Cynthia Ozick Ozick, Cynthia (Vol. 155) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cynthia Ozick 1928-

(Has also written under the pseudonym Trudi Vosce) American short story writer, novelist, playwright, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Ozick's career through 2000. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 7, 28, and 62.

Ozick's short fiction, on which her reputation largely rests, repeatedly addresses the difficulty of sustaining a Jewish identity and heritage in a predominantly secular and assimilationist society. Her work also typically examines the calling and accountability of the artist, especially within the context of the Jewish moral code.

Biographical Information

Ozick was born in New York City on April 17, 1928, to William and Celia Ozick. Educated at New York University and Ohio State University, she published her first novel, Trust, in 1966. The work focused on a young woman's search for identity and was written over the course of six years. The work received a lukewarm critical and commercial reception. Ozick later turned to primarily writing short stories and novellas, which have been published in magazines such as Commentary, Esquire, and the New Yorker. Ozick is also a noted literary critic, particularly of Jewish-American literature, and introduced the concept of “New Yiddish,” a language which would be comprehensible to speakers of English yet preserve the inflections and tone of the waning Yiddish language. She has served as a visiting lecturer at numerous colleges and universities, as well as holding teaching positions at New York University and the University of New York. Ozick has received a number of awards, including the Edward Lewis Wallant Memorial Award in 1971; a National Book Award nomination for The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971); the B'nai B'rth Jewish Heritage Award in 1972; a PEN/Faulkner Award nomination in 1984; and a National Book Critics' Circle Award nomination for criticism for Quarrel & Quandary (2000).

Major Works

In most of Ozick's short fiction, the plots revolve around the dilemma of being Jewish in modern Western society, particularly the United States. In Levitation (1982), a couple in a mixed Jewish-Christian marriage fail to understand each other's priorities due to the basic incompatibility of their world-views. Ozick views American culture as predominantly pagan, concerned with nature and the physical realm of existence, and therefore inherently in conflict with the worship of the noncorporeal God of Judaism. In “The Pagan Rabbi,” the title character is torn between his love of religion and scholarship and his attraction to nature and magic. Ozick is also concerned with the idea that the production of art and literature can be considered blasphemous because it puts the artist in direct competition with God as creator. A recurring theme in her work—which is prominently examined in “Usurpation (Other People's Stories)”—is that all writers borrow material from other writers and usurp God's domain by attempting to replicate or transform reality through fiction. In Ozick's opinion, the rejection of such idolatry is a defining characteristic of the Jewish writer. The concept of a person taking on the role of a godlike creator is given a humorous twist in “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” in which Ruth Puttermesser creates a female golem, or automaton, to help with her housework. The creature is useful at first, but begins to run amok, forcing her creator to destroy her. Similar religious offenses occur in Ozick's short story “The Shawl” and its sequel, “Rosa.” The focus of these narratives is a woman who idolatrously worships the memory of her infant daughter who was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp.

Critical Reception

Since the publication of Trust, Ozick has garnered critical acclaim for her attention to language and thought-provoking arguments about Jewish-American culture. Critics such as Millicent Bell and Mark Krupnick have compared her with other noted Jewish-American writers, including Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, and Norman Mailer. However, several reviewers have argued that Ozick's writing is often more self-conscious and intellectual than that of her peers. Krupnick commented that “More than any novelist of the past fifteen or so years, Ozick has changed our idea of the possibilities of American Jewish writing and set a new direction for that writing.” Many scholars have focused their criticism on one of Ozick's major recurring themes—the contradiction between writing fiction and obeying Jewish law which forbids the creation of idols. The critical reaction to Ozick's argument that art can act as a form of idolatry has been sharply mixed. Victor Strandberg noted that Ozick's works, by “refusing to ‘bestow apparently godlike authority on an author or biographer,’ … counteract the risk of idolatry that storytelling engenders by competing with God's creation.” Reviewers have also widely examined the underlying messages and spirituality of Ozick's fiction and essays. Janet L. Cooper, for example, has found Ozick's philosophical explorations confusing and contradictory, particularly for those unfamiliar with Judaism.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Trust (novel) 1966

The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (short stories) 1971

Bloodshed and Three Novellas (short stories) 1976

Levitation: Five Fictions (short stories) 1982

Art & Ardor (essays) 1983

The Cannibal Galaxy (novel) 1983

The Messiah of Stockholm (novel) 1987

Metaphor & Memory: Essays (essays) 1989

The Shawl: A Story and a Novella (short stories) 1989

What Henry James Knew and Other Essays on Writers (essays) 1993

*Blue Light (play) 1994

Fame & Folly: Essays (essays) 1996

Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character and Other Essays on Writing (essays) 1996

Puttermesser Papers (short stories) 1997

Quarrel & Quandary (essays) 2000

*This play is based on Ozick's short story “The Shawl.”

Sarah Blacher Cohen (essay date summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cohen, Sarah Blacher. “The Fiction Writer as Essayist: Ozick's Metaphor & Memory.Judaism: A Quarterly Journal 39, no. 3 (summer 1990): 276–81.

[In the following essay, Cohen observes that with the publication of Metaphor & Memory, Ozick “can no longer claim she is a literary nobody.”]

Try to “possess one great literature, at least, besides (your) own: and the more unlike (your) own, the better.” So cautioned the critic Matthew Arnold. Years later, author Cynthia Ozick heeded his advice. Over the course of time she has populated her house of fiction with three mind-stretching novels and four collections of riveting short stories. To keep her fiction company, she has brought in a rich assortment of provocative essays to share the premises. In the preface to her 1983 collection of essays, Art & Ardor, she informs us how she happened to write these departures from fiction:

I have written over one hundred essays—some in the form of articles or fugitive pieces, others to serve a public occasion … three or four out of political necessity, as forays into advocacy journalism … the rest an outgrowth of reading and reviewing. … Most … out of unashamed print-lust. …

She bemoans the fact that she was an unknown freelancer, a literary orphan with no benevolent god-parents to sponsor her in the world of letters. Her essays, she claims,

were written on quicksand without a place to stand: no regularly supportive periodical, no professorship, no body of learning, no assurance, no early mark made for oneself.1

Now, with her 1989 collection of essays, Metaphor & Memory, Cynthia Ozick, a Guggenheim fellow and recipient of the Straus Living Award from the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters, can no longer claim she is a literary nobody, that her writing of essays is a trivial pursuit. While in the past she complained that readers paid too little attention to her essays, she now fears that people are taking them too seriously. She worries that her readers will “unfailingly trust the veracity of (her) non-narrative prose.”2 Good Jew that she is, she doesn't want the profane utterances in her essays to be accorded the same reverence bestowed upon the holy pronouncements from the foot of Sinai. As essayist, she doesn't want to assume the lofty mantle of a “reliable witness,” a “committed intelligence, a single-minded truth-speaker.”3 In other words, she makes no hubristic claim to be the fashioner of Halakhah, authoritative Jewish law. Rather, she contends that her essays are laced with the aggadic, the inventive, the conditional, the subjective, even the poetic. Their subject matter is filtered through the kaleidoscope of her mind and takes on provisional shapes and hues. In such a protean state, they avoid the predictable and espouse the surprising. Therefore, she contends that there is no essential difference between her essays and her stories and novels, since they are all fictitious or “made-up in response to an excited imagination.”4 But, according to Ozick, what is doubly fictitious about the essay is that it attempts to pass for true belief.

In addition to possessing this shady fictionality, her essays, she claims, are like light bulbs which illuminate for a brief span of time, leaving us in the dark until she comes up with different replacements for them. She insists, therefore, that they not be mistaken for fixed, steady beacons lighting up the hidden corners of her fiction. Or, to switch metaphors, she maintains the hope that her essays not be “seized as a rod to beat the writer's stories with; or as a frame into which to squeeze the writer's stories; or collectively, as a ‘philosophy’ into which to pen the writer's outlook.”5

Yet who is to say that her cautionary foreward, itself a miniature essay, in Metaphor & Memory, is to be trusted? Ozick, as author, might very well be a conscious liar, an artful deceiver. Or she may unwittingly not be telling the truth about the connections between her essays and her stories. In either case, it is advisable to heed D. H. Lawrence's advice to “Trust the tale, not the teller of the tale.” Some of Ozick's essays in Metaphor & Memory do contain vital clues about some of her fiction, do articulate its ideational core. Conversely, in several instances the hobby horses that she rides in some of her stories go coursing through her essays, often without much disguise and with equal force.

The most obvious kinship between essay and story exists between her lengthy piece “Sholem Aleichem's Revolution” and her magisterial novella, “Envy; or, Yiddish in America.” The former expresses formal, academic admiration for the Mame Loshon, mother tongue, which she describes in her nonfiction as a “direct, spirited and spiritually alert language … rooted in the quotidian lives of ordinary folk.”6 The latter exudes a doting mother's affection for her precious child: “His Yiddish … still squeaked up to God with a littleness, a familiarity, an elbo-poke, it was still pieced together out of shtetl rags, out of a baby aleph, a toddler beys. …”7 But both works also trace the hostile reception accorded to Yiddish, especially by the intellectuals who regarded it as “a zhargon, Gibberish prattle, a subtongue, something less than a respectably cultivated language.”8 In her essay, however, Ozick painstakingly shows how Sholem Aleichem legitimatized the bastard Yiddish, invented a distinguished lineage for it, and elevated it to a place of honor, causing it to be translated by gifted literati like Hillel Halkin. Conversely, in her novella, Ozick painfully recounts the absence of translators for poor Edelshtein, the 67 year old Yiddish poet manqué who, in unresponsive fancy...

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Mark Krupnick (essay date fall–winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Krupnick, Mark. “Cynthia Ozick as the Jewish T. S. Eliot.” Soundings 74, nos. 3–4 (fall–winter 1991): 351–68.

[In the following essay, Krupnick compares Ozick's works to the writings of T. S. Eliot.]

I want to start with my title: “Cynthia Ozick as the Jewish T. S. Eliot.” I have been asked whether I ought to have said: “Cynthia Ozick as a Jewish Eliot.” And no doubt I should have, for Ozick exemplifies only one of many versions of T. S. Eliot among American Jewish writers of the past half-century. There has been for example, the Eliot of Lionel Trilling, the leading literary figure in his circle of New York intellectuals in the 1940s....

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Cynthia Ozick and Mario Materassi (interview date spring–summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ozick, Cynthia, and Mario Materassi. “Imagination Unbound: An Interview with Cynthia Ozick.” Salmagundi, nos. 94–95 (spring–summer 1992): 85–113.

[In the following interview, Ozick comments on her writing career and the influences behind The Messiah of Stockholm.]

[Materassi:] Let's begin with a standard “first question”: How and when did you become a writer?

[Ozick:] This question is really very easy for me, because I never was not a writer. I think I knew this very, very early, before I could even hold a pen. Partly it was simply instinct, and partly I had a model: there was a writer in my family, my...

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Cynthia Ozick and Elaine M. Kauvar (interview date fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ozick, Cynthia, and Elaine M. Kauvar. “An Interview with Cynthia Ozick.” Contemporary Literature 34, no. 3 (fall 1993): 358–94.

[In the following interview, Ozick offers her views on Jewish culture, her role as a Jewish writer, and the importance of the Holocaust.]

American Jewish writers too often face the unreasonable demand that they be responsible for reinforcing and revitalizing Jewishness. To yield to such a demand is to renounce the freedom of imaginative writing, an unthinkable sacrifice for a serious writer. Small wonder that American Jewish writers—Philip Roth and Stanley Elkin come immediately to mind—have vigorously resisted the label...

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Andrew Lakritz (essay date winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lakritz, Andrew. “Cynthia Ozick and the End of the Modern.” Chicago Review 40, no. 1 (winter 1994): 98–117.

[In the following essay, Lakritz compares The Messiah of Stockholm to Bruno Schulz's The Messiah.]

In recent years a debate has raged over the definition of the age. Some say with the end of the Second World War, a new era has emerged which old labels no longer suffice to name, and the new name which seems to have taken strongest hold is “postmodern.”1 Others have criticized this movement toward new paradigms under the assumption that the post-war period represents elements of thought and culture that are in important ways...

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Sarah Blacher Cohen (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cohen, Sarah Blacher. “Introduction: Cynthia Ozick's Comic Art of Truth-Telling.” In Cynthia Ozick's Comic Art: From Levity to Liturgy, pp. 1–20. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Cohen discusses Ozick's use of humor and satire in her writing.]

“Can one write comically without knowing one is doing it?” Cynthia Ozick posed this rhetorical question (in “Letter to Sarah Blacher Cohen,” 28 January 1992) but claimed to have no answer for it. Rather, she offered a tentative explanation for the uninvited presence of the comic muse intruding upon her work. She recalled the following experience from childhood:


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Sarah Blacher Cohen (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cohen, Sarah Blacher. “Cynthia Ozick: Prophet for Parochialism.” In Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing, edited by Judith R. Baskin, pp. 283–98. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Cohen explores Ozick's sense of Jewish identity and its effect on her writing.]

The waning of the immigrant experience and the depletion of the Yiddish culture which so enriched that experience have prompted some critics to write an epitaph for the dying body of Jewish-American writing in the postwar period. Thus, Ruth Wisse has written that Jewish-American literature “derives its strength from the peculiar tension of the Jew...

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Victor Strandberg (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Strandberg, Victor. “Judgement.” In Greek Mind/Jewish Soul: The Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick, pp. 152–91. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, Strandberg examines the critical reaction to several of Ozick's works, including Trust and The Pagan Rabbi.]


Cynthia Ozick, thirty-eight years old when Trust launched her career, was fifty-five when William Scheick and Catherine Rainwater produced the first sustained effort of Ozick scholarship, a seventy-five-page segment of the summer 1983 Texas Studies in Literature and Language that included an...

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Peter Kerry Powers (essay date fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Powers, Peter Kerry. “Disruptive Memories: Cynthia Ozick, Assimilation, and the Invented Past.” MELUS 20, no. 3 (fall 1995): 79–98.

[In the following essay, Powers discusses Ozick's opinions about Jewish identity and the role of the Jewish-American author.]

He that applieth himself to the fear of God, And setteth his mind upon the Law of the Most High, He searcheth out the wisdom of all ancients, And is occupied with the prophets of old.

The Wisdom of Ben Sira

The popular and academic successes of Jewish writers in the 1950s and 60s led John Updike—in what now seems high...

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Joseph Alkana (essay date winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Alkana, Joseph. “‘Do We Not Know the Meaning of Aesthetic Gratification?’: Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl, the Akedah, and the Ethics of Holocaust Literary Aesthetics.” Modern Fiction Studies 43, no. 4 (winter 1997): 963–90.

[In the following essay, Alkana offers a positive assessment of The Shawl, noting Ozick's stance against universalism in stories such as “The Shawl” and “Rosa.”]

For American Jewish writers, the Holocaust remains a compelling subject for fiction; and their work constitutes an ongoing reply to Theodor Adorno's famous claim “that it is barbaric to continue to write poetry after Auschwitz” (87). The task of...

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Susanne Klingenstein (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Klingenstein, Susanne. “‘In Life I Am Not Free’: The Writer Cynthia Ozick and Her Jewish Obligations.” In Daughters of Valor: Contemporary Jewish American Women Writers, edited by Jay L Halio and Ben Siegel, pp. 48–79. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Klingenstein examines Ozick's reflections on her Jewish and American identities.]


It is a truth universally acknowledged that biographies are a species of fiction. The hard reality of this truth dawned on me when I was invited to contribute a portrait of Cynthia Ozick to this collection of essays. My friend for many...

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Millicent Bell (review date winter 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bell, Millicent. “Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 65, no. 1 (winter 1998): 49–60.

[In the following review, Bell discusses pieces of short fiction from several Jewish authors, including Ozick.]

In 1954, this magazine published “The Magic Barrel,” which was an immediate sensation. One previous story of Bernard Malamud's had appeared in these pages and a few others elsewhere, but he was mostly known as the author of The Natural, a first novel that gave no hint of the vision and voice he had begun to use in short fiction. When, thirty years later, Robert Redford appeared on movie screens as Malamud's slugger, Roy Hobbes, the novelist was...

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Janet L. Cooper (essay date spring 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cooper, Janet L. “Triangles of History and the Slippery Slope of Jewish American Identity in Two Stories by Cynthia Ozick.” MELUS 25, no. 1 (spring 2000): 181–195.

[In the following essay, Cooper examines Ozick's characterizations in her fiction.]

Cynthia Ozick's fiction is filled with characters in a state of identity crisis: “pagan rabbis,” Holocaust survivors, and frustrated artists who are struggling against the continual pressure of being Jewish in a hostile Christian environment. Not only do these characters stumble through America like “inevitable exiles” (Kielsky 23), but they are extremely conscious of their struggle and think a great...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Arana-Ward, Maria. “Cynthia Ozick.” Washington Post Book World 20, no. 3 (15 January 1995): 10.

Arana-Ward summarizes Ozick's career and the broad scope of her writing.

Brookner, Anita. “Knowing the Score in Old New York.” Spectator 282, no. 8915 (19 June 1999): 44.

Brookner explores the character of Ruth Puttermesser in The Puttermesser Papers.

Cheyette, Bryan. “Not Grown Quaint but Old-Fashioned.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4869 (26 July 1996): 24.

Cheyette reflects on Ozick's critical reception in Britain and finds fault with her arguments...

(The entire section is 386 words.)