Mrs. Freedman couldn't figure out what her son was doing on the roof. So she asked.

    "Ozzie, my Ozzie, what are you doing? My Ozzie, what is it?"

    Ozzie stopped wheeeeeing and slowed his arms down to a cruising flap, the kind birds use in soft winds, but he did not answer. He stood against the low clouded, darkening sky--light clicked down swiftly now as on a small gear--flapping softly and gazing down at the small bundle of a woman who was his mother.

    "What are you doing, Ozzie?" She turned towards the kneeling Rabbi Binder and rushed so close that only a paper-thickness of dusk lay between her stomach and his shoulders.

    "What is my baby doing?"

    Rabbi Binder gaped up at her but he too was mute. All that moved was the dome of his hands; it shook back and forth like a weak pulse.

    "Rabbi, get him down! He'll kill himself. Get him down, my only baby . . ."

    "I can't," Rabbi Binder said, "I can't . ." and he turned his handsome head towards the crowd of boys behind him. "It's them. Listen to them."

    And for the first time Mrs. Freedman saw the crowd of boys, and she heard what they were yelling.

    "He's doing it for them. He won't listen to me. It's them." Rabbi Binder spoke like one in a trance.

    "For them?"

    "Yes."

    "Why for them?"

    "They want him to:"

    Mrs. Freedman raised her two arms upward as though she were conducting the sky. "For them he's doing it!" And then in a gesture older than pyramids, older than prophets and floods, her arms came slapping down to her sides. "A martyr I have. Look!" She tilted her head to the roof. Ozzie was still flapping softly. "My martyr."

    "Oscar, come down, please," Rabbi Binder groaned.

    In a startlingly even voice Mrs. Freedman called to the boy on the roof. "Ozzie, come down, Ozzie. Don't be a martyr, my baby."

    As though it were a litany, Rabbi Binder repeated her words."Don't be martyr, my baby. Don't be a martyr."

    "Gawhead, Ozz-be a Martin!" It was Itzie. "Be a Martin, be a Martin," and all the voices joined in singing for Martindom, whatever it was. "Be a Martin, be a Martin..."

    Somehow when you're on a roof the darker it gets the less you can hear. All Ozzie knew was that two groups wanted two new things: his friends were spirited and musical about what they wanted; his mother and the rabbi were even-toned, chanting, about what they didn't want. The rabbi's voice was without tears now and so was his mother's.

    The big net stared up at Ozzie like a sightless eye. The big, clouded sky pushed down. From beneath it looked like a gray corrugated board, Suddenly, looking up into that unsympathetic sky, Ozzie realized all the strangeness of what these people, his friends, were asking: they wanted him to jump, to kill himself; they were singing about it now--it made them that happy. And there was an even greater strangeness: Rabbi Binder was on his knees, trembling. If there was a question to be asked now it was not "Is it me?" but rather "Is it us?: Is it us?"

    Being on the roof, it turned out, was a serious thing. If he jumped would the singing become dancing? Would it? What would jumping stop? Yearningly, Ozzie wished he could rip open the sky, plunge his hands through, and pull out the sun; and on the sun, like a coin, would be stamped JUMP or DON'T JUMP.

    Ozzie's knees rocked and sagged a little under him as though they were setting him for a dive. His arms tightened, stiffened, froze, from shoulders to fingernails. He felt as if each part of his body were going to vote as to whether he should kill himself or not--and each part as though it were independent of him.

    The light took an unexpected click down and the new darkness, like a gag, hushed the friends singing for this and the mother and rabbi chanting for that.

    Ozzie stopped counting votes, and in a curiously high voice, like one who wasn't prepared for speech, he spoke.

    "Mamma?"

    "Yes, Oscar."

    "Mamma, get down on your knees, like Rabbi Binder."

    "Oscar--"

    "Get down on your knees," he said, "Or I'll jump."

    Ozzie heard a whimper, then a quick rustling, and when he looked down where his mother had stood he saw the top of a head and beneath that a circle of dress. She was kneeling beside Rabbi Binder.

    He spoke again. "Everybody kneel." There was the sound of everybody kneeling.

    Ozzie looked around, with one hand he pointed towards the synagogue entrance. "Make him kneel."

    There was a noise, not of kneeling, but of body-and-cloth stretching. Ozzie could hear Rabbi Binder saying in a gruff whisper, ":or he'll kill himself," and when next he looked there was Yakov Blotnik off the doorknob and for the first time in his life upon his knees in the Gentile posture of prayer.

    As for the firemen--it was not as difficult as one might imagine to hold a net taut while you are kneeling.

    Ozzie looked around again; and then he called to Rabbi Binder.

    "Rabbi?"

    "Yes, Oscar."

    "Rabbi Binder, do you believe in God?"

    "Yes."

    "Do you believe God can do anything?" Ozzie leaned his head out into the darkness. "Anything?"

    "Oscar, I think--"

    "Tell me you believe God can do Anything."

    There was a second's hesitation. Then: "God can do Anything."

    "Tell me you believe God can make a child without intercourse."

    "He can."

    "Tell me!"

    "God," Rabbi Binder admitted, "Can make a child without intercourse."

    "Mamma, you tell me."

    "God can make a child without intercourse," his mother said.

    "Make him tell me." There was no doubt who him was.

    In a few moments Ozzie heard an old comical voice say something to the increasing darkness about God.

    Next, Ozzie made everybody say it. And then he made them all say they believed in Jesus Christ--first one at a time, then all together.

    When the catechizing was through it was the beginning of evening. From the street it sounded as if the boy on the roof might have sighed.

    "Ozzie?" A woman's voice dared to speak. '"You'll come down now?"

    There was no answer, but the woman waited, and when a voice finally did speak it was thin and crying, and exhausted as that of an old man who has just finished pulling the bells.

    "Mamma, don't you see--you shouldn't hit me. He shouldn't hit me. You shouldn't hit me about God, Mamma. You should never hit anybody about God--"

    "Ozzie, please come down now."

    "Promise me, promise me you'll never hit anybody about God."

    He had asked only his mother, but for some reason everyone kneeling in the street promised he would never hit anybody about God.

    Once again there was silence.

    "I can come down now, Mamma," the boy on the roof finally said. He turned his head both ways as though checking the traffic lights. "Now I can come down:"

    And he did, right into the center of the yellow net that glowed in the evening's edge like an overgrown halo.

    1959