Cynthia Ozick recalls her grandmother telling her stories, invariably conveying a lesson, about girlhood in a Russian Jewish village. From her drugstore-owning parents, she overhead “small but stirring adventures” confided by their Bronx neighbors. “Reading-lust” led her to fairy tales, to bachelor’s and master’s degrees in literature, and to a self-taught education in Judaism’s textual tradition. From these various influences, Ozick creates fiction noted for its range and inventiveness. Her reputation is based largely on her short fiction. Ozick has more than once won the O. Henry Award.
Ozick’s first book, however, was a novel, Trust. It concerns a young woman’s search for identity. A predominant theme in Ozick’s work has been the difficulty of sustaining one’s Jewish identity in America’s secular, assimilationist society. Assimilated, rootless Jews are frequently objects of satire in her fiction. What Ozick proposes, in terms of language, is a New Yiddish, understandable to English speakers yet preserving the tone and inflections of Yiddish, a language that is facing extinction as a result of the Holocaust and assimilation.
For Ozick, the Orthodox Jewish moral code remains the standard against which life and art are measured. America’s materialistic culture, she maintains, is essentially pagan, and therefore hostile to Judaism. This conflict is clearly evident in “The Pagan Rabbi,” a story in which attraction to nature drives the title character to suicide. The idea that the artist competes with God as creator also concerns Ozick. Particularly in “Usurpation (Other People’s Stories),” Ozick intimates that writers are congenital plagiarizers and, more seriously, usurpers of God. The hubris of a person attempting godlike creation is approached humorously in “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” in which the female protagonist fashions a female golem, first to help with the housework, then to reform New York City. So convinced is Ozick of the pervasiveness of idolatrous ambition that her heroines display an arrogant singlemindedness that feminists usually associate with men. In the story “The Shawl” and its sequel, the novella “Rosa,” Ozick, herself a mother, imagines a woman who idolizes the memory of a daughter murdered by the Nazis.
Ozick’s vigilance against idolatry extends to her narrative style. Postmodernist, self-referential techniques—asides, interruptions, and explanations—alert readers to the illusions of fiction. Ironic in effect, they also deflate authorial claims to being like God.