Cynthia Ozick Biography

Cynthia Ozick Biography

Cynthia Ozick is more than just a genre writer. Despite her expansive number of short-form and novel-length writing, Ozick’s Judaic interests have caused some critics to reductively pigeonhole her work. Certainly, her knowledge of the many different tenets and belief systems under the large umbrella of Judaism has had a tremendous impact on her career. But it is her rich depictions and unique point of view that have merged character and culture in her work. Of particular interest to her is the identity of Jewish women, which she writes about from personal experience. Faith may be an important part of her life and studies, but her learned perspective on education has been of equal significance to her writing.

Facts and Trivia

  • Ozick’s writing process is incredibly detailed and research-oriented. Some of her novels took nearly a decade to complete.
  • Ozick's parents were born in Russia, and established a pharmacy in New York City. Ozick used to help out by delivering prescriptions.
  • During her early studies, Ozick became enthralled with the writing of Henry James, whose work was highly influential on her evolution as a writer.
  • Part of Ozick’s immersion in the Jewish ideology that figures so prominently in her work comes from her father, who was a Talmudist scholar.
  • Ozick has been honored with O. Henry Awards and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
  • Ozick made a brief foray into the theater in the early 1990s, adapting some of her work for the stage. After many false starts, one play was finally produced under the direction of the legendary Sidney Lumet.
  • David Foster Wallace once described Ozick as one of the greatest contemporary American writers.


Cynthia Ozick was born in New York City on April 17, 1928, the second child of pharmacist William Ozick and Celia Regelson Ozick. She was raised in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx, a middle-class neighborhood, where she attended Public School 71. “At P.S. 71,” Ozick once remarked in an interview, “I was dumb, cross-eyed, and couldn’t do arithmetic.” Remembering encounters with anti-Semitic teachers and peers, she vividly recalls “teachers who hurt me, who made me believe I was stupid and inferior.”

Regardless of her negative early educational experiences, Ozick emerged as a gifted academic. Her youth was spent devouring books, sometimes for eighteen hours a day. She attended Hunter College High School in Manhattan and New York University, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in English. She then taught from 1949 to 1951 at Ohio State University, where she earned an M.A. Her thesis, “Parable in the Later Novels of Henry James,” revealed an early reverence for that late nineteenth and early twentieth century American novelist. In fact, throughout much of Ozick’s early fiction rings a distinctive Jamesian tone.

Although she knew her destiny was to be a novelist, Ozick began her literary career by composing poetry, a pursuit she interspersed with fiction and essay writing until age thirty-six but then dropped. Her primary goal, writing a great modern novel, she began immediately after acquiring her graduate degree and marrying Bernard Hollote, a lawyer. She ambitiously began writing a “philosophical” novel, taking seven years to compose some 300,000 words of an incomplete tome. “Mippel,” as she calls the unfinished work, in reference to mythical poet and visionary William Blake’s “Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love” (1789), is a typically erudite allusion.

Seven years into writing “Mippel,” Ozick entered herself in a novella contest of sorts, assuming that she could complete a short piece of fiction in six weeks, then return to her novel. The novella project grew longer, however, consuming another seven years of her life, and eventually evolved into Ozick’s first published work, Trust (1966)....

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Among her contemporaries, Ozick has been distinguished by her devotion to literature; she does not go on to the next sentence until she has perfected the first. Although her fiction has universal relevance, Ozick’s stories are rooted in her Jewish conscience, along with the moral, ethical, and cultural questions accompanying that often burdensome state of mind.

A recipient of numerous literary awards, Ozick’s toughest critic is herself. A shy individual who is deeply concerned with Jewish culture and morals, Ozick’s true personality can only be discovered through careful reading of her work.

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Born of Russian immigrants who took up residence in the Bronx borough in New York, Cynthia Ozick and her parents and siblings worked in the family drugstore, which kept them in comfort and relative prosperity even through the years of the Great Depression. As a female child, Ozick was not marked for extensive education by her family and community. Nevertheless, she was enrolled at the age of five and a half in a Yiddish-Hebrew school, so she could take religious instruction, and her family insisted that she be allowed to stay. The rabbi giving the instruction soon found that she had what he called a “golden head.” Successful as she was in religious instruction, however, her public school experiences were difficult and...

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Born of Russian Jewish immigrants, Cynthia Ozick was brought up in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx in New York City, where her parents operated a pharmacy and managed to scrape by during the Great Depression. At P.S. (Public School) 71, she was a “luckless goosegirl, friendless and forlorn,” and she was indifferent to her studies at Hebrew school.

After graduating from Hunter College High School, she attended New York University. She was determined to be a writer. At Ohio State University she wrote her master’s thesis on Henry James, indicating her early dedication to that writer. “At twenty-two,” she later wrote, “I lived like the elderly, bald-headed Henry James,” a devotee of the sacredness of art....

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