”Goodbye, Columbus” is a coming-of-age story, in which the twenty-three-year-old protagonist, Neil Klugman, grapples with his sense of self, particularly in relation to his Jewish identity. The event that that precipitates this identity crisis is meeting Brenda Patimkin, with whom he has a relationship over the course of a summer. While Brenda and Neil are both Jewish, their differences in socioeconomic class create the central tensions of their relationship. Neil lives with his aunt and uncle in a lower-middle-class area of Newark, New Jersey, and works in a public library. Brenda is a college student at Radcliff College in Boston, Massachusetts, spending her summer vacation at her upper-middle-class family’s house in the suburbs outside of New York City.
The class differences between Neil and Brenda are intertwined with their vast differences in Jewish identity. Brenda’s family is assimilationist, in that their wealth leads them to de-emphasize their Jewish cultural heritage. For instance, Brenda tells Neil that she has gotten a “nose job,” plastic surgery on her nose, in order to remove the “bump” in her nose structure, which is considered a Jewish facial characteristic. She tells him it cost a thousand dollars to have it done, a sign both of her family’s wealth in being able to afford cosmetic surgery, and of the value they place on shedding their Jewish features so as to assimilate more easily into mainstream, non-Jewish American culture. Neil’s disdain for Brenda’s “nose job” is expressed later in the narration, when he meets Brenda’s father, Mr. Patimkin, and sees the natural nose feature, which Brenda had inherited from him. Neil regards the bump in Mr. Patimkin’s nose in positive terms, describing it as a “diamond,” which suggests the symbolic value Neil himself places on this sign of Jewish identity: “Brenda’s old nose fitted him well. There was a bump in it, all right; up at the bridge it seemed as though a small eight-sided diamond had been squeezed in under the skin.” He describes the removal of this “diamond” from Brenda’s nose in terms that imply that getting a ”nose job” is equivalent to flushing a beautiful and valuable diamond down the toilet: ‘ T knew Mr. Patimkin would never bother to have that stone cut from his face, and yet, with joy and pride, no doubt, had paid to have Brenda’s diamond removed and dropped down some toilet in Fifth Avenue Hospital.” Later, Mr. Patimkin expresses some sense of ambivalence about the degree to which his children have lost their Jewish heritage in their efforts toward assimilation, even disdainfully describing them at as non-Jewish. When Brenda’s father uses a Yiddish word, based in Jewish cultural heritage, he is surprised that Neil knows what it means, as his own children, he claims, are “goyim,” a derogatory term for non-Jewish people.
Yet the Patimkin’s are not simply or unequivocally assimilationist. Neil has an uncomfortable interaction with Mrs. Patimkin in discussing Jewish religious affiliations and organizations. Just as Neil is painfully aware of his class differences with the Patimkins, he is also defensive and insecure in discussing his Jewish identity with Mrs. Patimkin. Their conversation, which Neil regards from an antagonistic perspective, highlights the differences in their Jewish cultural identities. Mrs. Patimkin is checking a mailing list for Hadassah, a Jewish women’s organization. Hadassah was founded in 1912 as the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, known for its efforts in the areas of health care, education, and the needs of Jewish children. When Mrs. Patimkin asks if Neil’s mother belongs to Hadassah, he nervously says that she did, he’s not sure if she does now, but that his Aunt Sylvia is also in Hadassah. Mrs. Patimkin then asks Neil if he belongs to B’nai Brith, a Jewish men’s organization, which he is not a member of. Mrs. Patimkin, who is active in an Orthodox temple, the most strictly observant Jewish religious affiliation, then questions Neil about his religious affiliations, inquiring if he belongs to a temple. Neil attempts to hide the fact that he is not affiliated with a synagogue or Jewish organization, for fear that Mrs. Patimkin will disapprove of his “pagan” tendencies. When Mrs. Patimkin invites him to attend Friday night services at their temple, he stammers, and says, ‘”I’m just Jewish.'” With this simple statement Neil attempts to reconcile his sense of his Jewish identity with his religious “paganism,” evidenced by his lack of religious affiliation or observance. Yet, he still wishes “desperately” to “convince her I wasn’t an infidel.” When he attempts to gain some legitimacy in her eyes by asking if she’s heard of Martin Buber, her response indicates her complete ignorance of this modern Jewish philosopher. Martin Buber is one of the most renowned, if controversial, Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century. While Buber felt that strict observance of Jewish religious laws was not necessary or important, his central tenet, expressed in his 1923 book, / and Thou, stresses the importance of the relationship between man and fellow man, man and nature, and man and God. Neil’s mention of Buber in this context is ironic in that the entire story revolves around Neil’s attempt to establish a genuine relationship with Brenda. which ultimately seems impossible, given their cultural differences.
Mrs. Patimkin tells Neil that she is Orthodox, while her husband is Conservative. Conservative Judaism, while adhering to observance of traditional Jewish religious law, is less strict than Orthodox. Reform Judaism is the least concerned with observing traditional Jewish religious law, in favor of modernizing religious observance practices. Mrs. Patimkin then states that “”Brenda is nothing,”” meaning that Brenda is not religious. Neil, however, attempts to make a joke of this statement by punning on the terms “conservative” and “reform.” “‘I’d say Brenda is conservative. Maybe a little reformed.. . .'” Neil realizes that joking about Judaism with Mrs. Patimkin will not go over well, and so, when the phone rings, “rescuing” him from the conversation, he says ”a silent Orthodox prayer to the Lord.” The humor in this lies in the irony of a non-religious Jewish man saying an “Orthodox prayer to the Lord,” in thanks for “rescuing” him from being found out as a “pagan” and an “infidel” by Mrs. Patimkin, who is genuinely Orthodox.
Later in the story, however, Neil’s internal thoughts about God take on a more serious tone, as they are an expression of a genuine desire for insight and self-knowledge, albeit with a strong edge of irony, cynicism, and skepticism. While he is waiting for Brenda to get fitted for a diaphragm, Neil wanders into a Catholic church and sits down in a pew. Holding his hands together, he leans forward and closes his eyes. In this praying posture, Neil makes “a little speech” to himself: “Can I call the self-conscious words I spoke a prayer? At any rate, I called my audience God.” Neil’s “prayer” takes the form of his first concentrated attempt to understand his relationship with Brenda, asking, ”What is it I love, Lord? Why have I chosen? Who is Brenda? The race is to the swift. Should I have stopped to think?” Neil goes on to question his “carnality” and his “acquisitiveness,” maintaining in a blatantly sacrilegious assertion that such pleasures of the flesh are a part of God: “If we meet You at all, God, it’s that we’re carnal, and acquisitive, and thereby partake of You. I am carnal, and I know You approve, I just know it. But how carnal can I get? I am acquisitive. Where do I turn now in my acquisitiveness? Where do we meet? Which prize is You?” Neil expresses some awareness that his ”love” for Brenda is in part a love for the wealth and assimilation she represents; he cynically suggests that the ‘’prize” that is ”You” (God) is in fact these material luxuries and the assimilation they enable: “Gold dinnerware, sporting-goods trees, nectarines, garbage disposals, bumpless noses, Patimkin Sink, Bonwit Teller—.” Neil concludes that “damn it, God, that is You!” that God is the materialism and consumerism made possible by wealth. This line of thinking on Neil’s part indicates a complete crisis in faith. He indicates that he is aware of his own foolishness and wrong-headedness, by concluding, “God only laughed, that clown.” (One can easily see why rabbis were outraged by Roth’s representations of Jewish faith!) Roth does not provide the reader with a moral compass by which to chart Neil’s bizarre rumination on God. Rather, the reader is drawn into the sense of crisis experienced by Neil himself, who waivers between worshipping a God of material goods and carnal pleasures, and mocking his own lack of faith.
Neil’s identity crisis reaches an epiphany at the end of the story, after he leaves Brenda and the relationship behind him. While wandering around the Harvard campus, he stops to look at his reflection in the darkened window of the library. The “mirror” of the window symbolizes Neil’s mental self-reflection. Seeing his external form reflected in the window, Neil wishes for some sense of self-knowledge of his internal self. Neil seriously questions the nature of his “love” for Brenda, and what that love has to do with who he really is: ”What was it inside me that had turned pursuit and clutching into love, and then turned it inside out again? What was it that had turned winning into losing, and losing—who knows—into winning? I was sure I had loved Brenda, though standing there, I knew I couldn’t any longer.” The identity crisis which had been sparked by Neil’s entry into Brenda’s world of luxury and Brenda’s family’s concept of Jewish identity is in part resolved for Neil by his realization that, whoever he is, he is certainly not that.
Although no definite conclusions are drawn in Neil’s mind, a self-knowledge is symbolically achieved: ‘T looked hard at the image of me, at that darkening of the glass, and then my gaze pushed through it, over the cool floor, to a broken wall of books, imperfectly shelved.” The image of the “broken wall” and the books “imperfectly shelved” symbolizes Neil’ s acceptance of himself as ”imperfect.” It is highly significant that Neil reaches home “just as the sun was rising on the first day of the Jewish New Year.” This closing image provides multiple symbols of renewal, both in the rising sun, and the first day of a New Year. Further, it is not a secular New Year, but a “Jewish” New Year. Neil’s renewed sense of himself as a Jew, while not clearly defined, is expressed in an image full of hope.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Philip Roth, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Liz Brent, Critical Essay on “Goodbye, Columbus,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001