Cynthia Ozick

Start Free Trial

Sarah Blacher Cohen (essay date summer 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 2500 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 synagogues, conducts funerals for the deceased language and the world that it served. Yet, both works share a fundamental similarity. Though one is an elegy and the other a celebration, Ozick has, through her meticulous research and formidable power of invention, saved and revitalized Yiddish for us.

A less obvious linkage exists between Ozick's essay, “Primo Levi's Suicide Note” and her story, “Rosa.” Both deal with Holocaust victims, one fictive, one real, who were imprisoned in the “place without pity,” suffering the major torments of the Shoah experience: Nazi brutality, freezing, starvation, merciless selections, barbaric slaughter of loved ones, abject powerlessness. Both victims were subjected to the continued hell of the post-Auschwitz world. For them, the injury “extends through time, … and the Furies perpetuate the tormentor's work by denying peace to the tormented.”9 However, until his last book, The Drowned and the Saved, Levi did not lash out at his tormentors; he refrained, as he says, from trading “blows” with his external oppressors. As chemist-chronicler of the seething Holocaust cauldron, he was the detached spectator of the infernal brew, clinically examining the severity of contagion. Because the persona that appeared in the majority of his writing was devoid of anger, “violent feeling, or any overt drive to ‘trade blows,’”10 Ozick speculates that he had a dormant rage of resentment which, forty years later, ultimately erupted and turned inward, leading to his self-destruction.

Rosa was also consumed with violent rage, which she initially suppressed. By stuffing her baby's shawl in its mouth, she silenced her shrieks of protest against the Nazi murder of that baby, Magda. But thirty-five years later, when Rosa is in this country, she unleashes her fury. She “trades blows.” In Brooklyn she smashes her antique store because American customers are uninterested in her antiquated Holocaust past. She lashes out at a Jewish hotel manager for having “barbed wire on top of (his) fences,”11 for abandoning her in the past and excluding her in the present. She burns Dr. Tree's wooden treatise, Repressed Animation, a reductive psychological study of Holocaust survivors. Unlike Primo Levi, she turns her rage outward and, by degrees, gets its poison out of her system. She puts to rest the ghost of her dead child which haunts her. Ending her isolation, she reconnects her telephone and waits to greet the embodiment of the ordinary, Mr. Persky, the button salesman.

Of course, one can make only so many comparisons between Rosa and Primo Levi. One is a fictional character whose fate Ozick controls, and the other is a real live character whom a different creator controls. Would that Ozick had been able to write a different ending for Primo Levi's life. But she does present a revised interpretation of his life through her unsettling analysis of his last book, The Drowned and the Saved, “a book of catching up after decades of abstaining … a book of blows returned by a pen on fire.”12 By having Rosa give full vent to her retaliatory passion against Holocaust and post-Holocaust barbarity, Ozick advocates unrepressed animation when confronting savagery.

In “Primo Levi's Suicide Note” and “Rosa,” Ozick applies her version of Hebraism, which posits that literature “should not only be, but mean.”13 To corroborate her position, she draws upon “Judah Halevi, who accused Hellenism of producing ‘flowers without fruit,’ in contrast to the Jewish spirit, which bears the ripe fruit of responsibility and judgement.”14 Ozick explores the seduction of flowers over fruit and its consequences in her essay, “S. Y. Agnon and the First Religion,” and her story, “The Pagan Rabbi.”

In her analysis of Agnon's tale, Edo and Enam, she writes of a one-eyed yeshivah student, Gamzu, forsaking the study of righteous conduct in the Shulhan Arukh for the lure of exotic flowers and pagan songs performed by the beautiful enchantress, Gemulah, outside the Land of Israel. In her native country she is a mesmerizing oracle, one of the minor goddesses of the First Religion. When Gamzu weds her and brings her to live in Jerusalem, she becomes near mute and distraught, and the holy city is contaminated by her heathen presence. There is a mass exodus from it, the houses collapse, hatred and suspicion are unleashed. There is a rash of unexplained murders and deaths. Even the philologist, Dr. Ginath, obsessed with capturing the elusive beauty of her mysterious language, is a fatal victim of her charms, falling off a rooftop in his fruitless pursuit of her. Thus, Agnon is saying that the pagan, with its many enticements, and the monotheistic, cannot coexist in Jerusalem, the city of the Law. The man of science, Ginath, is punished for his intellectual pursuit of false goddesses. However, Gamzu, still wearing his yarmulka, and exerting the discipline to muffle Gemulah's song, lives. The First Religion is banished and Jerusalem regains its spiritual supremacy.

Near the end of her essay, Ozick questions her own incisive interpretation. She wonders whether Agnon is “finally on the side of lyrical sorcery or Torah,” since the Enamite hymns are praised for their “grace and beauty.”15 Such uncertainty does not prevail in her own story, “The Pagan Rabbi.” Like Gamzu and Dr. Ginath, her protagonist, Rabbi Isaac Kornfeld, a Talmudic scholar of “piety and brains,” is seduced by the beguiling world of nature to scale the Fence of the Law to become its pagan worshipper. Choosing Pan over Moses, he knows that his pantheism is a form of idolatry. Yet he still prefers the verdant tree of beauty to the unadorned tree of knowledge. And, for a time, he becomes an unfettered creature of the woodland, as opposed to the shackled occupant of the study and synagogue. But, just as Dr. Ginath's enchantment with the vocal sorceress, Gemulah, proves to be his fatal attraction, so Rabbi Kornfeld's affair with a tree dryad, Iripomonoeia, whose “sexual portion” is as “wholly visible as in any field flower,”16 leads to his undoing. According to the story's epigraph, which Ozick has chosen from The Ethics of the Fathers, “He who is walking along and studying, but then breaks off to remark ‘How lovely is that tree!’ or ‘How beautiful is that fallow field!’—Scripture regards such a one as having hurt his own being.”17 Similarly, Isaac Kornfeld, distracted by nature, “hurts his own being” in that he hangs himself in his prayer shawl to return permanently to the earth's embrace. But the dryad is not there for him, and his suicide is in vain. Yet Ozick elicits a modicum of sympathy for the scholar who desires to become a noble savage, at one with the natural universe and seeing creation with original eyes, though she ultimately rejects Kornfeld's nature-loving Hellenism for his observant widow's law-revering Hebraism. Just as the Prophets recognized the Israelites' attraction to the heathen and reproached them for whoring after false gods and foreign idols, Ozick recognizes the appeal of natural beauty and, through this story, warns modern-day Jews of the injurious effects of choosing pagan esthetics over Jewish ethics and spirituality.

Clearly, the ideational content of Ozick's story, “The Pagan Rabbi,” published in 1966, has spilled over into her 1987 essay, “S. Y. Agnon and the First Religion,” and her interpretation of Agnon's tale, Edo and Enam, published in 1950. Since she claims that she only recently read Edo and Enam, we can make one of two assumptions. Either she superimposed her fictional working out of the struggle between Pan and Moses or Hellenism and Hebraism from The Pagan Rabbi onto her interpretation of Agnon's work, or she and Agnon had independently been grappling with giving expression to the Jewish idea of anti-idolatry in their respective stories. I suspect that, as self-defined Jewish writers, steeped in Jewish learning, they were giving fictional form to one of the most overriding concerns of Hebrew scriptures: the lure of, and resistance to, graven images.

In the concluding lines to her “Forewarning” of Metaphor & Memory, Ozick writes that she repudiates the

inference that a handful of essays is equal to a Weltanschauung: that an essay is generally anything more than simply another fiction—a short story told in the form of an argument, or a history, or even (once in a great while) an illumination …18

There are essays in Metaphor & Memory which are illuminations: “Bialik's Hint,” containing her prophetic literary credo, “Ruth,” her luminous reading of Hebrew Scripture, and the title essay, “Metaphor & Memory,” originally the 1985 Phi Beta Kappa Address at Harvard University, to name just a few. But since you are reading my own miniature essay, I caution you to distrust it. I may be lying. Read Cynthia Ozick's Metaphor & Memory for yourselves!


  1. Cynthia Ozick, “Foreward,” Art & Ardor (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), p. x.

  2. Cynthia Ozick, “Forewarning,” Metaphor & Memory (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), p. ix.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Ibid., p. xi.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Cynthia Ozick, “Sholem Aleichem's Revolution,” Metaphor & Memory, p. 173.

  7. Cynthia Ozick, “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), p. 51.

  8. Cynthia Ozick, “Sholem Aleichem's Revolution,” pp. 174–175.

  9. Cynthia Ozick, “Primo Levi's Suicide Note,” Metaphor & Memory, p. 35.

  10. Ibid., p. 36.

  11. Cynthia Ozick, “Rosa,” The Shawl (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), p. 51.

  12. Cynthia Ozick, “Primo Levi's Suicide Note,” p. 46.

  13. Cynthia Ozick, “Bialik's Hint,” Metaphor & Memory, p. 223.

  14. Ibid., p. 224.

  15. Cynthia Ozick, “S. Y. Agnon and the First Religion,” Metaphor & Memory, p. 222.

  16. Cynthia Ozick, “The Pagan Rabbi,” The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories, p. 30.

  17. Ibid., p. 3.

  18. Cynthia Ozick, “Forewarning,” Metaphor & Memory, p. xii.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Mark Krupnick (essay date fall–winter 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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. And we have had the art critic Clement Greenberg and his Eliotic Trotskyism, notably in his famous essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” And after Trilling and Greenberg there came the poet Delmore Schwartz and his idea of Eliot as “international hero.”

What follows will not be a full comparative study of Eliot and Ozick. Mostly I want to talk about Ozick and I have drawn Eliot into the discussion mainly to launch my essay, on the principle that it helps in learning to think about a writer whom we have only recently come to know to set her in relation to a writer we have been reading for a long time. My excuse for introducing Eliot rather than someone else as a reference point is that Ozick herself has frequently remarked on Eliot in essays and interviews and that only a short time ago she published an interesting long essay on Eliot in The New Yorker (Nov. 20, 1989) that confirmed my sense that he has been a major influence on her.

What kind of influence? Eliot was a poet, and Ozick writes short stories and novels. But the fact that their creative work has been in different genres is not crucial because the Eliot I shall be adducing is not Eliot the poet but Eliot the literary critic and theorist of culture. And the problem I shall be most concerned to address is one that Eliot himself raised: the problem of the relation between religion and literature. Ozick deals with this problem in her essays and her fiction, but in terms slightly different from Eliot's. She alerts us to the conflict between two kinds of religion: traditional religion on the one hand, and the modernist religion of art on the other.

By traditional religion I mean orthodoxy, or at least these writers' versions of orthodoxy: the Anglo-Catholicism of Eliot and the normative Judaism of Ozick. By the religion of art I refer to a particular phase of literary history, the early decades of this century, when writers like Joyce and Proust composed monumental bodies of work that were to serve their audiences not as mere verbal artifacts but as secular scriptures, in competition with God's Word. Literature had never been so ambitious, and readers gathered about these great works in the spirit of acolytes, blurring the distinction between sacred and profane texts. That older tradition of high modernism lives on in some of our contemporaries, including Cynthia Ozick, though in her writing it exists in conflict with religious tradition.

I shall start by pointing out some likenesses between Ozick and Eliot. Then I shall approach the general question of the two religions by way of a look at several fictional texts by Ozick. And, at the end, I shall sum up by trying to place Ozick's work historically in relation to her precursors in American Jewish writing. I want to make clear from the outset that I find her to be a serious and challenging writer, worthy of being discussed alongside her most gifted precursors, like Bellow and Malamud, and her better-known contemporary, Philip Roth. 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. And I believe her importance is owing in great measure to her formulation and execution of a literary project that is part of a larger religious-cultural project.

That claim brings me back to the Eliot connection. In her New Yorker essay, Ozick keeps returning to the fact of Eliot's cultural authority in America during the 1940s and 50s, when she was starting out as a writer. The strategy of her essay is to focus on Eliot's role as high priest of the religion of modernism. She conveys with a certain reverence the literary mood of the immediate post-World War II period, when a deeply conservative and traditionalist writer, with a powerfully authoritarian streak, became a model for the rebellious young. And this situation Ozick contrasts with what she regards as the anything-goes spirit of the 1960s.

Her essay is at once an autobiographical memoir of American academic literary life in the age of Eliot and a defiant affirmation of the continuing relevance of that youthful initiation. Her essay helps us see how the acolyte of the late 1940s has herself become a conservative priestess in her own right—and at the same time a major artistic innovator like Eliot. “As I see it,” Ozick writes, “what appeared important to me at twenty-one is still important; in some respects, I admit to being arrested in the Age of Eliot, a permanent member of it, unregenerate. The etiolation of high art seems to me a major loss. I continue to suppose that some texts are worthier than other texts. The same holds for the diminishment of history and tradition: not to incorporate into an educable mind the origins and unifying principles of one's own civilization strikes me as a kind of cultural autolobotomy. Nor am I ready to relinquish Eliot's stunning declaration that the reason we know so much more than the dead writers knew is that ‘they are that which we know.’” And Ozick goes on to invoke Eliot's authority in support of the traditionalist position in the contemporary quarrel over the literary canon.

This, then, is Ozick's stance in our contemporary quarrel of the ancients and moderns. It is a familiar enough position and worth citing only because Ozick's Judaism gives it a special inflection. For her traditionalism grows out of her reading of the Second Commandment, which enjoins God's Chosen People not to bow down before idols of their own making, or, in Ozick's formulation, not to blur distinctions, between matter and spirit, between creature and Creator. Her opposition to idolatry informs her sharp attacks on American Jewish writers and critics who have advocated some version of art for art's sake. Artistic creativity Ozick suspects to be in its essence magical and heretical. She sees the fiction writer, like the literary or political intellectual, as disposed to worship idols she has herself created, instead of the living God.

Ozick worked out this position in a few powerful essays that are reprinted in a collection, Art & Ardor, which she published in 1983. The best-known of these essays, “Toward a New Yiddish,” which was first published in 1970, clarifies the historical provenance of Ozick's program.

That essay grows out of the specific experience of the American 1960s, the decade in which Ozick, already in her late 30s, found herself as a writer. She found herself, particularly as a polemicist, by way of a bitter clash with the dominant spirit of the age in politics and literature alike. For Ozick there were two main movements in the 60s: political radicalism, chiefly as represented by the New Left, and a revival of art for art's sake, which was associated with figures like Susan Sontag and William H. Gass. What both movements had in common, in Ozick's view, was an aestheticizing outlook, a fetishizing of surfaces that she finds to be at odds with Jewish moral seriousness and the Jewish commitment to history. In addition to these tendencies of the 60s there was also Ozick's continuing grief over the Holocaust, which has meant for her not only the death of individuals but the death of the Yiddish language and the Jewish civilization to which it gave voice.

Here I would point again to the Eliot connection. For he also protested against what he regarded as the decline of Romanticism into a decadent aestheticism, and he too responded with a traditionalist program to the disorder unleashed by a world-historical catastrophe. For Eliot that catastrophe was World War I, which confirmed him in the passion for authority that, paradoxically, affected his generation as innovative, as a rebellion against the Romantic status quo. One of Eliot's best essays describes the transition from the Victorian moralism of Matthew Arnold to the fin-de-siècle aestheticism of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde. For Eliot that transition was a decline that could only be arrested by the recovery of a classical faith, and so he directed the attention of his readers away from Swinburne and the swoon of late Romanticism to the medieval Catholicism of Dante, which predated individualism, democracy, secularism, and all the commonplace features of liberal modernity.

Now, Ozick is by no means as programmatic or as systematic a thinker as Eliot. Neither is she even remotely as authoritative a figure in the general culture. Indeed, it is one of the burdens of her New Yorker essay that no writer today can hope to have Eliot's authority. So my linking her with Eliot, following hints in her own writing, is meant only to be suggestive. What I would suggest is that Ozick sums up a longing, similar to Eliot's, for order and orthodoxy following a great historical catastrophe. Whereas Eliot would recreate the medieval Christian community, Ozick would recreate the lost world of pre-World War II East-European Yiddishkeit, which was similarly organized about religious belief.

Ozick portrays as expansive that Yiddish-language culture long patronized by emancipated Westernized Jews as narrow. What rationalist, assimilated Jews have dismissed as parochial, she celebrates as truly universal. Her great text on this subject is her early novella “Envy,” which is subtitled “Yiddish in America.” In that story the main character, Hershel Edelshtein, suffers from being marginalized as a Yiddish poet in a culture, modern-day America, in which practically no one any longer reads Yiddish. Everything conspires to remind Edelshtein that he is used up, a leftover from a vanished world. In glossy, up-to-date New York, he is a reminder to younger, assimilated Jews of a narrow, superstitious shtetl world from which their grandparents escaped just in time. But Edelshtein will not go gently onto the garbage heap of history. Toward the end of the story he has this vision:

He saw everything in miraculous reversal, blessed—everything plain, distinct, understandable, true. What he understood was this: that the ghetto was the real world, and the outside world only a ghetto. Because in actuality who was shut off? … To whom, in what little space, did God offer Sinai?

We might be inclined to call this the compensatory fantasy of a failed poet, but fourteen years after “Envy,” in an essay entitled “Bialik's Hint,” which is reprinted in Ozick's recent collection Metaphor & Memory, she fills out this vision of history, presenting it in all seriousness as her own, not as tragicomic epiphany. She asserts the universality of Judaism as a world civilization and decries the effects of the secularization of the Jewish people in the wake of the Enlightenment and the Emancipation of the Jews from their ghettos.

It is this kind of argument I have in mind in speaking of Ozick as the Jewish T. S. Eliot. Her preoccupation with the opposition of metropolis and province, center and periphery, echoes a similar preoccupation in Eliot. The Anglo-Catholic poet was famously concerned with the contrast between a classical culture and a provincial one. For Eliot, centrality was a positive term, and the central literary-cultural tradition was Latin and Catholic. In contrast with the universality of Rome, even the great English classics, including Shakespeare and Milton, were provincial. And Eliot had a vision of world history—from the Roman Empire to the Holy Roman Empire—that corresponded to his vision of a literary tradition founded on the legacy of Virgil to Dante. In Eliot, as Frank Kermode argues, the histories of religion, literature, and empire were all gone.

Consider the basis on which Ozick celebrates the ghetto. Is it not simply a Jewish version of the so-called “organic” society that Eliot, and the New Critics after him, praised as an alternative to atomistic liberal-secular modernity? Ozick's praise of Yiddishkeit is only the most recent affirmation of what is by now one of the most dependable conventions of High Modernism. And Ozick adapts a Jewish version of yet another familiar Eliotic idea: the dissociation of sensibility. Like Eliot, she is hostile to the liberal Enlightenment. For Ozick the Enlightenment and Emancipation have brought in their wake a kind of Jewish writing that isn't fully Western and isn't really Jewish. It is a writing, she argues, that is diluted by assimilation and accommodation, that is pledged either to art for art's sake or to a superficial sociological realism which, in both cases, has not kept faith with what she calls “the Jewish idea,” and which as a consequence will not last.

I want now to turn to Ozick's fiction. T. S. Eliot's name will come up somewhat less frequently, but he will be present all the while, especially in my underlying conception of Ozick's involvement with the central problem of religion and literature, or, as I am putting it, the conflict in her fiction between religious orthodoxy and the religion of art.

I have said that the Holocaust is the decisive historical influence on Ozick's writing. Moreover, I am discussing Ozick as a specifically Jewish writer. Since three of the four stories I look at touch on the Holocaust, I want to emphasize that in my view she is not centrally a Holocaust novelist. I would say that Ozick's deepest concerns have more to do with her own situation as a Jew and as a writer than with the destruction of Europe's Jews. The main factor in that situation, the situation of the writer-as-believing-Jew, is a combination of attraction and repulsion in her attitude to her own creative imagination. She is almost constantly aware of her art as the potential enemy of her Judaism, and much of the energy of her attack on alleged idolaters like Harold Bloom seems to me displaced from her uneasiness about aestheticizing and idolatrous tendencies in her own work. I turn now to two linked stories, “The Shawl” and “Rosa,” which have recently been reprinted and which confront the Holocaust and its effects more directly than any other of Ozick's fictions. “The Shawl” came first, in 1980. It is only eight pages and as elemental as a mother's love for her baby, which is Ozick's subject. The context of the mother-infant bond is not sketched in, but enough details are given to make plain that we are in the world of the Nazi death camps.

Every thing is contained in the image of the shawl, which the baby sucks on after Rosa, the mother, can no longer nurse her. The baby is wrapped and rocked as in a cradle, tangled in a bower made up of breasts and shawl. It seems a magical shawl, or perhaps a prayer shawl, a tallis, that nourishes the baby, providing sustenance—the only sustenance, in the absence of the mother's milk—in a place of ultimate darkness. But when they reach the death camp, the older child, Stella, steals the shawl from the baby so that she may cover herself. The baby, Magda, crawls out of the barrack in search of it. Then, in full view of Rosa, who discovers the baby's absence too late, Magda is snatched up by a helmeted figure and hurled to her death against the camp's electrified fence. The infant's death, by fire, is Ozick's condensed image of the Holocaust.

The curious thing is that the story is shocking but does not produce grief. I have said that “The Shawl” is notable among Ozick's fictions for its directness, but that statement needs to be qualified. The subject-matter is stark and elemental, but Ozick's treatment of it is not. Her prose is not at all simple. It is very highly wrought, heavy with metaphor. The prose has been adjusted to Ozick's overall intention, which is not to convey a mimetic description of concentration camp horrors, but, rather, to offer a parable centered about a life-giving image, the shawl, which is used so as to stand for the most elemental human connectedness and, more than that, memory, continuity, trust, faith.

After Magda's fiery death, Rosa is herself sustained by the shawl. In order to stifle her scream, which would not save the baby but would call attention to herself and cause her to be killed as well, Rosa stuffs the shawl into her mouth: “She stuffed it in and stuffed it in, until she was swallowing up the wolf's screech and tasting the cinnamon and almond depth of Magda's saliva; and Rosa drank Magda's shawl until it dried.” What is the significance of this object, this symbol, which miraculously enables a baby to live after her mother can no longer nurse her but for which, in the end, the baby dies, and which saves the mother from the same fate?

“Rosa,” a longer fiction published three years later, in 1983, offers a sequel and a clarification. In “Rosa,” the mother is still alive. It is now some thirty years after the action of “The Shawl,” and Rosa is in her late 50s, a mad old woman just barely surviving emotionally and physically among other old Jews in Miami Beach. We learn that when Rosa had first come to America, after the war, she had lived in Brooklyn, where she operated a second-hand furniture store. But in Brooklyn she had been driven mad by grief over loss of her daughter and the calm indifference of her customers to that grief. One day Rosa had taken a big hammer and, bit by bit, destroyed everything in her store. It's very much to the point that the store Rosa destroyed had specialized in antique mirrors.

Rosa's subjective antique mirror is her memory of her privileged, assimilated Jewish family in pre-Hitler Warsaw. Of her banker father she recalls that he had “mocked at Yiddish; there was not a particle of ghetto left in him, not a grain of rot.” Now, in America, Rosa refuses to resume her life. She doesn't know Yiddish and will not master English. The result is that she is cut off from the lower-class American Jews of Miami Beach. Rosa lives almost exclusively in memory and fantasy, imagining that Magda is still alive, married and a professor in New York. The shawl is now more than ever a symbol of endurance, love, faith, memory—but also of delusion and disavowal. That is to say, the shawl has become a highly ambiguous symbol.

It may be that for Ozick all symbols are inevitably ambiguous. How could it be otherwise, given that her aesthetic is complicated by her fidelity to a divine commandment that prohibits idolatry and seems to cast doubt on all forms of aesthetic representation? Here we may again compare Ozick's project of recovery with Eliot's. Eliot also worried about the adequacy of language to his religious vision, notably in the first two of his “Four Quartets,” though he was not as consistently troubled as Ozick by the sense that his literary vocation was corrupted from the start by virtue of the need to traffic in images and verbal representations.

The shawl remains Ozick's major symbol in “Rosa,” but a cluster of counter-symbols enters the story by way of a new character, 75-year-old Simon Persky, whom Rosa meets in a laundromat. A simple, well-meaning man, Simon had come to America from Poland long before the war and had made a living in the button business. Rosa, still a snob even in her present debilitated condition, reflects on his life: “how trivial it must always have been: buttons, himself no more significant than a button.”

The story turns on an item of apparel even less dignified than a button. Simon Persky has helped Rosa with her laundry, but when she gets back from the laundromat she discovers that she is missing a pair of underpants. In her madness Rosa is sure that Persky has stolen the pants. The story as a whole turns on the contrast between the magical shawl, the symbol of Rosa's privileged pre-war existence, of her European life generally, and the underpants, symbol of the disenchanted present, the banality of survival in Miami Beach. The paradox is that the magical shawl which has been Rosa's link to life is also the antique mirror of narcissism that keeps her from life. The movement of the story is away from the imagination's privileged object, the shawl, to simple buttons and frayed underwear. In opposition to the glamour of art, Ozick directs us in this story to a renewed appreciation of what she has elsewhere called “the riddle of the ordinary,” the redemptive potency of the commonplace.

The problem is how to rescue art from the imputation of idolatry; the solution is for art not to serve its own ends but to serve God's ends. Strangely, imagination becomes redemptive only by demystifying itself. So, at the end Rosa is restored to living history—but at some cost. The shawl is caused to lose its aura. Now it is only a “colorless cloth (which) lay like an old bandage; a discarded sling.” With Ozick, then, we have a covenanted Jew, deeply orthodox in her attitude to the Law, whose vocation as an artist involves her in repeated violations of the divine commandment against idolatry. She meets the conflict head-on by making it the subject of her art. She characteristically ends her stories with the demystification and sometimes the destruction of the chief object of her main character's desire, which is also the object or symbol about which Ozick the artist has organized her story. She thereby gives us an art committed to its own unmaking.

The same pattern also underlies Ozick's comic novella “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” a tour de force about a golem set loose within the bureaucracy of modern-day New York City. This oddly named story is an exercise in the genre of the fantastic—Xanthippe is a golem, a non-human creature made of earth but sprung full-blown from Ruth Puttermesser's overactive imagination. But this is a golem set loose not in sixteenth-century Prague, as in the famous version that Gershom Scholem has recounted in his studies of Jewish mysticism, but in a New York recognizably that of its previous mayor, Ed Koch.

Puttermesser is a highly learned, unmarried lawyer who works in the city bureaucracy. Despite great dedication and years of quiet self-sacrifice, she is summarily fired by a cynical new boss following a post-election shake-up. Wounded but not burnt out, Puttermesser dreams up a plan to rescue the city from governmental venality and incompetence. The dream proves mother to the fact. There appears one day in Puttermesser's bed a child, the offspring of her imagination, a material being whom Puttermesser thinks of as Leah but who calls herself Xanthippe, the name of the legendarily shrewish wife of Socrates. This creature is not a human child but a golem who deviates from previous golems in a number of respects, chief of which is her female gender. Also, Xanthippe may be the first golem created to effect the cleansing of a municipal bureaucracy.

As Puttermesser's—now Mayor Puttermesser's—righthand woman, Xanthippe proceeds to carry out the mayor's “Plan for the Resuscitation, Reformation, Reinvigoration, and Redemption of the City of New York.” At first everything goes beautifully. New York is on its way to becoming a “gan eydn,” a recovered Eden. Reason, order, right rule prevail in the polis. But there is a flaw in this new Paradise, as there had been in the old one. Puttermesser's former lover, Morris Rappaport, comes to town and initiates a willing Xanthippe into the mysteries of sexuality, whereupon this previously exemplary civil servant goes on a sexual rampage, leaving chaos in her wake. The city is well on its way to becoming more of a Babylon than ever until a horrified Puttermesser resolves to put her genie back in the bottle. She reverses the process of creation and in the end restores to earth, in a touching pagan burial ceremony, the golem who has become an agent of Eros and confusion.

Now what can we make of this rather elaborate joke? Ozick the cultural conservative can hardly have gone to so much trouble merely to persuade her readers that Puttermesser's political utopianism can also be a form of idolatry. No, I think the political theme is only an occasion for a complicated working out of a profound ambivalence that we saw in Ozick's doubletake on the magical shawl, an ambivalence about created artifacts that is the structural principle underlying her fiction and generating its diverse manifestations.

I have commented on the provenance of the golem story in Jewish mysticism. Ozick insists that Puttermesser is a thoroughgoing rationalist committed to the Law. So is her creator Cynthia Ozick, a self-professed Mitnagid, that is, an opponent of Hasidism and, more generally, of mysticism. But that is Ozick the citizen, Ozick the critic of literature and mystical religion. That is Ozick the exponent of normative Judaism. As a writer of fictions, however—and here I quote from Ozick herself: “as a writer I absolutely wallow in mystery religion.” So we start with a conflict, which she herself points out, between Ozick the daughter of the Talmud and the Ozick who first attracted widespread attention with a short story about a rabbi fatally drawn to nymphs and dryads: a pagan rabbi.

We might think of the conflict as parallel to the tension T. S. Eliot acknowledged between his own classicizing criticism and his highly subjective, anguished poems. Ozick's critical essays differ from her fiction in similar ways, but the conflict in Ozick also exists within the individual fictions themselves.

In “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” the unruly double must be returned to earth. As Xanthippe is dying, she cries out in a childlike voice: “Life! Love! Mercy! Love! Life!” But the golem has got out of hand and must be destroyed. To the sister-daughter-secret sharer she has brought into being and is now determined to return to earth, Puttermesser says: “Too much Paradise is greed.” The idea, I think, is that the recovered Paradise will need to be a creation of God, not a heavenly kingdom we have ourselves invented in the image of our own desires. The golem as redemptive object is like the shawl in being constructed by human imagination. But then, like any other idol, it must be returned to its original elements. We might put it that Ozick in her fiction wants to have it both ways. She gives and then she takes away, imagining the story and then destroying it before our eyes. Before she can be punished for the presumption of setting up in competition with God, she disavows her own creation, even, as in this story, literally burying it.

The modern writer dreams of a story that will be perfect, a story to end all stories and defeat time once and for all. But the religion of art bucks up against orthodox religion, which says that such a dream is idolatrous, a heretical displacement of a yearning that ought to be directed toward God. The golem-motif in “Puttermesser and Xanthippe” carries us further into the vexed question of the relation between religion and literature. For it obliges us to consider more closely the hunger for redemption that is common to religion and to art as a substitute-religion. We have considered the shawl and the golem as redemptive symbols. But all along Ozick has been attracted by another symbol, a symbol that is itself composed of symbols: the literary text.

Ozick's most recent novel, The Messiah of Stockholm, brings together the preoccupation of her earlier fiction with idolatry and the related question of language and textuality. The messiah of her title is itself a title, of a book that the Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz was working on at the time of his murder by the Nazis in 1942. But the messiah is also Ozick's main character, Lars Andemening, a book reviewer for a Stockholm daily newspaper, who thinks he is Schulz's son and who has dedicated himself to an obsessive search for his supposed father's lost manuscript. Lars is a would-be messiah who would redeem his supposed father and save the world by way of his father's text. I keep saying “supposed” father because, although Lars is a refugee and an orphan, Ozick's novel gives us no reason to believe that Lars is anything but deluded. Bruno Schulz had no children.

But The Messiah of Stockholm is not concerned with psychopathology. What Ozick cares about is not psychology and character but ideas, especially metaphysical ideas. The emotional origins of Lars's obsession are of little interest to his creator compared to his single-minded discipleship. Lars is wholly devoted to literary texts. Another character's mockery of him is not mistaken. She says: “You think the world is made up of literature. You think reality is a piece of paper.” Madness, perhaps, but how many modernist and postmodernist writers, from Mallarmé to Borges, have believed just that. And how closely that conviction resembles the language-mysticism of the Kabbalah. It is an attitude that can't help but appeal to writers of a religious impulse who cannot affirm any god but their own creativity. As a writer, rather than as a believing Jew, Ozick is much attracted to this modern heresy. At the same time, her fear of unchecked imagination disposes her to shy away from the literary equivalent of antinomianism. Here she shares a suspicion with T. S. Eliot, who deprecated William Blake's self-invented mythology in comparison with Dante's recourse to an established framework of religious belief.

Lars Andemening's search for Bruno Schulz's Messiah leads to his relationship with a mysterious Stockholm bookseller named Heidi Eklund, who Lars thinks to be herself a death camp survivor. The story comes to a crisis when there appears on Lars's doorstep another mysterious figure, a woman about Lars's age, who claims to be Schulz's lost daughter and who purports to be in possession of the lost manuscript. Ozick's novel reaches its climax in a chapter near the end, in which the supposed text of Schulz's Messiah is unveiled. The novel The Messiah of Stockholm does not quote from the manuscript of The Messiah, but it does summarize its contents. The setting is Drohobycz, the small town in Galicia in which Schulz lived his whole life and in which his extant fictions are set. But this is a Drohobycz wholly given over to idols, with no human inhabitants to worship them. Left to themselves, the idols have set the village on fire: “The town was on fire, idols burning up idols in a frenzy of mutual adoration.” The novel's messiah intervenes in this holocaust of the idols.

The messiah is a huge, unwieldy surrealist contraption, an inhuman, organic, pulsing machine made up of hundreds of wings that are actually pages covered with an unreadable script. It is hard to guess what this is all about, although Ozick volunteers that the manuscript as a whole “was about creation and redemption. It was a work of cosmogony and entelechy.” As for the unreadable letters, Ozick says: “it was now clear that Drohobycz had been invaded by the characters of an unknown alphabet.” Nearly as soon as the messiah appears, the unwieldy contraption begins to self-destruct. As it falls apart, a small bird flies off, as at the end of the Biblical story of the Flood.

After the revelation of what is claimed by the Eklunds to be Schulz's long-lost text, Lars decides that the whole thing has been fake: that Heidi and her husband are frauds and that the text is a forgery. They are imposters, and he, Lars, has been a fool in thinking that he is the son of Schulz. Liberated from his delusion, Lars puts an end to the Eklunds' scheme and to his own redemptive quest by setting fire to the manuscript. The flames of the Holocaust burn everywhere in Ozick's fiction. Here what is consumed is a secular text that had seemed to promise Lars a divine revelation.

When the infernal machine self-destroys, Lars is restored to ordinariness, as Rosa and Ruth had been in the earlier stories. But Ozick, always ambivalent in such matters, does not celebrate his return to the quotidian. Lars is freed from his obsession with Bruno Schulz and his language mysticism, but freed for what? He becomes just another routine reviewer for his newspaper and in most respects just like everybody else. Gone is Lars's mystical faith in literature and with it his hope for a messianic deliverance.

If we ask about the larger meaning of this strange novel, we are brought back to the pattern of making and unmaking that we have seen to be central to Ozick's art. The destruction time after time of the redemptive object suggests a principle of frustration and deferral that is the signature of Ozick's Judaism. Her fictions reveal a never-ending search for a messiah and her insistence that the search can never be concluded, at least on terms that we stipulate. Haunted by the idea of deliverance, Ozick insists in her fiction on remaining in the wilderness. Attracted to mystical apocalypticism, she nevertheless sees to it that the end is infinitely deferred.

Readers of fictions like Ozick's story “Usurpation” know that the object which she most invests with her redemptive hopes is language itself. That investment in language has roots both in Jewish Kabbalism and in the modernist religion of art. Ozick participates in both traditions, the religious and the secular-literary. More and more, it seems, her subject is not quotidian life, certainly not the sociological reporting and critique that have been the stock in trade of earlier Jewish novelists. Rather, her distinctive subject-matter is textuality itself, as in The Messiah of Stockholm, which offers commentary on Bruno Schulz's extant texts and organizes itself about an imagined but not actually existing text, The Messiah of Schulz. But as these pretexts are only profane texts, Ozick's own stories are also only profane. The modern secular priest or priestess of art can only be an imposter or forger, a plagiarist or usurper. Lars tells Dr. Eklund, the forger of Schulz's Messiah: “You want to be in competition with God. …” That is Ozick's reminder to herself of the dangers and limits of her own art.

The heresy, which is her own, must be exposed, the imposture brought to light. Ozick will not accept, as Harold Bloom does, the functional equivalence of sacred and profane texts. This principle of frustration and loss might seem dispiriting. But in fact the ever renewed destruction of the text becomes a principle of productivity, requiring that the attempt be ever renewed. Irving Howe once described the struggle for socialism in America as “steady work.” He meant that the realization of socialism could not be expected any time soon. Similarly, given the conflict between her Judaism and her commitment to the religion of art, Ozick has steady work. She has a great theme, and there is no likelihood of the central conflict in her work being resolved. Such a writer can be assured of steady work for as long as her strength—or her ambivalence—holds out.

I have said that Ozick's program of Jewish cultural renewal has affinities with T. S. Eliot's proposals for a Christian society. They are joined, too, by their religious orthodoxy and their sense of the tension between religion and modern secular culture. Just as she resembles Eliot in these respects, so does she differ from her American Jewish precursors, both the writers of fiction and the critical intellectuals. For Jewish writing in America has been mainly secular in orientation. I want to consider briefly the Jewish novelists, then the critics, as part of an effort to place Ozick historically.

Saul Bellow and Philip Roth have insisted that they be regarded as American rather than as Jewish writers. There is every reason to take them at their word. Just consider, for example, an early Bellow novel like The Adventures of Augie March, which was published in 1953. Bellow leaves little doubt about his intention in that novel of creating an all-American hero who may be Jewish but who is, more importantly, a descendant of Huckleberry Finn. Bellow's novel begins with Augie's credo: “I am an American, Chicago born … and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way.”

Augie March is unusual among Bellow's novels in its open-hearted celebration of America. The novel belongs to a specific historical moment: the revulsion against Marxist ideology and the corresponding discovery of virtue in American cultural traditions that was commonplace in Bellow's intellectual circle in the immediate post-World War II period. But even if we take our examples from Bellow's later work, stories and novellas like “The Old System” or, more recently, The Bellarosa Connection, we find that Bellow is writing about Jewishness rather than about Judaism. The question he is asking is this: What has happened to the Jews in America? Or, to put it a little differently, what has been the impact of America on the “old system” of values the Jews brought with them from East Europe? That is to say, Bellow has been concerned above all with the immigrant and post-immigrant experience. He has focussed on the specifically American life of the Jews, as against Ozick's concern, as she puts it, with what it means to be a Jew, not locally or sociologically, but in principle. This is not at all to say that Bellow's writing is devoid of ideas or metaphysical aspirations. On the contrary, it's just that when Bellow's Jews do express transcendental longings, these longings have little to do with Judaism as such.

Ozick is a latter-day New York intellectual as well as a writer of fiction. But here, too, she is a Jewish critic with a difference. She has commented on politics but never from within the half-century debate among Jewish intellectuals about Marxism and anti-Marxism. That debate, specifically about Stalinism, has been the indispensable context for understanding the work of critics like Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe. It's beside the point for understanding Ozick.

Here, too, history favors the new departure she represents. For just as the end of the immigrant experience and the inexorable assimilation of the Jews have made the older style of ethnic novel appear pale and dated, so the end of the Cold War has made the older terms of cultural debate less relevant to the present. Ozick represents a new kind of Jewish writing—we could call it a kind of Jewish postmodernism—and a new Jewish attitude. That attitude, shaped in some part by the Holocaust, registers a deep disappointment with the older kind of Jewish secular intellectualism and the assimilationism that went along with it. Ozick has traded in the 1930s–40s universalism of advanced attitudes in politics and the arts in favor of the recovery of an ancient Jewish civilization as it was organized around Judaism as a universal religion. And, finally, the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel has encouraged a pride in membership that, again, marks a shift from the abstract pride in alienation and marginality of the American Jewish writers and intellectuals of the 1930s and 40s.

It is a curious irony that Ozick's traditionalism should seem so innovative in relation to the established styles of American Jewish creative writing and criticism. And it is a further irony that her conscious cultivation of a sense of tradition should now remind us of a writer, T. S. Eliot, whose traditions were so different but whose religious-cultural program now appears so much closer to Ozick's own than is the program of any well-known American Jewish writer or intellectual of the generation before hers.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.”

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 mother's brother, who died a few years ago. He was a Hebrew poet.

What was his name?

His name was Abraham Regelson. He emigrated to Israel when that state declared its independence in 1948. And though he won a number of major prizes there, his star is very much in eclipse. He did not write skinny little subjective lyrics—he wrote big, dramatic, philosophical poems rather like Milton, actually. He has a great poem called “Cain and Abel.” At any rate, I, of course, as a very small child, did not know anything about his content or his form—that goes without saying. Nor have I ever really absorbed it, because it was in a language that I have never mastered. But the fact that there was an uncle who was a poet, I believe with hindsight, made it possible for me to understand that there were writers in the world. And of course the minute I began reading fairy tales, it was irresistible—that kind of eery ecstasy that child readers have, that kind of buzzing in the head, or whatever it is. It's an attack on the soul. So I always knew this, and I have been writing since childhood.

That is a beautiful way of putting it—“an attack on the soul.”

So I always wrote. But I don't think that I achieved a really grown up, mature style until I was seventeen. Something happened in that year when, I think, even when I look back on it today, it stopped being child-like. That's how I became a writer, simply through—what shall I call it?—self-recognition: the way you know the color of your eyes, or how much you weigh, or what your name is. I think probably the way you know what your name is. That's best, because the others are too physical, and knowing you are a writer is metaphysical. It's like having a name, which has been given to you, which you didn't choose. Now that I have been a writer for a long time, I realize that that is a kind of slavery too: not to ever have had a choice is a kind of slavery.

Many years ago when I got out of graduate school (I did my Masters thesis on Henry James) I sat down to write a long novel which was called Mercy Picking Peace and Love. The title was taken from Blake, and it was intended to be a “philosophical” novel. It was going to set neo-Thomism up against secularism. But the emphasis … Am I making noise with this teaspoon? Sorry!

I'm worrying about when I'll have to transcribe this …

[Laughing] I have to do something with my nervous fingers! I'll keep them folded in my lap. I'll do something with my sleeve. My earlobes—something!

At any rate, I must have written about three hundred fifty thousand words, on this. It was like Jacob ruling Rachel and Leah in the Bible, because I put all my eggs in this basket, so to speak, and didn't do what young writers normally do, which is to chase around and try to get reviews, and write short stories and try to get them published. I had an idea of a huge, early masterpiece I was going to write, which I was going to publish by the time I was twenty-five. I had some notion that, well, if Thomas Mann did this with Buddenbrooks—which I hadn't read yet, but simply knew about—why not I? Well, the years dragged on. And then I wrote, in six weeks, a short novel which I completed, which was called The Conversion of John Andrew Small. It was turned down by Doctorow and a number of others, and ended up lost in London, in the office of some publisher.

Was that the only copy?

There may be a primitive carbon of it in the attic of our house, but I am not really certain—I've never found it there. And it's just a notion that it might be up there.

That's terrible.

It's lost. And it was a completed comic novel. One of the characters was an Italian American. It's lost. Probably well and good. Of course I haven't read it in years and years—decades. So I have no idea. When I finished that, I began another short novel, which was really going to be a novella. There was an editor in New York named Oscar Dalisa. I read that he was doing a series of short novels in paperback. It was a kind of contest, and I thought that I would write for that. And that ended up being a vast novel called Trust. By then I was thirty-seven years old, and substantially unpublished. Trust I finished on the day that John Kennedy was assassinated: November 22, 1963. I finished it that day. And I had begun it when I was twenty-nine years old. By then I was—how old was I? I am an imbecile in arithmetic … I was born in 1928, how old was I in 1963? Thirty-three. Is that right?


Thirty-five. O.K. So I wrote it between twenty-nine and thirty-five. That's when I really began … having begun at twenty-two, I spent many, many, many years in a long, distressed, envious, deeply, deeply miserable silence. And very recently I realized that I had to stop mourning about it. Bob Gottlieb said this to me—he is my editor at The New Yorker, a friend and a support. He said, “You're pretty old by now, you've got to quit lamenting, quit complaining—it's over, it's done!” But in some way, it's never been over and done. I think that youthful drive for recognition was very healthy in certain ways, because it cured me of certain mean traits that writers acquire, particularly envy, that is an ailment I am incapable of now—I was then sick with it.

That's why you could write “Envy.”

That wasn't my title! That was Norman Podhoretz's title. I protested that title, but I eventually kept it. I called that story “Yiddish in America.” He decided it was about envy, and so he made me call it “Envy; or, Yiddish in America.” I did, and kept the title afterward.

Anyway, it is about envy.

It is about envy. I saw the point, that it was rather a good title.

So, that's how I became a writer: a very rocky and unhappy road. You see, I haven't really improved because now, with my new point of view, I'm supposed to leave that out and not think about it, not talk about it. But I seem incapable of not talking about those bad years. Maybe my own fault, because it seems to me that a writer, especially in this society, who doesn't scamper around and look for publication … But I finished Trust and I went out into the world—and you're right, I was thirty-five. I'm remembering now. I went to the New York Review of Books to ask for a review to do and they wouldn't let me into the office. They wouldn't let me cross—this was the threshold, I was here—they wouldn't let me cross the threshold. They shouted at me from across the room, “No, we have no reviews.” And I was sent away.

And to be thirty-five years old, to have written so long … But it wasn't just the question of writing. It was the question of absolute worship of literature. It was an altar, and I was a sacrifice on that altar—a self-sacrifice. I did nothing else. I read all day in those years, and wrote in the middle of the night. I would go to the public library and come home with a ton of books about every other day. I read literary criticism, I read history. In those years I read a lot of Jewish history, a lot of Jewish philosophy. This was a time of very deep self-education for me. I am an autodidact, in Judaism in particular. And I read novels—everything, about sixteen hours a day, day after day. I was married, and my husband was going away every day, and that's what I was doing. Then he would come home, we would have dinner, there would be an evening of, you know, marital conversation; and I would write until four or five in the morning. That's how I lived, for many years.

And that's how I became a writer. That's my story.

While you were training yourself to be a writer, you probably had some literary models. Henry James, for example.

Yes, I wrote an ironic piece about that, which unfortunately many writers, and among them some serious critics, have not seen the playfulness in, the tongue-in-cheek. I don't know if you know that particular essay. It is called “The Lesson of the Master,” and it is in a collection of essays of mine called Art & Ardor. “The Lesson of the Master,” of course, is a story by James and I played a little bit with that. It's a story about how it's important not to have great masters as your model, and of course that was my life mistake. Just as you say, yes, I had literary models, and they were giants—they were James, they were Proust, they were Chekhov, they were Forster, they were Conrad, they were George Eliot, Hawthorne, they were the masters, mostly in English and American literature. More English, I would think. But a young person shouldn't do that—I mean, as I put it in this piece, at the age of twenty-two, as a nearsighted and in those years extremely skinny young woman, I should not have imagined myself the elderly bald-headed, well-paunched Henry James. I had forgotten that Henry James was also twenty-two years old at one point. I had really forgotten this.

So I think that young writers should not run after the fulfilled, and the complete, and the masterwork. Young writers should understand that they are apprentices, and run after the ripeness to be found within, and not have great huge models. That's my belief—it's all hindsight, of course.

May I shift ground and ask you a very different question? I want to know to what extent the Jewish tradition has influenced your work.

For a collection of my essays called Metaphor & Memory I wrote a preface that seemed to me very important to write. Many people had been using my essays as a yardstick, so to speak, against which to measure my stories. Now, the essays are ideational, and the stories belong to the realm of the imagination. And I have been extremely upset about this, though I do think there is a way in which essays may also be discoveries—some essays are discoveries. (This is a tangent, but I just did a little tiny fifteen hundred word review of Italo Calvino, and that was a discovery for me. I found a definition of Post-modernism that was really exciting, just in fifteen hundred words. So an essay can be a discovery.) But, by and large, essays have definable contents almost before you begin—not always, but most of the time they do. In short, they have themes. At least you know you are going to write about Italo Calvino; you know that much. But when you write a story, you barely know anything. You have some kind of floating idea, a floating feeling, or you've heard a conversation, or you've glimpsed some portrait, or a piece of landscape—anything at all. It's a floating tendril.

Mystère des naissances, as Joyce says.

Yes. That's right. Well, I felt I had in this introduction to protest this measuring stick, or this Procrustean bed of the essays. Because what happens when I write is that I am not then a Jewish writer. I think that is an oxymoron, as I've written someplace else. Because the Jewish part refers to a philosophic heritage and a mode of conduct. The philosophic heritage, in brief, is monotheism, uncompromising monotheism; and the mode of conduct is a whole system of ethics, period. A whole system, period. Not so easily ended with a period.

But an imaginative writer does not have a system of any kind. And so, for a writer to be a Jew is definitely a contradiction in terms. If you are a good Jew, or a good Christian, a good Muslim, a good Hindu, you have a code of behaviour to which you must adhere. But a writer is a wild person. A writer is a running loose id. And for me to be a Jewish writer is an impossibility. I can't be a Jewish writer. I can be a Jew, and I can be a writer—but when I am a writer I'm not a Jewish writer, and when I am a Jew, when I am a well-behaved Jew, living by my conscience, then I am not a writer at all, because I think writing and conscience are very often contradictory. To me they are.

Do you suffer from this contradiction? This, of course, is probably too personal a question …

No, it's not personal at all. I think it is a very important question. No, I don't suffer with it because I don't feel that I am undergoing the contradiction at any time: I am living either in one world or in the other world. But I am not living in both at once. If I lived in both at once, then of course I would feel distorted and pulled in two directions. But when I sit at my table and I'm writing a short story, as I'm doing now, what am I thinking about? I'm thinking about the cadence of that sentence, the resonance of those words—the story I'm writing now is a comic story—and how I can make juxtapositions which will have some kind of comic penetration. You know, Puck: “what fools, these mortals be,” which I guess is what comedy is … That sounds very dumb, but anyway …

No it doesn't. What you say is extremely interesting—and the more so because, tendentially, I disagree with what you're saying.

I could see you disagreeing in your expression.

I'm sorry. I hope you don't take it as …

No, it's interesting!

… lack of respect. But I do disagree, though very respectfully, because it seems to me that although writers may be wild, as you say, still they adhere to a code of behaviour in terms of their own art.

Is that a code of behaviour? Is that a code of the conscience?

Ultimately, yes. Given the writer that you are, you would never write in order to sell.

Oh, in that sense.

You would never try to achieve an easy effect. You would never sacrifice something you feel is essential to the story simply because it might be difficult, or …

I couldn't do that—I would love to do that! Wouldn't I love to be a rich writer? But I can't do that.

I don't think you would.

I cannot do it. I don't know how to do it.

It's your conscience.

That's a gift, that's not a conscience. I really don't believe that there are hacks. I think to be what we call a hack and to write a commercial best-seller is a great gift. I like it. It's not a literary conscience that prevents me from being Jackie Suzanne and making a lot of money. I don't know how to do it!

But you don't want to try. I am very sorry, I'm really being too personal.

No, not at all. No, no—this is fun. This is what such a conversation should be.

There is a story by Henry James called “The Next Time.” Do you know the story?


Do you remember the writer's name in it?


I can't remember his name either. But he wants to make a lot of money and he wants to have a commercial success, so he sells all his principles down the river, and he fails utterly because he writes a masterpiece. And then he says, “Well, next time I'll really write a piece of junk.” And he works very hard, he writes as badly as possible—alas, another masterwork!

That was rather autobiographical.

Yes, absolutely. But that works in reverse, because hack writers also struggle to become serious. I happen to have a friend who wants very much to be a serious literary writer. Yet, next time she will write another piece of commercial historical fiction and she will clean up, make money. Every time she has a commercial success. The next time she hopes to be serious and literary, and it never works. So, that story can be written in reverse.

No, I don't think it's a matter of conscience or literary principle that I can't make money!

Let's leave the monetary aspect of it aside and go back to the larger issue we were pursuing. When you say that you can separate what you are as a Jew from what you are as a writer, from a practical point of view I can understand the separation. But I think there must be an underlying unity that determines your choices.

I'll tell you why I think not. Because when we sit across a table … I've had a good upbringing, and I am a responsible person. If I were writing a story, and I were sitting across this table, I might find some reason to do a villainous act. I might seize a knife, and do some violence to you, or you to me. This is not going to happen between us because we are living in the real world now, but in the world of fiction I'm not responsible. What I mean to say is that the responsibility that we all have as rational human beings in society doesn't apply in fiction.

But you have a responsibility toward the piece you are writing! And that is overriding.

What is the nature of that responsibility? What I mean is …

Your taste, for one thing …

Taste. But I'm talking about the conduct of the characters. You enter into, very often, pure evil, when you are writing a story. I mean, you have to enter into every character, and you do have villains, and you really have to enter their minds. At the time of the writing you necessarily become a person whom, in the realm of responsible other life, you would regard as wicked and villainous. And that's why there is a separation. I could not act like many of my characters in my own person.

Is this an important criterion in your eyes?

I think it's very important. When I found out that Sadat was a novelist, wrote a novel, I was swept away. There was some talk at one point that Sadat's novel was going to be translated from Arabic and published here. It never happened. I was burning to read that novel, because I think that these people who play out on the stage of the world their fantasies are very very dangerous, that they should confine the playing out to novels. After all, Goëbbels was an expressionist playwright, and actually wrote novels. As I think about that, I have to believe it's a good thing that there is the separation I described, at least for most writers. O.K., Sadat did a good act, but before he did a good act he started a war that killed his own brother. Writers are wild people. And if there were no separation between the writer and the person, the world would be more of a jungle than it is.

I agree with that, though of course not only writers are wild people. Years ago, I heard Singer say the same thing, “When I write, I'm not a Jew.” He was speaking at the B'nai Jeshurun congregation, on the West Side. The audience wanted him to say that he was a Jew all the time; instead he said exactly what you said. My contention is simply that, in my view, the morality that informs one's life in terms of behaviour, in terms of honesty to one's principles, carries over in one's profession, when the consistency in morality is directed toward something different, something imaginary.

You see, I would agree with you wholly and totally, vis-a-vis writing essays. But not when you cross the line into making things up. I mean, there are writers where this is true—George Eliot …

But let's take Faulkner's Joe Christmas: isn't the writer's honesty central to the way he makes his character come alive? Obviously Faulkner is not Christmas.

Oh, that's an interesting way to put it. I see what you're saying.

You created Joseph Brill: the honesty that informs your personal life informed you in the creation of a character that is thoroughly convincing—that is to say, thoroughly honest, true, in terms of our understanding of human nature.

O.K., I see, that is an interesting word: honesty. That's correct. But there is good honesty, and there is bad honesty. There is the honesty of a villain, of a Hitler or a Goëbbels. That is one thing. Then there is the honesty of a writer whose fictional portrayal of a wicked person must be honestly done.

I see that there is a difference, but I don't see it as really countering my objection. Let me try again to understand. I know that Orthodox Jews cannot enter other temples, or a house where the shrine of a different religion is kept …

I am not an Orthodox Jew.

The point may apply anyway. A few days ago I was talking about this with Chaim Potok—that's why it's very much on my mind. I asked him, “Is this a way of fencing off temptation?” And he said, “Yes, it is.” Now, keeping this in mind: when you talk about an honest portrayal of a wicked person, do you feel that in order to portray a wicked person honestly, you have to experience being wicked, even if only in the imagination?


And therefore this intrudes upon, or enters in conflict with, your honesty as a person?

Yes. Right. Because in fiction I am utterly reckless, and my behaviour through the characters is utterly reckless, wild. And there is no break.

And that's the joy of writing fiction. It's the relentlessly and recklessly unbound imagination which is, I guess, the bliss of writing fiction. I am responsible to nothing and no one, and you can get away with anything because it's all made up, it's all in your head. And when it's completed, if it turns out to be anything near a work of art, there is that further satisfaction. But you haven't harmed a soul. Actually, I don't know whether books harm people. I think books can improve people. I always feel improved when I read George Eliot, because I think she is a writer who doesn't imagine anything against her conscience—or very little against her conscience. Or if she does, it's to the end of expressing her conscience.

But I imagine things against my conscience. I don't think Potok imagines things against his conscience. I think he is a unified person. I do think he has this kind of unity of conscience as a human being and as a writer. I think he is that integer vitae scelerisque purus individual that Horace talks about. I think that the purpose of his writing is to show such a person. And the purpose of George Eliot's writing is to show such a person. The purpose of Jane Austen's writing is to show such a person. But something in me lets loose—maybe my writing seems very tame to you, maybe my feelings as expressed to you now seem exaggerated given what's actually on the page. That may be, and if that's true, then it may be that my sense of conscience is so strict that when I feel I'm flying away from it I don't really go very far. That may be. But, internally, it feels as if I'm flying far enough.

But if you do feel that you are going away from it, the distance doesn't matter. It's the first step that matters.

Yes. Exactly.

Whereas my contention is that when it comes to art, there is no first step “away.” The first step is into a realm that is so strictly regulated by its own laws, that by adhering to these laws (which, as a writer, you respect, because you made them, even though you may never have formulated them consciously), you are still the integral individual that you are outside that realm.

How interesting that you bring this up! I held this idea when I was twenty-one years old and was writing my Master's thesis, and I expressed it in something that I called the Theory of Parable, where the fiction, or the parable, was a universe with its own laws. My teacher, who was a neo-Thomist and on whom I was going to base this first book, was a South American Roman Catholic. In my aborted novel I called him Caritas—and his real name was Vivas, which is also a rather symbolic name. So, I once did believe this.

You don't anymore?

I don't think so.

Actually, I think I'm trying more and more not to think metaphysically about what is writing, what is literature, because when you are in the middle—as I am right now—of the actual struggle, you don't feel like you're making theories, you feel like you're writing sentences. And that the struggle is with the words of the single sentence, and how that sentence emerges from the sentence before, or where the next one will come from. It does not feel any deeper than that. Though this is a struggle enough, and in some way includes the other. But not on the conscious level.


What prompted you to write The Messiah of Stockholm?

We didn't talk about this the last time?

No, we didn't.

Oh, right. I was in Sweden, in Stockholm, for eight days, and I had a Cicerone there who guided me through the literary community. Actually, it was on the occasion of the publication of The Cannibal Galaxy. I was taken to lunch by the publisher, and so on—and in one fell swoop, in one week, and in the intensest way, I met the Swedish literary community. I was swept away by them, because … well, later I realized that they are very much like the French literary community. They have the same ideas, and they have the same ability to wear many hats, so that a Swedish academic will also be a newspaper reviewer, and also publish poetry in the newspaper, and also sit on the Academy, and also teach at the university—the same like you!

Is this a phenomenon you don't find in this country?

No, you don't. People are sort of stuck in one profession. If a man is an academic, he will never be doing all the things you are doing—very rarely.

But they do write for the magazines.

Well, it's not the same way … So, to answer your question—what was the germ, what inspired The Messiah of Stockholm. An eight day trip to Stockholm, in which I was immersed in the literary world, and during which time I heard that Bruno Schultz's manuscript, The Messiah, had surfaced in Stockholm. It was merely a rumor, but as soon as I heard it, it was a stimulus to the imagination.

When was this?

It was 1984. Yes, the fall—October, I think, of 1984. After that we went to London and we spent a week there—I could barely wait to get out of London and go home to my desk to get to start this … I thought it was going to be a short story that would take me two weeks, and it turned out to be a much more complex thing, which took about a year and a quarter to write. I never expected it to be a novel—it's a short novel, but it's really a novel. That was the beginning of it. It began truly with a trip to Stockholm, and hearing in this unlikely place that this Polish-Jewish manuscript had surfaced in the North country …

It was a completely unfounded rumor …

Totally unfounded.

It looks like destiny came up with this rumor, so that you could pick it up and write The Messiah of Stockholm.

So it seemed. Except, I heard last year that Jerzy Ficowski, who's the biographer of Schultz—there's now a second rumor, from him, that, indeed, he may be on the way to finding the manuscript.


This was told to me—and I couldn't believe it, because … Is it going to be true? Since then, there has been silence; and I'm just waiting with almost a desperation, to find out whether this will happen …

How would you feel, if the manuscript surfaced?

I think I would feel like the Lord God Creator when He says, Let there be light—and there was light. I would feel as if my invention had come true.

Although, in your invention, one never knows whether the manuscript is apocryphal or genuine. But the intimation is that it is not real.

Yes, right. It's not resolved. I simply leave that to the reader. I obfuscated it in layer after layer after layer, so that you can make a case either way. You can make a logical case, you can trace it to either conclusion. In fact, that book in a sense has two endings, if you believe Adela at the end, or you can sort of go with the flow of the book and assume that it is false, that it is an invention of forgers, with the collaboration of an imaginary … who is also a forger. Because Lars is himself a forger. He's forged his own life. He's forged his own identity. He has no idea of who he was. He knows that he was a Jewish child rescued, but it happened in infancy, he has no way he can prove who he is, and he's struggling for an identity which by definition can only be negative. It's an identity which can be pursued only through negation, through murder, through annihilation. If he proves his identity to himself, if he follows on that road, he's going to end up in ash. His choice is either to follow the road of ash, which he was doing by saying he is the son of Bruno Schultz, or to be a normal Swede …

So, you left it open.

You didn't think it was open.

I recognized the intention of leaving it open, but I felt that the possibility of The Messiah being real was somewhat secondary …

Yes, that's not the important thing, you're right. I am sorry. Go on.

I meant to say that, to me, the reader is encouraged a little more to believe it is a forgery, than to believe it is authentic.

I think it's true. Yes, that's true. Because the weight of the, so to speak, metaphysics of the book is forgery. The book is about forgery.

After all, the novel with which Lars begins his new career as a reviewer is about forgery. The metaphor of forgery is overriding.

Everywhere. And then, since Adela has lied to Lars before, is she lying to Lars at the end in order to punish him? So there's no way to know. I don't know. I left it ambiguous on purpose, because to be ambiguous is also to be on the side of forgery. A fact that you can nail down is not ambiguous. The imagination is always a forger anyway.

Knowing you were there for only eight days, it's incredible how you made Stockholm into a convincing locale.

Well, actually I've been very flattered by some Swedes who said, You must have lived in Stockholm a year at least … But that happened, you know, with The Cannibal Galaxy. I did the Jewish quarter of Paris from knowing a little bit what the old East Side was like in New York—and basically from maps and guide books. When I did the Marais in Paris, I did that with a map and a guidebook. When I did the inside of the Musée Carnavalet, I did that also from a guidebook. I guess it's as Tolstoy said: if you've seen a street battle, you can visualize a war. And which writer said—I don't know if it was Tolstoy also—somebody said that if you're walking by a doorway and you see a domestic scene, it's enough. And then, from your own experience and your own life, because of the universality of the substratum of civilization, you can extrapolate. So, eight days is more than enough. I wrote a story, the one called “Rosa,” which is about Florida, and people have said, Well, you must know Miami very well. I was there one night, and I've never been back. One night. I stayed in a hotel, and left early the next morning. So, it was not 24 hours, it was maybe eight hours. And also the story “At Fumicaro,” about Bellagio—that was also eight days. But that was deep saturation into the lake, the mountains … How much time do you need for intensity to give an experience? Intensity is by definition so antenna-like …

But you've got to have what James calls “the painter's eye.”

Yes, right. I don't know whether it's the eye, or some kind of … the pores get open, the pores in the eye, the pores in the fingertips, the ears—everything. It isn't only the eye. It's the whole being. Particularly when you are in a foreign place, when you're open to experience. Then you become like a child. It won't necessarily happen in your home terrain. But just lift the writer out and put him in another city, particularly in another language—and you're shut off, and then you have to use all the other senses aside from the one that comes to you from cognition. Then all the a-cognitive, or in a way anti-cognitive, senses come into play.

That's very true. Why did you dedicate the book to Philip Roth?

The book is dedicated to Philip Roth not because of The Ghost Writer, which was pointed out to me by my English publisher (and then I saw it immediately), but because if not for Philip Roth, I would not have been introduced to Bruno Schultz. It was through his introducing Schultz into America through translation that I came to Bruno Schultz. I wouldn't have known that he existed, without Philip Roth. Then, later on, Philip Roth was kind enough to give me some at that time unpublished manuscript letters, which have since been published. But Roth had sent them about three or four years in advance, he had them in his possession, and he xeroxed them and gave them to me, and I was able to integrate them into …

In translation?

In English translation, right. So, how could I not dedicate it to him? Of course I wrote him a letter and told him I wanted to do it, but only with his permission, because if you dedicate a book to a very famous writer, there is a little problem of seeming to ride on his coattails, and I did not want to do that. I worried about that, and I wrote to him and asked him. I said that if this was going to be a problem, if he resented it, he didn't like it, I did not want to impose on him. I was very tentative in asking him. To my surprise and delight, sight unseen, without even reading it, he said, Go ahead and do it. So I was grateful.

The chapter in which you give a synopsis of Schultz's “manuscript” is an impressive tour de force. Did you immerse yourself in Bruno Schultz's writings at that time? How did you create somebody else's lost manuscript?

Yes. I appreciate that question, because that was a moment of crisis for me. The question came to me as I approached that point: Lars is going to open the manuscript and read it—what can I do? How can I possibly attempt—even if it's forged—to reproduce something that's going to look like a Schultz's manuscript? And I absolutely gave a rational answer: No, I won't attempt it. Technically, it would be beyond me—and I'm not too sure whether it would work in an arrogant way, anyhow, to interrupt by showing the manuscript. Besides, I can't do it. So I decided not to do it. It came at night, deep into the night, when against my desire, against my will, against my belief in its possibility, and certainly against any rational sense that that was what should be done, suddenly I began to write it. I did not immerse myself into Schultz at all. In fact, from the beginning to the end I kept as far away as possible from Schultz's writing. I never went near it. What I did was to struggle to find as much biographical matter as I could about Schultz, which at that point was one paragraph in one of the two paperback Schultz volumes that were available, Sanitorium under the Sign of the Hourglass and The Street of Crocodiles. Each of those books, or one of them, I don't recall now, had a small paragraph which I read again and again and again. I had no information on Schultz's biography. I went finally to a man, a Polish Jew who is a master of Polish literature, and he gave me a translation which his daughter did for me of part of Ficowski's biographical matter—I would say, about four pages. That helped some more. I got some views on it, I learned about the marriage to Josephine—the marriage that didn't come off. So I had very, very little biographical material. That I read obsessively again and again, and I squeezed what I could from it. But the text of the novels themselves, of the fictions themselves, nothing for a year.

But you had read them before?

Oh yes.

It seems to me that Schultz's prose is so catching. In a sense, it's like Henry James's prose: the moment you start reading him, you get that kind of rhythm …

But it's less catching than Henry James, I think, because it is so dense that I don't think that anybody … And I didn't pull it off, actually. I didn't. That's not Schultz.

True, it's not Schultz. But …

I just must tell you this. It was a kind of surprise, a kind of rapturous, mystical surprise, because I did that in one night, in a very slow writing. I did that whole section in one night, without knowing what I was doing. Without knowing where it was coming from, or what it meant. Later, with the rational side of the brain, I think I understood—or at least, I made an interpretation. But what it meant at the time, I have no idea. I had no idea.

You mean, the whole thing about the “Messiah,” the big flying machine—all that came to you as a …

… as a vision, one night. I haven't had that experience for a while.

Had you ever had a similar experience before?

Recently, in a new thing I've just finished, I did. A scene, one scene, which came to me as if it were a bird to the hand, given, wholly given …

But that was the first time.

The first time that ever happened? No. I think that happens very often. Not very often, but it's given to writers, to have it on occasion. No, that was not the first time for that kind of visionary flash … That's when writing really takes off and becomes magic, beyond the writer—when the writer feels like a vessel for something that somebody else is writing.

You have had that feeling?

Yes. Not often. Most of it, I mean ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent is drudgery, and no faith in it—and loathing it. Yes. But that night I didn't loath it. I wasn't loving it either, I was neither loving nor loathing, I was simply taking dictation. Not from Schultz. Because I knew it wasn't Schultz.

How did you know it wasn't Schultz?

Because I knew it wasn't Schultz. I also knew that it might not be Schultz: if this is a forged manuscript, I mustn't for a moment think that I'm getting dictation from Schultz. So what am I taking dictation from?

Schultz might have been playing …

Might have been playing? But I didn't feel it was Schultz that was dictating. I felt that it was perhaps the voice of the story, speaking in its own voice, without my having to manufacture it, or fabricate it. There was no fabrication, and that's the voice of the story. Once in a while there flies into the writer's head or hand such a moment when the narrative speaks out its organic and, in a way, orgasmic soul. That's when the prose writer is indistinguishable from the poetry writer. Actually, my feeling about prose is that it must be written as if it were poetry. I won't make a distinction—oh, surely, in terms of rhythm, in terms of genre, you must make a distinction. But the type of craft, the type of power, the type of passion, is the same.

The source …

The source. And some of the instruments.

But let me move on to another question or two.

Actually, I think you covered the very large ones.

Maybe I could just attach this tape machine to you for twenty-four hours …

Like one of those heart monitors you walk around with …

That's right. I would be the richer for it. I have one more question: why does Adela have a child, at the end? I have my own little theory about it, but I'd like to hear you on this.

An interesting question. I don't know. Why does she?

Are you asking me?

Yes. Since you have the answer. I don't.

Oh, I don't have the answer. I just have a theory.

Yes. What's the theory?

Well. Since Lars—Larsh … ?

That's the way the Swedes say it. But we wouldn't say it that way.

O.K., we'll say Lars. When Adela goes to him with her final “truth,” in the eyes of one so conspicuously childless as Lars is, the fact that she has her child with her lends her authority. He is forced to feel that her experience is far wider and more complex than his is. This is my little theory. Any truth in it?

It's wonderful. I think that's an excellent solution to that. I suppose the reason I did it is that Lars is childless, yes, but he is also the subject of this novel as a child, as a son. So there is the resonance of the child, even at the end. The book starts with the image of Lars as the child of Bruno Schultz, the child of a maybe-father and an unknown mother, and so I ended it with a child to send out the continuing resonance of the image of the child—the son of, the son of, the son of … And since Adela herself is the daughter of—first the make-believe daughter of Bruno Schultz, and then the daughter of Doctor Eklund, so there are two generations at all points. But when you are talking about the authenticity of her status, you mean her reality in the world out there?

No, I simply feel that to him, although he resents the child (and he resents the child because he resents her), for a man so obviously childless, to be confronted by a woman who has a child, who has kept him, has managed to keep him, would mean a greater grip on reality than he has …

Yes. I think that's right.

… and, therefore, would create a greater …

… belief in her story.

Well, a greater possibility of authenticity, of authority. That was my feeling.

Yes, that's true. That's wonderful. It sounds right to me. I accept your theory.

One other thing I'd like to ask you. Why the ellipsis between when Lars leaves his foster home, and when he has already adopted Bruno Schultz as a father? For some reason you didn't investigate …

… the time in between.

No, just when he appropriated Schultz as a father. Why that ellipsis?

Because I didn't want to give a detailed biography, chronologically, of how this person came to be. I wanted to show his appearance.

A kind of parthenogenesis.

Excuse me? Oh, yes, of course. It is a parthenogenesis, that's right—he does give birth to himself. And this kind of thing you can't really show. It's a psychological magic moment. One can't do without facts. So Lars is brought in in an ambiguous way. It's a saintly act to rescue a child. It was also a mercenary act, because the person did get paid for it. So in a sense his real birth into Sweden is ambiguous, this way. Then his rescuers are also ambiguous: they have rescued him, they are bringing him up, and yet he doesn't fit in that family. They don't like him. And so he runs away to make himself. At that point I skipped, because the moment of the making was implicit—in fact, you see him making himself into his father's son every time he writes a review and he goes under the quilt, and that self-creation occurs. What we don't see is the first time, and how he came to it. But, in fact, we see it repetitively again and again, because every time he goes under the quilt, it's like an undersea thing—it's an amniotic fluid that he enters …

And the egg.

Precisely—the egg. It's an amniotic fluid that he enters, and he comes up reborn, freshly born into the son of Bruno Schultz, into Bruno Schultz's genes. So I didn't think it was necessary to show the first time, as long as I have it there. It would have been perhaps … from sixteen when he left—I think I did give some facts, I don't remember exactly—I said he worked in a newspaper, he worked his way up, and so on. So it's interesting that the end is not too different from the beginning, because he began in a rather mediocre way, on a newspaper, and he ends at the top, but in a mediocre way. In his beginning is his end.

Is there any possibility that Dr. Eklund was the one who brought him in?

I don't think so. I think Dr. Eklund himself is a Jewish refugee from wherever. Heidi also is a Jewish refugee who is pretending not to be. Actually, in Stockholm I met a man who was a bookseller—I saw that store, which was not as shadowy as Heidi's but I did see that store, and I saw the man who ran it, a man from Germany who claimed he was a German who didn't want to live in Germany, that he was anti-Hitler and he'd come to live up there. He also had a wall of Judaica, which he was interested in; but he absolutely denied any Jewish identity. And that was Heidi, that became Heidi. Now my friends who guided me said, No, no, this man is not a Jewish refugee, he's only a German who wanted to get out of Germany. He didn't want to live there under Hitler.

But you felt that he was a Jew.

My suspicion was that he was a hidden Jew. And I think the same of Heidi. Of course I have given so many clues—when Heidi says she threw food over the fence, but she sounds like she knew too much.

Why would she have hidden her Jewish identity?

Well, because it's dangerous, and one becomes afraid. In the century of Hitler where Jews hid themselves and hid themselves, some remain hidden and cannot return to the ordinary … Yes, out of the habit of fear. Where you're afraid to disclose your identity. Also, you want to escape it, because you want very much to enter the world of freedom, where you can assume another identity and not return to this chosenness which, in this, in that part of the century meant victimization. So I think this may be true of Heidi.

I have asked you a lot of questions. Now I have to tell you that I enjoyed translating the book tremendously.

Well, I have to tell you how grateful I was. … I'll let you finish your remarks, but I have to tell you now, so urgently. As we are sitting here doing this, I realize these questions are not coming from the outside. It's as if they were coming from the inside of my head—and that's because, who knows the book better than the translator? You know it better than the writer.

No, no …

I mean, I've translated, and I know that in order to do it well you must enter the soul of the words, every single one. You become the writer—I mean, I feel there are two of us: there's me, and there's you, who's also me, insofar as you've translated it.

I wish that were true! Well, I must say that it was probably the most difficult translation I ever did. Almost more difficult than Call It Sleep.

The translator of Roth says this?

Yes. I think it was more difficult. I participated in the book in a way I've seldom done.

I've had such translators, including one in Germany: I've been told by people I trust. And one of the French translators was like that. Actually, I met the two French translators, and one I knew had an imagination and a sense of language. The other was dealing with inert matter: it was a question of moving one block of inert matter to another.

The reference to blocks somehow makes me think of size, length, and so I ask: In your fiction, do you have an ideal length in mind when you start something new?

I could never write a big book again, because of the one which took so long. It drained me out. I'll never write another huge book again. Never again.

So you write shorter narratives.

It's not by choice. I can't seem to write a short story. Again, what I just finished was supposed to be a short story, not a novel—and it's a short novel. Actually, it's a story about George Eliot, George Lewes and Johnny Cross. Johnny Cross was the man twenty years younger that she married after George Lewes—which was never a marriage, because he died; and then she married the man twenty years younger. And then they went on a honeymoon to Venice, and in the middle of the honeymoon—they had a hotel on the Grand Canal—he jumped out of the window, and he had to swim in the Grand Canal, and the gondoliers saved him. And nobody knows anything else about it. So this is part of my story.

You mean, nobody knows why he did it, or nobody knows what happened afterwards?

They know what he did, they know what happened afterwards, but nobody knows why on his honeymoon with the great George Eliot as his wife—she was sixty, he was forty—when it came to the moment of the honeymoon, out the window he went. That was the scene.

Maybe she dumped him.

No she didn't. She screamed, she shrieked for help. She shrieked down at the gondoliers, Save him, save him! That's the scene that came to me. That scene gave me real pleasure. I didn't write that: that scene was given to me. Nobody knows what happened, but now I know what happened, because I made it happen!

Is this going to be published as a volume?

No, it's going to be published in the New Yorker.1 And I'm under some pressure this week, as I told you, because I am waiting to hear from the editor who is thinking about cutting it. I haven't heard yet, and maybe tomorrow will be the day. I have appealed to him not to, because everything in there has resonances. It's so woven that I feel that to pull one thing out, the whole fabric would disintegrate …

How do you feel about editors, and their role in the preparation of a book?

It seems to me that the voice of the writer includes the flaws, includes the idiosyncrasies. You can make a wonderful case about Anna Karenina. Take out those essay-like chapters: what do they add?

Can you imagine if anybody had edited Moby Dick?

Exactly! An editor must allow failure in a writer, must allow flaw, must allow all those things that come under the category of personality, character, idiosyncrasy. If it weren't finger-printed, if it came out of the cookie cutter, then you wouldn't know how to shape it. I think there are some writers that are cookie cutters—in fact that's not even the image. I think of them as coming off big, big bolts of yard goods—you know, long, long bolts of cloth, and you go like this with the scissors, and that's one novel, and then along comes the next, you are on the assembly line. And I think theirs is a pedestrian prose. It's interchangeable.

Without naming names.

Without naming names. You don't have to name names—it's all over the world like that. And so, that kind of yard-goods-prose an editor is permitted to fiddle with, but not when it's a finger-print. Not when the writer is utterly deliberate about every syllable, every comma. I really regard punctuation as part of … You can't separate punctuation from the resonance of the words and the prose. A comma sometimes has more weight than a word—it's its breathing. Copy editors come with the rule book, and they start making order out of your punctuation. I want to kill them. I hate copy editors with such a passion—I think they are a breed that you need an Ayatollah for!

I understand that in England it isn't like that. In England—maybe it's changed now, but as I've been told, while here we have a scourge of copy editors, in England either you are a writer who is literate, or you're not published. Here, illiterates are published because there are copy editors who fix it up. But I don't want to be in a class with those. I know what I'm doing. I am literate.

But so far, you've won. You have won the right to do what you want, haven't you?

Yes. Yes. Copy editors are by and large not literate anyway.

Well, often they are failed writers themselves, right? Why would they take the job?

I don't think they are failed writers. I think they are kids out of school, looking for a job in publishing. And I don't think most of them are literate anymore. Because they don't know the difference between “o” as an evocative and “oh” as an ejaculation—I mean, simple things like that. They put commas where they don't belong, they don't know the meaning of words. They have taken my spellings and misspelled. They have taken my syntax and put in bad grammar, thinking they're correcting. Some are better than others, but I have seen depredations with copy editors. Jacques Barzun, retired Professor Emeritus of Intellectual History at Columbia, did a paper on the illiteracy of copy editors. It was published in the American Scholar. It was a great piece. Thank you for letting me get that off my chest!


  1. The story appeared in The New Yorker, October 8, 1990, with the title “Puttermesser Paired.”

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 “Jewish writer” together with its attendant restrictions. Yet more than they have with Roth or Elkin, critics have unquestioningly regarded Cynthia Ozick as a Jewish writer whose muses not only are Jews but whose ideas are limited to Judaism. Ozick, in fact, has always treated her tradition as a threshold rather than a terminus; indeed, her passion for making distinctions, for distinguishing one thing from another so as not to blur that which must be kept clear, springs from rabbinic practice.

The drive to keep disparate what is dissimilar led Ozick in the 1970s, for example, to declare universalism the ultimate Jewish parochialism and in 1989 to insist, at the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, on the crucial difference between a Jew and a writer. Here is the distinction she made on that occasion: “To be a Jew is an act of the strenuous mind as it stands before the fakeries and lying seductions of the world, saying no and no again as they parade by in all their allure. And to be a writer is to plunge into the parade and become one of the delirious marchers.” For Ozick imaginative art can never be equated with what is deliberately Jewish: the two are asymptotes.

Once the force of that insight is absorbed, the entire issue of American Jewish writing and American Jewish culture is called into question and must be reconsidered in a more austere light. Motivated by the conversations that preceded this one, in which we both continued to deplore the “group-think agenda of multiculturalism,” Cynthia Ozick and I sought to escape its policy of lumping together rather than distinguishing among. When she agreed to have our conversation recorded for publication in this special issue of Contemporary Literature, she and I attempted to pull together into a coherent whole fragments of earlier conversations and the scattered remarks in our correspondence. A defective tape recorder wiped out the results, but that led to our re-examining the entire concept of Jewish culture. Out of our next meeting, which culminated in this interview, came a precise definition of Jewish culture and Cynthia Ozick's vision of its future. During our talk, I asked Ozick to consider some of the ideas put forth by the issue's contributors and to comment on them in light of her definition of Jewish culture. Later, as we discussed the nuances and the implications of that definition, Ozick began to worry that she sounded “didactic.” So now, after having sat at her kitchen table in her house in Westchester County, New York, on December 13, 1992, until day turned into night, and having witnessed her formidable powers of “distinction-making,” let me summon up a distinction of my own and replace her word “didactic” with “teacherly,” a term that more accurately describes the effect of her clarifying insights.

[Kauvar:] In Between Right & Right, the Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua writes: “Some are drawn to the business of definition; others are repelled by it. I am definitely of the first sort. From time to time it is fitting to devote time to a precise, logical, almost formalistic discussion of basic concepts. Words, like coins, undergo two processes: they get worn and they get sullied. There are words that get worn down and have to be returned to the mint in order to regain their precision, to have the fine engraving that constitutes their meaning restored. There are other words that have been muddied, covered over with accretions of mire, and if we are to rediscover their original meaning they have to be cleaned.” The words “Jewish culture” seem to me to have been muddied or at least covered over, so I thought that we might profitably begin our conversation on Jewish culture by trying to define it.

[Ozick:] Yehoshua's is a fine distinction because a worn phrase is not necessarily sullied; I think of it as time-honored. But before we attempt to define Jewish culture, I want to offer you a kind of caveat in the form of a story about Malamud. In an interview [Forward 12 Dec. 1992], Paul Auster tells about the time he met Malamud in London and Malamud said, throwing up his hands, “Don't think that I'm a Jewish writer! I have nothing to do with it. I'm only half Jewish.” I can't imagine Malamud saying “I'm half Jewish”—a total fabrication—for no reason. What I think might have been going on is that Malamud was saying, “Ach, enough already! Leave me alone! Don't bother me about this subject. I don't want to represent Jews, I don't want to represent Jewish culture. What I do is write fiction.”

I have a lot of sympathy with that feeling, though I didn't years ago when Philip Roth said something similar. I was impatient then with what I took, mistakenly, to be an alienated point of view; but I think I now understand what both Malamud and Roth intended. It has to do with the relation to society of the writer whose self-definition, rightly or wrongly, is chiefly attached to storytelling. As a writer of fiction, I know today that I essentially don't want to be responsible for Jewish culture, responsible, that is, within the fiction itself, in the sense of being a spokesperson or assuming the task of carrier of a tradition—because when you write fiction your method and your goal must be freedom, freedom, and more freedom. Cultural responsibility is not where your imagination is. Your imagination belongs to writing sentences and making up stories.

And so, in a way, I think I'm asking to be let off this hook—the hook, I mean, of speaking for a tradition—even though I know you won't, at least in this conversation, agree to that. But I believe a writer of fiction has a right to be let off. Malamud's was apparently an extremely angry response, not toward Jewish culture or Jewish tradition, though that might have been so in the seventies. It would not have happened in the eighties. I can say this from firsthand experience of his latter-day wistfulness concerning Jewish matters. However, I understand why he responded in anger.

Malamud's comment reminds me of an opposite reaction, a remark Norma Rosen made in a conversation you and I had with her and Lore Segal. Norma Rosen said then that when she sits down to write, she does so with the weight of Jewish history on her back. You and Lore cried, “Norma, you can't mean this!” She said she did.

It's an interesting issue. I don't feel that way when I write fiction, and, more to the point, I don't see the necessity of feeling it. I don't want to feel it. If I felt the weight of history on me, I could never write. It's like the old joke about thinking about. the mechanics of walking. If you did, you couldn't take a single step.

When Ruth Wisse wrote “The Hebrew Imperative” [Commentary, June 1990], she claimed that Jewish writers are not responsible for Jewish culture. Their writing, she said then, is “directed toward the independent ends of fiction” (36). But in her current book, If Not Now, When?, she disapproves of Yehoshua, Amos Oz, and David Grossman for criticizing Israel.

No, it's not that she objects to them for criticizing their country, a democratic society that encourages free speech even during a continuing state of war; but from her point of view, they unfairly criticize their country in the context of the surrounding ferocity. She regards that as a psychological security risk.

But won't self-censure stop a writer from writing independently?

It does, it does. I'm an immense admirer of Ruth Wisse; I find her a heroine of Jewish ideas, and I'm close to her political thinking. She has been teacher and mentor. Yet I somehow would find it impossible to condemn Yehoshua for what he writes in fiction, because, just as Wisse herself asserts, the fiction writer isn't directed toward the common good, but rather toward “the independent ends of fiction,” which requires the freedom not to be accountable for what fictional characters think and do—short of the crudities of outright propaganda. And Yehoshua is above all a complex and highly nuanced writer who doesn't deal in crudities. I'd say that since Israeli writers frequently produce political essays—and certainly Yehoshua, Oz, and Grossman have done so—perhaps their intellectual discourse should be the object of criticism, not their fictive discourse.

Well, Robert Alter takes issue with Ruth Wisse over Israeli writers, whom he praises precisely because they feel free to criticize their country. He claims that their concern for their country is at the core of their criticism and is reflected in their novels and poetry.

If Israeli writers were utterly silent politically, then you might have to go crawling into their fiction to attempt to search out their positions. That isn't necessary. Israelis, the writers especially, are so quarrelsomely overt about their political opinions that you can simply deal with them as citizens. The fact that they're writers doesn't make them politically wiser than any piano teacher in Tel Aviv or barber in Haifa. Nor does it make them any more responsible. Writers are encumbered with the same citizenly responsibilities as everyone else, which is true in every democracy. If there is a problem with taking writers too seriously as an authoritative political influence, that is surely the mistake of the kind of reader who may also make the mistake of listening to what his barber says in a similar voice of authority.

But that is not to say that it's OK for T. S. Eliot or Pound to infiltrate their poetry with anti-Semitism. That is where the poem stops being a poem and becomes simple malice, canard, and abuse. In a free-speech society one wouldn't want to put a stop to it, but an intelligent reader should be savvy enough to condemn it, and not to praise it as poetry. In my long-ago experience as a student, the praise most often came in the form of the professor's simply overlooking the written assault. Such assaults are endemic in literature, unfortunately. You know Auden's poem on this subject—God, Auden says, “will pardon Paul Claudel” on the basis of his “writing well.” I'm not so sure. Professors of literature will certainly pardon Claudel, and Celine, and Pound, and Eliot—that we know. It was only very recently that the professors of literature fell all over one another in their haste to pardon Paul de Man. But whether anti-Semites have God's pardon, that's another story! Last night I read for the first time Balzac's remarkable tale “Pierre Grassou.” It's a witty exposure of the success of a mediocre painter, and it contains, for no reason essential to the narrative, some purely gratuitous anti-Semitism. My anger was mixed with despair and disappointment—here was a masterpiece pointlessly sullied. Ah, Balzac too!

In the same way, I don't like gratuitous ignorance or gratuitous self-hatred, for which there is no excuse, in Jewish writers; but there is a lot of it in Israel and in the Diaspora. Self-blame can be admirable and can lead from introspection to moral improvement, but certain manifestations of it point to an old and famous Jewish sickness, that of internalizing hostility and spite and condoning hatred by assuming it is deserved. You can see it even in Jeremiah, in Lamentations. The city walls are being knocked down by enemy forces out to slash the population to pieces, and Jeremiah is saying to the Jews, “It's your fault, because you sinned, you didn't behave yourselves, your moral standards were execrable, and therefore Jerusalem is being destroyed.” As if there were no brutishly invading armies all around who are no more concerned with Jewish morality than they are with their own!

To beat one's chest in shame and guilt is a Jewish syndrome, related to the moral life, often appropriately, often inappropriately. The connection Jeremiah makes between Jewish backsliding and worldly punishment remains prevalent in the Jewish psyche, as it does generally in the liberal psyche, which fails to believe in the possibility of irrational hostility, of objective external evil. Fiction writers who are Jews do not, by and large, escape this psychological pattern of self-blame. And though I wouldn't want to give carte blanche to such a tendency, I suppose I would prefer for fiction writers to do as they please rather than for there to be prescriptions, including self-prescriptions, however salutary or logical or rooted in the communal good.

Can we return to our discussion about Jewish culture?

With this caveat, that we first clarify what we mean by “Jewish culture.” The definition has changed, after all, and our contemporary understanding of what the content of “Jewish culture” might be is significantly different from the old inherited definition. Jewish mainstream culture was once confined to the content of the traditional religious texts, hundreds of classics that were oceanic enough even without novels and secular poetry, and which of course preceded the existence of such forms, and, when they arose, never dreamed of admitting them. The old definition didn't include imaginative literature as we know it now, or what we might term, if the term were still useful, belles-lettres (though there is plenty of Aggadah in the commentaries, which is to say playful and folkloric and storytelling matter). But since the rise of Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, which arrived in Eastern Europe a century later than in the West, the idea of what Jewish culture is about has been radically altered. We seem not to know exactly what to do with this difference in perception of the nature of textual culture; it is simply too new in Jewish life, no more than something over a hundred years old. And Jewish time is old time. To get some perspective on how old, just remember that when Christianity was born, Judaism was already as old as Christianity is today, and Jewish culture has been explicitly text-centered since Ezra. But we have to face the distinction between what is traditionally meant by Jewish culture and the way we nowadays include belles-lettres in our meaning of it. I'm afraid that if we fail to do this, our discussion will fall into confusion from beginning to end.

Here in America, we can trace the origins of Jewish belletristic culture in English to The Rise of David Levinsky. And, of course, Abraham Cahan owed that novel to Howells and The Rise of Silas Lapham. If you want to begin with the immigrant generation, you have only Abraham Cahan; after that, it's the children of the immigrants. And how can you attain any really viable perspective on the nature of Jewish culture if it is just forming in a new language that it never used before, namely English? And if it is evolving within a new concept that it never used before, namely belles-lettres?

So there may be not one but two caveats—the first one is, what does a fiction writer know? How competent should a fiction writer be concerning the sociology of culture? And secondly, what is the present sociology of Jewish culture? We don't know.

But do we in fact have a unified Jewish culture? Yehoshua and the Zionist historian David Vital claim that there is an American Jewish culture and an Israeli culture and that they're not the same culture.

I think that's sociologically true, but sociological truth is not the whole truth. Actually, you are asking two questions. One is about Jewish political culture, and the other is about Jewish spiritual culture. (I don't like that word—“spiritual.” It just seems off, freighted with evangelical notions of grace and otherworldliness alien to our subject. But it will have to do for the moment.) Apparently Yehoshua and perhaps David Vital are saying that without a Jewish political hegemony, you cannot have a spiritual center. But I do think those are separable, and it's important to know that they're separable. Because if they were not separable, then the last two thousand years of Jewish life outside the Land would be culturally and spiritually nil, which Jewish history emphatically contradicts. Of course, there is a version of Zionist theory that claims that the Diaspora is indeed nil, always was and always will be nil. According to this view, the return to the Land represents the negation of the Diaspora. I believe, however, that such a point of view is ephemeral, was necessary to build Zionism in Israel and cannot hold in the long run. It goes without saying that many Israelis, Yehoshua notably among them, disagree.

And if you do negate the Diaspora, where would you get the source, the rationale, and even the power of passion to build out of desert and swamp and to recreate a political culture where there was none? Indeed, there was no indigenous Jewish political culture in the land that is now Israel. Nor was there an indigenous Arab political culture in that land. There has been a great deal of spurious history claiming that there was, but an objective, completely dispassionate look reveals something else. What it reveals is simply hundreds of years of the Ottoman Empire, with its capital in Constantinople, itself not a native, indigenous political culture. And the Ottoman Empire was followed by the British Mandate, a mandate betrayed by Britain's own imperial drive.

What about Jewish spiritual culture? Many Israelis, Yehoshua among them, claim a spiritual life is absent in galut [“exile,” the Diaspora] and call the notion that Jews had to be in exile a myth, even a neurotic and dangerous myth. The inescapable conclusion is that there is no reason at all for Jews to be in a diaspora now.

An instance of that thesis—it is surely Yehoshua's—seems to me evident in what happened after the Inquisition on the Iberian peninsula and after the Expulsion: the Jews took big trips, big dangerous trips in ships. Hundreds drowned. Some went to Turkey, some went to Amsterdam; a great many went across the water from Iberia to North Africa. They went to Morocco, to Tunis, to what is now Syria and to what is now Lebanon, and to Egypt. They were all, so to speak, just a spit away from what was then Palestine. But they didn't go there.

Another arresting historical instance is the effect the false Messiah, Sabbatai Sevi, had on ordinary people. In reading the memoirs of Gluckel of Hamelin, we discover that her bags were in the attic all packed! Along with smoked fish for the journey. The Jews, when they thought the Messiah was imminent, were ready to go to the Land of Israel. When Sabbatai Sevi turned out to be only another false Messiah, and when he converted, to save his head, to Islam, the Jews simply unpacked again. But if they were ready to follow a Messiah, why weren't they ready to go to the Land on their own? Gershom Scholem was the first to point out that this messianic movement of the sixteenth century was really a proto-Zionism, an early phase of Zionism.

Yehoshua asks, why didn't the Jews go to Israel? And as he points out, if you say that poverty and deprivation were waiting in the Land of Israel during the Middle Ages, well, what conditions were the Jews already living under in their various Diasporas? In Europe they suffered unbelievable penury and huge oppression. Well then, you may say, wouldn't it be a jump from the frying pan into the fire, given that the Moslem Ottoman Empire was sovereign in the Land of Israel and would only offer Levantine Islamic oppression in exchange for European Christian oppression? But Jews were already living under Islam, in Morocco, in Egypt, in Syria, and in other Islamic lands, including Turkey itself. So that's not the answer to the puzzle. Why didn't the return to the Land occur centuries earlier?

The religious Jewish response is to reject the question, reminding us that these were years given to mourning, two thousand years of grieving over the razed and violated Temple, and that it was not a human but a messianic task to accomplish the return. So the Messiah was awaited, because only in the messianic era would the Temple be restored. And we know about the rabbinic prohibition against going up on the Temple Mount at all. I have violated that injunction; I have visited the mosques on the Temple Mount. At that time, there was a big sign at the bottom of the path leading upward, warning Jewish tourists of the traditional prohibition. So there has always been this powerful inhibition against returning without the advent and intervention of the Messiah. For all those two thousand years, it was felt that the Messiah had to come before the nation could reconstitute itself in the Land. And this is what Yehoshua, as a pure secularist, doesn't recognize. In a way, it's a kind of antihistoric stand on his part—the assumption that the activist premises of the contemporary secular mind might retroactively intrude into the past. Similarly, Yehoshua questions why the Jews left in the first place, at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. After all, he asks, how many Jews could the Romans have taken away as slaves? You can see that captivity depicted on the frieze of the Arch of Titus, which still stands in modern Rome—the Romans triumphant, carrying off the Temple Menorah, the Jews subjugated. But in the nature of things, the size of armies and ships, it had to have been a tiny minority of the Jewish population. Well, if your country is destroyed, Yehoshua argues, and great fires set in the cities and the countryside plundered and despoiled, as has happened to other peoples, why don't you stay home and just go ahead and rebuild?

When I put this argument to Elie Wiesel, he would not countenance it; as a nonsecularist, the very idea was an affront to him. The Jews, Wiesel thinks, were in mourning for the demise of the Temple, and they would not go back to a place that had been destroyed.

Wiesel is a believing Jew even after Auschwitz? But in Night he writes: “Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.” Has he recovered his God?

Yes, and I think he would respond to your question by saying, with uncompromised purity, “I am a Jew.” In Sarajevo recently, where he went to assess the brutalities of “ethnic cleansing,” he left a state dinner on Friday night to go to Sabbath services at the synagogue. A purposeful statement, even after Auschwitz.

Then you would say that Israelis and American Jews have a divided political culture?

American Jews have a political culture which is the United States of America. That is our political culture, and we like it very much, and it's quite different from anything on the face of the earth that's ever been, including all the Western democracies. France may boast not simply of having, but of having invented, an Enlightenment state, and yet the national, and natural, assumption of the French is that you're not really French if you don't have French blood. And in Germany there is no way to acquire German citizenship unless you're a born German. Germany is still legally going on Blut, believe it or not. Israel has, like Britain and like the Scandinavian countries, a two-way system, and so does France, at least in theory. There is the famously merciful Law of Return in Israel which grants haven to a Jew anywhere in the world, but anybody can become an immigrant to Israel. You don't have to be Jewish to acquire citizenship; Israel's immigration laws are more liberal than those of the United States. That's an often overlooked fact. It's also a simple fact that, though both countries are democracies, American political culture is separate and distinct from that of Israel—there are electoral differences. Israel, for instance, has a parliamentary system, though both major Israeli parties have begun to initiate primary fights like ours, and by 1996 there will be direct election of the prime minister. Still, do these systemic governmental differences mean that we are spiritually divided, that Jews have ceased to be one people? I think the answer is absolutely not. There is a metaphysical condition, a moral infrastructure, that is shared by all Jews.

How then would you respond to Philip Roth in The Counterlife? I'm thinking of that passage where Roth writes, “A Jew without Jews, without Judaism, without Zionism, without Jewishness, without a temple or an army or even a pistol, a Jew clearly without a home, just the object itself, like a glass or an apple.”

That sentence is, to use one of my favorite words—which I think is neither worn nor sullied—pellucid. But Roth is a satirist and he's making an argument. It's not Roth saying it; it's a fictional character saying it. So if you attribute that statement to Roth, I think you're doing it without justification.

Absolutely! What I'm really getting at is a comment you once made in a conversation with me: you called The Counterlife Roth's most Jewish novel. What elements in The Counterlife do you think make it a Jewish novel?

Ah but when I said that—that The Counterlife is Roth's most Jewish novel—I hadn't yet read his newest novel, Operation Shylock: A Confession. It's set in Israel and is totally amazing, in language, intellect, plotting, thesis, analysis, reach, daring. It's Roth's Secret Sharer, but on a Dostoyevskian scale. It's his Moby-Dick. Oh, wait till you read it, and you'll see! A stupendous thing, before which much current American fiction will seem diminished, shrunken. Roth has a subject, an obsession; put it that he's possessed. He's now the boldest American writer alive.

In The Counterlife, to return to your question, the theme is Jewish identity, Jewish consciousness, but not yet—or not yet visibly—raised to obsession. He deals straightforwardly, though also lyrically with self-definition. He asks, am I just this apple standing there, or is it more complex? On the one hand we have the object itself, like a glass or an apple; and on the other hand we have that astonishing meditation—strenuous and muscular thinking—on the meaning of circumcision, which comes toward the end, or very near the end, of The Counterlife, What Roth understands here is that biology and the givens of nature are not enough for Judaism, that seeing must be augmented by insight, that Judaism purposefully superimposes on the rawness of nature a moral structure, a meaning. That is an extraordinarily strong and central Jewish statement.

I have another question about Roth, and it actually comes out of one of the essays for this special issue. Marshall Bruce Gentry maintains that E. L. Doctorow and Philip Roth have divided desires: they want to be Jews and contemporary Americans. Gentry believes they're caught in a historical gap between feminism and Judaism and can only create effective women who are Gentiles. Are male American Jewish writers faced with such a struggle?

I really think the whole issue is nonsense. When writers write fiction, they are writing about one woman, one man, and the relation of one man to one woman, and the relation of one woman to one man. These are creations, inventions, and to attribute an ideological program to a writer who may not have such a thing in his head is utterly absurd and unjustified and makes a lot of mischief.

Secondly, the idea that for the sake of feminism—meaning programmatically finding women to portray who are “effective”—you are required to turn away from Jewish to gentile women is a remark without the slightest connection to even very recent Jewish sociology. The Jewish housewife-mother, whose only occupation is staying home and rearing her children, is entirely the product of assimilation into American standards. Only two generations ago—and I'm speaking here of East European shtetl life, the origin of most American Jews—the domestic condition of women was essentially that they didn't have any, that they were the main breadwinners in a culture of deepest poverty. They ran the little businesses, the little stores, and the men, whose role was bookishly and liturgically defined, went out to the study house and spent the day there. Nor were the women illiterate, as their neighbors the Russian peasants, women and men, were. These conditions, of the woman as breadwinner, were endemic, pervasive, and, remember, not shrouded in ancient mists. It was exemplified in my own Russian grandmother, who ran a dry goods store and bore eleven children, of which seven survived. During all those pregnancies and child rearings, she was running a business single-handedly, and where was her husband? He was studying Talmud all day long. And if this is not an “effective” woman, I don't know what is. My own mother, who arrived in America at the age of nine, worked sixteen hours a day in her pharmacy until her final illness. To ascribe feminist effectuality only to Gentile women is to be fully ignorant of the historical Jewish social norm. Ignorance generates myth, and myth leads, if not to mischief, then at least to flawed literary criticism.

I think Gentry is touching on an issue in Jewish culture in its religious sense—the lack of feminism in Judaism. In fact, many Jewish women are now protesting the idea that feminism should be entirely at odds with Judaism.

Well, insofar as the primary text—Scripture—tells us that “male and female created He them,” and that humanity is “made in the image of God,” you have the primary text making feminist statements—that is, if feminism is to be defined as holding the sexes as equal in worth. What else is feminism if not the equal worth of the sexes, before God and humanity, and equal access to whatever needs doing in the world, or to whatever the world calls you to do?

So there it is—feminism in the primary religious text. There are all kinds of conflicting statements in Talmud. I am not going to be an apologist for patriarchal hypotheses and conditions, which did—and do—exist, but the sociology of Jewish women, their living reality, has contradicted many of these patriarchal assumptions. It's a mixed and complex issue. One cannot say Judaism and feminism are in ultimate conflict, because a black-and-white statement like that is simply untrue, as most black-and-white statements tend to be.

Alan Berger [Modern Judaism, Oct. 1990] argues that the “determination” of American Jewish fiction of the eighties is “to grapple with the problematic of Jewish being … while struggling with the notions of covenant and chosenness.” And he claims that Jewish novels and novelists are increasingly exploring the meaning of being Jewish from within rather than from the perspective of American culture. Isn't he implying that a dual identity is no longer necessary for American Jews?

Before one could begin to consider that question, one would have to know who the writers are that Berger has in mind. He doesn't have in mind E. L. Doctorow, he doesn't have in mind Norman Mailer, he doesn't have in mind Erica Jong. Does he mention Arthur A. Cohen?

Yes, and he mentions Hugh Nissenson, Nessa Rappaport, and you. It's curious that he doesn't really discuss Roth, except to remark that The Ghost Writer is an “exploitation of the Holocaust.”

If Berger is thinking of Amy Bellette, Roth's Anne Frank representation, I'm afraid I have to dissent. As a character she may not be wholly successful—she is a little two-dimensional—because she is so ambiguous. And yet we are intended to find her ambiguous—look at her name! “Amy Bellette,” love of belles-lettres, a literary idea of a young woman if there ever was one. And even within the confines of Roth's narrative, we don't know whether she is or isn't Anne Frank. The ambiguity of it, the this-or-that fuzziness, renders her ghostly, a fictional character without enough roundedness. In short, a phantom—but a phantom on purpose. You can't stick you finger in and draw blood. But you can with Lonoff, and that's the brilliance of the book—Lonoff is so enormously real that if you scratch him, he'll bleed. Not Amy. And even if we decide that she is not a phantom—given that outside the tale we know perfectly well that the real Anne Frank was murdered—Amy Bellette is nevertheless a young woman possessed by a phantom, a young woman who has swallowed and digested a symbol. Is it because the Amy Bellette character is so “symbolic” that the novel is, in Berger's view, an exploitation? I can't agree. The Ghost Writer gazes into the Holocaust, feels it, mourns it. I wonder—did Berger write this article before Patrimony?


Because Patrimony is a book inescapably drawn to matters Jewish. I would not exclude Deception either, where we find Roth enraged by anti-Semitism. This rage doesn't come out of nowhere; certainly it's not merely from the author's being a good generalized liberal with anti-intolerance credentials. Since we don't quite know what is and isn't fiction in Roth's writing, and he means us to be betwixt and between in this work as in others, in alluding to Patrimony I'll have to say “the Roth character.” Well, when the undertaker in Patrimony, who is sizing up the Roth character, wants to bury the father in a business suit, the Roth character demands the traditional burial shroud. And remember that he gets angry at the father because he has given away his phylacteries and hasn't handed them down to his son. There are powerful developments in Roth along these lines. He is being catapulted along a fascinating trajectory.

Well, we are right back to the question of dual identity in American Jewish writers because what Berger is saying is that Jewish novelists are exploring the meaning of being Jewish without the perspective of American culture. Is it possible to live in America and not have a dual loyalty?

Yes and no both. Because on the sociological level, you cannot live outside of your environment. On the metaphysical level, absolutely you can, and literature gives you hundreds and hundreds of instances. Consider Gerard Manley Hopkins, Blake, Melville, Yeats, Emily Dickinson. It's an aside to speak of this, but what a curious thing it is that bigots use the term “dual loyalty” as a canard, when what it morally and experientially yearns after is an extension of life and perception. What is the purpose of literature, if not to augment sensibility and increase the number and possibility of our loyalties?

But have Jewish writers turned so completely toward these Jewish concerns? Berger doesn't discuss Elkin, and the charge against Elkin, which he has contributed to, is that he is not interested in history. In fact, he said in an interview, “I see myself as a writer who happens to be Jewish, happens to be American, and happens to be a writer.” So how does he fit into this tradition?

Well, I think what Elkin is saying here is what we began our conversation with—namely, that he writes fiction and doesn't want any ideological burdens placed on him. I suspect what Elkin is asking for is simple fictional freedom. Given his cascading ingenuities and the stunning virtuosity of his style—or styles—he's entitled to ask for that! I don't think it means that he is dismissing being Jewish. Again, I hope I don't intrude or overstep in guessing that Elkin apparently doesn't have a great deal of explicit Jewish learning or access to it. After all, one of the dispiriting consequences of the Jewish love affair with America is that Jewish education has been limited to childhood, to ABC and not much further, if even that. Parents who would do anything, sacrifice anything, to insure a higher education for their smart children fail to insure a higher Jewish education for those same smart children, who then, in terms of the Jewish classical tradition, begin to pass for dumb. Such parents unthinkingly produce Jewish illiterates. That, I believe, is a misunderstanding of the origins, even of the use, of the American experiment. I don't simply mean small curiosities like the fact that Yale's seal is in Hebrew, or that if some of the Puritan authorities had had their way, we would today all be speaking Hebrew in this country. I mean something more fundamental—American jurisprudence, for instance. The whole idea of a Constitution, augmented by a system of judicial review, is endemically Jewish. The Fifth Amendment has a biblical origin. Jews who haven't been deprived of Jewish learning know they are at home in America because America is at home in Jewish juridical values.

Here we are mainly illiterates, but our grandfathers, and your father and mine, were taken at the age of three and sent to school where they were immediately confronted with an extraordinarily difficult text—Leviticus. Incredible! They were three years old, these little boys, and they began with Leviticus. And to go from that to the great intellectual desert of the following generations? What has happened to the ideal of high Jewish literacy? To be a master of English and American literature is an admirable kind of literacy, absolutely, and for you and me, and for so many others, a source of rapture; but to be a literary Jew simultaneously illiterate in Bible and commentary and history is surely not to own full literacy. And so you have nowadays a whole community of so-called Jewish intellectuals, many of them university professors, who know nothing about one of the three pillars of the Western world.

But there are Jews who are ignorant of all but Jewish texts.

The only people, as far as I know, who fall into that category are Hasidim, who avoid secular education altogether. But they are sects. They certainly don't represent the mainstream. Yet I confess I am always uneasy when I refer to the Hasidim as sectarian because it was as Jews, not as Jewish sectarians, that they were murdered in great numbers, and because very recently here in New York there was a virtual pogrom in Crown Heights victimizing the Hasidic community. A community of Holocaust survivors was terrorized. To point to such people and say, “Ah, but they're not the real Jews” leaves me feeling unsettled.

I will say, speaking “theologically”—a concept which in any case isn't Jewish—Hasidim are sectarians. They are Christological in their reliance on a mediator between themselves and the Creator, which is, I think, in a sense Jewishly heretical. But, again, such comments, after Auschwitz, seem off the mark.

Perhaps it's a way of mainstream Jews cutting off a sect, as if to say that these are not important Jews.

Well, you know there are arguments about the mainstream, about whether such a central focus is justified. In my view, there definitely is a mainstream, committed to rationalism; but as Gershom Scholem has made us realize, there have been many, many other streams—I was going to say intellectual streams, but not all were “intellectual” in the sense of adhering to rationalism. Jewish Gnosticism, Kabbalah—these too have been carried along in the great ocean of Jewish history. Jews have practiced these things and taken them seriously, and Hasidism is based very much on kabbalistic ideas, on practical mysticism, which rationalist Judaism scorns and derides as magic or superstition.

So Judaism is a diverse body of human beings with disagreements, quarrels, dissensions, some of which are profound. The quarrel between the Hasidim and the mitnagdim [“opponents” of the Hasidim], between the mystics and the rationalists, really is a fight that we will probably never recover from, even though both sides were herded into the furnaces together. Jewish Kulturkampf, rivalries in the creation of culture, were irrelevant to the murderers.

In the Schocken Guide to Jewish Books, Mark Shechner makes a distinction, which might be considered in our attempt to define Jewish culture, between what he calls the “literature of Aliyah” and the “literature of Haskalah.”

I am not sure I understand how these terms are being employed. They are certainly not opposites. May I just interrupt to say, or surmise, that the word aliyah is being misused, and that what may actually be meant is t'shuvah, “return,” in the spiritual sense, to one's Jewish origins after they have been abandoned. Aliyah in its contemporary Israeli use means to emigrate, or to return—literally “to go up”—to Israel. In its liturgical use, pronounced with a Yiddish inflection, “a-li-ya,” it refers to the honor of being called up to the Torah during the worship service. The phrase “literature of Haskalah” speaks for itself, but what can “literature of Aliyah” refer to? Books about emigration to Tel Aviv? Books about getting called up to the Torah to read at the lectern?

I think Shechner attempts to use the terms as metaphors for the center of Judaism and its periphery.

But Haskalah is not the periphery. Haskalah was never a movement away from the center. Paradoxically, it was a movement away from religious practice without being a movement away from religious text. And the remarkable point about it is that out of text, it generated more text. There is an extraordinary collection organized by Bialik, the Hebrew national poet, in which he gathers together all the Aggadah out of Talmud—the legends, stories, folktales, fairy tales, all the antic, lyrical, imaginative side of the commentaries—and deposits it in an enormous single volume. It's a prime Haskalah document. And the Hebrew national poet Bialik did it, and that is not peripheral! He went back to Talmud.

This leads me to ask you about the theoretical approaches to literature. Midrash [exegesis of biblical texts] has become a metaphor in modern literary theory, rather than a subject limited to Jewish study. Is that appropriate or accurate in terms of Jewish culture?

Well, midrash is a device, a technique, in effect a rhetorical instrument. It's a Hebrew word becoming increasingly common in English that can, I think, escape its original source and be used very nicely in other connections. Yes, midrash really is almost a technical term for doing what critical theory attributes to it.

We've talked a great deal about contemporary Jewish culture, and I've been wondering what effect you think Bellow and Malamud had on American Jewish culture. Would you say there is a difference between their patrimonies?

There is a difference in their patrimony, yes. Malamud forgot the Yiddish spoken in his home; Bellow translated Gimpel the Fool. Bellow's Yiddish remains rich; Malamud's had retreated into a kind of semi-German, and when he wanted to retrieve it, it wasn't there for him anymore. Bellow doesn't have to retrieve his Yiddish; it never left him. So in terms of the word you used—patrimony—there's a radical distinction between these two writers, who are generally of the same generation. Yet neither one necessarily regards himself as an ideological Jewish writer, and I don't see why they should be obliged, willy-nilly, to carry that freight or that responsibility.

In that Forward interview mentioned earlier, Paul Auster claims Malamud vehemently denied his Jewishness, “even though all his work is about Jews and Jewish questions.” A lot of Malamud's work is about Jews, but not a lot of it is about Jewish questions, and sometimes what Malamud mistook to be a Jewish question wasn't one. The theme of The Assistant, a beautiful novel—every time I reread it, I'm once again immensely moved—is Christian. Its theme is vicarious suffering, which is by no means a Jewish idea. I remember my father's response to that book after he'd had a heart attack and was confined to bed for six weeks. During that time, he did nothing but read. My mother bought him a complete set of Sholem Aleichem in the original, and another complete set of Peretz. I gave him The Assistant; he was strangely unmoved by it, and I was disappointed. I realized some time later that since he had been doing so much intense reading of a truly Jewish nature, The Assistant was out of kilter. I had pressed it on him as a Jewish story with a Jewish thesis, but it didn't have one.

Throughout our conversation, we've been talking about Jewish forms and Jewish themes. How would you define a Jewish thesis? When we discussed The Counterlife, you indicated that one Jewish thesis is the issue of identity.

I don't think identity is delineating enough. There are profoundly definable Jewish ideas that cannot be duplicated outside of Jewish received tradition. Of course, a centrally defining idea is anti-idolatry, to state it negatively, or monotheism, to put it positively Another idea, which I mentioned earlier in connection with Roth's commentary on circumcision, is the imposition of moral structure on natural life and on nature itself. The invention of the Sabbath, for instance, for which the pagans mocked the Jews: aren't all the days alike, the sun rising, the sun setting, the night darkening? I would say that if a Jewish fiction articulates ideas that are not duplicatable outside of Jewish tradition, then you might be justified in calling that fiction thematically Jewish.

But what about themes that deal with an escape from just such themes? I recently read I. B. Singer's The Brothers Ashkenazi, a novel, written in Yiddish, about assimilation. The characters are Jews, but would you necessarily deem it thematically a Jewish novel? It's not about Jewish ideas, but about their loss. The loss of Jewish practice, the dilution of Jewish values, the lessening of importance to the characters of Jewish tradition. Is Mordechai Faierberg's L'an, a novel I read long ago in my college Hebrew course, a thematically Jewish novel? It is about yeshiva studies and it is written in Hebrew. The title means “whither,” and Faierberg tells the story of a young yeshiva student who is caught between the enclosed world of pure study and the lure of an unknown outer world; he struggles against what has become for him the profoundest airlessness. L'an is a sort of primary Haskalah novel—Enlightenment individualism wrestling with the center of the tradition. I suppose the question here is this: does “thematically Jewish” also include the assimilationist or secularizing struggle with things thematically Jewish? Obviously this question could not be asked within the older definition of Jewish culture. It is at the confused heart of the current definition.

Elkin once said that the only legitimate practitioner of American Jewish literature was I. B. Singer because he wrote out of an essentially Jewish tradition. And Elkin went on to separate culture from religion, dividing Roth, Malamud, and Bellow into a category called Jewish-American culturalists and claiming that Portnoy's Complaint is not a Jewish book.

Well, masturbation, God knows, isn't a central Jewish idea—it's not even a peripheral one!—and the fifth Commandment, the one about honoring your mother and father, is. A decision has to be arrived at: if a novel is about Jews, but not about Jewish ideas, is it a Jewish novel? If so, then both Portnoy's Complaint and Joyce's Ulysses count as Jewish novels. But are Jewish characters enough to define a novel as Jewish? I doubt it. On the other hand, one has to leave room for satire, irony, play.

Does Art Spiegelman's Maus qualify as a Jewish book? In reviewing it, the translator Hillel Halkin [Commentary, Feb. 1992] wrote that even the “most movingly illustrated pages in Maus” fail to convince him “that comics, no matter how sophisticated, have the slightest potential to vie with either literature or art as a serious medium of expression.” And yet Maus won a special Pulitzer Prize.

Reading Halkin's review, I felt the force of his argument. Yet I've just spoken of allowing space for irony and play. Then why not the advent of—extraordinary language!—Holocaust funnies? Look, I profoundly agree with Halkin, yet it's clear that Maus has done a lot of good in the world; it's been good public relations. Public relations for the Holocaust, what a thing to say, listen to it! Mean and demeaning phrase. But if you understand how I intend it—as the necessity of memory in a time when memory begins to melt into history and history is discarded—Maus rather startlingly shakes up the memory and makes history accessible. Nevertheless I don't think that cartooning, even with a lot of writing in the balloons or along the margins, is equivalent to literature. It remains what it is—“the funnies,” comics. Comics are a by now venerable form which belongs, in certain ways almost indigenously, to our American culture, where it has earned great affection and, I think, a lot of justified pride. But are comics sufficient to tell the story of the Holocaust? I suppose that depends on how well satisfied readers are. I am not as satisfied by Maus as I am when I read Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews, though I think you can have both Hilberg and Spiegelman. There is a certain metaphorical difficulty, though, a misleading one, in Maus's depiction of the Germans as cats and the Jews as mice. Spiegelman's point, of course, is that the Jews were the Germans' prey. But prey is legitimate in nature; you can't argue with cats when they catch mice and kill them. It's killing, not murder. There is no murder in nature. The Germans were not cats and the Jews were not mice; both were human. And that is the real point in contemplating the Holocaust.

Wouldn't you say, then, that Art Spiegelman arises out of American Jewish culture?

Well, if the comic strip is going to define American Jewish culture, that's really too bad for American Jews.

Would an engagement of literature with Jewish theology enrich American Jewish culture? Is there such an engagement, and does it make an impact? I'm thinking here of Arthur A. Cohen and Hugh Nissenson.

Those are two very separate instances and two very distinct writers: even their use of language is at opposite poles. I had a great quarrel once with Arthur Cohen over an issue close to theology, and certainly dealing with current ideology. I protested that his novel In the Days of Simon Stern negated Israel and Zionism. He didn't deny it, since that was his purpose, though ambiguously and ambivalently. He did burn down his Lower East Side Jerusalem at the end of that novel; he had his Jerusalem disappear, having reconstituted the Temple in Diaspora. But the Temple is razed. That's the ambivalence—the Temple is in the wrong place. And his narrative takes Holocaust refugees from Europe to New York, not to Israel. He did that with ideological intent. He wanted to emphasize the theological legitimacy of Diaspora Judaism. His purpose was to bypass Israel, even as haven.

Hugh Nissenson is a very different case. He regards all religion, Judaism included, as a kind of mystical primeval urge, the artist's urge, the shaman's drive. Because his short stories are discrete and may take up a select point, and are often passionate, and because his fiction has been set both in Israel and on the Jewish Lower East Side, he often seems single-mindedly directed to Jewish themes. One of his stories, for instance, concerns the smuggling of a rabbi out of Jerusalem during the Roman siege, the rabbi who founded the academy at Yavneh. In very small compass, and under the pressure of history's revelation, Nissenson gives us a living portrait of a time and an idea and a struggle. But overall, Nissenson's view of religion is that it is a powerful, almost savage, subterranean, Freudian, Jungian force in humankind, and always the same kind of force with the same kind of mystical base, reducible to the sense of the gods, sometimes the god within. This is not—neither the gods nor the god within—Judaism, at least not in the rabbinic pattern, or as enjoined by Deuteronomy. I don't think, metaphysically speaking, that Hugh Nissenson is a Jewish writer in the terms we've been employing. I don't believe he thinks of himself that way, and his more recent fiction has been engaged with mystical themes applied to characters who are not Jews.

So it seems to me that neither Cohen nor Nissenson, as novelists, represent an engagement with mainstream Jewish thought—though with respect to Arthur Cohen I would want to qualify this severely, especially in the light of so much of his other work. In fact, Arthur Cohen defined himself as a Jewish theologian. He may have begun as a philosopher who wrote novels, but at the close of his life he was authentically a novelist. Still, I extract all this from past conversations, and it doesn't feel right that I speak here either for Arthur Cohen, whose friendship I miss terribly—it's five years since his death—or for Hugh Nissenson, who can very ably address these questions himself.

Another contributor to this issue, S. Lillian Kremer, claims that “American Jewish writers have placed Jewish thought at the center of their fictional universes and have become pervasively Jewish in their insistence on Jewish values and religious law.” For Kremer, that constitutes a renaissance of American Jewish writing, and she includes Nissenson in it.

Does Kremer include Howard Schwartz in this putative renaissance? He is too much overlooked, and is doing unique work. He's a folklorist, passionate about the primal story, a Jewish Hans Christian Andersen living in St. Louis, Missouri, annually pouring out a stream of books on Jewish magic and mysticism, Jewish folk and fairy tales, drawn from a hundred sources all over the world. He is completely in thrall to the legendary, the mysterious, the illogical, the unpredictable, the supernatural—everything that the rationalist mitnagid in me turns against—and he uses them in the tale, which is the right place for them. He is pure storyteller, an American scribe of the Jewish Green, Yellow, and Violet Fairy Books. No one mentions him. An extraordinary omission.

Especially since Jewish folklore has made a great contribution to culture.

What has Gershom Scholem done if not thrown all this stuff into our laps? There are mountains of material that remain to be investigated. And beyond that, beyond his mining resources we've never before had access to and Englishing them, Schwartz has been inventing his own fairy tales, which is even more interesting, using the naive but canny language of the folktale. Reading him, you feel the childhood chill described by C. S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy, his memoir of first encountering the mystery of tale.

Why isn't Howard Schwartz considered part of an American Jewish renaissance?

I don't understand why he isn't. Are we too sophisticated for folktales and fairy tales? After all, folklore—from the point of view of the folklorist—is the height of sophistication.

I don't know; and furthermore, I don't even know if there is a renaissance in American Jewish writing. Is there a renaissance?

Well, I recently began to read a brilliantly knowledgeable, original, and intensely clever writer, a novelist and short story writer, who is unrecognized because so far unpublished. He is Alan Isler, and I would call his work centrally Jewish in every respect. I wonder if there are other such writers who have escaped notice. Isler is an authority on Shakespeare who is not only aware of every nuance of American Jewish sociology; he is also conversant, unlike so many others, with the central texts.

But Kremer and Norman Finkelstein (The Ritual of New Creation) maintain that such texts have not disappeared among Jews, that the text is endemic to American Jewish culture. Whereas Harold Bloom, as we both know, laments the death of text-centeredness in America. Do you think the text survives in American Jewish life? Is intertextuality—this is Kremer's term—involved in the American Jewish novelistic enterprise now?

If you mean survival-of-essential-text, I can recall only one novel, not an American one, utilizing a biblical subject—by Dan Jacobson, the South African novelist who has lived in England for a very long time. He's written what we ought rightly to call a midrash on the character of Tamar. The pre-eminent fiction of this kind, and on a magisterial scale, is of course Mann's Joseph masterpiece. Do we know of any American writer, Jew or non-Jew, who has done anything comparable, anything even approaching the foothills of such an idea? For a renaissance you need to have at least the foothills.

What about Rebecca Goldstein?

Yes, I think many of Rebecca Goldstein's intelligent stories would qualify under the category of renaissance, though in her new collection, Strange Attractors, she includes one that's pure Max Beerbohm—“The Editor's Story” It has a high polish, it's thoroughly delectable, and it has nothing to do with any Jewish theme whatsoever. Goldstein is brainy and versatile. Allegra Goodman satirizes and plays with the minutiae of Jewish observance. And observance can be said to be the crossroads of sociology and metaphysics. Chaim Potok is certainly present under this rubric—his novels, except for the last, are unquestionably on Jewish themes. But taking Kremer's measure, do these writers, counting even those Kremer doesn't mention—Schwartz, Goldstein, Goodman, Potok—add up to a renaissance?

I think her point is that because Jewish law and Jewish themes are appearing in fiction far more than the way they did in the past, they have sparked a renaissance in American Jewish fiction.

Please, tell me right now what your view of this renaissance is.

I'm much gloomier than Kremer. I don't think there's a renaissance. I'm afraid I have to agree with Harold Bloom, who thinks very few American Jewish writers have contributed to what he calls “high culture.”

How does he and how do you define high culture?

I'll have to say how I don't define it. I don't think The Chosen is high culture. It's readable, it's accessible; but it is not high culture. So far I think only two writers—you and Roth—can be said to have contributed to high culture.


Oh, I'm not ruling Bellow out, not in the least. I'm speaking of recent contemporary writers.

And you would include Malamud?

Yes, but as interesting as I find Allegra Goodman, I don't think she can be said to be part of this renaissance.

We don't really know; she's only twenty-four years old and has yet to publish a novel. I would also caution about making such a judgment about Potok. For example, his newest novel, set in Korea and touching not at all on anything Jewish, is a pristine work of art.

Potok has struggled in many of his novels with the issue of tradition, which Irving Howe has argued should be thought of as discontinuity, the central fact in the cultural experience of American Jewish writers. Can disruption and doubt reinvigorate a culture, especially Jewish culture?

Before I try to answer that question, let me think through what Howe means. Doesn't he mean the immigrant experience and the rupture caused by the immigrant experience?

I would think so.

Surely that's what Henry Roth's Call It Sleep is about—discontinuity and rupture. The other part of your question asks whether discontinuity can reinvigorate Jewish culture. How can it? Isn't the definition of a culture precisely the idea of continuity, of heritage? So how can culture be defined by discontinuity? Moments of discontinuity do occur, and surely the immigrant experience is one such moment of immense displacement—a new language, a new place, a new civilization. Everything new, the riotous temptations of freedom, even the disabilities of freedom, when you had to work in a sweatshop for three dollars a week in order to survive—all of that was rupture. Nobody made culture out of that.

On second thought, it's a mistake to say no culture at all came out of these disruptive and exhausting experiences. There were the so-called Sweatshop Poets, and their poems are moving. Not that they constitute “high” culture. There's a very touching poem by Morris Rosenfeld, “My Little Son,” about how a father leaves in the morning very early before his little boy is awake and comes home late at night from the shop, when his little boy is asleep. “One morning when you wake, my child / You'll find that I'm not here.” The poem is written in Yiddish and is so sentimental, and so evocative of immigrant struggle and hard times, that you just can't read it without feeling teary. But besides being sentimental, the poem is true. It's experience, an experience of rupture—the father torn from his son by the need to eke out a living. So I guess I shouldn't be so categorical when I say culture can't be made out of discontinuity. Yes, one can write about discontinuity but can writing about discontinuity be included in what we mean by culture? I'm trying to examine whether this makes any sense. If culture mainly signifies heritage, received tradition, continuity … well, the relationship between discontinuity and culture is an immense question.

In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens certainly wrote about rupture and discontinuity, yet who would argue that that novel isn't a work of art, a contribution to culture? Later on, the modernists gave us rupture and discontinuity as practically the whole subject of art and literature. So I guess Howe is right: yes, you can make art out of discontinuity, but can it reinvigorate culture? Modernism did, in its little limited space. But in the largest frame of all, from an Olympian viewpoint, isn't it true that culture depends on what you receive? That would apply both to culture and agriculture: a farmer learns from the practices of his forebears, a child inherits—doesn't have to reinvent—the alphabet.

I think the discontinuity Howe speaks of differs from the rupture Bloom celebrates.

I agree. Howe's is a sociological rupture, and Bloom's is rhetorical.

Would you say that intermarriage is a kind of rupture that has attenuated Jewish culture?

Yes, but I'm not tremendously disturbed by it from a historical point of view. Not that it isn't appropriate to lament. I do lament, seeing a civilization—a history of intellectual movements, an ocean of brain and imagination and metaphor and anti-idolatry—discarded out of self-ignorance and a lack of a sense of the ironic. If the defections that have come about through the coercions of forced baptism and, to a degree, through various forms of voluntarism, including, since modernity, assimilation and intermarriage—if these defections hadn't occurred throughout Jewish history, then by now, because of how long we've been around, we would be a mighty people as numerous as the Chinese. Whereas Jews, having lost six million in the mass murder of the Holocaust, including a million-and-a-half children, constitute only about fourteen million people worldwide. In the United States there are about five million Jews, or about 2 percent of the American population, and a 50 percent rate of intermarriage, which keeps climbing. But looking in an Olympian way through the eyes of history, these defections don't profoundly merit our concern. In the first place, Judaism doesn't coerce its adherents. Under Islam, for instance, you are not free to leave the fold. But Jews are free men and women. Half the Jewish festivals celebrate freedom! In the second place, speaking for myself, I tend to view quality as more important than quantity, and there has always been the concept of the “saving remnant,” the educated, the committed, the passionate. Who wouldn't prefer half a dozen serious and learned scholars to a hundred run-of-the-mill minor-minded chatterers, profoundly acculturated into philistinism, who have maintained, generally via “ethnic” food, something called “Jewish identity” that is utterly without mental content—metaphysically and historically empty? Or who wouldn't prefer half a dozen of the Jewishly educated, Jewishly committed, Jewishly passionate, to the herds of typically indifferent and ignorant Jewish university professors who may be expert in Renaissance musical instruments or the civic progress of the amoeba, but can't recognize aleph-bet?

You speak of the saving remnant, yet the drive for assimilation cannot help but attenuate Jewish culture. What do you think of the Ethical Cultural movement?

Well, that's dilution carried to the extreme, almost to caricature. I would think straightforward secularism would mislead less. Hasn't Ethical Culture, with utter good will, betrayed every tradition in sight by leveling them all? I think that insults everybody all at once. Or would, if the goal weren't so insipid.

In an essay for this issue, Mark Krupnick writes of Paul Cowan's “dis-assimilation,” and I wonder what you think of that term as a concept and as a trend in American Jewish culture.

If Krupnick means those who have nothing to return to and who are in effect beginning again in a place they didn't start out in, that situation would, I think, require a new term—for which “convert,” if we're speaking of people born Jews, wouldn't do. And dis-assimilation might be a useful term if he means that you've grown up, say, in an assimilated family and you've never had any inkling of the content or tone of the tradition, and you suddenly become interested in it later in life. In that case, you can't be called a returner because you have nothing, at least at home, to return to. You would be somebody who is a leaver, namely a leaver of assimilation—a leaver and a retriever.

What part does Judaism play in contemporary Jewish culture?

Well, we come back to the problem at the beginning of this conversation. We are attempting to create a new definition of Jewish culture, which now does include novels, literary essays, poetry, memoirs, and the writing of history. Yosef Yerushalmi has dealt with this issue in Zakhor, his dazzling book on Jewish historiography. I don't suppose anyone of our current generation can authoritatively judge the work that is just now, before our eyes, emerging from this new definition—for the simple reason that there isn't enough material, so far, to have any genuine perspective on it. It may require another hundred years. All the torrential reflections on “Jewish American literature” that pour from the critics may very well unwittingly be flimsily interim, inherently tentative. I think it will require waiting. Yet there is nothing wrong with thrashing around, as so many critics do, trying to find out what even our interim condition connotes.

But if you look at the individual writers who are supposed to be the incarnation of this newly belletristic definition of Jewish culture, well, every single one of them—of us—has clay feet, in one way or another. It may be that a belletristic definition isn't going to work; it may simply be a dead end, or a false path, or, one might even say, a false messiah. As Ruth Wisse points out, Jewish destiny is not made by novelists. The people who create Jewish destiny are thinkers, not imaginers.

Yet the Jewish historian Yerushalmi says that the depiction of the Holocaust is not going to come from historians; it's going to come—and I quote from his book—from the “novelist's crucible.”

I actually deplore that. I agree with it; it's inevitable, and it has certainly happened. But I wish the Holocaust would not turn into an instance of mythopoetical creation. It's inexorable that poetry and legends will come whirling out of those demonic events, I recognize that. There is no stopping the human creature, the myth-maker, and the Holocaust will turn into a mythopoetical event. But, interestingly enough, great heaps of mythopoesis did not emerge from another mass catastrophe, the auto-da-fe of the Inquisition, followed by the Expulsion. The Inquisition was always left to the domain of history. Why is that? The answer is very much to the point of our conversation. The Inquisition occurred during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the authoritative definition of “Jewish culture” was wholly confined to Scripture and commentary, without the inclusion of belles-lettres. Although unquestionably Spanish Jewish culture before the debacle was a culture of belles-lettres—Jewish poets were writing love poems in Hebrew, Arabic, and Spanish—the Inquisition and the Expulsion failed to enter legend, except in one homely, folkloristic way. The legend was that there was a herem placed on the land of Spain—that is, a rabbinic prohibition against entering that land. That's something I learned from my grandmother and took as fact, as she took it as fact. But it is not fact, and it never was true; in that sense, the Inquisition and the Expulsion have entered myth, but only as domesticized false history, not in works of art. The separation between history and art held.

It no longer holds. It can happen now, because Jewish culture has been redefined—“modernized”—to include overtly imaginative literature, that we will have novels, poems, fictive memoirs, fictive diaries, and all the rest, dealing with the Holocaust. A belletristic view of Jewish culture makes this possible. Such a view hadn't yet formed in Jewish life in the period of the Inquisition and the Expulsion. Now that belles-lettres are included in the meaning of Jewish culture, it is inevitable that the Holocaust will enter and engender mythopoesis.

Do you think the Holocaust should remain history as well?

It should. I believe with all my soul that it ought to remain exclusively attached to document and history. But it won't. Already Steven Spielberg is looking to build a make-believe gas chamber at Auschwitz, to accommodate the plot of a movie. Already the furnaces have escaped utterly into mythopoesis, and the Holocaust as “idea” is used both malevolently and benevolently, as Alvin Rosenfeld shows us in his book, Imagining Hitler. If the Holocaust becomes commensurate with the literary imagination, then what of those recrudescent Nazis, the so-called revisionists, who claim the events themselves are nothing but imaginings?

But imagination keeps memory alive, and we're entering a period where there aren't going to be any more survivors alive. If the novelist doesn't keep the Holocaust alive, how will younger people learn about it?

Because the witnesses are piling up oral and written records, and there are plenty of chilling photographs and documents from the Nazis and from the collaborating countries.

But will people read the records? Won't they be more likely to pick up a novel?

The answer is yes, just as they're more likely to read Anne Frank, and Anne Frank is a document, not a fiction. Norma Rosen in a trenchant essay on this subject points out the dangers of reading Anne Frank, who is so winning, so brightly alive. The child Anne is protected, she is sheltered, she is in a civilized if sequestered community. We don't see what happens when she is dragged away. It's almost comforting to read Anne Frank. You are distanced from the agony.

But what about the fiction writers who don't distance us?

Who are they?

You, in “The Shawl” and in “Rosa.”

Well, I did it in five pages in “The Shawl,” and I don't admire that I did it. I did it because I couldn't help it. It wanted to be done. I didn't want to do it, and afterward I've in a way punished myself, I've accused myself for having done it. I wasn't there, and I pretended through imagination that I was. I've also on occasion been punished in angry letters from people who really were there. But I wasn't there, and the story is not a document; it's an imagining.

But the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld would disagree with you; he does disagree with you.

Appelfeld is a true witness.

And so for you, only a true witness can write a novel about the Holocaust?

Insofar as my stringent feelings about this would sanction writing a novel at all, I would say that if a novel must be written, let it be written by a true witness.

And yet the Holocaust preoccupies the imaginations of American Jewish writers. We can name them, one by one.

True. Even in a novel with the very different intent of Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, the protagonist goes through Germany and remembers, remembers with razorlike pertinence. I know that for the last fifty years of my life I've thought of nothing else. There isn't a day that goes by when the subject of the Holocaust, in one form or another, doesn't arise. And these days there is plenty of external spur: the resurgence of Nazism—it has to be called that, it's nothing else—in Germany, the worldwide progress in arrogant lying among the so-called revisionists.

But my preoccupation began long before. My thoughts about German anti-Semitism had their origins in my childhood in the thirties, when my pharmacist parents undertook to boycott German goods in their drugstore. They refused to sell Bayer's aspirin at a time when “Bayer's” was almost generic for aspirin—people wouldn't ask for aspirin, they asked for Bayer's. My parents attempted to sell a substitute, and when the customers protested, “No, I want Bayer's,” my mother and father would say, “We don't want to sell it to you because it's made in Germany.” It was a principle with them. And many, many customers would walk out and go to the next drugstore down the street and buy their Bayer's there. This was in the deep Depression, when you didn't go out of your way to lose a quarter. Recently, when Shulamit Aloni, Israel's Minister of Education, contemplating what's going on in Germany, asked for an Israeli boycott of Germany, I was thinking how I began my own boycott of German goods as a child in the thirties. I haven't stopped. I've never stopped. It's a kind of memorial, a private memorial. And a living one, too. Why didn't Volkswagen, Hitler's “people's car,” ever have the delicacy to change its Nazi name? Let those who drive it think about that. The name, “das Volk,” sticks in the throat.

Do you think that kind of memorial attracts contemporary American Jewish writers? Or do you think that for many of them the Holocaust is all their Jewishness? I'm not saying that they're not horrified by the Holocaust, but I don't know what constitutes Jewishness in contemporary American Jewish life besides that horrible event—and anti-Semitism.

Yes, I understand what you're saying. Victimization is neither culture nor the content of culture. The content of culture is what you make, what you create. That's Benedetto Croce's definition. Besides, the only relation of victimization to culture is as an obstacle to it. You can't sit and write or paint or dream equations if you're on the run. And beyond that, it's important to remember that oppression belongs to the culture of the oppressor, not that of the oppressed. To take the history of anti-Semitism, or the record of the Holocaust, as your only defining Jewish “content” is a dead end. It's not your content; you didn't make it. Though the Holocaust has horrifically entered Jewish history, it is the product of German culture. That's why I strongly object to the commonplace phrase “Jewish Holocaust.”

Then why, to come back to American Jewish writers, does the Holocaust pervade their novels? Is it because they can't help writing about it? Or do you think there is another reason?

Because the Holocaust crashes through history, it reverberates, it screams through the hollowness of the broken human skull. In all of human history, it is among the most evil events we know of. Some say it is the most evil, and maybe they're right, that it is preeminent evil, the most single-minded incarnation of evil. Certainly it makes you believe in the reality of evil. In the face of the Holocaust there is no way you can separate, as the evangelists say, the sin from the sinner. There is no sophistry that you can apply to the Holocaust. It takes our attention. It is the antithesis of culture and has claimed our attention for sixty years, from the thirties forward—the greater part of our century.

An unspeakable century. Will you venture a prediction about the future—the future of American Jewish culture and American Jewish writing?

Well, one can predict, I suppose, on the basis of trends. Looking at things demographically, in some communities intermarriage is up from over 50 percent, which is the norm now, to nearly 70 percent. That I think will continue. There will be more and more half Jews. Having a Jewish grandmother will become rather exotic. The saving remnant will become more and more of a remnant. But this kind of speculation may be just wind. Jewish destiny tends to outwit Jewish demography.

In terms of novel-making, “sociology,” to use a shorthand word, will, as always, dominate the novel, because that's what the novel is about. The novel is a social instrument; it's a social imagining and always has been. We see that exquisitely in Jane Austen, though it gets a little metaphysical in Hawthorne and Melville. In America we have Hawthorne and Melville and, interestingly, parts of Henry Roth, to give us this kind of heat or energy toward imagining metaphysics. That white whale has no ready European counterpart! And then, to stand against the sociological, to declare the individual, there's Huck Finn. Curiously, we haven't yet mentioned the work of Steve Stern, whose prose has the idiosyncratic bounce and high antic fever of Jewish Huck Finn.

At this moment I happen to think that Philip Roth's new work, Operation Shylock, is the Great American Jewish Novel. And, as I remarked earlier, it's set in Israel! Which doesn't prevent it from being what it stupendously is, an American novel of intricate braininess and brio.

I would like to live another hundred years to see how it all comes out—this problematic project called “American Jewish culture.” You remember the story of the Jew who accepted the wretched job, for meager pay, of spending his days and his nights, in the winter cold, in the summer heat, at the miserable top of a narrow high tower. From this tower he could see far beyond his hometown, even into the next province. His assignment was to keep watch for the coming of the Messiah. When he was asked what attracted him to such an unrewarding assignment, he answered, “Well, it's steady work anyhow.”

Since we can't see into the next century and beyond, in the meantime the poets and novelists, established and new, give us steady work—we may have to wait a long, long time before we can figure out whether the Messiah of American Jewish Writing is really on the way.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


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 in Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character and Other Essays on Writing.

Dandona, Kabir. “Essaying Ozick.” Tikkun 16, no. 2 (March 2001): 68–70.

Dandona offers a positive assessment of Quarrel & Quandary.

Eder, Richard. “Out of Time.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (15 June 1997): 2.

Eder praises the wit of The Puttermesser Papers, describing the work as ironic, sympathetic, and haunting.

Hadas, Rachel. “Text and Stories.” Partisan Review 58, no. 3 (summer 1991): 579–85.

Hadas compares Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum with The Shawl, stressing the merits of Ozick's writing over Eco's.

Mantel, Hilary. “Culture Has Gone to the Cats.” Spectator 276, no. 8603 (29 May 1993): 25–26.

Mantel describes Ozick's skill in writing about art in literature in What Henry James Knew and Other Essays.

Nocera, Gigliola. “Cynthia Ozick and The Pagan Rabbi.” In Intertextual Identity: Reflections on Jewish-American Artists, edited by Franco La Polla and Gabriella Morisco, pp. 109–13. Bologna: Patron Editore, 1997.

Nocera offers a positive assessment of The Pagan Rabbi.

Ozick, Cynthia, and Lewis Frumkes. “A Conversation with Cynthia Ozick.” Writer 111, no. 3 (March 1998): 18–20.

Ozick discusses the parallels between herself and her character Ruth Puttermesser.

Schenk, Leslie. Review of Fame & Folly, by Cynthia Ozick. World Literature Today 71, no. 1 (winter 1997): 158.

Schenk offers a positive assessment of Fame & Folly.

Wasserstein, Wendy. “Tales of Golem City.” Washington Post Book World 27, no. 29 (20 July 1997): 5.

Wasserstein examines the bittersweet tone and realistic descriptions of New York City in The Puttermesser Papers.

Additional coverage of Ozick's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 5; Bestsellers, Vol. 90:1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17–20R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 23, 58; Contemporary Novelists; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 28, 152; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1982; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Exploring Short Stories; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to American Literature; Reference Guide to Short Fiction; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 3, 12; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 15.

Andrew Lakritz (essay date winter 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 extensions of modernism, indeed, of romanticism itself.2 Cynthia Ozick's book The Messiah of Stockholm in some ways identifies itself as “postmodern” in the sense that it is consciously about a man who has come after, come too late, and lives in a time when the important values of writers working in the first half of the century no longer seem to be of significance. The central figure of the novel does all he can to catch up to his “father,” the dead Polish-Jewish writer, Bruno Schulz. What I would like to do in the following essay is not so much to rehash the question of how to name the period we are in as to examine the symptoms of this belatedness. In particular, I am interested in how Ozick constructs herself as having come after the great writers of the recent past and what that means for culture in the present. As we will see, this debate is not the sterile jostling over a mere name for a period but a critical task of evaluating where we are as writers, critics, and educators. The Messiah of Stockholm turns out to be an allegory not merely of where we are in terms of significant culture after the great modernist experiments, but more importantly, an allegory of a writer (Ozick herself) giving up the past in the recognition that, alas, it is no longer connected to the dominant structures of the present culture. The Messiah of Stockholm is a story of loss and regret, of giving in to the celebratory atmosphere that marks much postmodernist thinking to date.


Two years after Ozick published The Messiah of Stockholm, she published a long essay on T. S. Eliot in The New Yorker, written in the wake of the Eliot centennial of 1988.3 This essay was lively and elicited at least two kinds of responses, two kinds of readings that suggest a curious cultural phenomenon at work. On the one hand, Hilton Kramer in the conservative monthly journal The New Criterion wrote a bitter denunciation of the essay on the grounds that it represents a “ferocious attack,” an “act of intellectual violence … intended to annihilate its object.”4 For Kramer, Ozick does to Eliot what seems generally to be happening to high culture in the United States: she writes a revisionary history, including the more unsavory aspects of his life and character, including his anti-semitism, his utter coldness to others, his narrow-mindedness—she calls him a “considerably bigoted fake Englishman” (121)—all in an attempt to undercut an authority which has been damaged in the academy already by the incursion of other voices such as feminists, African-Americanists, and gay liberationists, among others. The academy in the United States is undergoing a major upheaval, particularly in its core curriculum programs, as Chicanos, African Americans, Native Americans, feminists and others clamor to have a more diverse, less Eurocentric, curriculum at its core. In this debate, the high modernists have taken a decided beating, and Kramer writes that Ozick “enters the debate on these issues very late in the day, at an hour when the defense of high art is a beleaguered minority position on the cultural scene and the enemies of modernism command enormous patronage and influence” (7). All of this surprises Kramer, inasmuch as Ozick had been “until now” a partisan of high art, on the side of tradition and religion, cultural memory, the sublime artifacts left us by genius. Now she seems merely to be another voice in a chorus of voices announcing with the blandness of the popular acronym DWEM—Dead White European Male—the end of that tradition of high culture.5

On the other side of this question, Mark Krupnick, a professor of theology and literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School, also was moved to write about the connection between Ozick and Eliot in an essay he titles “Cynthia Ozick as the Jewish T. S. Eliot.”6 Krupnick cites the New Yorker essay with none of the excited imagination of Kramer, saying that “she published an interesting long essay on Eliot … that confirmed my sense that he has been a major influence on her” (351). Krupnick goes on to define this influence historically, writing that Ozick came to maturity as a student and writer when Eliot's star was at its peak, that she learned from him the importance of religious tradition as an informing element of literature as well as the value of an authoritarian, conservative attitude toward the literary canon. Far from rejecting Eliot as a mere autocratic literary celebrity, Ozick seems to want to separate those aspects of Eliot which can legitimately be criticized—his anti-semitism, his distrust of democracy, and his personal failings—from the literary and critical values which, for Ozick, should endure. Krupnick writes that “Ozick sums up a longing, similar to Eliot's for order and orthodoxy following a great historical catastrophe. Whereas Eliot would recreate the medieval Christian community, Ozick would recreate the lost world of pre-World War II East-European Yiddishkeit, which was similarly organized about religious belief” (355). There is not even a trace recognition of Ozick in her essay as a great debunker of Eliot or of the central values for which he stands.

The stark contradiction between these two readings of Ozick on Eliot might be explained by any number of logical frames. We could say, for instance, that one of the two readings is wrong, pure and simple, irrespective of motivation, and that the other seems to take a more comprehensive, more precise view of Ozick's long and complicated essay. We might say, as well, that one of the writers is motivated for ideological reasons to build the case he makes, and in doing so, necessarily skews the evidence to suit his ideology. But perhaps the least attractive possibility, from the point of view of logic, is to explain this contradiction as necessary given the text itself, and that is the path I would like to follow in this essay. I would like to suggest that both readings are valid, despite the appearance of a total incommensurability between them, despite even Ozick's own vigorous defense of her position against Hilton Kramer. Ozick hates T. S. Eliot and the values for which he stands; Ozick is the Jewish T. S. Eliot.

Rather than examine in detail the essay on Eliot which raises this discussion in the first place, I want to look at The Messiah of Stockholm and its relation to another literary father, Bruno Schulz, the Polish-Jewish writer who died in the midst of the Second World War, fifty years ago (November 19, 1942). It is my hunch that a similar contradiction animates this text, rendering it fundamentally unreadable like the essay on Eliot. That is, it appears to me that in order to read Ozick adequately one must register the force and function of a contradiction that renders readability impossible. The textual apparatus of The Messiah of Stockholm—its plot, its language, its enveloping strategy of text within text—produces this opacity, and suggests to me that at the heart of Ozick's writing is a powerful and fundamental difficulty or dissonance having to do with the place of the Jewish writer in the post-Holocaust world.

In Krupnick's reading of Ozick, that place is compromised by Ozick's attachment to the basic theology of the Jew announced in the second commandment: “Thou shalt have no other idols before thee.” For Krupnick, this is the heart of Ozick's traditionalism. She believes strongly in this article of faith, and her fiction itself (along with her essays) dramatizes the dangers of worshipping false gods, as Lars Andemening does disastrously in the case of the lost manuscript of Schulz's The Messiah. As the novel suggests, his attachments to Bruno Schulz and to his texts lead him only to a group of forgers and frauds; only when he recognizes Dr. Eklund for what he is, one who sets himself up in competition with God, can he set himself on the right track (128). Lars does the right thing only after recognizing the “value of the sublime” (124) for what it is: blasphemy. As Krupnick demonstrates, The Messiah of Stockholm is a text built on a quest for a lost book; when the book turns up, the only proper stance to take toward it is skepticism, forgetting, and annihilation. As the novel unravels its story, so does it unravel storytelling itself—on the grounds that such representation is secular, secondary, hubristic, arrogant, irreligious. Or to put it another way, as the plot builds toward the revelation of Bruno Schulz's lost manuscript, it unbuilds the very basis for the novel, through an insistent skepticism about the secular text of modernism itself.

More than any other contemporary writer I know, Cynthia Ozick writes a traditionalist fiction that is utterly skeptical of its own connection to the tradition. Krupnick writes in his essay that the move from Eliot to Ozick is a simple matter of merely shifting from one theological context to another, to take note of the obvious differences between Eliot's Anglo-Catholicism and Ozick's Judaism. From my point of view, Ozick's identification with Eliot disables and distresses as much as it enables her to create works within that tradition. And just as importantly, while she often expresses a powerful nostalgia for the pre-World War II world of the Middle European Jew, her fiction is animated, equally, by a recognition that the Holocaust forever renders any such nostalgia not merely problematic but morally suspect. In short, Ozick's novel is the record of a failed fictional identification. As such, it represents the Jewish American writer's search for a stand or ground which is inherently impossible.


Lars Andemening and the lost manuscript of Bruno Schulz's The Messiah stand in for one another as mutual surrogates, displacements one of the other. This is so in part because of the sort of identification which Lars intensely pursues, an important element of the novel. When we meet Lars at the opening of the novel we learn that he works at the newest newspaper in Stockholm, the Morgontörn, where he reviews obscure books from Eastern Europe in the modernist tradition. Because of his literary tastes, he has no office, no workspace, and is assigned to do Monday reviews, the black hole of newspaper reviewing. Neither the books he reviews, nor the reviews themselves, will be read by more than a handful of readers, and the narrator figures this neglect as a form of freedom: “Few letters came for Lars Andemening. Mondays were worthless. Lars was unread, unmolested, unharassed; he was free.”7 The familiar topoi of the modernist artist as unconcerned with business value—“Mondays were worthless”—is raised here, but so is the figure of the unreadable. If Lars is unread that is partly because he and his modernist heroes are unreadable, inaccessible to the crowd that buys the daily paper. Later, one of his colleagues, Gunnar, reads a sentence of Lars's while Lars is fetching water for the kettle: “Here is a universe as confined as a trap, where the sole heroes are victims, where muteness is for the intrepid only” (13, italics in the original). Gunnar makes a joke of this writing and announces the difference between Lars and the other reviewers: “The trouble with you, Lars, is that you're a beautiful soul. A daily reviewer shouldn't be a beautiful soul. It leads to belles-lettres, which leads to exaltation and other forms of decline” (13).

Some of the irony on which Ozick's writing depends can be explained when we recognize that such post-war attitudes toward literary culture parallel Nazi attitudes—the Nazis were of course great foes of modernist culture—without the sense of an immanent and violent threat. Gunnar couples decline with exaltation, demonstrating a keen self-awareness of the practical responsibilities of the critic writing in a world evacuated of high cultural values. The passage reminds me of a much less self-aware comment I heard a year ago as I wandered through the Art Institute of Chicago, which was showing the “Entarte Kunst” exhibition, a reproduction of the Nazi exhibition of “decadent” art, first held in Munich in the 1930s. A gallery-goer was telling his companion that he understood why the Nazis wanted to have this work destroyed. For him, this difficult, opaque art had no meaning. The assault on the autonomous art work of the moderns by the Nazis seems strangely to have completed its work in the post-war period, as the ideology which put both modernists and Jews at risk for their lives survives in a much more benign form of neglect and indifference, with periodic outbreaks of censorship and political agitation.

It is in the context of this utter indifference and neglect that Lars Andemening does his work of promoting the great writers of this tradition, of whom Bruno Schulz, the imaginary father, is one of the central figures. It seems to be Lars's fondest wish to establish the father as central to the literary canon of modernism, and to do that he must promote him to the Academy, which for Lars is “more sacred … than any cathedral” (15). The narrator describes Lars's habit of walking into the old town daily in order to walk by the Academy, how he imagines the rows and rows of books and the men studying them on the other side of the walls. Lars, outside of this academy—refugee, immigrant, outsider—thinks of the encyclopedias in this library as “crown jewels,” of the scholars as “specially-appointed,” and of the bookcases as filled with “a plenitude, a robustness” foreign to his own meager life (16). In describing the library of the Academy, the narrator contrasts the businesses that transact nearby, on the street level, through computers and telephones, with the scholars who work by hand and eye, craftsmen from an earlier time who have no use for computers. Lars, in some vague way, feels that his identification with Bruno Schulz may be his ticket into this venerable, old, and respected institution:

His father belonged there, in the ventricles of the Academy; Lars was as certain of this as he was of the snow beating against his eyelids. His father had been born to be of that pantheon—with Selma Lagerlöf and Knut Hamsun; with Camus and Pasternak. Shaw, Mann, Pirandello. Faulkner, Yeats, Bellow, Singer, Canetti! Maeterlinck and Tagore. The long, long stupendous list of Winners. His father, if he had lived, would have won the great Prize—it was self-evident. He was of that magisterial company.


If the father belonged there, a Nobel Prize-winner like the others, then so would the son. It may be a part of Ozick's ironic project to construct Lars within the framework of a kind of truncated Freudian family romance. In Freud's original scheme, the child imagines he is the son of parents more illustrious and powerful, more attractive and important, than his real parents. Lars is of course orphaned and so free to imagine his parents, but it seems symptomatic of the times that he should like to imagine as a father not a Nobel Prize-winner but a murdered and forgotten author of two story collections. In this way, Lars has to construct for himself both the imaginary relation with his father at the same time that he constructs his father's literary reputation, building the latter in order to make the former more remarkable and wonderful.

When Ozick writes about those elements of Eliot she would have us recall and retain, this list of the high modernist writers is crucial. She writes that “for the moderns, and for Eliot especially, the denial of permanently agreed-on masterworks … would have been unthinkable. What one learned from Eliot, whose poetry skittered toward disintegration, was the power of consolidation: the understanding that literature could genuinely reign” (122, her italics). What must be so attractive to Lars here is that great literature, so defined by Eliot, steps outside of historical contingency to assert its greatness on the grounds of intrinsic merit. That phrase—“permanently agreed-on masterworks”—captures, I think, the sense of the canon as a store of cultural artifacts which do not depend on subjective agreement but compel universal assent on their own terms: they are works which master their readers through a mastery of their own materials, the language of a culture. In this sense, it doesn't matter that Lars has no parents, no national connection, no home in the world, for to him value can be asserted by identification with a great literary work that precisely transcends national and local boundaries.

Later in the novel Lars mistakes Heidi Eklund's intention. He thinks she wants him to translate The Messiah into Swedish, when in fact she wants him to announce to the Swedish world the discovery of the lost manuscript. This element of the plot indicates, I think, the relative unimportance of national boundaries and historical specificity in connection with the more crucial aspects of building literary fame and creating value in the literary marketplace. If Lars reports on the authentication of the manuscript, that will instantly make the manuscript a very valuable commodity for the book-seller and her husband. Thus the problem of translation disappears from view while what remains is the fact of the canon and the power and prestige it conveys to the literary work.

Nowhere in her Eliot essay is Ozick able to say just why she laments the “etiolation of high art” (124) or why she holds on to the more old-fashioned assumption that a critic's job is to pass judgment on works of art; high art must be its own justification. Whereas Hilton Kramer views Ozick's descriptions of the current moment in critical theory as acceptance of a bad situation, it seems more likely that she chooses not to explore the reasons why many have questioned modernist assumptions as well as the literary canon because she either has not considered those questions or has no time for them. To represent what is merely a picture of the effects of the debate in its baldest form—we no longer have standards, we no longer have recognizable literary masterpieces, we no longer have a central and organizing tradition to shore up the ruins of European and post-European culture—is in effect to mount a rhetorical attack on the current state of the academy without having actually to argue terms, investigate issues, or have a real discussion.

What better way to undertake this ideological project than to hang it on a character in a novel who has no history, no country of origin, no past whatsoever? The only thing we really know about Lars is that he was married twice and has a single child who no longer lives in Sweden. The last remnant of that past—the paint set—he gives up somewhere in the middle of the novel, guaranteeing his remoteness from any recognizable human history. This is another way in which Lars is like the lost manuscript of The Messiah. One reviewer of the novel, Robert Alter, faults Ozick, by comparison with Philip Roth, for being interested in ideas only; he finds the characters in The Messiah of Stockholm to be empty signs for ideas, cold and lifeless. He thinks there is “precious little in the way of psychological density or individual language.”8 One of the reasons Lars is so peculiarly empty of psychological depth is that he is unreadable, a figure perhaps of unreadability itself, in the way that The Messiah is. How could there be psychological density when Lars has no past, at least no past that might count for something? This is what sends him to the bookseller for whatever scraps of information he can gather from Heidi Eklund about his father—scenes from Paris, letters from Warsaw, stories about the man and his art.

When he first comes to the bookshop and tries to persuade Heidi that he is indeed the son of Schulz, Lars is incapable of speaking with any specificity:

I've got every detail of his face, I know it by heart. I know almost every word he ever wrote. Father and son. We look alike, two peas in a pod. It's the same nose, you see how my chin comes to a point? And it isn't even a matter of looks. There's an affinity. His voice. His mind.


When he utters this speech he has yet to learn to speak a word of Polish, so that his knowledge here must be a tenuous one, as tenuous as the vague notion of affinity of voice and mind.9 It is, then, his affinity for the unreadable. Later in the novel, when Adela arrives on the scene, another claiming to be the progeny of Bruno Schulz, she confronts Lars with a characterization she first heard from Heidi. He believes he owns “every syllable he ever put down” (79). He knows every word; he owns every word. He is, according to Heidi, a “Priest” in relation to Bruno Schulz's word, without ever having access to the meaning of those words—except in translation. Schulz himself, the original, the progenitor, the Father, is inaccessible, dark, unreadable. Too many cultural displacements have come between the Father and the Son for Lars to undertake an authentic, originary relation to his father.

The text of The Messiah in Ozick's novel demonstrates the same unreadability as Lars; one might say that it too suffers from a lack of psychological depth and individual language, but Ozick makes clear that this feature of Schulz's writing comes not from the man's imagination alone but from his relation to culture, his culture. When, early in the novel, Lars and Heidi review the precise materials they have, the facts about Bruno Schulz that remain in the record, they come to recognize how paltry the record is, how it is composed of mere “tracings, leavings, enigmatic vestiges” (34). One aspect of these literary remains interests me a great deal, having to do with the issue of the readable. Ozick mentions Schulz's fiancée, the Polish-Catholic woman Józefina Szelinska, and their troubled plans for marriage. Ozick narrates this episode, apparently taking the basic material from a letter Schulz wrote to Romana Halpern. In Ozick's version of this story,

Józefina wanted him baptized after their engagement. He refused, but offered a concession: he would forsake the world of the Jews. His family had anyhow always kept their distance from the teeming outlandish hasidim in their long black coats. He was a Pole: he had already thrown himself on the unyielding breast of mother Poland, and nestled into the underside of her tongue. If he had ever sipped a word or two of Yiddish out of the air, it did not ride his spittle or his pen.


Schulz wanted to marry this Polish Catholic woman, but he did not wish to convert to Catholicism to do it. Only one other way seemed possible, and that was to marry in a civil service in the Silesian region, where Schulz understood he could be married under German law if he “gave up membership in the Jewish community.”10 Where Schulz says “give up membership in the Jewish community,” Ozick writes “forsake the world of the Jews,” and this translation provides a dramatic indication of Ozick's understanding. Schulz seems to be talking about making a more or less official and bureaucratic move in order to marry Józefina, while Ozick is talking about a thoroughgoing repudiation of race, religion, and tradition. Ozick does not go on, however, to point out that Schulz never went through with this plan. Instead, she mentions the distance Schulz's family had kept from the religious Jews, the identification of Schulz as a Pole—his “mother” was Poland, not Zion—and the fact that he did not speak Yiddish.

This last fact is crucial for Ozick, for it is Yiddish that defines the Eastern European Jew, and by extension, all Jews after the Holocaust. In a story originally published in 1969, “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” Ozick has her central character, an embittered Yiddish poet who cannot get published, articulate what seems to be Ozick's own theory of culture and history:

Yiddish is the language of auto-emancipation. Theodor Herzl wrote in German but the message spread in mamaloshen—my God cold. Naturally the important thing is to stick to what you learned as a slave including language, and not to speak their language, otherwise you will become like them, acquiring their confusion between God and artifact and consequently their taste for making slaves, both of themselves and others.11

This passage elaborates a theory of language which posits that for a Polish Jew to write in Polish amounts to giving up that element of one's identity which is most crucial in establishing identity: Yiddish is the language of the slave, the underclass, an amalgam of Slavic and German, forged under the conditions of Jewish experience within Eastern European culture and thus functioning as a signifier for Jewish difference. The heart of that difference for Ozick is that non-Jews represent their god with their art, literature, while Jews refuse; hence, the non-Jew, who has from this point of view the arrogance to play god in language, to repeat, as Coleridge wrote, the gesture of God's infinite “I am,” represents someone who sees language as an instrument for mastering both the world and people.

What makes Lars unreadable, then, from the paradigm of the Jew who speaks his Jewishness from inside his language, is that he neither knows the Polish of his father's original texts nor the Yiddish of Schulz's originary culture, so that Lars is forced to write about the experience of alienation and marginality from within the dominant culture's language, that is from inside a language which articulates itself as central rather than marginal. Perhaps this is the meaning of that strange story by Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener”—that the oppressed other finally has no resources to speak of his oppression within the language of he who dominates and so gradually grows silent, refusing to participate in his own enslavement by, however inadvertently, taking up the project of slavery linguistically.

But Schulz did take up that project, at least symbolically, by writing in the language of the dominant culture in Poland, and so does Lars by adopting the language of the country where he had come to live. If Schulz is a figure of the high modernist enterprise, and Lars by extension is a figure who wishes to keep that high modernist tradition alive, nurture new readers in its lessons of difficulty, and even imagine a place for it on the high shelves of the Academy, then The Messiah of Stockholm is a novel by an author who has a profound ambivalence for that tradition and its values, an ambivalence which owes much to the hybrid character of the literary products themselves.

Later in the novel when Adela, the self-proclaimed daughter of Schulz, comes to tell Lars how she obtained the manuscript of The Messiah, we learn that the pages had passed through several hands before they ended up in Adela's and in Stockholm. Adela narrates the story of the family who bought the house where the papers had been hidden during the war. The husband takes a look at the papers and concludes that they are the prayers of the Jews, even though the text was written, presumably, in Polish like Schulz's other fiction. How does the husband know they are Jewish prayers?

… the woman said to her husband, How do you know it's what the Zydki pray, it's hexes and curses. Mother of God, he said, I tried to read it, it's all a jumble, it's the way they pray. And also the letters on the top, The Messiah, it's the Jews cursing Our Lord. Get rid of it, the husband said.


Now one could say this is a passage where Ozick nods, since the reason Jewish prayer would be unreadable to the non-Jew ought to be more likely that it is in another language. If The Messiah is a novel written in Polish, then the words should be readable to the man, unmistakable. I would suggest that what Ozick is up to here is making the suggestion that the language of high modernism is precisely what makes this text unreadable—Bruno Schulz's experiments in a fantastic, puzzling, cryptic, difficult dialect of a mother tongue that belongs to someone else's mother. It is a language of the elite and of the adept, and only those properly initiated into the complexities of this language can penetrate its opacities.

This is the language project that Ozick explicitly aligns herself with in the essay on Eliot: she is on the side of high art, on the side of the elite, on the side of the autonomous artwork. At the same time, however, she distrusts this autonomous artwork. For right on the cover of the stack of papers that comprise the manuscript is written that which should make every Jew cringe who holds fast to the second principle of Judaism: thou shalt not have other gods before thee. No idols. No representations. The Jew is not even supposed to know or to name God—Yahweh is ineffable. And yet The Messiah is written boldly across the front page of the manuscript, leading the Polish husband to think the papers contain curses of the Christian god. And what is Lars to think, who has come this far to find the lost manuscript, to believe in it, just as he believes his father was Schulz?

After Lars and Adela get into their battle over the papers, the narrator tells us explicitly that a great loss has occurred: Lars had access to the words of his father, but he didn't get them. “And not one word taken. Not one word. Not a glimpse. He had been as near to it as to the apparition of his father's eye. The Messiah in his arms, and lost again!” (82–83). Adela leaves Lars's flat without his having had the chance to read the text. In this instance, the text of The Messiah is not so unreadable; he might have read it had he gotten closer to her. The text remains a blank, a speculation, the paper object which seems to belong to her fantastic story, but nothing more than that. He hasn't been able to read the text, only to see that a text was there, in his flat, on his bed. An immensely significant opportunity lost, Lars must be content for now with his glimpse.

The climax of the novel arrives at that moment when the mysterious Dr. Eklund appears on the scene to verify both the existence and the authenticity of the text for Lars. All four main figures—Heidi and the good Doctor, Lars and his “sister” Adela—converge again at the bookshop over the literary remains of modernism's slain father. Dr. Eklund ceremoniously examines the text and pronounces it authentic. Ozick's prose reaches for some sublimity when she describes Lars's response to this proclamation:

But there on the table lay the scattered Messiah. Retrieved. The original. The Messiah, spread out in its curiously rapturous Polish for anyone's bare blink. The original! Recovered; resurrected; redeemed. Lars, looking with all his strength, felt his own ordinary pupil consumed by a conflagration in the socket. As if copulating with an angel whose wings were on fire.


It would be hard to miss the double sense of this passage: The Messiah as text and the Messiah as the redeemer returned to earth to make all believers free and to end history. The confluence of text and god, precisely that which Jewish law prohibits, an act which to a Jew is as outrageous as the notion of copulating with an angel. If there is a fire in this image—a fire in the eye, a fire in the image of the angel and Lars copulating—it must be that hell-fire which consumes the sinner who dares to overstep his human boundaries by making representations, idols, reproduced images. For Dr. Eklund to pronounce this Messiah as the original, then, is inherently problematic for the Jewish writer. At this point, as well, I need to mention another sense of fire in this text, since Ozick ends the novel with an image of the smoke of Stockholm. While it is quite true, as Krupnick says, that the Holocaust is nowhere in this book, might the image of Lars copulating with a burning angel—an image which threatens to consume the man at the very heart of his image-making organ, his eye—might this image of burning and fire recall as well the fires of the ovens which carried away so many Jews in Europe? Without elaborating for the moment this possibility, I want to at least suggest it for now. I will conclude with some speculation on it.

Finally The Messiah is pronounced recovered, redeemed, and Lars takes it into his hands and reads it. The figure Ozick uses for the man reading is a striking one: she compares the reader to one who hurls himself against a glass wall, breaking the glass, and allowing in the forward motion each tiny shard of cut glass to slice his flesh. In reading his father's text, he is as one being sliced to pieces by a thousand transparent blades. Lars just moves ahead propelled by what Ozick calls his “hunger.” Lars is a glutton for his father's book. This image of being dismantled, as it were, as he reads the novel, seems to correspond to what happens to the novel as it enters his consciousness: “He could not contain what he met; he could not keep it. Amnesia descended with the opacity of a dropped hood. What he took he lost. And instantly grieved, because he could not keep it” (106). In other words, with each new element of the text imprinting itself on his consciousness, the last element becomes erased; as his body is sliced into many tiny pieces by the imaginary broken glass, his mind is also broken up and broken down, leaving him with no more image of the text he reads than the profane Polish man who wanted to be rid of the text on the grounds that it contained Jewish prayers and curses. As Lars reads, the text becomes unreadable, dark, opaque, inaccessible. After reading the text, he forgets it entirely.

And yet, Ozick nevertheless wants to present it to us, and even though she has trouble saying what the book is about, she feels compelled to make up her own version of what the text might have contained. In this act, in the choice this writer made, we get in yet another register a writer trying to represent The Messiah, to make the ineffable readable, dangerous and paradoxical act that it is. As a critic, reading this text in my turn, I will try to represent that representation, repeating the act of blasphemy against which this novel is partly written. First, we get a note on the order of the pages; the book has no order. Or, rather, we can say that the order of the text is not in any way linear. Instead, “everything voluminously overlapping, everything simultaneous and multiform” (106), this text comes to look quite a bit like Eliot's version of history in The Waste Land. The important thing for Eliot was not to reproduce narrative, no longer a trustworthy form in an age of social, political, and religious crisis, but rather to build out of the shards of a civilization fallen apart something like a new order, a new orthodoxy. This is what Eliot called his “mythic method” in his essay on Joyce's Ulysses, which much better describes Eliot's work than Joyce's: Eliot wanted to produce in his writing what he called a “continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity.” The imagism of Eliot and Pound was just the thing to produce this simultaneity of disparate moments, a literary technique to reestablish order and authority in a world where such authority was rapidly losing ground in the wake of the First World War. This would be especially appealing to Lars whose life in the “stewpot” of the Morgontörn is surrounded by unthinking and shallow men and women for whom the brilliancies and significances of Schulz mean nothing. For those who have given up the worship of elite culture—or never learned that worship—like the men and women of Ozick's generation she writes so disparagingly of in her Eliot essay, Schulz is nothing more than an impertinence, an annoyance, obscure and forgettable.

Next, Ozick describes the novel to be about “creation and redemption,” and she calls the author a “genie” who creates an entirely new world on the ground of Drohobycz. It is a world of idols, like a multiplied version of the idol the community of Jews worships at the base of Mount Sinai just before Moses descends with the tablets. These idols cannot walk, they cannot really move, although they paradoxically appear to accomplish many tasks, like worship and sacrifice. The people of the town of Drohobycz have all left, scattered over Europe and the Americas, though their going seems to be less darkly imagined than the historical version. They are, most of them, merely on holiday. Apparently Ozick's version does not imagine that Schulz was a prophet of the Holocaust. She does hint ominously, however, that they “could be rounded up, if need be, in Prague or Stockholm or Moscow or even as far away as New York, Montreal, and Tel Aviv” (108). Does she imagine some future holocaust for the Jews?

As the town continues to develop, with each idol burning another idol in sacrifice in huge fires, the town itself begins to burn. “The town was on fire, idols burning up idols in a frenzy of mutual adoration” (109). We recall the angel burning as Lars copulates with it, the book equated with the Messiah: these transgressions—worshipping idols, copulating with burning angels, representing the word of god by the very act of creating a new world in language—all lead to fire, to death, to the end of everything that is left after humankind has left the scene. When the Messiah finally appears, he is a book creature, both organic like an organ—heart, liver, lung—and inanimate like dead matter: cotton, cardboard, glue, thread. It is a new Golem, and the Rabbi of Drohobycz, a hay vendor named Moses, is its creator. Like the Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague who also created, in legend, a Golem, Moses is a man of great reputation in the community, a saint, and although he has long ago left his shop in the basement of the synagogue where the Messiah was created, his creature seems to live on and have a destiny. Its purpose is to create a bird that will ignite the entire town—or at least all the idols in it—until there is nothing left but ash. Once the Messiah creates this bird, its task is done and it disintegrates. Like the gluttonous Lars who disintegrates in the act of consuming the text, the Messiah falls apart in the act of consuming the idols of Drohobycz. Ozick's Schulz creates a self-consuming artifact, a representation that undoes itself in the act of building the representation. What is left in the wake of this great conflagration is the bird, and “dim wails dying …” (111). The ellipses at the end of this sentence suggest volumes of material Ozick leaves out: they suggest the entire history of the death camps now only a dim memory to us. The people have gone, certainly, but so have their traces. We forget nothing of them. The representations we created to conjure their trace remains have exploded as they must under the stern sentence of Jewish law: no images.

The story having been told, Ozick needs to narrate what Lars plans to do with this text and these impostors. I think he convinces himself of the fraudulence of the Eklunds and Adela (Elsa Vaz) once Dr. Eklund makes the argument that the text he has authenticated could no more be thought of as fake than God could be thought of as merely an idea of mankind (116). Lars decides these people are “swindlers” because they “want to be in competition with God, that's the thing” (126). We all know what happens to Rabbi Loew's Golem—it runs amok and threatens to destroy the entire ghetto. Gershom Scholem has written that

It is indeed significant that Nietzsche's famous cry, “God is dead,” should have gone up first in a Kabbalistic text warning against the making of a Golem and linking the death of God to the realization of the idea of the Golem.12

In other words, Ozick thinks of Lars's previous worship of the literary father, Schulz, as a form of idol worship which leads to the creation of a fraudulent Messiah which could very well have the same effect on the contemporary community as the Golem had on the old community of Prague. Lars takes it into his head that his true role here ought not to be to proclaim the existence of this new Golem but to do as Jeremiah did: turn the false Messiah to dust and ashes. He does so by burning the manuscript of Schulz's lost masterpiece.

Months after this incident we find Lars a new man. No longer following the elite culture of modernist Europe, he has settled into the bourgeois routine of reviewing potboilers at the newspaper and making a respectable living. The values of high culture, of the elite novels and poems and dramas of modernist sensibility, are turned to dust. What seems to be left over from this holocaust is the burning smell of Stockholm, at least as an hallucination for Lars. This hangs over him, invades his consciousness as much as his hair and clothing, in lieu of actual memory. He had of course completely forgotten what he had read the moment he read it, as if, like Jeremiah, he had gone through the cabalistic letters forwards and backwards at the same time, doing and undoing The Messiah. Reading amounts to unreading. The price of transgressing God's authority, his exclusive right to create anew, is the end of all creation. Ozick tells us at the novel's close that when Lars smells the smoke of Stockholm, hallucination or not, he grieves: he remembers the friend of Schulz who was supposed to have taken the manuscript of Schulz's last work to his death in the furnace of the extermination camps.


We are in a position now to return to the questions of the opening pages, to see Ozick in relation to her controversial statements on Eliot and modernist culture in general, on the authority of the elite culture which no longer has the same appeal that it once did. In effect, Ozick presents herself as a kind of destructive character, a term I borrow from Walter Benjamin,13 the German-Jewish intellectual whose thinking was also saturated with theology. For Benjamin, the destructive character is the most traditional of figures and is best thought of as a strategy or even an historical principle of change. The destructive character, surprisingly, is “in the front line of the traditionalists” (Reflections, 302). I say surprisingly because one tends to think of this term—traditionalist—along the lines of someone who wishes to conserve those aspects of culture that have come to be known as its treasures, the spoils a culture maintains in the wake of its wars of domination. But Benjamin distinguishes between the conservative sort of traditionalists who “pass things down to posterity, by making them untouchable” and his destructive character who, on the contrary, “pass[es] on situations, by making them practicable and thus liquidating them” (Reflections, 302). What Benjamin appears to mean by this comment is that the destructive character is both traditional and conscious of history as an always emergent temporality. In his essay on the storyteller Benjamin extols the older version of literary tradition on the grounds that the storyteller passes on knowledge and wisdom from afar. The destructive character is just that: a storyteller who passes on situations. This sense of history and intervention into historical progress stands opposed to what Benjamin calls “homogeneous, empty time” (Illuminations, 261), which is the object of historicist thinking. In essence, the historicist version of history sees temporal progression according to a strict teleology—one we call progress—which demands that each successive period follow the one before in a narrative that makes sense for the nation or civilization in question. For Benjamin, the historicist version of history is static and depends upon a larger conceptual apparatus which demands continuity and homogeneity, eliminating the ruptures of a tradition's shifts and changes. That is, Benjamin prefers comedy to epic as narrative modes for historical practice, and includes the surrealists in the camp of those traditionalists who are destructive: “Surrealism is the death of the last century via comedy” (Benjamin, 56).

Something like a destructive character animates Ozick's novel of the individual in a time of great social and cultural upheaval searching for strong identification with a modernist hero, a father figure like Schulz. This narrative is quite familiar from the novel tradition—the quest romance or Bildungsroman—and Lars might easily be compared to Nick Caraway in The Great Gatsby or to Prufrock. Lars searches enthusiastically for his father's remains, hoping one day to resurrect them on the world literary and cultural stage, an act of redemption for himself as well as for society at large, only to encounter what he believes is fraud, cynicism, and imposture. He decides at last to give up the quest and accept philistinism and a decent salary, a comfortable bourgeois life. Another way to look at this narrative, then, is to say that what Ozick discovers in the course of the quest is that literary modernism is a project of erecting idols, and the only appropriate response to idols, as a Jew on the one hand and a writer on the other, is to destroy them. Hence the Messiah figure setting out to burn down the community with his firebird, an act of a jealous, stern God who would start over again by liquidating all that came before.

Ozick's novel, then, is like the surrealist attack on epic pretension, a comedy, for Lars in the end has an experience which turns him from alienation and leads him back into integration with society, the traditional structure of the comedy. But this comedy produces no laughter at the novel's end and instead leads the reader into a dead end figured by the crematoria's smoke. I'm left with a kind of imponderable in this novel: there is a connection between the injunction against representation as a mark of Jewish difference and the persecution which leads to the death camps. In Ozick's novel the connection is symbolic, to be sure, suggestive, certainly not programmatic or theorized, but the suggestion is that that which makes Jews different, what marks them off from Christians and hence makes them targets of murderous fanatics, is a belief that representation is wrong. And the standard narrative of the Jew who follows the path toward representation always leads to something like the firebird's act of destruction, an act which consumes the entire community. The Golem threatens the community before it is destroyed. In other words, Ozick in her novel recognizes the dangerous limit where the Jew, knowing what she or he knows, nevertheless acts out the age-old narrative of engaging representation (the gentile's art), backing away from it in horror, and then recognizing that turning away from representation is the very thing that marks the Jew as Jew, as different or Other. The double bind admits of no easy solution. To follow Lars down the path towards Schulz is to become one who risks being assimilated fully into the culture that extols representation. To go in the other direction, with Lars as a thoughtless reviewer at the end, is to risk forgetting the terrible past that always threatens to re-emerge in violence. There is another alternative: not writing novels and isolating oneself within the circle of one's religion. Ozick has chosen to remain somewhere in the middle of these three paths, each one antithetical and in fact hostile to the others. The position is what I called earlier the unreadable. But it may turn out that the unreadability of Ozick's novel is just the element that makes her fiction the most traditional in Benjamin's sense: a fiction that threatens the masters of modernist tradition by bringing their own paradigms into practice and into effect.


  1. Relevant texts defining the postmodern include Andreas Huyssen, “Mapping the Postmodern,” in After the Great Divide (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987); Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991); Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). The terms postmodern and poststructuralist are related to one another as referring to a similar body of thought informing each one. However, poststructuralist criticism of literary texts has tended to range across periods, while postmodernist criticism tends to locate itself in the last forty years of human history in the industrialized West.

  2. For a good example of this critique see C. Barry Chabot's essay, “The Problem of the Postmodern,” in Zeitgeist in Babel: The Postmodern Controversy, ed. Ingeborg Hoesterey (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), pp. 22–39. Chabot advises literary critics to follow a “prudent” course of action, examining literary modernism within narrowly defined national boundaries before the postmodern can really take solid shape. He finds that at this moment postmodernism as a term is invoked often only out of “impatience” and that it does not finally describe “actual conceptual shifts” (37).

  3. Cynthia Ozick, “T. S. Eliot at 101,” The New Yorker, Nov. 20, 1989: 119–154.

  4. Hilton Kramer, “Cynthia Ozick's farewell to T. S. Eliot—and high culture,” The New Criterion, February 1990: 5–10.

  5. The New Criterion published a rejoinder to Kramer's article in the form of a letter by Ozick, in which she claims to have been misread by Kramer. Rather disingenuously, Ozick protests that she was merely describing a situation which exists; she never meant to advocate the end of those values espoused by Eliot.

  6. Mark Krupnick, “Cynthia Ozick as the Jewish T. S. Eliot,” Soundings 74:3–4 (Fall/Winter 1991): 351–68.

  7. Cynthia Ozick, The Messiah of Stockholm (New York: Knopf, 1987), p. 7. Subsequent references to this text will appear in the body of the essay.

  8. Robert Alter, “Defenders of the Faith,” Commentary (July 1987): 53.

  9. One might also compare the inability of Lars to speak about his father with any specificity to Ozick's own tenuous knowledge of the material she wants to handle in her novel. When she places Drohobycz in Poland, she is demonstrating a lack of knowledge of the post-war boundaries of the region.

  10. Bruno Schulz, Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz, ed. Jerzy Ficowski (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), p. 134.

  11. Cynthia Ozick, The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), p. 86.

  12. Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), p. 338. Scholem is talking about an early version of the Golem myth in which the prophet Jeremiah and his son study the cabalistic mysteries and finally create a man. On the forehead of the man are the words YHWH Elohim Emet (God is the Lord Truth). The Golem has a knife and with it he cuts the alef from the word Emet, which then means “dead.” Realizing this blasphemy, Jeremiah asks the Golem why he did this thing, and the Golem tells him a story about an architect, especially adept and loved, who takes on two pupils who learn his secrets and then go on to undercut his fees, destroying the master's business and usurping his position. The Golem instructs Jeremiah to repeat the procedure which created him, only backwards, and the Golem soon turns to ashes and dust.

  13. The texts of Benjamin's (in translation) from which I quote follow: “The Destructive Character,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz (New York: Schocken Books, 1978); Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969); and “N [Re the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress],” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

Sarah Blacher Cohen (essay date 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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:

At age eleven or twelve, I read and reread a short story by Somerset Maugham called “Jane,” [about] … a country cousin who arrives in London as a mousey and dowdy insignificance and becomes a social lioness, taking the town by storm. She is regarded as a great wit; all of London society laughs. The narrator can't understand why. The revelation at the close of the story is that Jane never sets out to make people laugh and has no notion that she is a wit. Her secret, it is finally discerned, is that she, almost alone in society, is not a hypocrite: she tells the truth.1 Apparently in London society no one does such an outlandish thing as say what one really means. Truth-telling is so preposterous an act, it is such a spectacle, that Jane willy-nilly turns into the Oscar Wilde of her set.

(“Letter to Sarah Blacher Cohen,” 28 January 1992)

Cynthia Ozick is like Jane, in that she does not intend to be a great wit. She does not “set out to make people laugh.” Nevertheless, in her originally clever fashion, she tells the whole embarrassing truth, which the art of comedy is dedicated to telling.2 She unhesitatingly reveals that the Emperor has no clothes and she exposes the folly of those who insist he's dressed in the finest attire. She candidly mentions the unmentionable to mock those who try to camouflage it with fancy euphemisms. Free of the hypocrisy of saying the opposite of what she believes, she depicts her characters as “not gods, not beasts, but savages of somewhat damaged but not extinguished nobility” (Bellow, “Arias” 495). In her fiction she thus refrains from using the tragic mode that assumes people have an exalted nature which, though sorely tested, will ultimately reassert itself. She likewise avoids the mode of strict naturalism which depicts humans as essentially brutish despite their struggle for self-elevation. Instead she chooses the comic mode, which does not depict individuals in either extreme. Because comedy is able to capture the subtleties of their composite makeup, Ozick finds it best suited to portray her hybrid conception of human nature. Thus she reveals we are not ethereal paragons of virtue, but earth-bound, awkward creatures repeatedly committing the same mistakes and indiscretions, continually stumbling upon unforeseen obstacles, grappling with inevitable disruptions and reversals.

Ozick, however, does not become overwhelmed with the same perplexity at the world's absurdity and malevolence which troubled Melville's Ishmael, who observed: “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own” (Moby Dick 302). With the exception of Ozick's treatment of the Holocaust in her fiction, she seldom regards life as a cruel joke played upon the undeserving individual by an uncaring deity in a hostile universe. Similarly, she does not adopt the practice of recent “Gnostics and aestheticians” who, she claims, cram their fiction with “grotesqueries of despair that pass for jokes” (Ozick, “Toward a New Yiddish” 175). Like Saul Bellow, she has scant use for such peddlers of doom, such “pipsqueaks” ranting “about Inauthenticity and Forlornness” (Bellow, Herzog 75). Through wit and wily argument she upsets their rotten pushcarts and runs them out of business.

This does not mean, however, that Ozick, in her literature, is a Jewish Pollyanna, persistently optimistic, dwelling on only the smiling aspects of life. If she is cheerful, it is in the tongue-in-cheek way Sholom Aleichem's Tevye uses the word when he says, “Let's talk about something more cheerful. What's new with the cholera in Odessa?” (“Hodl” 69). Similarly, in her fiction, physical and mental disease are rampant and, for the most part, incurable. But because she recounts them with a mock cheerfulness, we are not to assume they are but whimsical expressions of her exaggerated imagination of disaster. For to deny they exist in their contagious, lethal strength is to undermine the complexity of Ozick's comic vision. While there are ample grounds for pessimism in Ozick's fiction—failed ambition, corrosive envy, emotional bankruptcy, impoverishment of soul, Jewish self-hatred, futile idolatries, Holocaust atrocities—she does not capitulate to hopelessness. She still retaliates with a Jewish brand of humor “in which laughter and trembling are so curiously mingled that it is not easy to determine the relations of the two” (Bellow, Introduction, Great Jewish Short Stories 12). Her laughter, however, is not like that of Milan Kundera's “laughter and forgetting,” of which Philip Roth said, “The devil laughs because God's world seems senseless to him; the angel laughs with joy because everything in God's world has meaning” (Afterword, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting). Ozick's laughter is, however, one of remembering, not forgetting. Its recollection of the wry and the woeful, the antic and the anguished in the personal and collective Jewish past does not allow her to be a devil or an angel. Rather, she allies herself with Nietzche's definition of the human as the “most acutely suffering animal on earth [who] created laughter” (Epigraph, Cohen, Comic Relief).

Thus Cynthia Ozick does not write a divine comedy with the miraculous resurrection or redemption of the human being in some remote paradise. Nor does she create an infernal comedy where a person's beginning is dust and his end stench. Instead she creates a series of secular comedies with humans in this world vacillating between recidivism and reform of their detestable practices. Her characters are not resolute pilgrims making steady progress to the celestial city, but faltering penitents unable to extricate themselves from their earthly cities and at a loss to escape from their private entanglements. Since the human stuff out of which they are made does not possess absolute purity, they cannot free themselves of their contamination.

The most conspicuous comic element of Ozick's fiction is, therefore, comedy of character which exposes the tainted nature of her protagonists. A small number of them are mindful of their unsightly flaws and struggle to eliminate them. They are the ones who are psychically secure and verbally adroit enough to make fun of themselves at their own expense. Their self-mockery elicits Ozick's sympathetic laughter. The majority of them, however, are unaware of their own imperfections and look askance at others' failings. This impairment constitutes another source of the comic in them, for, according to Henri Bergson, an individual is “generally comic in proportion to his ignorance of himself” (71).

Ozick's self-deluded characters incur her unsympathetic laughter, much like the humor of disgust which Flannery O'Connor displays toward her morally defective characters. Just as O'Connor's sardonic perspective on life is due in part to her being a displaced person—the Catholic writer in the Protestant South—so Ozick's wry sensibility is caused by her marginal status—the Jewish writer in the Christian world. Moreover, both writers, often theological in their orientation, ridicule fallen-away characters, desecraters of the faith: O'Connor with her penchant for writing about freaks at odds with the theological “because they are far from whole” (qtd. in Holman, 100), and Ozick's mockery of emotional and spiritual grotesques because they are far from being fully realized individuals. Unlike Bellow's comedy of character, which searches for the saving nobility beneath layers of self-deceit and accumulations of wrongdoing, O'Connor and Ozick focus on their protagonists' ugly outward selves, their ignoble exteriors. Yet they are not so merciless as to consign their damaged protagonists to ash cans or to deride them to death with the devastating laughter of the contemporary black humorists. Assuming a detached position toward most of their characters, Ozick and O'Connor jeeringly pick away at their characters' moral blemishes and cynically observe their rash of errant behavior.

One obvious moral blemish of Ozick's characters is affectation, which Henry Fielding claims is “the only source of the true Ridiculous” (Author's Preface Joseph Andrews xxi). However, her use of affectation does not apply to the bourgeoisie who try to “ape the dignity and refinement of the leaders of society.” She does not create shabby plebeians with patrician aspirations like Joyce's Leopold Bloom, the “petty individualist of common origins and gentlemanly pretensions” (Bellow, “Literature” 163–164). Rather, the pretension she uncovers in her characters is intellectual pomposity and artistic hubris. Deficient as artists and intellectuals, they cultivate their outward pose to persuade themselves and others of their distinction. If one is a lesser-known artist, like Edelshtein, and wants to call attention to his superior talents, he assumes the lofty position of a high-minded critic excoriating the more acclaimed rival artist. If another is a mediocre journalist and social misfit, like Lars Andemening, he tries to elevate his position by pretending he is the son of a famous writer slain in the Holocaust. If Puttermesser, a female lawyer, is unappreciated by her legal colleagues and deemed unattractive by prospective suitors, she passes herself off as a mental giant, scornful of small-minded midgets. If Joseph Brill, a mediocre day-school master with an aborted academic career, wants to gain respect from his teachers, he lords it over them as a cosmopolitan savant, foisting on them his rarefied dual curriculum.

Since “jokes grow best on the graves of old anxieties” (Grotjahn, Epigraph, Cohen, Comic Relief), one would like Ozick's characters to have some comic relief in their lives to enable them to bury their anxieties. One would welcome their using humor “as play in which the ego constructs ambiguities and incongruities and then solves them” (Schlesinger 2). Yet her characters can't let go of their miseries. Even in America, Rosa, of The Shawl, insists on being the persecuted Holocaust survivor reexperiencing old brutalities. Edelshtein, of “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” masochistically delights in being the misunderstood and undervalued poet. The Feinbergs, of “Levitation,” wallow in self-pity because they have been rejected by the most revered literary figures. Thus by reviving old feelings of outrage and paranoia, Ozick's characters fill their time with being injustice-collectors and pain-exacerbators.

When Ozick's characters are not wincing at reactivated traumas, they employ their moral Geiger counters to determine the level of their depravity. Since they do not find heavy concentrations of it, they magnify it out of proportion to gain attention. The female narrator of “Usurpation” hyperbolically recounts her grand and petty larcenies of literary texts. Edmund Gate, of “Virility,” is consumed with histrionic remorse for his plagiarism of his Yiddish Tante Rivka's poetry. Lars Andemening, of The Messiah of Stockholm, castigates himself for his harsh rebuff of the woman who claims to be his sister, the rival for the affection of his putative father, Bruno Schulz. Unlike Nabokov's amoral Humbert Humbert, Ozick's characters are not convinced of the nobility of their perversity, but are grievously ashamed of their sordid behavior. Yet they also derive an illicit pleasure from their exaggerated guilt feelings. Though they may want to engage in dialogue with their fellow human beings, they are so absorbed with self-scrutiny and, afterward, self-reviling that they manage to talk only to themselves. They thus suffer from what Bellow in The Last Analysis calls “the Pagliacci gangrene! Caused as all gangrene is by a failure of circulation. Cut off by self-pity. Passivity. Fear. Masochistic rage” (97).

Ozick mocks her characters' defective physical appearance as well as their flawed inner life. Indeed there is a breach between their minds and their bodies which interferes with the realization of their respective goals. Their body becomes “a kind of irksome ballast which holds down to earth a soul eager to rise aloft” (Bergson 92). It intensifies their feelings of impermanence and destroys their notions of immortality. It compels them to accept their corporeal imperfection and shatters their romantic illusions. Puttermesser, for example, would like to transform her platonic relationship with a handsome young painter into an erotic one, but she is forced to view herself as a “hag, a crone, Estrogen dwindling in her cells” (“Puttermesser Paired” 53). In his fantasy world the thirty-six-year-old body of the pagan rabbi, Isaac Kornfeld, has fornicated with a lascivious dryad in a tree, but it has caused his soul in eternity to become that of an ugly old man, “half bent over under the burden of a dusty old bag” (34). In the reveries of the old ladies of Rosa's Florida, they are “young women with immortal pillar legs, the white legs of strong goddesses” (The Shawl 28), but Ozick reminds us that “brazen blue-marbled sinews strangled their squarish calves” and their sundresses revealed “thick collarbones” with “bluish wells above them” (28).

Ozick thus reveals her characters' encumbrance by the corporeal as being tragicomic, since some of them are repulsively disfigured and suffer from varying degrees of incapacity. But she still makes sport of their being tripped up or grounded by the physical. She thus applies Bergson's formula that the comic is produced whenever the soul is “tantalized by the needs of the body: on the one hand, the moral personality with its intelligently varied energy, and on the other, the stupidly monotonous body, perpetually obstructing everything with its machine-like obstinacy” (Bergson 93).

Ozick's characters “perpetually obstruct everything with the machine-like obstinacy” of their minds as well as their bodies. They stubbornly adhere to certain dominant theories or fixed beliefs which render them comic in a less immediately perceptible way. Bellow has called such dominant theories “ideal constructions” (Bellow, Dangling Man 140) or Pope has called them “ruling passions.” Ozick refers to them as idols, which she defines as any tangible manifestation of the world we worship “as an end in itself and yet is not God himself” (“The Riddle of the Ordinary” 207), or any beguiling series of metaphors we embrace instead of the divine essence they represent (208). And just as Bellow's characters seize upon one scheme as the only possible way to avert a troubled life, so Ozick's characters fall prey to an alluring idolatry, with its false promise of fulfillment. This dogged clinging to one ingenious strategy, one miraculous solution, along with the cavalier dismissal of every alternative approach causes them to become ludicrous, since their bodies mechanically heed the dictates of their minds. Thus Puttermesser fashions a literal idol when she creates a female golem who makes her mayor of New York and helps her realize her obsession with civic reform and urban renewal. Lars Andemening worships a dead putative father and a lost dubious manuscript to the exclusion of anything else. Edelshtein is consumed with resurrecting a dead language and his own forgotten literary reputation. He, like Ozick's other artists, the female narrator of “Usurpation,” Hester Lilt, the midrash-maker of The Cannibal Galaxy, and Rosa, the letter-writer of The Shawl, are tempted to “reify and then worship the objects of the imagination” (New 289). They commit idolatry more blatantly than any other in Ozick's fictional world, since their “antic imagination deftly carves its own golden calves” (New 289).

This absorption with carving golden calves bears out Bergson's view that mental as well as physical rigidity is the proper object of mirth, a view which Nathan Scott enlarges upon:

The comic is a contradiction in the relation of the human individual to the created orders of existence which arises out of an overspecialization of some instinct or faculty of the self … in some special direction, to the neglect of the other avenues through which it ought also to gain expression. This predilection of the self to identify too completely with some special interest or project (cf. Aristophanes' Socrates or Jonson's Volpone or Molière's Tartuffe or Sterne's Walter Shandy or Shaw's Professor Higgins) blinds the self to the integral character of its humanity and thus throws it out of gear with the fundamental norms and orders of human existence.


So, too, Ozick's comically obsessed characters swear allegiance to one exclusive policy and inflexibly execute it. Unable to maintain their protean selves, they embrace a single point of view and settle for a fixed set of values. Instead of being free-thinking iconoclasts, they become slavish devotees of icons and risk degenerating into inert icons themselves. Because such icons “cannot generate history” and “can be altered by it,” “from-the-sublime-to-the-ridiculous,” Ozick claims, “is the rule of every idol” (“Literature as Idol: Harold Bloom” 190).

Although Ozick's psychically inelastic characters, with their unruly natures and odd features, are ridiculous in their own right, she also places them in comic situations. That is, the situations are funny, not because of the particular characters involved, but because of the comic aspects of the situations themselves.

As a misnagid, a Jewish rationalist and skeptic, who in her daily life inveighs against mystery and magic, Ozick, the fiction writer, heeds at times the call of the irrational and escapes from the confines of predictable realism. Acting upon the post-existentialist impulse of inventing imaginative alternatives to this world, she creates her own special kind of wryly fantastic situations. But unlike Thomas Pynchon's zany science fiction adventures and John Barth's cheerfully nihilistic sorties into metahistory, her episodes are more of this time and of this place. Indeed, a good part of their humor is derived from the surprise appearance of the bizarre within the context of the familial and the unexpected introduction of illusion to compete with fact. The humor is further compounded by the nonchalant acceptance of the extraordinary as ordinary. Thus in the middle of a banal literary cocktail party, Jews, listening to the horrifying tales of a Holocaust survivor, suddenly levitate and are suspended in midair. The Christian observer accepts the Jews' outré behavior as normal and proceeds to escape into a more pagan fantasy of her own. There are, however, more painfully antic consequences in the rebellion of Rabbi Isaac Kornfeld, who spurns the advice in Ethics of the Fathers to forsake nature for study. He fornicates with a dryad in a tree whose bark proves worse than his bite and then hangs himself by his prayer shawl in a public park. More whimsical is the plight of an anonymous author in New York's 92nd Street Y, who, coveting a famous writer's story, is led astray by an articulate goat into the pagan realm of invention. Such farfetched situations created by Ozick serve not only to delight her readers with their droll surface but to enlighten them with their underlying meaning. They are the stuff of modern-day rabbinic fantasies, both playful and didactic.

However, the comic situation of grotesque realism is the one which best reflects Ozick's sardonic world view and the one she most frequently employs. With some qualification, it fits Stephen Leacock's Aristotle-inspired definition of the comic situation: “The humor of situation arises … out of any set of circumstances that involve discomfiture or disaster of some odd incongruous kind, not connected with the ordinary run of things and not involving sufficient pain or disaster to overweigh the pleasures of contemplating this incongruous distress” (Humour and Humanity 79). In keeping with the dictum that “modern comedy has to do with the disintegrating of the worthy and humane self” (Bellow, “Some Notes on Recent American Fiction” 28), Ozick fashions situations which reveal disintegration in action. Thus we derive amusement from the odd and incongruous disintegration in the Puttermesser stories where the protagonist first appears as a precocious young lawyer eating fudge with impunity and ends up a terminated legal official of the municipal bureaucracy, seduced and abandoned by a faithless lover. Or we laugh at the error-strewn decline of the brilliant astronomy student, Joseph Brill, into the fatuous headmaster who is both schlimazel, victim of circumstances, and schlemiel, engineer of his own difficulties. But when we consider the plight of Ozick's Holocaust victims, her portrayal of disintegration does involve “sufficient pain or disaster to overweigh the pleasure of contemplating this incongruous distress” (Leacock 79). She sees their anguish for what it is. Like Mark Twain, she believes that the “secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven” (Epigraph, Lipman, Laughter in Hell 3). Thus Rosa, who has transformed America into another Holocaust Hell, is caught up in the slapstick comedy of demolishing her New York used furniture store. Or she is the mad avenger in a travestied detective story, hunting for the fiends who stole her bloomers in an infernal Miami. Rosa doesn't realize how ridiculous she is in these farcical situations, which, in turn, augments the hilarity of them.

Ozick's strength, however, does not reside in crafting fantastic and farcical situations. Since she is more skilled at generating thought than at producing action, she is especially adept at creating a comedy of ideas. This form of the comic occurs, according to Wylie Sypher, “whenever a society becomes self-conscious about its opinions, codes or etiquette,” with the author acting as the “intellectual conscience” of this “self-scrutinizing society.” Through “sanity” and “verbal wit,” the author is able to magnify “comedy of manners to the dimensions of a criticism of life” (211–212).

Trust, Cynthia Ozick's first novel, starts off as such a comedy of manners which mocks the jaded conventions, the artificial decorum, the rigid protocol of a WASP aristocracy. It holds up to ridicule those who conform and those who fail to conform to the prescribed manners and decadent mores of the elegant ruling class of the time. But during the course of the novel, Ozick switches from a flippant exposé of the aberrations of social behavior to a weighty analysis of human conduct in its large aspects.

This movement from the flippant to the philosophic, from the risible to the moralistic, is present in most of Ozick's fiction and is the most prominent feature of her comedy of ideas. Unlike Philip Roth, she is not “on friendly terms with Deadly Playfulness, Playful Playfulness, Serious Playfulness, Serious Seriousness and Sheer Sheerness” (Roth, Reading Myself and Others 111). Nor does she employ a comedy that “exists for the sake of no higher value than comedy itself … for the fun of it” (Roth, Reading Myself and Others 76). Claiming that “outright comedy is beyond” her (“Letter to Sarah Blacher Cohen,” 28 January 1992), she, like Plato, would banish shallow comedians from her Republic. Echoing his views that “the actions performed in comedy are a frivolous and giddy experience, demoralizing to the spirit of serious citizenship” (qtd. in Polyphemus 7), she warns Jewish writers not to submerge themselves in the depths of low comedy. In “Usurpation” she states that in Paradise “there will be a cage for storywriters, who will be taught as follows: All that is not Law is levity” (177). Thus, the observant part of her believes all that is not studying and obeying the precepts of Halachah (Law and consensus) is both a squandering and a desecration of precious time. Her involvement with Aggadah (tale and lore), serving no higher purpose than fabrication for its own sake, is, she also feels, a pagan indulgence. She is wary, notes Alvin Rosenfeld, of “the points at which craft turns over into craftiness,” at which making do is “translated into the seemingly preternatural magic of making over” (“Cynthia Ozick: Fiction and the Jewish Idea” 78). Yet, drawn to producing counterfeit forms of creation, she detours from the path of true belief to plunge headlong into the levity of make-believe.

Fortunately, Cynthia Ozick has not banished levity or law from her writing. In response to learning that Martin Luther King claimed to “laugh his way into seriousness” (qtd. by Wall, “Eulogy of Rabbi Kieval”), Ozick jocularly replied, “It looks like I've unwittingly done the opposite. I've been serious and ended up as laughable” (“Letter to Sarah Blacher Cohen,” 28 January 1992). But we must trust the tale and not the teller of the tale which is permeated with an ideological comedy performing a higher purpose than simply to amuse. The justification for this comedy is that it serves as a profane means to realize a higher end. As a civilized intelligence whose passion is ideas, Ozick discovers what is funny about the human condition and provides us with acerbic examples of it. Unlike Philip Roth, who permits madcap satire to determine the course of his literary vehicle while violating the boundaries of good taste, Ozick scoffs at caricatured antagonists and then strikes when her irony is hot to skewer the idolatrous culprits. She favors irony, she claims, “partly to forestall sentimentality, and partly because irony is the corridor to perspective (or, perhaps, an ascent to Olympus, where one can see as the gods see)” (“Letter to Sarah Blacher Cohen,” 28 January 1992).

How astute her god's eye view is depends upon her protagonists' intellectual powers, lucid vision, and depth of insight. The less perceptive fulminate against the outward effects of their contemporaries' detestable conduct and never go beyond subjective condemnation. Even the more sagacious protagonists often cannot differentiate between their own personal difficulties and impersonal issues, since, when agitated, they superimpose one on the other. However, those who are schooled in history realize that prevailing injustices are not directed only against them, but are repetitions of the abuses which have outraged upright human beings through the ages. Nonetheless, they rail at the gap between their high expectations and the disappointing reality that exists.

But such a perspective is not the only prerequisite for ideological comedy. According to George Meredith, “the higher the comedy the more prominent part women play in it.” It “lifts women to a station offering them free play for their wit as they usually show it … on the side of sound sense” (14). Indeed, Hester Lilt, “imagistic, linguistic logician” (47) of The Cannibal Galaxy, far outshines Joseph Brill in her capacity to formulate a clearly defined set of moral norms against which to judge the deviant and in her ability to express this judgment trenchantly. With an expansive mind that has not stopped too soon, but is constantly stretched with new knowledge, she is a midrash-maker and mischief-maker for those she upsets with her ancient, yet new, unsettling truths. Rosa of The Shawl eschews gentle irony for what Northrop Frye terms “militant irony” (233) or satire when she lambastes phoney psychologists with their specious studies of Holocaust survivors. With an enraged mind like a grenade about to explode, she sputters venom, thinly camouflaged by wit, at everyone around her. She does not change the world at large, but she does vent her spleen.

Similarly, Ozick's comedy of ideas does not accomplish the purported aim of conventional satire—the reform of the corrupt or inane status quo through ridicule. However, it does accentuate the nature of the corruption or inanity. The high degree of distortion it contains functions very much like “a dye dropped into the specimen to make vivid the traits and qualities that otherwise would be blurry or invisible to the naked eye” (Lelchuk 84).

Although Cynthia Ozick is a most adept vaudevillian of the mind, she has been educated in this art by some very distinguished instructors. From her Jewish background, there are traces of the exhortative kind of satire and irony unique to the Prophets, especially Amos and Isaiah, and unique to the parables of Rabbi Akiva, which lay bare the weakness and folly of the Israelites for worshiping false gods (Knox 155–157). Ozick's nit-picking and circuitous distinctions in her own parables are akin to the tortuous wit found in the Midrashim, the commentaries on the Jewish Written Law. Her defiant topical satire resembles that of the “affected Jewish minority” whom Goebbels denounced for originating “jokes that cease to be jokes when they touch the holiest matters of national life” (qtd. in Goldman 6). From her American literary heritage, there are borrowings from and affinities with Henry James's transatlantic comedies of manners and morals, Bellow's “suffering joker” eggheads, Malamud's urban whimsical fantasies, Flannery O'Connor's southern grotesques. From England there is the lively “encyclopedic comedy of knowledge” of Burton, Sterne, and Joyce (Shulman 109) as well as George Eliot's legacy of feminist comedy, “brilliantly critical, especially of the masculine gender” (Wilt 178).

Despite these influences, Ozick is a comedian of ideas who strikes out on her own. In contrast to many twentieth-century American novelists who have been ashamed to think, she has “brain on the brain,” a phrase she uses to describe Bellow, which, she claims, makes him “the dissident among American writers” (Ozick, “What Drives Saul Bellow?” 55). Similarly, many of her characters are “talking heads or talking texts” so that her “best fictions are pugilistic encounters between texts” (New 291). Thus, like Bellow, she produces “miracles born of thought” (Bellow, “Where Do We Go From Here: The Future of Fiction” 144), which simultaneously reveal how ridiculous and sublime we are.

In dealing with comedy of language, Bergson writes that there may be “something artificial in making a special category for the comic in words, since most of the varieties of the comic … are produced through the medium of language.” He goes on to distinguish between the “comic expressed” and the “comedy created by language”:

The former could, if necessary, be translated from one language into another, at the cost of losing the greater portion of its significance when introduced into a fresh society different in manners, in literature, and, above all, in association of ideas. But it is generally impossible to translate the latter. It owes its entire being to the structure of the sentences or to the choice of the words.

(“Laughter” 127–128)

In Trust, “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” “Virility,” the Puttermesser stories, “Levitation,” “Usurpation,” The Cannibal Galaxy,The Messiah of Stockholm, and “Rosa,” the comedy created by Ozick's language is readily apparent. In contrast to recent minimalist fiction, whose characterization is as impoverished as its threadbare language, the “maximalist” fiction of Ozick, rife with an endless array of novel qualifiers and clever distinctions, is so engrossing in itself that the reader is tempted to lose sight of the overall plot. Or unlike the literature of the absurd, with its stylized clichés, meaningless parodies, and incoherent banter, Ozick's discourse is highly articulate and purposive. While it amuses, her language, often parabolic, “judges and interprets” (Ozick, Preface, Bloodshed 4) the world.

In her fiction Ozick is an adroit juggler of many kinds of comic prose, which are often risibly juxtaposed within an individual work. She has undoubtedly derived this stylistic feature from both American and Yiddish sources. According to Richard Chase, the common denominator of Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, and Whitman is the “tendency of their language to shift rapidly from the homely and the colloquial to a rhetoric at once highly self-conscious, highly abstract and highly elaborate.” Such shifts of ground, Chase regards as the “essence of wit” (74). Maurice Samuel makes similar observations about Jewish writing:

“The fusion of the secular and the sacred in Yiddish … makes possible a charming transition from the jocular to the solemn and back again. Well-worn quotations from sacred texts mingle easily with colloquialisms and dignified passages jostle popular interjections without taking or giving offense.”

(qtd. in Howe 47)

Thus in Trust Ozick mingles the pseudo-intellectual badinage of drawing-room comedy and the tiresome puns of hypocritical Quakers with the ethical precepts of a world-weary returnee to Judaism. In “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” she employs dialect and dialectic humor in Edelshtein's character assassinations of rival authors, his fractious letters to publishers, his saccharine wooing of would-be translators, and his lamentations for the death of Yiddish. In “Usurpation” Ozick not only “travesties and teases and two-times and swindles” plot, as she accuses Gaddis of doing in Carpenter's Gothic (“William Gaddis and the Scion of Darkness” 19), but she plagiarizes and pilfers all aspects of fiction. She playfully chastises herself for doing so, while simultaneously denouncing herself for usurping God's role as creator. Like Melville, who incorporates mock-pedantry on cetology within terrifying descriptions of the formidable Moby Dick himself, in “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” Ozick intersperses a mystical account of medieval golem-making with the whimsical tale of a nubile twentieth-century female golem. And as Ozick has done in a number of her stories, she creates the droll coexistence of philosophical obscurity and kitchen-table clarity.

Another stylistic device which Ozick borrows from Yiddish literature is what Maurice Samuel calls “the humor of verbal retrieval, the word triumphant over the situation.” This kind of humor he finds especially prominent in the works of Sholom Aleichem:

Not what happens to people is funny, but what they themselves say about it. There is nothing funny about Tevye the dairyman as a character, and nothing funny ever happens to him. What Tevye does is to turn the tables on tragedy by a verbal ingenuity; life gets the better of him, but he gets the better of the argument.

(Samuel, The World of Sholom Aleichem 186)

In Ozick's The Shawl, Simon Persky, the septuagenarian Warsaw-born rake, is the prime example of this humorous verbal retriever. Though he has lost his teeth, his career as a button-maker in America, and his wife to an insane asylum, he has not lost his comic sense. Persky, like Theodore Reik, the author of Jewish Wit, who fled his native Austria in 1938, believes that “life is often tragic, but he can transform it by making jokes about it” (qtd. in Lipman 12). For Persky's very act of mocking his lowly position elevates him above it. In contrast to Rosa, who fulminates against her oppressors, Persky shows her how to pile “sandbags of wit against the flood of anger and pain” (Wilt 192) so that she is able to experience the miracles of the ordinary which he reveals to her. Cheerful and wily, Persky is the Jewish animal ridens, the laughing creature forever rising up.

Cynthia Ozick is seldom this animal ridens. Instead, she sometimes resembles the Yiddish writer Peretz, who “considered humor the kind of indulgence a Jewish writer could not afford because its impulse was to dissipate anxiety rather than harnessing it to social reform” (Wisse, I. L. Peretz and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture 29). For Peretz the comic spirit interfered with the commitment to moral rigor and responsible action. If, as Ecclesiastes states, “there is a time to laugh” and a “time to dance” (Eccl. 3:4), Peretz would say that it is not at the altar, but in the streets.

Although some of Ozick's early literature reveals Peretz's “sermonic underskirts” (Wisse, I. L. Peretz 29), her more profound later works deal with the running interplay between the humorous and the serious, between worldly jests and theological sobriety. She knows that humor humanizes the inhuman and vitalizes the dreary. For, as Santayana has observed, “Where the spirit of comedy has departed, company becomes constraint, reserve eats up the spirit, and people fall into a penurious melancholy in their scruple to be always exact, sane and reasonable” (138). Thus Ozick makes sure that her most mature literature evokes laughter which can be heard not only in the streets but in “the outer courts of religion,” with its echoes resounding in the sanctuary (Niebuhr 135). In both settings her levity is deftly interspersed into her liturgy, making possible the use of play to implement a genuinely prophetic seriousness. Far removed from self-reflexive fiction, with its clever convolutions of form and content, or parodies, with ridiculous imitations of recognized writing styles, her hybrid liturgical literature “passionately wallows in the human reality” and exists “for the sake of humanity” (Ozick, “Toward a New Yiddish” 175). Avoiding the prescriptive, it does not legislate how one should live or act, but is subtly “touched by the Covenant” (175). Nor is it a literature of inward self-communing, but, as liturgy, it is a public form of expression that becomes a link to the chain of Jewish tradition wherein “sacred assemblies” worship the “sacred myths” (Hoffman 76). But in no way is Ozick's liturgical literature hackneyed or formulaic; it is “Aggadic, utterly freed to invention” (Ozick 175). Because it does not have historical amnesia, it does not gloss over the nightmare universe or “avoid the knife of irony” (175). Indeed, Cynthia Ozick's irony, with her levity and liturgy, is a way of “putting matters right, of extending a partial perspective into a more comprehensive one, of letting light in where there was half darkness” (Knox 153). But above all, her irony, together with her levity and liturgy, is a way of telling the truth!


  1. Aldous Huxley, in his essay “Tragedy and the Whole Truth,” argues that Homer in the twelfth book of the Odyssey refuses to treat the plight of Odysseus and his men tragically, since he has them eating heartily and resting peacefully after their harrowing day. Nathan Scott draws upon Huxley's essay when he amends the Aristotelian definition of comedy to say, “The art of comedy is not an art that is dedicated to the ludicrous, but is rather an art that is dedicated to telling the Whole Truth” (Scott, “The Bias of Comedy” 21).

  2. Nathan Scott claims that the difference between tragic man and comic man lies in the way in which each regards his mortal limitations. The tragic man “would be pure intellect or pure will or pure something-or-other, and nothing wounds him more deeply than to be reminded that his life is a conditioned thing and that there is nothing absolute at all in the human stuff out of which he is made. But the comic man is unembarrassed by even the grossest expressions of his creatureliness” (19–20).

Sarah Blacher Cohen (essay date 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 who is native to two cultures while fully at home in neither; hence the more fully the Jew becomes integrated into the larger culture, the less the tension and the fewer the creative energies generated by it.”1

This charge may apply to the totally assimilated Jewish writers who, like Philip Roth's Portnoy, say the equivalent of “stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass. I happen also to be a human being.”2 But it doesn't apply to a new group of American Jewish writers of the 1970s and 80s who have attempted to express their artistic vision in Jewish terms. Unconcerned about real or imagined charges of parochialism, they have freely explored the particularistic aspects of Judaism and have even speculated on the impoverishment of English as a literary language. They have worn their ethnic label conspicuously for they have proudly defined themselves as Jews. As Wisse observes, “their interest is not in the sociological or even the psychological legacy of a Jewish background, but in the national design and religious destiny of Judaism, in its workable myths.”3 Graduating from jumping in and out of the melting pot and creating a great splash for the spectators, they have concentrated on replenishing their minority puddles to sustain themselves rather than becoming inundated by the American mainstream.

The movement's prime diver into the reservoir of Jewish sources is Cynthia Ozick, who delivered a prophetic address at the American-Israel Dialogue of 1970, exhorting American Jewry to move “Toward Yavneh,” that is, toward the creation of an authentic Jewish culture in the Diaspora. In this pronouncement, Cynthia Ozick admonished the Jews to stop whoring after the false gods of assimilationism and devote themselves to cultivating their own peculiar treasure: a new literature of cultural rebirth, “a liturgical literature [that] has the configuration of the ram's horn: you give your strength to the inch-hole and the splendor spreads wide.”4 The image of the shofar, or ram's horn, associated with biblical history and the most holy days of the Jewish New Year, was to rally the Jews to repent their sins to God and humanity so they could be redeemed. The shofar also sounded the call to the Jews to remember the tragedies of Jewish history, to avoid the forbidden lure of idolatry, and to return to their own origins. The shofar's piercing sound was meant to chastise all those universalist Jews who denied their own heritage by blowing into the wide or wrong end of the shofar: Bernard Malamud for his protest, “I am not a Jewish writer; I am a writer who is a Jew”5; Allen Ginsberg, with his loud persuasion that religions are “allee samee”;6 and even Saul Bellow, who wanted to be regarded as a great public writer and thus resented the Protestant majority for labeling him a Jewish writer or, as he said, for “giving a dog a bad name in order to hang him.”7

Taking issue with this universalist stance, Cynthia Ozick contended that nothing produced by Jews in the Diaspora would last except what was produced in their own literary ghettos. For she had argued elsewhere, “all genius is parochial. Shakespeare wrote out of a tiny island, Yeats out of a still tinier one. Tolstoy had all the spaciousness of Russia, yet imagined the world mainly out of the French-speaking fraction of the Russian nobility.”8

In “Toward Yavneh” Ozick further maintained that the only surviving Jewish literature would be that written in a Jewish tongue. Or as she said, “Literature does not spring from the urge to Esperanto but from a particular tribe, with its particular language.”9 This particular language she termed “Judeo-English,” or “New Yiddish,” the mode of expression for a new liturgical literature, not didactic or prescriptive but “Aggadic, utterly freed to invention … experiment, enlightenment, profundity, humanity.”10 Just as the Jews introduced Jewish ideas and Jewish intonations into the German language and created Yiddish, so, she claims, they can inject the Jewish sensibility, the Jewish vision, into English and create a distinctive language for their need in the American Diaspora. Ozick believes Jews have a choice. They can totally embrace Gentile culture and entirely lose their identity, or they can refashion the Diaspora language into their own unique linguistic gift. As she powerfully expresses the alternatives: “If we blow into the narrow end of the shofar, we will be heard far. But if we choose to be Mankind rather than Jewish and blow into the wider part, we will not be heard at all.”11

These impassioned comments sound more like those of an inspiring prophet than a perspiring writer, able to realize such lofty visions. Yet Cynthia Ozick's fiction through the years has provided substantial evidence for her claims. Her most effective stories and novellas, notably “The Pagan Rabbi” and “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” are modern-day parables grounded in Judaic teachings in which Ozick functions as a prophet in Abraham Joshua Heschel's sense of the term: her narrative voice is neither that of a “singing saint” nor a “moralizing poet,” but that of an “assaulter of the mind.”12 In contrast to many twentieth-century American novelists whom the Hemingway code of physical heroism made ashamed to think, she has “brain on the brain,” a phrase she uses to describe Saul Bellow.13 Like him, she is intoxicated with a wide range of ideas that have produced a heady brew of original thought.

The assaulting mind of the prophet is especially evident in the title story of Cynthia Ozick's first collection, The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories,14 where her protagonist, Isaac Kornfeld, a talmudic scholar of “piety and brains,” is torn between worshiping the beguiling world of nature and obeying the prohibitions against pantheism contained in Leviticus and Deuteronomy: “Ye shall utterly destroy all the places of the gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree. And the soul that turneth after familiar spirits to go a-whoring after them, I will cut him off from among his people” (16). The pagan, however, exerts a greater force upon him than does monotheism. And for a time he becomes an unfettered creature of the woodland, as opposed to the shackled occupant of the study and synagogue. In this respect, he is like those fictional heroes of Yiddish literature who yearned to free themselves from the bondage of rigorous talmudic study, from the narrowing confines of shtetl culture, to experience the physical raptures of the natural world.15 But nature for Isaac is not just a hedonistic playground or a welcome respite from rabbinical burnout. It is a powerful heathen force that draws him away from traditional Judaism so that he becomes a Pagan Rabbi committed to the belief that “Great Pan lives” (17).

Isaac, however, suffers the consequences for his rabbinic dereliction of duty. According to the story's epigraph, which Ozick has chosen from The Ethics of the Fathers, “He who is walking along and studying, but then breaks off to remark, ‘How lovely is that tree!’ or ‘How beautiful is that fallow field!’—Scripture regards such a one as having hurt his own being” (3). Similarly, Isaac Kornfeld “hurts his own being” by attempting to have his Torah-bound soul commune with a free-souled woodland nymph. Though he derives orgiastic pleasure from his florophilia and plant sodomy, he pays a terrible price for it: the loss of his immortal Jewish soul. Too late he realizes that “The sound of the Law is more beautiful than the crickets. The smell of the Law is more radiant than the moss. The taste of the Law exceeds clear water” (36). Abandoned by his soul who would have sung him David's songs in his grave, Isaac, in despair, hangs himself with his prayer shawl and in death is rejected by his fickle flowerchild.

Ozick has us initially sympathize with the rabbi's desire to become a noble savage who is at one with the natural universe and sees creation with original eyes. But she ultimately rejects Isaac Kornfeld's nature-loving Hellenism for his observant widow's law-revering Hebraism. Just as the prophets reproached the Israelites for worshipping nature deities and foreign idols, Ozick, through this story, warns modern-day Jews of the injurious effects of choosing pagan aesthetics over Jewish ethics and spirituality. Like the prophets, who were more conservative than revolutionary, “calling men back to an older obedience rather than breaking new religious ground,”16 Ozick chastises Isaac Kornfeld for wanting to be a creature of nature, leading a life of ease and spontaneity. She rebukes him for turning his back on painful Jewish history and living in the sensual present. She warns of the dire consequences of choosing the verdant tree of beauty over the unadorned tree of knowledge. Finally, like the prophets who “can speak words which clarify God's will,”17 she makes necessary distinctions between the pagan and the holy in her story by instructing us to appreciate the marvels of nature, but not to worship them “instead of” God. She cautions us not to revere “the rapture-bringing horizon instead of God, the work of art instead of God.”18

Thus Ozick would not have us read Isaac Babel's “The Awakening” to heed the old man's admonition to the young narrator, a studious urban Jew: “And you dare to write! A man who doesn't live in nature, as a stone does or an animal, will never in all his life write two worthwhile lines.”19 By standing apart from nature and differentiating between the natural and the sacred, Cynthia Ozick has written liturgically in “The Pagan Rabbi.” As a contemporary prophet of powerful inspiration bidding us worship God who transcends nature, not a deity within nature, she has, in her deft fusion of art and revelation, transformed “the divine afflatus into divine sentences.”20

Even more divine are the sentences in Ozick's “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” her most inventive and profound liturgical piece of fiction.21 As in “The Pagan Rabbi,” she is the hortatory prophet censuring American Jewry for its self-destructive embrace of an alien culture's aesthetics, but she is also the ironic prophet inveighing against the abandonment of an authentic Yiddish tradition and the inflation of an inauthentic talent in its place. Employing the prophet's style, which is both sardonic and “charged with agitation, anguish, and a spirit of nonacceptance,”22 she berates American Jews for their peremptory dismissal of the best Yiddish authors. By translating into English only those inferior writers who specialize in the sensational and the modish, they, along with the Holocaust, have consigned to death the formerly vibrant Yiddish culture.

Filled with what Heschel terms the prophet's “sympathy with the divine pathos, the communion with the divine consciousness,”23 Cynthia Ozick creates Edelshtein, a sixty-seven-year-old Yiddish poet, desperately striving for the past forty years to have his talents recognized in America. In one respect, he is still the fearful little man of the shtetl who has a Chaplinesque sense of himself as the accidental and insignificant creature barely surviving in the hostile world. In another respect, he has the hauteur of the high priest of Yiddish culture, deriding superficial Jewish-American writers and a facilely translated Yiddish author, Yankel Ostrover, who have made financial killings in the literary marketplace.

Edelshtein's feelings of extreme inferiority and extreme superiority incur Ozick's ironic treatment. When he is the insecure shtetl figure, she compassionately views him as a saintly fool in his valiant efforts to keep Yiddish alive for American Jews: “Sometimes Edelshtein tried to read one or two of his poems. At the first Yiddish word the painted old ladies of the Reform Temples would begin to titter for shame, as at a stand-up television comedian. Orthodox and Conservative men fell instantly asleep. So he reconsidered and told jokes” (43).

Ozick acknowledges the ruefully comic incongruity of Edelshtein's mourning the death of Yiddish in synagogues that have become Cecil B. DeMille amusement parlors and fancy catering halls. Like Micah and Amos, ironically railing against the “idolatry of wealth, … and self-indulgence,”24 she ridicules the gastronomic Judaism and edifice complexes of nouveau riche American Jewry: “The new Temples scared Edelshtein. He was afraid to use the word shul in these places—inside, vast mock-bronze Tablets … prayerbooks printed in English with made-up new prayers in them. … Everything was new. The refreshment tables were long and luminous [with] … snowheaps of egg salad … pools of sour cream … pyramids of bread … Hansel and Gretel houses of cream cheese and fruitcake” (44). Such lavish display, including the “soaring” architecture with “Scripture riveted on in letters fashioned from 14-karat-gold molds” (44), cannot, however, distract Edelshtein from his mourner's grief. Comparing him to a “wanton stalk in the heart of an empty field” (70), as he declaims his Yiddish verse before a vanished audience, she makes us weep for him.

But Ozick transforms her sympathy into castigation of Edelshtein when he becomes the supercilious Yiddish purist. This is not to suggest that she totally disagrees with his assessment of American Jewish literature. With the exception of Saul Bellow, whom she respects as the “most purely and profoundly ideational”25 of the Jewish-American novelists, she shares Edelshtein's belief that they are largely ignorant of their Jewish heritage, yet reviewers praise them for their ethnic wit and perception. Indeed, much of the story's amusement stems from the fact that Edelshtein acts as the stringent literary critic who employs the quaint accent and fractured syntax of Yiddishized English to pronounce his unkind judgments. He deplores, for example, the cheap way Jewish-American novelists add Yiddish local color to their work: “Their Yiddish. One word here, one word there. Shikseh on one page, putz on the other, and that's the whole vocabulary. … They know ten words for, excuse me, penis, and when it comes to a word for learning, they're impotent” (79–80). Or he mocks his best friends' two sons, “literary boys” who had “spit out the Yiddish that had bred them” (45) to become experts of gentile literature, with their Ph.D. theses on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the novels of Carson McCullers.

However, Edelshtein is most envious and thus most merciless in his lampooning of Yankel Ostrover, the third-rate Yiddish writer who enjoys national and international acclaim because his modernist English translators have “freed him of the prison of Yiddish” (47). Edelshtein maliciously calls the Polish-born Ostrover der chazer, the pig, “because of his extraordinary white skin, like a tissue of pale ham” (46), and because of his pornographically grotesque subject matter—“men who embraced men, women who caressed women, sodomists of every variety, boys copulating with hens, butchers who drank blood for strength beneath the knife” (47).

But what most hurts Edelshtein is that Ostrover is the only Yiddish writer whose works have been saved, that is, translated into English. He plaintively asks: “Why Ostrover? Why not somebody else? What occult knack, what craft, what crooked convergence of planets drove translators to grovel before Ostrover? … Who had discovered that Ostrover was a “modern”? His Yiddish … still squeaked up to God with a littleness, a familiarity, an elbow-poke, it was still pieced together out of shtetl rags, out of a baby aleph, a toddler beys—so why Ostrover? … Ostrover was to be the only evidence that there once was a Yiddish tongue? … And all the others lost? … Snuffed out … As if never?” (51).

Clearly, Ostrover, whose fiction about imaginary Polish villages reeks of the occult and the pornographic, is Ozick's caricature of Isaac Bashevis Singer.26 But rumor also has it that Edelshtein is Ozick's thin disguise for the Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein, whose views of Singer were even harsher than those of Edelshtein. In a 1965 essay, “The Fame of Isaac Bashevis Singer,” Glatstein censures Singer for his “tales of horror and eroticism,” infected with “all kinds of spiritual and physical depravity,” and populated with heroes sullied by “villainy, brutality, and cynicism at every turn.” Glatstein further claims that Singer's stories are “more attuned to the non-Jewish than to the Jewish reader,” to whom Singer's themes “are a distasteful blend of superstition and shoddy mysticism.”27

Sharing Glatstein's views of Singer, Ozick utilizes her prophet's irony as a “way of telling the truth” about the fraudulent Ostrover. “Extending a partial perspective into a more comprehensive one,” she thus depicts Ostrover not as a serious author committed to his subject matter and craft, but as a joke machine mechanically rattling off one wisecrack after another.28 She reveals him to be a titillator of the masses with his simplistic aphorisms, “dense and swollen as a phallus” and his “naked swollen sentences with their thin little threadbare pants always pulled down” (51). Moreover, she compounds her ironical treatment of him by having his shallow public honor him in the same room as the pantheon of great Jewish figures—Moses, Einstein, Maimonides, Heine—whose names are emblazoned on the majestic frieze lining the ceiling of the Ninety-second Street Y. Because she has the Yiddish Yankel Ostrover Americanize himself to become “Yankee Doodle” Ostrover, she makes him into a “worldwide industry” (62), who “can stand up forever and dribble shallow quips and everyone admires him for it” (63).

Departing from drollery to prophetic denunciation, Ozick, like Jeremiah inveighing against the false prophet whose “disingenuousness was the mark of a charlatan,”29 has Edelshtein attack Ostrover for being an obscene literary faker and for perpetrating hoaxes of translation to gain fame. If reading an author's work in translation is, as the Hebrew poet Bialik notes, “kissing the bride through the veil,”30 then so many deft hands have improved the appearance of Ostrover's bride that she scarcely resembles his flawed original. Because Ostrover, a cripple in English, hires a stable of skillful translators to make the bride ravishing for the avant-garde and commercial reading public, Ozick reveals that the talent Ostrover has is not for the invention of innovative fiction but for pressuring his translators to transform his lackluster Yiddish into polished English. Because he woos one translator and drops the other, he keeps them in a “perpetual frenzy of envy for each other” (55), so that Ozick's story becomes a prophet's exposé of authorial rivalry as well as translator rivalry.

Ozick, like the prophets who took the populace to task for their false judgments, condemns the idiocy of the literary establishment for valuing lifeless prose cosmetically touched up by multiple translators rather than the vitality of a living language created by a talented single author zealously committed to Yiddish. But Edelshtein is not that impassioned devotee and practioneer of Yiddish. What Ozick finds most objectionable about him is his hypocrisy. Much as he mocks Ostrover, he also prefers to escape from the “prison of Yiddish” (47), or from being Jewish, if he could achieve fame. Thus, Ozick criticizes him for lamenting the waning of Yiddish when he actually laments the waning of an audience to appreciate his creativity.

Edelshtein's hypocrisy is attacked not by the author but by Hannah, a twenty-three-year-old American woman, fluent in Yiddish, whom Edelshtein implores to be his translator. The more desperate he becomes to obtain her services, the more anguished is the language he employs to depict the fate of Yiddish during the Holocaust. “A little while ago there were twelve million people—not including babies—who lived inside this tongue and now what is left? A language that never had a territory except Jewish mouths and half the Jewish mouths on earth already stopped up with German worms” (74). But Edelshtein immediately berates himself for exploiting the grisly details of the Holocaust to gain sympathy for his literary plight, for using international tragedy to call attention to his personal crisis.

No matter what Edelshtein's motives are or how impassioned his pleas, Hannah refuses to be his personal messiah and save his dying poems. Acting as a midwife to his creativity would prevent her from giving birth to the poetry gestating within herself. To guard against being exploited, she indignantly lashes out at him: “You jealous old men from the ghetto … You bore me to death. You hate magic, you hate imagination, you talk God and you hate God, you despise, you bore, you envy, you eat people up with your disgusting old age—cannibals, all you care about is your own youth, you're finished, give somebody else a turn!” (94, 97–98).

On one level Hannah's diatribe appears to be a legitimate feminist complaint of an emerging woman artist who wishes to develop her own talent and not waste her energies translating the oeuvre of an old Yiddish male she doesn't respect. She accuses him of being too Jewish, of clinging to suffering, of revering history, and most damning of all, of producing works that were “little puddles,” not the “mainstream” (95). The only Yiddish writer she admires is Ostrover, for being an author of many visions: “A Freudian, a Jungian, a sensibility … A contemporary” (95).

We are not to side with the young woman, however. Her devotion to the worldly Ostrover, who speaks for humanity, and her scorn of the ghetto poet, who speaks for Jews, shows the limitations of American-born Jewish youth who would readily sacrifice the parochial for the universal and in so doing lose their claim to any distinctiveness. Because Yiddish is an indigenous part of Edelshtein, who had the misfortune of living at a time when Yiddish “died a sudden and definite death” (42), Ozick sympathizes with his desire to communicate and be understood in an alien land. She can even forgive his envy for those who achieve a spurious kind of communication, and she endows him with a sense of pride to compensate for his maltreatment.

Thus, when Hannah banishes Edelshtein from her universalist house of fiction, claiming he doesn't interest her, he is compelled to view his ghetto identity not as a burden but as a blessing. In the Jewish equivalent of a Flannery O'Connor revelation, Edelshtein has an epiphany:

He saw everything in miraculous reversal. … What he understood was this: that the ghetto was the real world, and the outside world only a ghetto. Because in actuality who was shut off? Who then was really buried, removed, inhabited by darkness? To whom, in what little space, did God offer Sinai? Who kept Terach and who followed Abraham? … Suppose it turns out that the destiny of the Jews is vast, open, eternal, and that Western Civilization is meant to dwindle, shrivel, shrink into the ghetto of the world—what of history then? Kings, Parliaments, like insects, presidents like vermin, their religion a row of little dolls, their art a cave smudge, their poetry a lust.


This “miraculous reversal” that Edelshtein envisions represents Ozick's championing, like the prophets before her, of the superiority of the Judaic contribution to civilization. This passage contains her refutation of the belief that Jews are a culturally backward people, bereft of intellectual curiosity, totally consumed with obscurantist learning. Rather, she proudly asserts that the Jews' text-centeredness and monotheism have enriched a spiritually impoverished world.

“Envy,” however, does not end with such an optimistic vision, but a pessimistic one. In a random telephone call Edelshtein encounters the anti-Semitic venom of a Christian proselytizer: “Christianity is Judaism universalized. … Our God is the God of Love, your God is the God of Wrath” (100). When Edelshtein refutes his position, he retaliates with standard Jew-baiting insults: “Even now, after … how many years in America, you talk with a kike accent. You kike, you Yid” (100). These remarks are offensive in their own right because they echo the sentiments of anti-Semites through the ages. But Edelshtein finds them even more painful because many Jews, themselves unaware of the grandeur of their own heritage, accept such pejorative views of Judaism and unassimilated Jews. Such self-hatred prompts a sizable number of Jewish artists to abandon Jewish sources of creativity in pursuit of worldly fame. It also causes the majority of American Jews to abandon Yiddish for fear of being considered “kikes.” Thus the final words Edelshtein shouts at the bigot are: “Amalekite! Titus! Nazi! The whole world is infected by you anti-Semites! On account of you, children become corrupted. On account of you, I lost everything. My whole life! On account of you I have no translator!” (100).

The forlorn, vulnerable Edelshtein resembles the fate of Yiddish itself that Maurice Samuel described as an exile language “in a double sense, with the language of the people in exile and long in exile among the elite of that people.”31 Edelshtein is also bereft of supporters just as Yiddish literature is bereft of a physical territory, a supportive nation, a lengthy tradition, and a sustaining culture. Finally Edelshtein is rejected by the Hebraists and the American avant-gardists just as Yiddish literature has been shunned by the towering giants of the Hebraic past and the post-Enlightenment present.

As the title “Envy; or, Yiddish in America” suggests, Cynthia Ozick has written two stories.32 The first, “Envy” is a ruefully amusing tale of a crotchety old man seeking translation for his sentimental poems while seething with jealousy of a slickly translated rival author. The more profound second story, “Yiddish in America,” is about a thousand-year-old Jewish language and culture, almost destroyed in a decade by the Holocaust, and its precarious fate in America. Since Yiddish poetry for Ozick has a “liturgical impulse” and is a “continuation of Scripture,” the story is about the struggle of the liturgical to find a place in the secular.33 But the secular has been overrun by the pagan, and even its most learned and artistic inhabitants have had a “memory operation” (97) and suffer from cultural amnesia so that liturgical Yiddish is in danger of being forgotten and doomed to extinction. But Cynthia Ozick, the writer as prophet, has roused our concern for Yiddish, stimulated a reawakened interest in it, and, for a time, rescued it from oblivion.

Cynthia Ozick's aim as a prophet who strikes when her irony is hot34 is to lift human beings up, not to push them down, to remind them of their commitments: “God has a controversy with you.”35 Thus Ozick wages a controversy with her fictional characters for abandoning Jewish sources of creativity and choosing the more universal; in real life she also takes issue with self-hating Jews who have no knowledge of the worth of their heritage. In a 1978 New York Times reply to Anne Roiphe for her article “Christmas Comes to a Jewish Home,” Cynthia Ozick chastises her for being an unsuccessful assimilationist “because she has no gift of her own to offer the majority. … Bankrupt, she borrows from her neighbor's spiritual house all its furnishings; or else moves right in and calls this universalism. She cannot invite her neighbor into her own historic house because it isn't only that her cupboard is bare; all the rooms are empty. She has taken all her worldly notions from the majority culture, including the majority's mistakes, even when they are mistakes about herself.”36 Of her own Jewish identity, Ozick asserts: “It is not sufficient for me to be someone's symbol. I am not a Jew only under duress; my Jewish conviction derives not from what Anne Roiphe repeatedly calls the ghetto, but from the voice of Sinai.”37 Indeed this voice of Sinai, blending with Cynthia Ozick's ironic prophetic voice, will make her fiction heard a long time, for she has blown loud and clear into “the narrow end of the shofar.”38


  1. Ruth Wisse, “American Jewish Writing, Act II,” Commentary 61 (June 1976), 40.

  2. Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint (New York, 1970), 84.

  3. Wisse, “American Jewish Writing,” 41.

  4. Cynthia Ozick, “America: Toward Yavneh,” Judaism 19 (Summer 1970), 280.

  5. Bernard Malamud in a question-and-answer period. University at Albany, State University of New York, April 9, 1975.

  6. Quoted in Wisse, “American Jewish Writing,” 41.

  7. Quoted in Cynthia Ozick, “Hanging the Ghetto Dog,” New York Times Book Review (March 21, 1976), 47.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Ozick, “America,” 275.

  10. Ibid., 280.

  11. Ibid., 282.

  12. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (New York, 1962), 10.

  13. Cynthia Ozick, “What Drives Saul Bellow,” in her Metaphor & Memory (New York, 1989), 13.

  14. Cynthia Ozick, “The Pagan Rabbi,” in her collection The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (New York, 1971). Further citations to this story are in parentheses in the text of the essay.

  15. Ruth Wisse, “American Jewish Writing,” 41–42, points out that in the works of Mendele, Sholem Aleichem, Peretz, Bialik, Feierberg, and Tchernikhowsky, the physical world of sun, storm, trees, and rivers provides a model of freedom counterposed to the self-denial of shtetl culture.

  16. Daniel Jeremy Silver. A History of Judaism: From Abraham to Maimonides (New York, 1974), 80.

  17. Ibid., 79.

  18. Cynthia Ozick, “The Riddle of the Ordinary,” in her Art & Ardor (New York, 1983).

  19. Isaac Babel, “Awakening,” in The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel, ed. and transl. Walter Morison (New York, 1934), 311–12.

  20. Silver, History, 79.

  21. Cynthia Ozick, “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” in The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories. Further citations to this story are in parentheses in the text of the essay.

  22. Heschel, Prophets, 6.

  23. Ibid., 37.

  24. Israel Knox, “The Traditional Roots of Jewish Humor,” Judaism 12 (1964–65), 331.

  25. Ozick, “America,” 266.

  26. In Yiddish circles Edelshtein has been identified with the poet Jacob Glatstein, who publicly deplored the rising fame of Isaac Bashevis Singer and criticized his work for being shallow. Cynthia Ozick, however, has denied these associations.

  27. Jacob Glatstein, “The Fame of Isaac Bashevis Singer,” Congress Biweekly (December 27, 1965), 17–18.

  28. Knox, “Traditional Roots,” 329.

  29. Silver, History, 83.

  30. Hayyim Nachman Bialik (1873–1934), quoted by Sarah Blacher Cohen, “The Jewish Folk Drama of Isaac Bashevis Singer,” in her edited collection, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Jewish-American Stage and Screen (Bloomington, Ind., 1983), 198.

  31. Maurice Samuel, In Praise of Yiddish (New York, 1971), 8.

  32. Joseph Lowin, Cynthia Ozick (Boston, 1988), 20.

  33. Cynthia Ozick, “Prayer Leader,” Prooftexts 3 (1983), 1.

  34. For an extended analysis of irony in all of Cynthia Ozick's fiction, see Sarah Blacher Cohen, Cynthia Ozick's Comic Art: From Levity to Liturgy: The Fiction of Cynthia Ozick (Bloomington and Indianapolis, Ind., 1994).

  35. Lowin, Ozick, 21.

  36. Cynthia Ozick, “The Holidays: Reply to Anne Roiphe,” New York Times (December 28, 1978), C6.

  37. Ibid.

  38. Cynthia Ozick, “America,” 282.

Victor Strandberg (essay date 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 introduction, an interview, a bibliography, and my own long essay. The first book of criticism on Ozick was Harold Bloom's Cynthia Ozick (1986), a collection of essays intended to represent “the best criticism so far available” on Ozick's fiction. It is an accurate reflection of her career, and not a reproach to Bloom's book, that twenty years after publishing Trust, such a collection would consist of thirteen book reviews (eight in the NYTBR) with an average length of three pages, along with six essays averaging (not counting my own) nine pages. Bloom includes a bibliography with another twenty-five items, twenty of which are reviews of two or less pages. The book thus furnishes a good starting point for a quick scan of the Ozick critical spectrum as of the mid-1980s.

In Bloom's book two reviews of Trust establish the opposite polarities of early Ozick criticism. David L. Stevenson praises Trust for its originality, calling it “that extraordinary literary entity, a first novel that is produced by a rich, creative imagination, not an imitation of someone else's work or thinly disguised autobiography.” Eugene Goodheart, however, faults the book for its “discontinuity between language and reality or between expression and feeling,” a failure that he ascribes to the unaccountably embittered mood of the narrator. The “fog of chronic dyspepsia” emanating from “the barren ground of the heroine's sullennesses” notably envelops Allegra Vand, who thus becomes “more like an hallucinated projection of the heroine's resentment than a credible mother or wife or woman.”

Taken together, these two reviews point beyond text to subtext. Stevenson's remark that Trust is not thinly disguised autobiography does not preclude its being well-disguised autobiography, and Goodheart's focus on the narrator's sullennesses points to the connection between the book and Ozick's own buried narrative. For Ozick, the living subtext beneath the text of Trust was the bitterness of her fourfold deprivation: as a victim of academic/literary misogyny; as an artist condemned to see tripe like Allegra's Marianna Harlow lionized while her own work languished in oblivion; as a woman prohibited by Judaic sexual taboo from participating in the Laurentian consummation of Tilbeck's apotheosis; and as a Jew whose culture has been marginalized and threatened with extinction in the era after the Holocaust. Goodheart was right to note the radical extreme in the mood of Trust, but he was less perceptive than Stevenson in failing to observe the high achievement of Trust despite the flaws caused by the narrator's sullenness.

In its coverage of The Pagan Rabbi (1971) Bloom's book discloses two signs of better days for Ozick criticism: the addition of a full-blown essay by Josephine Z. Knopp to its two brief reviews (the first real essay in Ozick criticism); and a consensus among the three concerning the extraordinary degree of originality in her stories—“her unique vision of the truth,” as Knopp puts it. For Paul Theroux, Ozick's “imaginative daring” in conceiving “people and situations who [sic] are rarely if ever seen in American novels” makes her laudably different from “Malamud, Bellow, Roth and Co.” Concerning “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” Johanna Kaplan risks an outright encomium: “I found myself overwhelmed by the story and … amazed at its effect on me. I read it, reread it and lent it to friends, all as in a fever.”

Gone now are complaints of Ozick's overblown style, which has become—Kaplan says—“sharpened, clarified, controlled” so as to make her “a kind of narrative hypnotist.” The argument now moves to questions of theme and credibility. Ozick's ground theme, Kaplan says, which “runs through all the stories and all the characters,” is “a variant of the question: what is holy?” Is holiness a feature of “the extraordinary” (dryads or sea nymphs), or is it found in “what is … unthinkingly discounted” (daily life)? Theroux, though agreeing with Kaplan that “Envy” is “excellent in all ways,” finds Ozick's excursions into fantasy “insufficiently dramatized and unpersuasive,” in part because the narrators of these stories (such as “The Pagan Rabbi” and “The Dock-Witch”) are in a crazed condition.

In these reviews of The Pagan Rabbi, feminist criticism makes its first response to Ozick's fiction, to the effect of illustrating the denseness of the male commentator. Though Paul Theroux calls “Virility” a “superb story” for its treatment of plagiarism, he fails to see Ozick's blatantly rendered feminist purpose. Josephine Knopp, however, observes that here Ozick “demolishes the male supremacists with the same hilarious derision that she employs against the anti-Semites in ‘Envy.’” Extending Knopp's insight, we may say that the seven stories in The Pagan Rabbi embody a recurrence of the fourfold deprivations that demoralized the narrator of Trust: literary misogyny (“Virility”), Jewish sexual/religious taboos (“The Pagan Rabbi,” “The Dock-Witch”), dismal failure of artistic ambitions (“Envy,” “The Suitcase”), and Jewish/Gentile cultural incompatibilities (“The Butterfly and the Traffic Light” and, to some extent, all the stories). The difference since Trust is Ozick's more consistent grasp of narrative voice, mood, and style, which sometimes attains tour-de-force effectiveness in The Pagan Rabbi.

Thomas R. Edwards, in his review of Bloodshed (1976), brings to expression a hitherto unspoken problem in Ozick's readership, the bewilderment of the goy. “Bloodshed,” he admits, “is hard for a goy to make out,” and “Usurpation” is confusing enough to create his generalized “doubts about her work.” Nonetheless, Edwards argues that even a Gentile cannot help but respond to “the best thing” in Bloodshed, “the marvelous novella ‘A Mercenary.’” In addition, Ozick's preface, Edwards says, alleviates the confusion about “Usurpation”—“Certainly her gloss on ‘Usurpation’ is more coherent and moving than the story itself.”

That opinion, however, is strongly contested by Ruth Wisse in her essay “Ozick as American Jewish Writer.” Calling Ozick “a selfish and somewhat nasty finagler” for defending her plagiarism in “Usurpation,” Wisse condemns the “self-justification and special pleading” of the preface, which “betrays the insecurities of both the artist and the Jew.” The harshness of this attack may have influenced Ozick's later decision to say, “The Preface to Bloodshed is a piece of fiction like any other” (Scheick 258)—perhaps the least credible statement in all her writing. By far the most substantial essay on Ozick up to that time (the June 1976 Commentary), Wisse's critique places her against the larger backdrop of contemporary and earlier Jewish-American writing. As against Bellow-Malamud-Roth's “twin themes of marginality and victimization,” Wisse says, Ozick is the “spokesman and most audacious writer” among a new generation of writers who are culturally secure enough to return without anxiety to “the ‘tribal’ and particularistic aspects of Judaism.” Yet, she argues, Ozick's preface, by allowing the author to become “her own translator,” reveals her contradictory craving to be understood among the Gentiles despite her claim that a Christian civilization is innately incapable of understanding indigenous Jewish literature.

By 1982, the year of Levitation: Five Fictions, the fifty-four-year-old author was beginning to establish a reputation. But though Leslie Epstein begins her review by calling Ozick's earlier books, The Pagan Rabbi and Bloodshed, “perhaps the finest work in short fiction by a contemporary writer,” she finds Levitation disappointing because “each of these works … [shies] crucially from the kind of resolution we rightly demand from imaginative fiction.” Characterization turns out to be Ozick's weak suit, in Epstein's view, as exemplified by the Puttermesser-Xanthippe saga. The most humanly engaging character in the Puttermesser stories, she says, is neither Puttermesser nor Xanthippe but Uncle Zindel, who teaches the heroine Hebrew lessons until the narrator intervenes to declare him nonexistent—disheartening proof, for Epstein, of how the text “quails before the demands of, the powers of, imagination.” And the title story, “Levitation,” is perhaps most damaged of all by this disengagement from real characters, which occurs not only in Ozick's portrayal of Jews who supernaturally levitate “into the glory of their martyrdom” but most crucially in the portrait of Feingold's wife, Lucy. Because she is a Christian, Epstein says, “the dice are loaded against this character, the deck [is] patently stacked.” Lucy's lapse from her Christian heritage into a wild vision of its pagan roots means that “the game is no longer being played by the rules of fiction. Probability, necessity, recognizable human feeling are replaced by laws of what can only be called mystical vision.”

In this critique of Lucy's character, Epstein was one of the first to touch upon a serious long-term problem. Like Toni Morrison, Cynthia Ozick combines a superb ability to render her own cultural heritage with a plainly limited comprehension of the majority culture that encompasses/oppresses it. Although there is no mystery about a black or Jewish writer's lack of empathy for things white or Christian, art requires emotional discipline to avoid turning into propaganda. Such discipline may be too weak when Ozick's hatred of “the whole—the whole!—of Western Civilization” (a claim resembling Morrison's statement that “my hatred of white people is justified”) produces the hypocritical William of Trust, the cartoonlike evangelist at the end of “Envy,” and the more serious but inadequate effort to characterize Lucy as a Christian in “Levitation.”1 It is nonetheless appropriate to ask, regarding this failure of imagination, how many Gentile writers have rendered the figure of the Jew to better effect than Ozick has rendered her Christian (Lucy)? Chaucer, Marlowe, Dickens, Hemingway—as we glance back through the centuries, the portraiture of the Jew by Gentiles has not presented much solid ground from which to attack Cynthia Ozick's portrayals of Christian characters, particularly as viewed after the Holocaust.

Katha Pollitt's essay on Art & Ardor (1983), Ozick's first volume of essays, is an unusually penetrating and graceful exercise in Ozick criticism. Calling the book “a unified and magisterial continuation of Miss Ozick's short stories by other means,” Pollitt divides these essays among three Ozicks—“the rabbi, the feminist, and a disciple of Henry James”—who sometimes work against each other (e.g., feminist versus Jew), sometimes in symbiosis. It was the Jamesian Ozick who ripped into Other Voices, Other Rooms “like someone going after a hummingbird with a chainsaw,” and the rabbi whose subliminal motive for doing so could have been Capote's complaint about a “Jewish mafia” in American letters. It was the rabbi and feminist who ascribed the invention of “homosexual manners” to Lytton Strachey, thereby “eliminating Oscar Wilde and a century of dandyism with a stroke of the pen.” Among the inspired conjectures of Pollitt's critique is her linkup between Ozick's essay on Maurice Samuel and Yankel Ostrover in “Envy.” So too she links Ozick's essay on Harold Bloom with Isaac Kornfeld in “The Pagan Rabbi.”

The schism between Ozick the rabbi and the Jamesian Ozick underlies Sanford Pinsker's judgment that “the ardor of her Jewishness takes a fearsome toll on her discussions of Art.” For him, however, the affirmation of her Jewish heritage in Art & Ardor means that “Ozick has recovered from her long Jamesian night of the soul.” Something similar occurs in “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” according to Elaine Kauvar's learned analysis of that novella. Bringing a Socratic dialogue, Theaetetus, to bear, along with the Kabbalistic Book of Creation by Gershom Scholem and James's “The Lesson of the Master,” Kauvar sees Puttermesser and the golem as initially reflecting two parts of a split personality—the mature and rational Jewish intellect versus “Puttermesser's primitive self” whose “cries for love and life” have been “sacrificed for dedication to the intellect.” Although Xanthippe returns to earth in the end, after her sexual fire becomes too rampant for a civilized community, Puttermesser learns from the golem the need to recover “the experience of the ordinary and vital passions of humanity.” To judge from this essay, Kauvar's forthcoming (as of this writing) book on Ozick will be a landmark contribution to Ozick studies—greatly learned in Jewish lore and otherwise illuminating.2

The timing of Bloom's book enabled it to encompass, at its far end, Ozick's second novel, The Cannibal Galaxy (1983). Of the four reviews that are here reprinted, Edmund White's best illustrates her status among other artists. White praises Ozick for her moral intensity—for “always submitting experience to an ethical inquiry”—and finds “the very secret of Miss Ozick's art” in her juxtaposition of “vivid hard circumstance and things that were only imagined.” But as a much-admired stylist himself, he reserves his main laurels for her handling of language: “Precisely on account of her style, Miss Ozick strikes me as the best American writer to have emerged in recent years.” What best illustrates her “astonishingly flexible and vital language” is her handling of metaphor, which “animates every page of the novel.” A. Alvarez, however, chooses exactly the same feature as his point of attack. Although he credits the Jamesian subtlety of the work, calling it “‘The Beast in the Jungle’ replayed,” he faults its “startling overinflation” of style, which makes it “far less convincing than Ozick's shorter fiction.” As compared with the stories, he says The Cannibal Galaxy has “degenerated into mannerism. The rhetoric and imagery proliferate like tropical undergrowth … until the narrative chokes and expires.”

If this disagreement over style represents critical subjectivity—each to his own taste—the religious response is more objective and more collegial. Max Apple's biblical stance toward The Cannibal Galaxy relates the title metaphor to the second sentence of Genesis (which Ozick cites in the novel): “And the earth was astonishingly empty.” Calling the phrase “empty and desolate” the “center of this wonderful novel,” Apple ramifies its cosmic, social, and personal meanings: “Empty and desolate is … the uncreated universe, … post-Holocaust Europe, … suburban American life and education, … [and] an aging man who has no offspring.” But against it all, in Apple's view, the L'Chaim! principle prevails: “From the destruction of the European Jews, from the emptiness of Brill's life, from the failures of the dual curriculum a wonder emerges: an artist.” Not an artist (Beulah Hilt) only, but two artists, as Apple renders his closing tribute to the real-life artist and her biblical sources: “Tohu vavohu, emptiness and desolation. From the void the cosmos. From the Fleg School Beulah Hilt. From the mummified prose surrounding us these glorious words of Cynthia Ozick.”

Margaret Wimsatt, also in the Bloom collection, sees not the Hebrew Bible but a Christological construct at the center of The Cannibal Galaxy, namely, the main character's role as “perhaps a prototype of the Wandering Jew.” In various ways that is of course true, geographically in Brill's wanderings from France to the Great Lakes, culturally in his movement away from his Jewish heritage. But Joseph Brill is not the true subject of Ozick's novel, in Wimsatt's judgment; “her real interest is in problems, in philosophy, in mortality, in monotheism”—which is to say, religion. Ozick's final objective, Wimsatt says, is to call the Jew back from his wanderings, reminding him that “these [Western/pagan] arts were forbidden by Jahweh to his people; they were left to the Canaanites and the Greeks. For monotheists the path to wisdom is marked only by Midrash and commentary.”

Finally, there is Harold Bloom's own contribution to his collection, featuring his characteristic blend of uncommon learnedness, intelligence, and willingness to promote his own obsessions. Predictably, Bloom discovers the anxiety of influence in Ozick's self-confessed usurpation of other people's stories—another instance of “agonistic strivings between writers.” For Bloom, Ozick's most crucial struggle, however, is not with Jewish forebears like Singer or Malamud but with the Gnostic heresy that has preoccupied Bloom himself for much of his academic lifetime, for did she not say that she “lusts after forbidden or Jewish magic”? (Although the Ozick-Bloom relationship is too tangled to unravel here, I recommend Erella Brown's “The Ozick-Bloom Controversy,” in the Studies in American Jewish Literature of spring 1992, as an excellent study of their mutual misjudgment.) Because of Bloom's magisterial stature in contemporary criticism, his designation of “Envy” and “Usurpation” as “novellas unequalled in [Ozick's] own generation” comprises a milestone of appreciation.

In sum, Bloom's book, representing the best criticism available when the author was in her mid-fifties, projects a cacophony of contradictory voices. The Ozick of Harold Bloom purveys Gnostic heresy under the anxiety of pagan influence; for many Jewish critics—Kauvar, Knopp, Pinsker, Rosenberg, Wisse, et al.—Ozick the rabbi emerges triumphant; for Edwards the bewildered goy and White the fellow artist, the Jewish Ozick commands less interest than the storyteller and stylist. Though the voices sometimes contradict each other—for example, praising and damning the same story for its handling of metaphor (White and Alvarez on The Cannibal Galaxy)—their variety keeps the field of critical discourse free and open.

Turning from Bloom's book to the wider field of Ozick criticism, we find the Zeitgeist bringing postmodern ideology increasingly into play. Concerning feminism, Ozick quarreled early on with those separatist feminists who insisted on absolute gender difference of the intellect and imagination. One such feminist is Barbara Koenig Quart, whose review of Art & Ardor (1983) finds Ozick's rejection of female separatism “particularly odd in view of her enormous concern for Jewish identity, and her scorn for ‘universalists’ (mainly Jews who insist they are just like everyone else).” Because of Ozick's distance from “the fertility and vitality of contemporary feminism” and its “liberating effect of acknowledging that women have a different … experience,” her essays on Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf are seriously defective in Quart's judgment. By refusing “any degree of sympathetic identification” with these fellow women artists, Ozick herself commits sexism—observing the childless, nonresponsible state of Wharton and Woolf, for example, without realizing that by those standards “the equally childless and duty-free Henry James should be open to similar criticism.”3

Levitation (1982) provided the occasion for E. M. Broner to transfer such doubts about Ozick's feminist loyalties from her essays to her fiction. “The Sewing Harems,” according to Broner's review in the Ms. of April 1982, “is an attack on women bonding, on womanly gods, and on the concept of utopian society that informs much of today's feminist fiction.” Worse yet, during our present period of “the rebonding of mothers and daughters in fiction, in literary studies and oral histories of our foremothers,” Ozick produces “no natural births, rather miraculous ones [like Puttermesser creating Xanthippe], and the offspring turn upon their mothers.” Or mothers turn upon offspring, like Puttermesser decreating Xanthippe, leaving a set of disturbing questions in the wake of this “dazzling and worrisome” book:

What is the lesson to women here? … Are we the devouring vagina that Freud … would dream of? … One wonders: Why did the mothers have to kill the daughters? Why does one of our best writers, a woman, join the chorus of male voices?

Yet another mode of feminist protest came in reply to “Notes toward Finding the Right Question,” Ozick's attempt to address the troubling question of woman's inferior place within Orthodox Judaism. Even her beloved Maimonides, she admits, “frequently uses the phrase ‘women and the ignorant’” to denote female inferiority, and he also “recommends wife-beating.”4 Ozick's answer to the dilemma is to deny any connection between this sort of sexism and “the Voice of the Lord of History.” Through lack of theological understanding, she maintains, Jewish males have emulated the worldwide pattern of their sex in elevating mere sociological bias to a divine status. The fall of man through Eve's lapse, for example, Ozick defines as a Christian and not Judaic convention. The answer to the problem of Jewish religious sexism, she concludes, requires amending the silence of Torah, which, though not justifying female inferiority, admittedly failed to specify a Mosaic Commandment: “Thou shalt not lessen the humanity of women.” By reason of its “single missing Commandment,” Ozick says, “Torah—one's heart stops in one's mouth as one dares to say these words—Torah is in this respect frayed.” It is the historic task of our age to institute the missing Commandment—“not … for the sake of women; [nor] … for the sake of the Jewish people. It is necessary for the sake of Torah; to preserve and strengthen Torah itself” (151, 152).

In a rebuttal of Ozick's essay entitled “The Right Question is Theological,” Judith Plaskow insists that Ozick has evaded the theological basis of patriarchy. Comparing “the situation of the Jewish woman … to the situation of the Jew in non-Jewish culture,”5 Plaskow says that real feminism thus “demands a new understanding of Torah, God, and Israel: an understanding of Torah that begins with acknowledgment of the profound injustice of Torah itself” (231). In 1984, five years after her “Notes toward Finding the Right Question” was published, Ozick put out a biblical exegesis to bear out her title, “Torah as Feminism, Feminism as Torah.” Here she insists that the basic precepts of Judaism—man being made in the image of his Creator, for example—give no occasion nor example to validate male supremacy, because the image of the Creator has no face or gender. And so the quarrel between feminism and Torah springs from a false reading of Torah, with feminism, not Holy Writ, thereby falling into danger: “if Jewish feminism does not emerge from Torah, it will disintegrate.”6

It seems reasonable to suppose that this sort of deference to Orthodoxy gives proof enough of Ozick's Jewish identity. Coincident with her emergence as a “Jewish writer,” however, Ozick's fictions have provoked sharp controversy among Jewish-American intellectuals, among whom some have gone so far as to publicly declare her an anti-Semite. Ironically, the worst such storm of bitterness arose in response to one of her earliest, finest, and most “Jewish” stories, “Envy; or, Yiddish in America”:

There was a vast brouhaha over this story. A meeting was called by the Yiddish writers, I learned later. The question was whether or not to condemn me publicly. Privately, they all furiously condemned me. Simon Weber … compared me to the “commissars of Warsaw and Moscow,” anti-Semites of the first order. I was astonished and unbelievably hurt. … What I had intended was a great lamentation for the murder of Yiddish, the mother-tongue of a thousand years, by the Nazis. Instead, here were all these writers angry at me.

(Teicholz 179)

Bloodshed, Ozick's most purely “Jewish” book, merely extended the controversy. On one hand, Rosellen Brown thinks the title story “fails” because of Ozick's commitment to Orthodoxy: “the inhibition against tale-telling has taken its toll.” Though she goes on to say that “Ozick's failures are infinitely more interesting than most writers' successes,” Brown continues to fault the specifically Jewish character of Ozick's craft, which makes the stories “move like Talmudic argument, not like stories on their way to a destination.” On the other hand, Pearl K. Bell, alarmed over “the apostasy of assimilation” among modern Jewish intellectuals, praises Ozick for her “most uncompromising indictment of the Jewish surrender to Gentile America.7 But then again, from the point of view of other Jewish writers Ozick's uncompromising indictment seems nothing more than an instance of arrogant fanaticism. Deborah Heiligman Weiner writes:

This contempt of Ozick's is overpowering. She doesn't offer a viable alternative with which to replace Jewish literature as it is today, yet she feels free to level criticism at those who make the effort. For example, she doubts whether Isaac Bashevis Singer … is a writer of “Jewish stories” at all, since no other writer departs so thoroughly and so deliberately from the mainstream of Mosaic vision.

We have arrived back at that texture Ozick imposes on the world, that false dichotomy: the Pagan versus the Mosaic.8

Compounding the confusion is Ozick's own sense of weakness concerning her Jewish identity. The Second Commandment forbids not only her storytelling, she confesses, but also her passion for Jewish history, which has become another idol that she has raised “instead of” God: “I am in thrall to the history of the Jews. It is the history of the Jews that seizes me ultimately. … History is my master and I its servant.”9 Nor is being stiff-necked before God Ozick's only transgression against her Jewish heritage. She has also succumbed, she admits, to that very process of assimilation that she has loudly decried in de-Judaized writers like Philip Roth and Norman Mailer. R. Barbara Gitenstein reports Ozick's act of confession:

Last Sunday night, I saw a 1938 Polish-made Yiddish film called Teyve. I was amazed to learn about all the layers and layers of forgetfulness and assimilation I—who am dedicated to not forgetting, who despise assimilation … discovered in myself. … Mamaloshen [Yiddish] is the language of my emotions, but I don't possess it.10

In case this sort of self-criticism proved insufficient, help was never very far away. Eugene S. Mornell, for example, attacked Ozick for holding a view of Judaism so narrow as to consider Harold Bloom “anti-Judaic. And not only Bloom but the Kabbalists, the Hasidim, Gershom Scholem. (What a long list she must have.)”11 Earl Rovit, reviewing Levitation, also deplores Ozick's tendency “to issue exclusionary decrees,” by which she divides the world between “the fold of an Orthodox sensibility and those who deviate, a category capable of expanding to include everyone except some death-camp survivors.’”12 And Burt Jacobson too accuses Ozick of maintaining a “view of Judaism [that] is extremely narrow and historically inaccurate.” Because her “rigid puritanical stance reifies the tradition into an idol,” he says, she replicates “the idol-making she imputes to Bloom,” cutting herself off meanwhile from those deep springs of creativity evidenced by the “mystical flights … [of] so great a luminary as Rabbi Akiva himself.”13

But yet, it was the flights of mysticism in “Levitation”—the scene of levitation—that brought on Joseph Epstein's cry of protest: “Madam, I implore you, get those Jews down, please!” The “atmosphere up there, in that living room aloft, … finally seems extremely thin,” Epstein explains. “I prefer my Jews grounded.”14 Because her stories are so fanciful—Epstein names “Levitation,” “The Pagan Rabbi,” and “Bloodshed” to make the point—Epstein pronounces them “willed and schematic,” “a muddle.” Saying, “I admire almost everything about her … but her stories,” Epstein considers her probably “a better essayist than novelist”—mainly because the essays manifest a more credible realism.

Although Ozick renounced “the heavy mantle of ‘Jewish writer’” in 1984,15 commentary about her Jewishness continued to dominate the criticism of the later 1980s. To a large extent, this tendency reflected her readers' enhanced understanding of the theme of idolatry in her writings, but several critics moved beyond that insight to make new observations. Haim Chertok, in “Ozick's Hoofprints,” makes an excellent point about Ozick's use of the concept of “waiting” in the Jewish ethos:

Waiting entails both self-control and a sense of the purposes of history. It is for Ozick a heroic Jewish occupation and profession. … As she notes in “The Fourth Sparrow,” [Gershom] Scholem's masterwork details the cataclysmic upheaval of the Jewish world when it surrendered to the pretensions of Sabbatai Sevi, when it grew tired of waiting for the end of days. Messianism run amok is likewise the very center of fictions like “Puttermesser and Xanthippe” and “The Sewing Harems.” Murder itself ensues.

(emphasis Chertok's)16

Janet Handler Burstein's contribution to the “Jewishness” discourse is to take Ozick's argument against idolatry into new ground. Citing Ozick's definition of imagination as “the power to penetrate evil, to take on evil, to become evil,” Burstein identifies a peculiarly Jewish notion of evil that Ozick's fiction often propagates, most notably in “The Pagan Rabbi”:

the sense of fluid or amorphous identity … which is a given for the artist, is anathema to Jewish thought; the root preoccupation of Leviticus … is precisely to classify, to fix phenomena within their categories, and to forbid the mixing of categories that would cloud the boundaries between one form or kind of life and another.17

Exemplifying this mixing of categories is the tree nymph in “The Pagan Rabbi,” at once “commandingly human in aspect” and “unmistakably flowerlike” and therefore illustrative of “both the seductive delights and the moral dangers that Ozick associates with art” (89–90).

Ellen Pifer's superb analysis of the Puttermesser stories adds a new complexity to this larger view of the “Jewishness” of Ozick's fiction. The narrative reflexivity and fantasy in these stories, says Pifer, do more than signify Ozick's place within postmodern or antirealist literature. More important, by refusing to “bestow apparently godlike authority on an author or biographer,” they counteract the risk of idolatry that storytelling engenders by competing with God's creation.18 In contrast to Puttermesser's ruinous lapse into the power of magic and fantasy, Ozick's artistic creativity thus “testifies to [her] profoundly moral commitment as an artist. Like most of her other fiction, both the Puttermesser stories [in Levitation] employ post-modernist techniques to convey a deeply orthodox vision of reality.”

In 1987, the publication of The Messiah of Stockholm set the stage for our final chorus of cacophonous critical voices. Dismissed by Paul Stuewe as “a surprisingly lightweight and undistinctive novel,” it was hailed by Harold Bloom as a “brilliant new novel” which portrays, in Lars, “the most persuasive and poignant figure” in all Ozick's fiction, while also displaying (in the “Messiah” manuscript) “certainly the most vivid and revelatory prose she has published so far.”19 Because this book reflects Ozick's “awareness that her earlier view of art as idolatry was too severe,” The Messiah of Stockholm “marks the central point in Ozick's writing to date,” Bloom says, enabling her “to reconcile her need to create tales, idols of a sort, and her desire to continue as a truster in the covenant, a moral follower of Jewish tradition.” As a result, she is “helping to mature an American Jewish literature that may aid in the larger venture of seeking continuity in an authentic American Jewish culture.”

Bloom's delight in seeing Ozick become “a true daughter of [Bruno] Schulz, whose Jewishness … is fascinatingly implicit in his writing,” was not universally infectious. Janet Malcolm, for one, found the “Messiah” manuscript within the novel—which Bloom called her “most vivid and revelatory prose” yet published—both badly written and un-Schulzian: “it could not possibly have been written by Schulz. His delicate, poetic stories are about as far as you can get from the stiff, cerebral, didactic piece of surrealism that Ozick has concocted.”20 Calling the world of this novel “completely artificial,” Malcolm attributes its “strange failure” to the total incompatibility between Ozick's “stern Sinaitic art” and Schulz's concept of fiction as pure escapist playfulness. For Robert Alter, likewise, the novel failed stylistically, its “wild hyperbole” betraying “an attempt to substitute rhetorical intensity for experiential depth.”21 Worse yet, in flat contradiction to Bloom, Alter declares this novel not only un-Schulzian but disastrously un-Jewish. “The location of The Messiah of Stockholm makes it her first pervasively ‘Gentile’ fiction,” Alter observes, and the result of that choice is to make the book un-Ozickian as well:

I would not for a moment suggest that a Jewish writer needs to write about Jewish subjects, but it is peculiar that so much of what Cynthia Ozick cares about most deeply … is excluded from this book: the Jewish people as the bearer of a distinctive history; Judaism with its uncompromising monotheistic imperatives; Israel as a radical new possibility in the Jewish relation to history. … In Cynthia Ozick's new novel …, the absence of either Israel or of a persuasive sense of real history is a symptom of the narrow limits of the merely literary notions within which her fiction is enacted.

(54, 55)

In the fall 1987 Studies in American Jewish Literature, Daniel Walden not only disagreed with this judgment, calling The Messiah of Stockholm “Ozick's most profound and well-crafted work to date” (173), but devoted the entire issue to a book-length collection of essays called “The World of Cynthia Ozick.” The giant thrust given Ozick scholarship by this volume extends beyond the journal itself into the books undertaken by several of its authors: Sanford Pinsker (see below), Sarah Blacher Cohen (in progress), and Elaine Kauvar (see p. 205, note 2). The gem of the collection is Cynthia Ozick's own essay, “The Young Self and the Old Writer,” which adds importantly to our conception of the artist. Calling the Old Writer “dangerous, slippery, however overtly responsible and conscientious,” Ozick impersonates a post-modern sensibility (“undoubtedly Yale-derived” is her sly phrase) by raising fundamental questions about her identity:

Isn't autobiographical writing, selective and therefore skewed—isn't all writing—essentially fiction? … The Old Writer is aware of what a trickster she has been. Is she, for instance, a “Jewish writer” at all? … In fiction, is there such a thing as “Jewish subject-matter,” or is there only subject-matter? Who will definitively settle for the notion that a tale is about its subject-matter anyhow?


Walden's introduction to the collection augments this portrait of the artist by relating Ozick's conflicted identity—as a modernist who reveres tradition, an Orthodox Jew who wants women rabbis, a rationalist skeptic who veers off into mysticism—to the inner springs of her creativity: “The point is that the tension she lives with is the energy that drives her” (2). And Diane Cole adds some new brush strokes by tracking down Ozick's random essays in “The Uncollected Autobiography of Cynthia Ozick.” One of Cole's discoveries is a memoir by Ozick's mother, Shifra Regelson Ozick, about the family's difficult passage in 1906 from Russia to New York. In an Esquire essay about a schoolmate of Ozick's, Cole found a prototype of the parasitic Chimeses in “An Education.” And in two New York Times essays, one written under a pseudonym (“Trudi Vosce”), Cole found good reason for Ozick's Zionist militance. In one she decried the murder of her teenaged cousin by a Palestinian terrorist, and in the other—a prelude to The Shawl, Cole says—she interviewed a Jewish woman imprisoned for ten years in a Siberian labor camp and prevented for fourteen more years from emigrating to Israel.22

The major critical achievement in this volume belongs to Elaine M. Kauvar for her two essays “The Dread of Moloch: Idolatry as Metaphor in Cynthia Ozick's Fiction” and “Courier for the Past: Cynthia Ozick and Photography.” In the first of these, Kauvar sifts through Talmudic lore, Greek legend, and aesthetic theory to construe “The Doctor's Wife,” “Rosa,” and The Cannibal Galaxy as “a midrash of the Second Commandment”—a major phase of Ozick's cultural warfare against postmodern unseriousness: “In an age devoid of values, depersonalized by autonomous technique, dehumanized by solipsism, disrupted by cultural anomie, diminished by opaque language, and deadended by ahistoricism, Cynthia Ozick's fiction replenishes, familiarizes, universalizes, connects, enlightens, and redeems” (127). The other essay, arguing that photography is Ozick's “summarizing metaphor for art,” brings a powerful sense of history to bear on “Shots” and other writings: “The enduring importance of memory to the Jewish people originates in the Hebrew Bible where remembrance is pivotal, where the command to remember is absolute, and where the various declensions of the verb zakhar (‘to remember’) appear at least one hundred and sixty-nine times” (130). In both essays Kauvar makes crucial use of Ozick's “Judaic” preference for the caterpillar (in a state of “becoming”) over the butterfly (the perfected thing).

Bonnie Lyons' essay, “Cynthia Ozick as a Jewish Writer” (an appropriate title for the whole collection), makes some astute observations about Ozick's cultural inconsistencies: “sometimes she defines Judaism as a unique and distinct religious vision, at other times she treats it as something like a synonym for moral seriousness” (14). So, too, Lyons observes, in rejecting feminism as biologically deterministic Ozick forgets that Jewishness also has a biological component, except for the few proselytes. Lyons' analysis of “The Pagan Rabbi” and the Puttermesser-Xanthippe stories ranks with the best criticism of those stories.

S. Lillian Kremer's “The Splendor Spreads Wide: Trust and Cynthia Ozick's Aggadic Voice” likewise ranks with the best criticism of Trust. By focusing on Enoch's conversion from Communist to observant Jew, Kremer shows how “Jewish history … and Jewish values function as the novel's enduring touchstone” (27). In the end, the force of the Holocaust is so harrowing as to overwhelm the Hellenic paganism associated with Tilbeck, Kremer argues persuasively, and that is why a “Hebraic coda” terminates the book with Tilbeck the nature god dead, and Vand the Holocaust scholar immersed in Orthodox worship. Kremer astutely notes how Ozick's scale of Jewish history reaches back in Trust to Hitler's Roman prototype, Titus (TR 152)—two leaders of vast superpowers, separated by two millennia, whose efforts to exterminate Judaism ended in lost empires while Judaism lives on.

Of the other essays in “The World of Cynthia Ozick,” space permits only a mention. Jeffrey Rush's “Talking to Trees: Address as Metaphor in ‘The Pagan Rabbi’” uses Paul Ricoeur's and Tzvetan Todorov's theories to distinguish Jewish from Gentile ideas of metaphor. Ellen Serlen Uffen's “The Levity of Cynthia Ozick” extends the idea of the golem from “Puttermesser” to “Virility,” “A Mercenary,” “Envy,” and “The Pagan Rabbi.” Amy J. Elias' “Puttermesser and Pygmalion” sees pagan versus Jewish views of art—“creation-as-Galatea and creation-as-golem”—as posing “the central conflict in ‘Puttermesser and Xanthippe’” (67). Sanford Pinsker's “Astrophysics, Assimilation, and Cynthia Ozick's The Cannibal Galaxy” applies the cannibalism metaphor culturally to the main characters. Cecilia Konchar Farr's “Lust for a Story: Cynthia Ozick's ‘Usurpation’ as Fabulation” cogently illuminates that greatly convoluted story with help from Robert Scholes's Fabulation and Metafiction. Joseph Cohen's “‘Shots’: A Case History of the Conflict between Relativity Theory and the Newtonian Absolutes” relates Ozick's parable about photography to the great battle of modern physics, “between relativity as promulgated by Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, and their associates and the principles which have come down to us from Sir Isaac Newton” (98). Sarah Blacher Cohen's “Cynthia Ozick and Her New Yiddish Golem” compares Xanthippe to earlier golem prototypes, both Jewish and Gentile (e.g., Frankenstein), as well as to the Freudian id. And finally, Mary J. Chenoweth's indispensible bibliographical essay is a comprehensive reference work for writings by and about Cynthia Ozick through June of 1986.

To complete the critical Wunderjahr 1987, the University of Missouri Press brought out Sanford Pinsker's brief but usefully intelligent book, The Uncompromising Fictions of Cynthia Ozick. Beginning with mention of Ozick's earlier American forebears, chiefly Hawthorne and Melville for their theme of “Original Sin,” Pinsker also sees the lineaments of Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson in the aged poetess of “Virility.” Pinsker's review of Ozick's Jewish-American predecessors—Abraham Cahan, Henry Roth, Philip Roth, Delmore Schwartz, and Saul Bellow—also yields good insights, including the argument that her “uncompromising attacks on such ‘pagans’ as Harold Bloom, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, and Philip Roth are thinly disguised attacks against aspects of herself” (40).

Pinsker's analyses of the fiction can also be illuminating. He explains the inferiority of “The Dock-Witch” to “The Pagan Rabbi,” for example, by arguing that the secular character of “The Dock-Witch” deprives it of dramatic tension, making it a portrait of Pan with no Moses for counterpoint. He writes well about Ozick's version of the “secret sharer” theme that connects Bleilip and the rebbe in “Bloodshed,” Morris and Lushinski in “A Mercenary.” (He is ingenious in seeing Morris as a black version of the Jewish “hapless, and comic, schlemiel”—a man at ease in the African jungle but victimized by the far worse “jungle out there” in New York City.) The finest segment of Pinsker's book, I would say, is his discussion of one of Ozick's most complex, problematic stories, “Usurpation” (80–85).

In 1988 Joseph Lowin's Cynthia Ozick accomplished a giant stride in Ozick criticism.23 As the director of the Midrasha Institute of Jewish Studies, Lowin brought to bear an uncommon mastery of the Judaic lore relevant to Ozick's writings. As a Ph.D. in French literature, Lowin also made good use of his direct access to European literati without lapsing into the Derrida/Foucault/Lacan style of guru jargon. And as a correspondent of Cynthia Ozick's, Lowin assembled information of crucial value concerning the personal and literary development of the author.

Tracing her career in roughly chronological order, Lowin begins with a succinct but informative chronology of the artist's life, followed by two chapters that explain her early career, including several ventures in poetry. The idea of Midrash strongly affects Lowin's commentary, coming into play in the “Teaching and Preaching” function that he finds prevalent in Ozick's work—in her essays, in such stories as “An Education” and “Bloodshed,” and in such novels as Trust and The Cannibal Galaxy (52). Another of Lowin's ideas is to organize chapters that pair off Ozick's writings in dialectical fashion: “A Jewish Fantastic: ‘The Pagan Rabbi’ and ‘Levitation’” (chapter 5) versus “A Jewish Realism: The Cannibal Galaxy” (chapter 6); and “Rewriting Others: ‘Usurpation (Other People's Stories)’” (chapter 7) versus “Rewriting Herself: ‘The Shawl’ and ‘Rosa’” (chapter 8). Although the whole book is a commendable achievement in criticism, I judge its finest segments to be its discussion of “Usurpation” (90–105), its analysis of the Puttermesser stories (chapter 9), and its penultimate chapter on The Messiah of Stockholm—a book that he considers “a culmination of Ozick's rewriting activity and the logical conclusion of much she has written to date” (145). A misfortunate lapse in Lowin's judgment, as in Pinsker's before him, arises in the book's concluding paragraph: “Of one last thing we may above all be certain: We have not yet seen Ozick's masterpiece” (165). That seems a harsh burden to impose on a highly accomplished sixty-year-old writer.

In 1989, Vera Emuma Kielsky's Inevitable Exiles applied an even stronger Jewish consciousness to Ozick's fiction than did Pinsker and Lowin.24 As her subtitle indicates—Cynthia Ozick's View of the Precariousness of Jewish Existence in a Gentile Society—Kielsky sees Ozick's fiction as a weapon of cultural warfare: “Her fiction … is an undisguised assault on Jewish vulnerability to the Gentile standards, and are [sic], in effect, Jewish attacks on spheres of Gentile predominance” (11). By limiting her coverage to selected stories from Ozick's three collections, Kielsky scants a considerable range of material germane to her topic, but she gains enough space to make an in-depth analysis of these ten stories. In many of these stories Kielsky sees the Jewish characters as schizoid, torn between conscious pride in being one of God's chosen people and subconscious desire to be rid of the stigma of being Jewish (20). Her treatment of this schism in the Morris-Lushinski relationship of “A Mercenary” is especially astute (52–53), but she also writes well about Ozick's wide-ranging analogies: of “The Pagan Rabbi” and Goethe's Faust; of “The Dock-Witch,” the Circe episode in The Odyssey, and Heine's “Die Lorelei”; of “Puttermesser and Xanthippe” and the Book of Genesis. Her correlation of the Undine myth (“The Dock-Witch”) with the Undine of the Kabbala (132n) is another useful bit of learning.

Unlike Lowin, who sees Ozick's vision as redemptive (e.g., The Messiah of Stockholm “brings redemption both to the creation of God and the creations of man,” 161), Kielsky brings her analysis of the fiction to a terminus of extreme pessimism. Puttermesser, Una Meyer, Edmund Gate, and Edelshtein—in her analysis—appear unredeemable: “In all four stories, … her protagonists … finally lose control over their destinies. … Her stress lies on … the pathology rather than the remedy, for she seems not to believe that there is a solution to the protagonists' problems” (195). Before leaving Kielsky's book, we should note with gratitude its excellent bibliography.

There remains Lawrence S. Friedman's Understanding Cynthia Ozick.25 In his preface, Matthew J. Bruccoli (the general editor of the Understanding Contemporary American Literature series) declares modest intentions—these books “are planned as a series of guides or companions for students or good nonacademic readers.” But in fact Friedman's book, like Lowin's, is exemplary criticism—astute, learned, and cogently written. Like Lowin and Pinsker, he is at his best when discussing “Usurpation” (24–25 and 107–13), but he is also good at making illuminating conjectures. The closing sentence of “Bloodshed,” for example (“Then you are as bloody as anyone”), evokes for Friedman Stephen Crane's classic novella: “in this case the blood shed by Jews throughout a tragic history … becomes the red badge of Jewish identity” (106). So, too, Friedman sees the shadow of Philip Roth's Amy Bellette (the girl who thought she was Anne Frank) behind Lars Andemening's supposition that he was the son of Bruno Schulz (160). He expatiates in new ways on the connections between Ozick's Adela in The Messiah of Stockholm and the Adela of Bruno Schulz's two published books (164–65), and he detects the presence of Jerzy Kosinski not only in “A Mercenary” but in The Shawl (118). His discussion of the golem-making tradition likewise offers new insights (135–36), as does his analogy between Freudian psychology (in “Freud's Room”) and idolatry (3).

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the teachings of “Critical Theory” inevitably made inroads into Ozick criticism. Earl Rovit's “The Two Languages of Cynthia Ozick,” while happily eschewing the Derridean penchant for opacity, in effect deconstructs Ozick's writings so as to find “a manner similar to that of an animated comic strip” in which “the whole enterprise seethes in a steady turbulence of rage.”26 Characters such as Bleilip, Edelshtein, and Isaac Kornfeld are offered in evidence of this thesis: “As in cartoons, motives are reduced to single adrenal urgencies, personality is equated with blunt obsession, and the fluidity of normal human intercourse is grotesquely rendered in a series of collisions when a caricatured dread or desire comes into thudding impact against its immutable or immovable limit” (37). Because this “cartoonlike style,” which is “blunt, didactic, comic, judgmental, often cruel, and severely moralistic,” is often juxtaposed with Ozick's “second language, the style of ‘the nimbus’ or … the corona-style [as seen in Beulah Hilt's paintings],” Rovit believes “the central problem of Ozick's art is the existence of two languages whose generic structures incarnate different purposes which impel them in contrary directions” (40–42). Observing that “her typical tale travels from rage to grief,” Rovit considers her cartoon style “energized by the rage, her corona-style by the grief” (47). Despite his admiration for The Messiah of Stockholm as “a nearly sustained and breathless stylistic tour de force,” Rovit considers Ozick's work badly damaged by its harsh didacticism: “even an unsentimental reader may feel that the comic mechanisms designed to expose and punish vice have themselves become vicious in their instrumentality” (44).

In Michael Greenstein's “The Muse and the Messiah: Cynthia Ozick's Aesthetics,” Ozick's work gets placed (or should I say sited?) within a flowering garden of Theoretical Phrases: “self-consuming artifacts on the borderline between modernism and postmodernism,” “floating signifiers that inhibit frozen signification,” “an infinity of heretical hermeneutics.” Fortunately, among his clumps of jargon Greenstein includes a number of useful insights, especially by way of interpreting Ozick's imagery. For example, he links the zebras at the end of The Messiah of Stockholm to the striped uniforms worn by death-camp inmates, and he relates Joseph Brill's name (meaning “spectacles” in Hebrew) to a pattern of sight images in The Cannibal Galaxy. Readers who find the dichotomy/continuity between modernism and postmodernism interesting may consult another Greenstein essay, “Ozick, Roth, and Postmodernism,” for a discussion of “Ozick's alignment with some, not all, aspects of postmodernism” in The Messiah of Stockholm.27 They may need to watch out for “the undertow of metonymic reality” (58), however, in numerous constructions like the following: “realistic novels are predominantly metonymic both in their horizontal connections and in a vessel's relationship between container and its contents” (59). Or: “In this realm of uncertainty, through a crack in the wall, and during a translucent dusk, ‘no one knew’ about barbaric epistemology in Sweden's no-man's-land” (57).

Since its publication in 1987, controversy over The Messiah of Stockholm has become a (perhaps the) major feature of Ozick criticism. Anne Redmon regrets the burning of the Messiah manuscript, an irresponsible act that “liberates” Lars to become “a slab of insensitivity” in the conclusion. Sylvia Barack Fishman, however, while agreeing that Lars is “wrong in capitulating to the world of easy popularity at the end of the novel,” holds that Lars also was wrong to idolize Schulz and his manuscript, which got him “involved in a pagan, inhuman enterprise.”28 Elizabeth Rose differs from Redmon and Fishman in thinking that in the end the novel affirms Ozick's Jewish values, by “celebrating the end of Lars's alienation” and returning him to “an ordinary life within a community.”29 Sanford Pinsker, however, seeing nothing ordinary about it, believes that “one will have to look deeper than the work of Bruno Schulz” or even than “contemporary Jewish theology” to understand Ozick's novel: “My own hunch is that the Kabbalah explains much of the energy in The Messiah of Stockholm.30 Pinsker's fine essay compares Roth's resurrection of Anne Frank in The Ghost Writer with Ozick's recovery of Schulz in The Messiah of Stockholm.

To conclude, the last decade has been a good one for Ozick criticism, ending in a plethora of awards and honors. Inasmuch as they, too, comprise a form of literary criticism, I shall end this section on The Critical Reckoning with a brief checklist of these honors (with thanks to Bloom, Lowin, Friedman, and others for their compilations): 1968—Fellow, National Endowment for the Arts; 1971—Jewish Book Council Award and B'nai B'rith Heritage Award for The Pagan Rabbi; 1973—American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature; 1975—First Prize in O. Henry Prize Stories competition for “Usurpation”; 1977—Jewish Book Council Award for Bloodshed; 1982—Guggenheim Fellowship; 1983—Strauss Living Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; 1984—Honorary Doctorates from Yeshiva University and Hebrew Union College and Distinguished Alumnus Award from New York University, First Prize of O. Henry Prize Stories competition for “Rosa”; 1985—Presenter of Phi Beta Kappa Oration at Harvard University; 1987—Honorary Doctorate from Hunter College; 1988—Elected to American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

On 28 December 1992, Cynthia Ozick gave a reading at the Modern Language Association convention in New York City. To an overflow crowd of many hundreds who packed the large assembly hall, she recited passages from “Alfred Chester's Wig” and “Puttermesser Paired.” (The two segments she read described, respectively, her fruitful rivalry with Chester in their Freshman English class, and the failed Venetian honeymoon of George Eliot and her much younger bridegroom, John Cross.) What made the occasion even more triumphant than it seemed was the coincidental scheduling of her reading at the same hour as that of Ralph Ellison, a few doors away. Probably most people in the room, including Ozick herself (so she told me), would have helped honor the grand master of African-American fiction had the schedule permitted. As it was, this large throng of admirers, in making their painful choice, confirmed how high a place she holds in the estimate of her contemporary readers. …


  1. Toni Morrison's comment appears in her interview with Tom LeClair in the New Republic 21 March 1981, 29.

  2. My book, which was completed in the summer of 1992 and revised to suit my editors that fall, was not affected by Elaine Kauvar's subsequent publication, in April 1993, of Cynthia Ozick's Fiction: Tradition and Invention (Indiana University Press). Having just now been asked to review it for American Literature magazine, I feel assured from scanning its contents that our approaches to Ozick's oeuvre are so different as to pose no serious problems of duplication. As I had supposed, Kauvar's fusion of a brilliant critical intelligence with a rich knowledge of Jewish and classical lore figures to render her critique permanently unsurpassed in the shelf of Ozick criticism. Because her study is so perceptive and substantial on a page-by-page basis, I cannot hope to summarize it here. Instead, I urge my reader to turn to it as an essential landmark of Ozick criticism. So far as my own book is concerned, I consider it to be complementary to rather than competitive with Kauvar's superb exegesis.

  3. Barbara Koenig Quart, “An Esthete in Spite of Herself,” Nation, July 23–30, 1983, 87.

  4. See “Notes toward Finding the Right Question,” reprinted in On Being a Jewish Feminist (New York: Schocken Books, 1983), 131.

  5. Judith Plaskow, “The Right Question is Theological,” On Being a Jewish Feminist 226.

  6. Ozick, “Torah as Feminism, Feminism as Torah,” Congress Monthly, September/October 1984, 7–10.

  7. Rosellen Brown, review of Bloodshed in the New Republic, 5 June 1976, 30–31; Pearl K. Bell, “New Jewish Voices,” Commentary, June 1981, 63.

  8. Deborah Heiligman Weiner, “Cynthia Ozick, Pagan vs. Jew (1966–1976),” Studies in American Jewish Literature 3 (1983): 186.

  9. On page 183 of her essay, Ms. Weiner (see note 8 above) cites this passage from Ozick's “Four Questions of the Rabbis,” Reconstructionist, 18 February 1972, 23.

  10. R. Barbara Gitenstein, “The Temptation of Apollo and the Loss of Yiddish in Cynthia Ozick's Fiction,” Studies in American Jewish Literature 3 (1983): 194. Gitenstein considers Ozick's yearning for a Yiddish art to be in conflict with her status within modern American literature: “She does not feel that such self-contradiction can be overcome in Jewish literature” (200).

  11. Eugene S. Mornell, letter to the editor, Commentary, May 1979, 8. By way of refuting Jacobson and Mornell (8), Ozick extends the definition of “literature in the service of God” to include not only Midrash and Talmud but also writings by such Gentiles as Thomas Mann, George Eliot, Jane Austen, and Tolstoy.

  12. Earl Rovit, “The Bloodletting,” Nation, 20 February 1982, 207–8.

  13. Burt Jacobson, letter to the editor, Commentary, May 1979, 7–8.

  14. Joseph Epstein, “Cynthia Ozick, Jewish Writer,” Commentary, March 1984, 67. My other citations from this essay occur on pages 66–69.

  15. Ozick, letter to the editor, Commentary, May, 1984, 10.

  16. Haim Chertok, “Ozick's Hoofprints,” Modern Jewish Studies, Annual 6, published by Yiddish magazine 6, no. 4 (1987): 11.

  17. Janet Handler Burstein, “Cynthia Ozick and the Transgressions of Art,” American Literature 59, no. 1 (March 1987): 87.

  18. Ellen Pifer, “Cynthia Ozick: Invention and Orthodoxy,” in Contemporary Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, ed. Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick (Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1985), 91.

  19. Review by Paul Stuewe in Quill & Quote, May 1987, 25. Harold Bloom, “The Book of the Father,” NYTBR, 22 March 1987, 1, 36.

  20. Janet Malcolm, “Graven Images,” New Yorker, 8 June 1987, 102–4. This quote is cited from page 103.

  21. Robert Alter, “Defenders of the Faith,” Commentary, July 1987, 52–55. This quote is cited from page 53.

  22. The “Trudie Vosce” essay was published in The New York Times Magazine on March 16, 1978 (A26); the other essay in the Times Sunday Magazine of 14 March 1971.

  23. Joseph Lowin, Cynthia Ozick (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988).

  24. Vera Emuma Kielsky, Inevitable Exiles (New York: Peter Lang, 1989).

  25. Lawrence S. Friedman, Understanding Cynthia Ozick (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991).

  26. Earl Rovit, “The Two Languages of Cynthia Ozick,” Studies in American Jewish Literature (SAJL) 8, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 36, 34.

  27. Michael Greenstein, “The Muse and the Messiah,” SAJL 8, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 50–65, and “Ozick, Roth, and Postmodernism,” SAJL 10, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 54–63.

  28. Anne Redmon, “Vision and Risk,” Michigan Quarterly Review 27, no. 1 (Winter 1988): 210; Sylvia Barack Fishman, “Imagining Ourselves,” SAJL 9, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 91.

  29. Elizabeth Rose, “Cynthia Ozick's Liturgical Postmodernism,” SAJL 9, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 99.

  30. Sanford Pinsker, “How Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick Reimagine Their Significant Dead,” Modern Fiction Studies 35, no. 2 (Summer 1989): 234.

Peter Kerry Powers (essay date fall 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 comedy—to a sustained fret over the popularity of things ethnic in American literature.1 While Updike's paranoia about his unmarketable ethnicity has abated, the predominance and importance of Jewish writers certainly have not. Even as I was writing this essay, Philip Roth won the P.E.N./Faulkner award for 1993. By almost any standard, the achievement of Jewish-American artists denotes a success that parallels the general prominence of Jewish-Americans in American life.

Still, for Cynthia Ozick that very success marks a more profound failure. In her estimation, Jewish-American authors have too often bought literary success at the price of an internal colonialism, or—to use a more Ozickian term—at the price of an idolatry by which they eschew that which is historically Jewish in favor of the ephemera of Jewish ethnicity. While Jewish writers maintain an ethnic exoticism that is currently attractive to an American audience, in Ozick's view they have lost a full-blown Jewish identity:

To be a Jew is to be old in history, but not only that; to be a Jew is to be a member of a distinct civilization expressed through an oceanic culture in possession of a group of essential concepts and a multitude of texts and attitudes elucidating those concepts. Next to the density of such a condition—or possibility—how gossamer are the stories of those writers “of Jewish extraction” whose characters are pale indifferent echoes of whatever lies at hand. …

(Metaphor 224)

In the conflict between descent and consent outlined by Werner Sollors, Ozick is dismayed that, in her estimation, Jewish-American writers have eschewed descent—the density of Jewish civilization and memory—for the easy currency of consent which enables success in the American mainstream. For Ozick, the success of Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Henry Roth, and even Saul Bellow, marks the failure of specifically Jewish religious and ethical ideals and the loss of Jewish memory as an effective cultural force in the present.2

The centrality of Jewish historical memory to Ozick's imagination suggests her commitment to the central traditions of Jewish religious thought and practice.3 Wielding an iconoclastic club against the Oedipalizing of literary history practiced by Harold Bloom, Ozick affirms that

[Jewish liturgy] posits recapturing without revision the precursor's stance and strength when it iterates “our God, and God of our fathers, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Nearly every congeries of Jewish thought is utterly set against the idea of displacing the precursor. “Torah” includes the meanings of tradition and transmittal together.

(Ardor 194)

Thus, Elaine Kauvar is right to assert that for Ozick “the principle of continuity overwhelmingly takes precedence over the desire to create new forms …” (xii). However, such desire for continuity is as much a problem as it is a resource. If memory is at the root of Jewish life, contemporary cultural developments have threatened the continuity of that memory. Jewish memory, in Ozick's estimation, has faced a number of threats in contemporary culture, not least of which is the threat of assimilation. Ozick's sense of Jewish cultural crisis motivates her work as she attempts to recreate collective memories through fiction. In the balance of this essay, I will analyze the ways in which Ozick addresses the threat of assimilation as she forges a fiction that is at once contemporary and memorial, in keeping with the history of Jewish religious practice.

Guarding against assimilation, to some extent, has been a constitutive feature of Jewish religious imagination since Moses—as is evidenced by Biblical injunctions against worshipping idols and against intermarriage. However, modern concerns about assimilation are shaped by the Enlightenment reconstruction of religion as a private matter of belief, an ideological structure that allowed that a Jew could be a Jew at home and a man in the streets (Arthur Cohen 12–14). While haskalah—the Jewish term for the Enlightenment and its attendant social manifestations—rang with the good humanist intentions of Enlightenment universalism, in practice it reduced the comprehensive character of Judaism to a privatism that had little traction on daily life. As a result, Judaism was displaced as the central and necessary feature of Jewish life in Western societies.

This displacement has been particularly noticeable in the United States. With near unanimity, the historical literature perceives a state of crisis in the Jewish-American community, a crisis precipitated by the loss of specific Jewish memories, beliefs and practices. In a harsh assessment, Arthur Cohen suggests that

In the last fifty years, the uninformed, the religiously illiterate, and the socially assimilated have succeeded in affecting, if not shaping, the religion offered by the synagogue. Judaism is more than ever a reaction to the disinterest and embarrassment of the already secularized Jewish majority. … [The] Jew has become, in matters Jewish, doggedly and uncritically American.


While Cohen's assessment is colored with disgust, many others affirm his basic thesis. Arthur Hertzberg notes that a trivialization of Jewish religious life accompanied the Jewish “conquest of the suburbs” in the 1950s. According to Hertzberg, some 70٪ of all American Jews maintained a general belief in God, but synagogue life reflected the respectable religiosity of mainline American Protestantism in the 1950s (327–30). Nathan Glazer suggests that “Few Jews would know what the principles of the Jewish faith are” (132). Ozick summarizes the tone and content of post-war Jewish-American scholarship when she says, “An understanding of the unique content of Jewish genius has been forfeited by the great majority of modem Jews. It is the Enlightenment that has made us forfeit the understanding and forget the content” (Metaphor & Memory 232).

Ozick reads the literature “of Jewish extraction” as one index of this forgetfulness. Nevertheless, the prevalence of such literature points out a significant problem in Ozick's call for a literature of “transmission and transmittal”: Ozick cannot be certain of a common ground with her audience. Historiographer Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi notes:

The collective memories of the Jewish people were a function of the shared faith, cohesiveness, and will of the group itself. … The decline of Jewish collective memory in modern times is only a symptom of the unraveling of that common network of belief and praxis through whose mechanisms … the past was once made present. Therein lies the root of the malady. Ultimately Jewish memory cannot be “healed” or rejuvenated.


Memory cannot be evoked by fiat. Thus, Ozick's call for an aesthetics of memory rooted in Jewish tradition may be a call sounded in a vacuum if those memories are as broken and fragmentary as Ozick and many others seem to think.

These problems with the loss of memory and the possibilities or impossibilities of repairing that loss are foregrounded everywhere in Ozick's fiction. Ironically, though the structure of her thinking about ethnicity emphasizes descent, Ozick's historical situation places her in the role of evangelist or prophet, calling for an alternative form of consent by which her Jewish audience—and whatever gentiles are moved to do so—might come to inhabit Jewish memory anew. The strain of evoking memory where memories are scant forces Ozick to recreate the past as invention, and as invention it appears as the fantastic. In a world for which memory has little meaning, memory tends to appear as that which disturbs the placid surface of the everyday—this disturbance serving both as a cautionary mechanism and as a pedagogical means of renewing cultural memory.

Throughout Ozick's fiction, memories of the past or characters who embody the past appear in fantastic guise to warn of the consequences of forgetfulness or to provide some fragmentary instruction about the past. Ruth Puttermesser, a character to whom Ozick has returned in several stories, is one character in need of such cautionary reminders. Puttermesser is a character in search of history, or more precisely, an ancestry, a living connection to the past that will give her life meaning beyond her mundane efforts in a civic bureaucracy. In “Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife,” Puttermesser is starkly and plainly a solitary. At 34, she is single and living alone. She is one of the few Jews—and the only Jewish woman—in the law firm which she eventually leaves. Even though there are other Jewish lawyers in the firm—who also leave—gendered conventions cut her off from them and their male activities. She has no friends worth mentioning, and she spends her free time playing chess against herself or completing crossword puzzles from the New York Times. Her parents have retired to Florida. She is without connection, and specifically without connection to a living Jewish community or memory.

It is true that Puttermesser is aware of her ethnicity and even makes some conscious effort to connect herself to Jewish history. She is, for instance, making some effort to learn Hebrew grammar. Even so, Puttermesser's attention to Hebrew grammar is suspect, in that she is only able to use Christian language when imagining the grammar's function:

The Hebrew verb, a stunning mechanism: three letters, whichever fated three, could command all possibility. … Every conceivable utterance blossomed from this trinity. It seemed to her not so much a language for expression as a code for the world's design, indissoluble, predetermined, translucent. The idea of the grammar of Hebrew turned Puttermesser's brain into a palace, a sort of Vatican; inside its corridors she walked from one resplendent triptych to another.

(Levitation 24)

Joseph Lowin reads this passage as a straightforward affirmation of Hebrew's creative possibilities (131). However, the metaphorical and social context here suggests a more ironic reading. To imagine that the Hebrew verb is “a code for the world's design” is, of course, an affirmation of Jewish mysticism associated with Hasidism and with the mystics of the Kabbalah (Scholem 128–44, 168–74), and this could be seen as an affirmation of tradition. However, to imagine that it is not “a language for expression,” that it is instead a stunning monument that invites not dialogue but worshipful silence, is to cut language off from history and community. In Puttermesser's imagination, Hebrew becomes not a vehicle for connection to a historical culture and religion, but rather a vehicle of aesthetic experience. In the palace of her own brain, she walks alone.

Puttermesser's solitude culminates in the discussion of her Uncle Zindel. Zindel is introduced halfway through the story as, purportedly, Ozick's Hebrew teacher. A “former shammes in a shul that had been torn down” (Levitation 31), Zindel initially appears to be the necessary link to memory that Puttermesser has been missing. He is, after all, family. Moreover he is a remnant of a coherent culture, represented both in the torn down shul and in the old Jewish neighborhood in New York to which he clings, though it is less and less Jewish and increasingly populated by “the cooking smells of Spanish blacks” (34). Most significant of all, Zindel is a teacher, a man in touch with the laws, practices, and traditions of normative Judaism. As such, he is more than a purveyor of abstract history; he is the embodiment of the past. One expects that Zindel will guide Puttermesser through her cultural dislocation.

The problem with all this, of course, is that Zindel has less substance than air. Like the Vatican of her own mind, Zindel is a figment of Puttermesser's need and imagination: “Uncle Zindel lies under the earth of Staten Island. Puttermesser has never had a conversation with him; he died four years before her birth. He is all legend” (36). The narrative symmetry by which exiled Jew returns glorious to her people stumbles to a halt, as Ozick interrupts the storyline to tell us that the shammes is a sham: “Puttermesser does not remember Uncle Zindel: Puttermesser's mother does not remember him. A name in the dead grandmother's mouth. Her parents have no ancestry” (37).

Puttermesser represents the dilemma of a third generation Jewish woman—not terribly unlike Ozick herself—whose ethnic community is threatened with dissolution under the pressures of assimilation. As the narrator suggests, “Puttermesser must claim an ancestor. She demands connection—surely a Jew must own a past. Poor Puttermesser has found herself in a world without a past” (36). The presence of Zindel as an invented memory emphasizes the absence of a viable past and serves as an index of the cultural malaise of a Jewish community without connection to history.

Indeed, if there is no connection to history, neither can there be hope for the future. Puttermesser is arrested in time:

The scene with Uncle Zindel did not occur. It could not occur because, though Puttermesser dares to posit her ancestry, we may not. Puttermesser is not to be examined as an artifact but as an essence. Who made her? No one cares. Puttermesser is henceforth to be presented as a given. Put her back into Receipts and Disbursements, among office Jews and patronage collectors. … Hey! Puttermesser's biographer! What will you do with her now?


The two short sentences, “Who made her? No one cares.” are damning. The affirmations of history and covenant in Judaism would proclaim first, that as creator of the world and all that is in it, God had made her, and second, that her people had made her to affirm the continuity of God's promises in history. To say not that the question “Who made her?” is unanswerable, but rather that no one cares what the answer might be, is to describe a people disinterested in memory and covenant, disinterested in the past or the future, existing only for the perpetual present of bureaucratic repetitions.

Ozick returns to Puttermesser in the novella “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” and while her circumstances have changed—she has a new job, she has a new home, she has a married man with whom she carries on an illicit affair—she is, if anything, as disconnected from a tradition or people as ever (Sarah Cohen 92). While she does have a human connection with Rappaport, her affair with him is apparently already on the rocks at the opening of the story. Rappaport has walked out on Puttermesser after she delayed his amorous advances for the seemingly more profound stimulation of Plato's Theatetus. As the frustrated Rappaport fidgets by her side, she reads rapturously of Socrates's affirmation that the philosopher's superiority is in his detachment from human events—such as, one must suppose, the sexual advances of someone like Rappaport (Levitation 78). While one can appreciate Puttermesser's independent intellectual activity, this particular passage from the pagan Socrates suggests that Puttermesser is as disconnected from the particular affairs of human history, and particularly Jewish history, as ever.

Puttermesser's isolation from Jewish memory and tradition is further emphasized in her fantasy life. She dreams of

an ideal Civil Service: devotion to polity, the citizen's sweet love of the citizenry, the light rule of reason and common sense, the City as a miniature country crowded with Patriots—not fools and jingoists, but patriots true and serene: humorous affections for the idiosyncrasies of one's distinctive little homeland, each borough itself another little homeland, joy in the Bronx, elation in Queens, O happy Richmond! Children on roller skates, and over the Brooklyn Bridge the long patch-work-colored line of joggers, breathing hard above the homeland hugging green waters.


When Ozick's suspicions of the Enlightenment are recalled, the language here seems compromised. Puttermesser founds her utopia on the rule of “reason and common sense,” in other words, on those values associated with the Enlightenment and the Jewish haskalah. Moreover, the possibility of a “homeland” in New York suggests for Judaism the abandonment of the promise of the homeland, the promised land, which is a primary feature of the covenant's promise for the future. Without denying the generosity of Puttermesser's vision, one can at least mark her fantasy as a thoroughly secularized version of the promised land that has little to do with Jewish history or covenant.

The golem legend at the center of “Puttermesser and Xanthippe” tempts me to read this new tale as Puttermesser's continuing attempt to connect with the past. But in the end, the golem is something more like an Uncle Zindel, an invention designed to gratify Puttermesser's immediate needs, rather than carry forward the demands of Jewish memory.4 Contrasting Puttermesser with Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague highlights this difference. To create his golem, Rabbi Judah Loew “sought inner purity and sanctification by means of prayer and ritual immersion” (101). Moreover, Rabbi Judah Loew created the golem to save the Jews from a pogrom carried out by Christians in an anti-Jewish hysteria. Puttermesser, by contrast, creates the golem by accident. If anything, the golem is produced by her desires for a daughter and for revenge on an unfair superior, not, certainly, by spiritual longing or exertion. Early in the story, Puttermesser fantasizes a series of potential daughters:

It was self-love: all these daughters were Puttermesser as a child. She imagined a daughter in fourth grade, then in seventh grade, then in second-year high school. Puttermesser herself had gone to Hunter College High School and studied Latin.


Rather than being connected to a community that she is trying to save, Puttermesser is out to save herself, and is intent upon using the golem to accomplish that salvation.

The consequences of using tradition garnered through an abstract history for personal gain is evident through the rest of the novella. Although Xanthippe, the golem, helps bring Puttermesser's vision of an urban utopia to a temporary fruition, she is also complicit in its destruction. Xanthippe is all appetite, imaging Puttermesser's desire for self-affirmation. As appetite embodied, Xanthippe lives exclusively in the present. She cannot comprehend consequences, but must only feed her growing lust for food and sex. She cannot remain loyal to her “mother” Puttermesser, since her overwhelming purpose is to fulfill her immediate desires. She grows and grows, until she is finally too large to rise from the bed. She takes man after man to bed, until, at last, her prolific sexuality undermines the very heaven she helped create. An image of the unbounded ego that can serve no other, Xanthippe's activities ultimately threaten the well-being of her creator, Puttermesser. Self-love, this story seems to say, even in the name of the civic good, is the root of destruction. As a false image of the past, Xanthippe—like Zindel—serves to emphasize the distance that Puttermesser has traveled from the historical presence of Judaism.

I have been speaking of the Puttermesser stories to this point as if they were simply straightforward tales of a significantly assimilated Jewish woman. The stories are, of course, anything but straightforward, involving a degree of both fantasy and metafictional self-referentiality. Several critics have noted the fantastic elements in Ozick's work and have discussed it as a means by which Ozick addresses the problem of Western art's idolatrous pretension to self-sufficiency. This certainly is a continuing concern in Ozick's aesthetics, as is evidenced by many essays in both Art & Ardor and Metaphor & Memory. Victor Strandberg notes that, her protestations against postmodernism aside, Ozick traffics recurrently in familiar postmodern terrain as a means of breaking up the pretensions of realistic art (102). Similarly, Ellen Pifer asserts that the self-referentiality and fantasy in the Puttermesser stories foreground these works as made, as creations that have no substantiality in themselves (91).

Still, if Ozick is merely employing postmodern fictional techniques to break the spell of idolatrous realism, she would merely be following in the Oedipal tradition of Harold Bloom, which displaces and destroys the traditions of the fathers—an aesthetics of the present that she has been at pains to repudiate, as I suggested above. This version of postmodernism renounces community and tradition, rather than seeking to develop a collective memory.5 Moreover, opposing realism as idolatrous to postmodernism as anti-idolatrous, without qualification, would leave one at a loss to account for Ozick's experiments in straightforward realism—in, say, The Cannibal Galaxy,The Messiah of Stockholm, and various short stories—as well as her marked admiration for such notorious idolaters as Henry James and T. S. Eliot.6

These accounts of Ozick's practice should be amended by emphasizing the way in which these occurrences of rupture in the fictional world appear when some memory of a Jewish past jars the everyday life of contemporary America. Uncle Zindel supplies Puttermesser's need for a past; Xanthippe embodies a medieval legend brought into the present day political fray of New York. Similar fantastic conjunctions of past and present are found throughout Ozick's work. In “Levitation,” the Jews at a party given by the Feingolds begin to levitate as a survivor of the death camps tells his tale of horror. In “Bloodshed,” the Hasidic rebbe—who has delivered a talk on the nature of sacrifice that draws on traditional Jewish sources—miraculously discerns a gun in the pocket of Bleilip, the assimilated Jew who is seeking some connection with the past. The gun is itself a symbol of the Holocaust, and the rebbe uses it as an object lesson to assert that Bleilip cannot escape his complicity in Jewish history. “Usurpation” is a story replete with metafictional and fantastic elements and is focused on a revision of a story of how a Jewish literary tradition should relate to a gentile literary tradition. Finally, even in stories that are largely realistic, connections with the past are often bizarre and nearly fantastic. For instance, in The Messiah of Stockholm, it becomes impossible to identify with any certainty the characters who are trying to convey a purportedly valuable manuscript to the book reviewer, Lars Andemening. The story hinges on whether characters can reliably identify a manuscript as a masterpiece or a forgery. This identification, in turn, depends on the veracity of those trying to sell the manuscript to Andemening, characters whose very physical appearance seems to shift and change.

This fantastic trafficking in past and present in Ozick's fiction suggests not so much the slaying of precursors as the difficulties of bringing the past to bear on the present, particularly in the American context. If the Jewish-American community—to say nothing of the non-Jewish audience for whom Jewish memory has rarely been of consequence—has been significantly cut off from Jewish memory, then we could say that Jewish memory is not among the imaginative possibilities of Ozick's intended audience. Jewish memory appears as a fantastic rupture that breaks the seamless and numbing quality of American life devoted to the everyday present.

Thus Norman Finkelstein's suggestion that Ozick denies historical rupture in favor of “normative patterns of belief and behavior” fails to account for the tenuous and fantastic character of normative belief as it appears in Ozick's work (73). Indeed, entirely aware of historical discontinuity, the only recourse that Ozick has for asserting the significance of the past is through the past as fantastic invention. But even beyond this, Ozick's work bears testimony to the ironic fact that a romantic, post-Enlightenment age itself continually denies historical rupture by assuming the seamless and normative quality of the present. Thus, Ozick's work itself seeks to initiate rupture as much or more than it seeks to deny it. Although she is without the explicit political radicalism of someone like Doctorow, her practice seems to be somewhat similar to Jameson's evaluation of Doctorow's historicity. Jameson suggests that, by using the tools of the postmodern cultural dominant, Doctorow is able to recall the reader to a sense of history, or at least to the sense of its absence (Stephanson 19–20).7 Similarly, Ozick's use of history is not so much a simple pastiche or historical simulacrum—which it would have to be if she denied historical rupture entirely. Rather, Ozick deploys postmodern techniques to create a rupture in the surface of the postmodern present, a rupture which emphasizes the absence of the past as the critical problem with the present.

Indeed, Ozick's stories are largely populated by people without a past, who are brought into contact, however briefly, with embodiments of Jewish history and memory. This clash of horizons does not always spell redemption, but it at least points out the inadequacy of lives lived without those memories. Somewhat like Flannery O'Connor, who used moments of violence to shock characters—and readers—into an awareness of the spiritual and ethical superficiality of everyday American life, Ozick uses fantastic elements of Jewish memory to disrupt the ongoing patterns of the everyday: the bureaucratic mindlessness of Puttermesser's work, for instance. Neither O'Connor nor Ozick guarantees a response from their characters or their readers. We cannot be sure that Puttermesser is significantly better off at the end of the story than she is at the beginning, though we may hope so. Similarly, Lushinski—the alienated diplomat hired gun in “A Mercenary”—is reminded of his Judaism by a letter that discusses an imprisoned Japanese terrorist who tried to become Jewish by circumcising himself in prison. While Lushinski is affected, perhaps offended, at being reminded of his Jewish history, we are left uncertain as to the direction of his response (Bloodshed 50–51). Similarly, at the end of “Bloodshed,” Bleilip responds with ambivalence when the Hasidic rebbe asks if he believes in the Most High.

The purpose here does seem to be iconoclasm, but iconoclasm of a very specific sort. While Bloom senses that Ozick's work has something in common with his Oedipal drama (Bloom 1–7), the destructive and fantastic elements of Ozick's stories are carried out through the wedge of the past, rather than through romantic attention to the present that opposes tradition as such. That is, in Ozick the past confronts the present; in Oedipal literary history the present destroys the past. Ozick's fiction disrupts this everyday idolatry to which many of her characters, and much of her audience, are devoted.

The purpose of this disruption is, ultimately, to bring the past into a living relationship with the present, a move which Ozick understands as desperately necessary for the continuation of a viable and recognizable Jewish community. The emphasis must be on a “living relationship with the present” since characters in Ozick's fiction who simply ignore the present in favor of the past are also recipients of her pedagogical iconoclasm. One such character is Rosa Lublin, a survivor of the Holocaust, whose life is created in the stories collected in The Shawl. Rosa, in a certain sense, embodies the past, because her experience in the camps—particularly witnessing the brutal murder of her small child—has left her incapable of functioning in the present. As she says to Persky, the retired button maker who chooses to court her, “Before is a dream. After is a joke. Only during stays. And to call it a life is a lie” (58).

Although Rosa's pessimism can be grating in comparison to the more affirmative vision of life propounded by her affable suitor, Persky, one useful way of reading Rosa's life would be to assert that, as a symbol of the consequences of the Holocaust, she embodies a critique of some of the superficialities of American life. Indeed, Rosa's experience demonstrates the superficiality of the life of Persky and Rosa's niece, Stella—characters Rosa damns as “ordinary American” (58).8 For my purposes here, however, I want to emphasize how Rosa is not in a living relationship with the present and is, herself, in need of transformation.

To put it mildly, Rosa is not an embraceable character. On the one hand, this doesn't really matter, since many authors have used perverse characters to critique the even greater perversity of their social setting. In Faulkner's “A Rose for Emily,” for instance, Emily literally clings to the dead past over and against the trivializing forces of the modernizing southern society around her. More recently, in Toni Morrison's Beloved, Sethe's murder of her own child primarily reveals the murderousness of the society—both black and white—in which she lives. Similarly, Rosa's obsession with the past does highlight the shallow sense of self and community that is operative in other characters in the book.

This does not mean, however, that we should imitate Rosa, any more than we should butcher our own babies or sleep with dead lovers. Although Rosa embraces the past, she is not functioning as a guardian of memory. Ozick has suggested that the purpose of memory is for life in the present, to help establish ethical relationships with others in the present (Metaphor & Memory 279).9 For Rosa, however, the past is not a resource for responsible relationships with others in the present, but a siren song that continually calls her away from responsibility to others. If Stella and Persky's response to the past is shallow and naive, Rosa's is destructive in assuming that she must deny the present and be sucked into the “during.” If Stella and Persky make idols of the present moment by freezing it apart from all other moments of the past and future, Rosa makes an idol of the past by believing the present and future cannot matter. All three remove themselves from history. The ultimate and tragically ironic consequence of this is that the Holocaust will have done its work, precisely because it will have created an unbridgeable rupture in the stream of Jewish memory.

Rosa's inability to bring the past into the present is most obvious in her fantasized relationship with her dead child, Magda, fantasies that allow her to separate herself from other Jews. She writes letters to the child she imagines to be “a professor of Greek philosophy at Columbia University” (39). In one letter, she reminisces at length about the life destroyed back in Poland, a life marked by Rosa's consciousness of her own class superiority and her parents' desire to assimilate: her mother thought about converting to Catholicism and even wrote a poem to the Virgin Mary (41). In short, long before the Holocaust, Rosa's life was marked by a desire to be something other than Jewish.

Thus, Rosa's stasis in the past does not embrace tradition and memory, but instead separates Rosa from others with whom she might manage to have fruitful ethical relationships, people with whom she might enter history. She is thus a more extreme and less humorous inheritor of Puttermesser's problems with isolation. While serving Persky tea in her room, she opens a package that she thinks contains the shawl that she had used in the camps to protect her daughter Magda. When she discovers that the package contains instead a book sent to her by Dr. Tree—a social psychologist interested in doing statistical studies on Holocaust survivors—she flies into an uncontrollable rage, destroys the teacups that she has set out and accuses Persky of being a thief. Understandably, Persky hurriedly exits stage left. When the package with the shawl finally does arrive, she holds the shawl as she speaks with Stella over the telephone.

… Stella's voice tightened. “Rosa, this is long distance.”

On that very phrase, “long distance,” Magda sprang to life. Rosa took the shawl and put it over the knob of the receiver: it was like a little doll's head then. She kissed it, right over Stella's admonitions. “Good-bye,” she told Stella, and didn't care what it had cost. The whole room was full of Magda: she was like a butterfly, in this corner and in that corner all at once. Rosa waited to see what age Magda was going to be: how nice, a girl of sixteen; girls in their bloom move so swiftly that their blouses and skirts balloon; they are always butterflies at sixteen. There was Magda, all in flower. She was wearing one of Rosa's dresses from high school. Rosa was glad: it was the sky-colored dress, a middling blue with black buttons seemingly made of round chips of coal, like the unlit shards of stars. Persky could never have been acquainted with buttons like that, they were so black and so sparkling; original, with irregular facets like bits of true coal from a vein in the earth or some other planet.


Although Stella's coldness is worth criticizing, that should not distract from the role that Magda plays in Rosa's imagination. First, the shawl literally smothers the voice of the other. Using the shawl, Rosa turns the telephone into the image of a living thing and worships that thing at the expense of relationships with living human beings. In itself, the telephone is a means of communication, but the telephone in the shawl becomes an idol in which Rosa speaks only to herself and things created through her own imagination (Lowin 120). Magda's fantastic appearance in the room and the images that she conjures up for Rosa also cut her off from Persky. Magda's appearance denigrates Persky and his business in Rosa's eyes and is a means of maintaining Rosa's superiority to others. In this case, memory of the past is not a metaphor by which one comes to live empathetically with others, but one by which Rosa can maintain her superiority to her fellow Jew, Persky. In all of this, the shawl and Magda are a means of maintaining a self-love over and against the love of others. While at one point in Rosa's life this self-love may have been a necessary element of the struggle to survive, it has become a cancer that destroys living relationships with history—past, present and future. The fantastic Magda is in Rosa's dress, at sixteen, Rosa's age just before the beginning of the Holocaust. As with Puttermesser, the daughter is a projection of the mother's imagination; Magda is Rosa, and in loving Magda, Rosa loves an image of herself arrested from history. Out of time, she removes herself from possible relationships with other human beings who necessarily live in time.

As with many of Ozick's stories that we noted above, “Rosa” ends with some ambivalence, but with hope for the future. After she has ended the phone call with Stella, Rosa begins writing a long letter to Magda in which she begins to try to explain herself and her life. Rosa inevitably moves back to the dark time in Poland, focusing on her stay in the Warsaw ghetto. She painfully recalls that, despite the high culture that she and her parents had pursued, with the coming of the Nazis they were no longer considered proper Poles. She recalls seeing common working folk going by on a tramcar through the horror of the ghetto, thinking bitterly that they were now considered superior. She remembered specifically a woman carrying home a bag of green lettuce:

And with all this—especially our Polish, the way my parents enunciated Polish in soft calm voices with the most precise articulation, so that every syllable struck its target—the people in the tramcar were regarded as Poles—well, they were, I don't take it away from them, though they took it away from us—and we were not! They, who couldn't read one line of Tuwim, never mind Virgil, and my father who knew nearly the whole first half of the Aeneid by heart. And in this place now I am like the woman who held the lettuce in the tramcar. I said all this in my store, talking to the deaf. How I became like the woman with the lettuce.


Here the letter breaks off as Rosa is suddenly fatigued. Moreover, to Rosa's astonishment, Magda is slowly turning away, fading. For Rosa to recognize that she is like the woman with the lettuce is to implicitly recognize that she has cut herself off, that she has considered herself superior, that she has tried furiously to forget other Jews, to dismiss the life around her, to forget that she was Jewish at all. To recall Sollors one last time, she has furiously denied descent in favor of consent. While the culture is Polish, the time period different, and while our response to Rosa is conditioned by our realization that she has survived the Holocaust, she has been, with respect to Jewish memory, not significantly different from the Puttermessers, Bleilips, and Lushinskis who populate Ozick's fiction. In short, she has tried to live outside history and apart from covenant. Like them, as well, it is the past that brings her into contact with those realities.

Rosa, of course, may not realize all this consciously. However, the realization seems to be, at last, a memory that does not pull her helplessly into the past, but begins to help her construct a feasible way of living in the present and future. Immediately upon the admission that she attempted to dominate others, several events begin to reconnect her to the world. Magda fades away. The telephone begins to ring. The Cuban receptionist announces that Persky is downstairs, waiting to see her. For the first time, Rosa responds not with rejection, but with a willingness to see and speak with others. “‘He's used to crazy women, so let him come up,’ Rosa told the Cuban. She took the shawl off the phone” (70). Rosa's comment to the receptionist, while ironic, also announces the first moment in the story in which memory begins to work as metaphor to draw people together, rather than as a screen keeping them apart. Persky, in fact, has a wife in an institution in New York, and through that experience is able to empathize to some degree with Rosa's emotional outbursts. Similarly, Rosa has recognized a malady in herself. More importantly, she has remembered Persky's past, which allows her to identify herself with Persky's deranged wife. While Rosa is self-deprecating, the practice of memory allows Persky and Rosa to come together with some hope for the future. If I am right that Magda is primarily a negative fantasy in the story, then the final lines clearly affirm a life of commerce between past, present and future. “Magda was not there. Shy, she ran from Persky. Magda was away” (70).

The hope that I register at the conclusion of “Rosa” is a mark of the tenuous character of the project at hand—in Ozick's case, to write a fiction that answers to the religious imperatives of her particular tradition. Given the historical context which I have outlined throughout this article—one in which Ozick faces a gentile audience generally unconcerned with Jewish history, and a Jewish audience that is not significantly better—it is probably not surprising that Ozick's literature is dominated by cautionary tales, tales that exhort her readers to remember and to never forget.

Moreover, beyond the cautionary reminders, it is probably not surprising that the substance of cultural memories in Ozick's fiction is relatively fragmentary and sporadic: a legend of a golem in “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” a tale of sacrifice in “Bloodshed,” fragmentary—and compromised—memories of Poland's high Jewish culture in “Rosa.” Across a chasm of forgetfulness, one could hardly expect the transmission of cultural memories that reflect “the shared faith, cohesiveness, and will of the [Jewish people]” which Yerushalmi eulogizes.

Still, if this accounts for the fragmentary character of Ozick's deployment of cultural memory, it does not, I think, justify Yerushalmi's pessimism when he says that memory cannot be “healed or rejuvenated.” Yerushalmi's position depends on two questionable assumptions: that the cohesiveness of memory means stasis, and that the contemporary experience of forgetfulness is unique and unassimilable with tradition. In fact, the Jewish tradition of memory upon which Ozick draws is marked not by static transference of timeless religious truth, but by liquidity and creativity in response to repeated historical ruptures and lacunae.

In the textual traditions of Judaism, the memory I am speaking of has been most often categorized under the broad term Aggadah, a primary form of Jewish religious interpretation. As Joseph Heinemann has pointed out, classical Aggadah originated in the Palestinian Jewish community as a response to historical threats to the meaning of Jewish life.

To a certain extent, the Aggadah represents a creative reaction to the upheavals suffered by Israel in their land. … It also represents an attempt to develop new methods of exegesis designed to yield new understandings of Scripture for a time of crisis and a period of conflict with foreign cultural influence pressing from without and sectarian agitation from within. This period demanded a response to the crises brought about by historical events, foremost the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple and the total loss of political independence. This complex of spiritual, political, and national challenges required constant grappling with problems and taking new stands suited to present needs. (42)

Similarly, Jacob Neusner points out that Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah—two of the fundamental Midrash compilations that shaped Judaism in the Common Era—were written in response to the political triumphs of Christianity, triumphs that seemed to belie the notion that God had a special concern for Israel (11). Michael Fishbane suggests that this process, by which the past is recuperated for the present, is “a generic structure of Jewish tradition” (1).

This discussion suggests that the Jewish relationship to tradition has been far more mobile and creative than Yerushalmi's analysis would seem to allow. To be sure, the situation of American Judaism in the post-Enlightenment and post-Holocaust period brings with it a unique historical problematic. However, that there is a challenge to memory does not mean memory has failed utterly. Rather, it means that history again forces Judaism into a creative appropriation of the past.

Ozick's work represents one form of creative response to this historical rupture. Her texts are a call to cultural memory and are themselves threads of cultural memory, threads that lead readers backwards and forwards to other threads of tradition. While her work does not by itself heal or rejuvenate Jewish collective memory, it is a mark of that memory and a force that speaks the continuity of Jewish tradition in the contemporary world.


  1. For some of anxious Updike's comments about things ethnic, see in Picked-up Pieces, “Bech Meets Me,” 10–13; and “One Big Interview,” 493–519 (particularly pages 505 and 507). Also see Bech: a Book (Knopf 1970), a not too subtle skewering of what Updike took to be the Jewish literary establishment.

  2. Louis Harap, for one, has questioned the—to his mind—radically limited version of authentic Jewishness that Ozick has in place (Mainstream 167). Harap's tendency to cast the net wide is more common among historians of Jewish-American literature, and he is therefore right in suggesting that Ozick is idiosyncratic on this score. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Ozick is more acute in her analysis of the consequences of acculturation for religious traditions. If her views are idiosyncratic among literary historians, they resonate remarkably with a number of Jewish theologians and historians, as I will show in a moment.

  3. My assertion of the significance of memory to Ozick is not unique. For a particularly interesting reading, see Finkelstein's Ritual of New Creation, page 72 and following. My interpretation of Ozick differs from Finkelstein's and others in the attention given to the historical situation of Judaism in America and in my reading of the past as fantastic invention in Ozick's work.

  4. Joseph Lowin is more generous to Puttermesser here, suggesting that the utopia is achieved through “the golem's energy” and “Puttermesser's moral stance” (133). The utopia fails not because of any flaw in Puttermesser's design but because “It is in the nature of utopias that they do not last” (131). My own reading is closer to Victor Strandberg, who emphasizes the flaw in Puttermesser's embrace of Hellenism. While I do not emphasize the split between Hellenism and Hebraism, this conflict would be one feature of the problems with memory that I am detailing in this essay.

  5. Not all versions of postmodernism do this, and a good deal of Ozick's wild careening between realism and magical realism or metafiction might be attributed to her inability to attribute a substantive ethics to anything but realistic fictional practices. Postmodern techniques in her work serve primarily as the index of an absence of such an ethics.

  6. For comments on James, see in Metaphor & Memory, “Henry James's Unborn Child” (58–64), and “On Permission to Write” (101–06). For comments on Eliot, see “Eliot at 101,” New Yorker 65 (Nov. 20 1989), 119–28.

  7. Jameson goes so far as to call Doctorow's procedure a kind of negative theology, an intriguing term given my discussion of the theological roots of Ozick's practice. Still, for Jameson this practice is absolutely negative, pointing to the necessity of history by emphasizing the absence of history on the postmodern scene. While Ozick's procedure is largely negative in this sense, her work also attempts to communicate tradition—however fragmentary that attempt may be.

  8. Victor Strandberg reads this differently, emphasizing Persky and Stella as embodiments of what he describes as the “L'Chaim principle” of Jewish life, a principle of life that values the present moment. Thus they stand in a nearly unreconcilable opposition to another principle of Jewish life, the preeminence of memory that I have been emphasizing in this essay. My own reading gives more credence to Rosa's denunciations, precisely because Stella and Persky value the present in opposition to the past, a conception of the dynamics of history that strikes me as more American than Jewish. See Strandberg 139–51.

  9. Paul Mendes-Flohr makes a similar point in saying, “In its traditional mode, Jewish historical memory, as Franz Rosenzweig observed, is thus not a ‘measure of time.’ For Israel, ‘the memory of its history does not form a point fixed in the past, a point which year after year becomes increasingly past. It is a memory which is really not past at all, but eternally present’” (372).

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold, ed. Cynthia Ozick. New York: Chelsea, 1986.

Cohen, Arthur. The Natural and Supernatural Jew. 1962. New York: Berhman, 1979.

Cohen, Sarah. Cynthia Ozick's Comic Art: From Levity to Liturgy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.

Finkelstein, Norman. The Ritual of New Creation; Jewish Tradition and Contemporary Literature. Albany: State U of New York P, 1992.

Fishbane, Michael, ed. The Midrashic Imagination: Jewish Exegesis, Thought, and History. Albany: State U of New York P, 1993.

Glatzer, Nahum N., ed. The Judaic Tradition. Boston: Beacon, 1969.

Glazer, Nathan. American Judaism. 1957. U of Chicago P: Chicago, 1989.

Harap, Louis. In the Mainstream: The Jewish Presence in Twentieth-Century American Literature, 1950s–1980s. New York: Greenwood, n.d.

Hartman, Geoffrey H. and Sanford Budick, eds. Midrash and Literature. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.

Heinemann, Joseph. “The Nature of Aggadah.” Midrash and Literature. Ed. Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986. 41–55.

Hertzberg, Arthur. The Jews In America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter: A History. New York: Simon, 1989.

Kauvar, Elaine. Cynthia Ozick's Fiction: Tradition and Invention. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.

Lowin, Joseph. Cynthia Ozick. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Mendes-Flohr, Paul. “History.” Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought: Original Essays on Critical Concepts, Movements, and Beliefs. Ed. Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr. NY: Scribner's, 1987. 371–87.

Neusner, Jacob. A Midrash Reader. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990.

Ozick, Cynthia. Art & Ardor. NY: Knopf, 1983.

———. Bloodshed and Three Novellas. NY: Dutton, 1983.

———. Levitation: Five Fictions. NY: Dutton, 1983.

———. The Messiah of Stockholm. NY: Random-Vintage, 1988.

———. Metaphor & Memory. NY: Knopf, 1976.

———. The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories. NY: Schocken, 1976.

———. The Shawl. NY: Random-Vintage, 1990.

Pifer, Ellen. “Cynthia Ozick; Invention and Orthodoxy.” Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies. Ed. Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1985. 89–109.

Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. NY: NAL, 1974.

Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. NY: Oxford UP, 1986.

Stephanson, Anders. “Regarding Postmodernism—A Conversation with Fredric Jameson.” Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism. Ed. Andrew Ross. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988. 3–30.

Strandberg, Victor. Greek Mind and Jewish Soul: The Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1994.

Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America; Seattle: U of Washington P, 1982.

Joseph Alkana (essay date winter 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 telling Holocaust stories has involved a recognition that beyond the fundamental value of presenting witness and survivor accounts, whether in nonfictional or fictional forms, there is value in telling more stories, particularly stories of life after Auschwitz. A work such as Art Spiegelman's Maus features a self-conscious narrative style that addresses this as an imperative while highlighting the sense that conventional literary forms may be inadequate to the task. Such anxiety is evident in the trajectory of American Jewish literary attitudes toward the Holocaust, and the career of Philip Roth exemplifies changing literary responses to the Holocaust.

The characteristic American Jewish response during the years following the Holocaust, when not omission, took the form of allusion in place of direct commentary.1 This strategy is evident in one of Roth's better known early pieces, “Defender of the Faith.” In this story, the problematic status of allegiances and cohesion within a group of American Jewish soldiers is given added dramatic and moral weight by the Holocaust, the one principal event that is cited only obliquely and, at that, by a self-serving Jewish soldier in a manipulative plea for ethnic unity. Roth's work since that time has displayed more explicit and sustained interest in the Holocaust and its consequences. For example, he facilitated the American publication of Bruno Schulz and Jĭrí Weil, Jewish writers who remained in Europe during the Holocaust. And more recently, in Operation Shylock, Roth centered his reflections on identity around such related things as the Holocaust crimes trial of John Demjanjuk, an interview with Aharon Appelfeld, the Israeli writer of Holocaust novels, and the notion of “Diasporism,” a bitterly comic reflection on the possibility of a Jewish return to post-Holocaust Europe. Between the silences of “Defenders” and the articulations of Shylock, Roth offered a serious questioning of Holocaust literature in The Ghost Writer, which critiqued the American Jewish reception of Anne Frank's Diary, particularly its adaptation for the stage. The elevation to iconic status of Anne Frank by American Jews during the 1950s led Roth to suggest that through excessive sentimentality and a lack of historical consciousness, Jews of that era not only failed to come to terms with the Holocaust—to the extent that such a thing is possible—but too often were relying on successes in the United States to justify their complacency after the Holocaust. Roth emblematically transforms Anne Frank into Anne Franklin as part of his satire on upper-middle-class materialism and a concomitant American exceptionalist ideology that reinforced the sense of the foreignness of the Holocaust.

Roth's satire of sentimentality about victimization and his insistence on the historical specificity of Holocaust suffering are two characteristics of much recent work on the Holocaust. The clearest attempt by an American fiction writer to move beyond these negative, though necessary, steps of rejecting sentimentalism and universalism and toward the development of a more complex post-Holocaust literary aesthetic is offered by Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl.2

The Shawl is neither Ozick's first nor her most recent fictional reflection on the Holocaust. Earlier short pieces, such as “Bloodshed” and “The Pagan Rabbi,” and her lengthy first novel, Trust, dramatize predicaments posed by the Holocaust and its consequences. Her most recent novels, The Cannibal Galaxy and The Messiah of Stockholm, directly treat the Holocaust as the central event in twentieth-century Jewish consciousness. The Shawl, a pair of related stories that appeared individually in 1980 and 1983 and were published together in 1989, resembles Ozick's other fiction insofar as it deals with a theme Ozick's critics agree is one of her primary concerns, the tension between Jewish and non-Jewish cultures.3 But unlike her other writings on the Holocaust, the very form of the two stories that constitute The Shawl issues a challenge to conventional aesthetics, a challenge that also touches upon questions of history and of theology.

The two stories of The Shawl, “The Shawl” and “Rosa,” are presented in historical sequence: “The Shawl” describes in an elliptical, impressionistic manner the concentration camp captivity of Rosa, her perceptions of her niece, Stella, and the death of her infant daughter, Magda; “Rosa,” set approximately four decades later in Miami Beach, tells of how Rosa feels radically isolated and remains preoccupied with her murdered daughter. The historical circumstances these two stories describe, the moments of crisis faced by the protagonist, and the language used to convey Rosa's character in the two stories are deeply interrelated, each feature serving to expand on and to complicate the others.

In the lengthier “Rosa,” the reader is furnished with a character portrait that reveals the protagonist to be both alienated and alienating, someone who through bizarre and self-righteous judgments globally repels the sympathies of others. The early action of the story unfolds as a reflection of her character: we are introduced to Rosa Lublin, described in the first sentence as a “madwoman and a scavenger” (13), a woman who for no apparent reason had destroyed her small used-furniture shop and moved from New York to Miami, thus becoming financially dependent on her niece. In a rare venture from her filthy room, which is cluttered with letters written in Polish to her dead daughter, whom she imagines “a professor of Greek philosophy at Columbia University” (39), Rosa goes to a laundromat, where she meets a garrulous retired button manufacturer, Simon Persky. Rebuffing with sarcasm Persky's advances, Rosa indicates her alienation from Jewish culture and from humanity in general. Her wholesale rejection of people, even those who might be inclined to commiserate with her, may well be an understandable result of her Holocaust experiences, but it also marks her as someone with whom most people would prefer to sympathize from a distance.

By sculpting such a sharply edged protagonist, Ozick does more than create the premise for a story; she also takes a stance against a tendency that she along with other Jewish writers have found vexatious—universalism, the tendency to level human suffering under the general heading of an all-inclusive existential or theological quandary. As Ozick herself noted in an essay, when distinguishing between death camp victims,

Those who suffered at Auschwitz suffered with an absolute equality, and the suffering of no one victimized group or individual weighs more in human anguish than that of any other victimized group or individual. But note: Catholic Poland, for instance (language, culture, land), continues, while European Jewish civilization (language, culture, institutions) was wiped out utterly—and that, for Jewish history, is the different and still more central meaning of Auschwitz.

(Metaphor 43)

Ozick here takes issue with the approach to Holocaust suffering that focuses on personal experience, an approach that all too readily can feed into a universalist interpretation, by choosing to highlight distinctions based on group histories. Ozick's own focus on group identity is inverted by Rosa, who continues to evade any self-definition that groups her with other Jews. Rosa thus rejects Persky's overtures, attempting to spoil his excitement at discovering that they both came from the same city by insisting, “‘My Warsaw isn't your Warsaw’” (19). And Rosa substantiates this by proudly claiming that she knows no Yiddish, preferring instead the “most excellent literary Polish” (14) with which she composes her letters to Magda. Rosa thereby sets herself apart as one who rejects a Yiddish-speaking Jewish identity in favor of kinship with a secularized Polish-Jewish community which “was wiped out utterly.”

The remainder of “Rosa” dramatizes the difficulties created by her rejection of the living in favor of both a dead daughter and an inhospitable pre-Holocaust Polish culture. She spends her time holding off the persistent and pesky Persky, searching through the streets and the beach in a grotesquely comic manner for a pair of underwear she suspects him of stealing from her laundry and, finally, succumbing to his insistent sociality by inviting him up to her room over her newly reconnected telephone. Rosa's obsession with her underwear parallels her obsession with another garment, the shawl in which she had wrapped the infant Magda. Through much of “Rosa,” she awaits the arrival of the shawl, promised to her by Stella, who accuses her of acting crazily: “You're like those people in the Middle Ages who worshiped a piece of the True Cross” (31–32). Rosa's worshipful stance mirrors a fundamental predicament within Ozick's work, a dilemma she believes inevitably confronts the Jewish artist. Janet Handler Burstein summarizes the critical consensus when she observes, “Ozick's conviction that art is idolatrous for Jews announces itself in essay after essay” (85).4 Ozick's vision of the Jewish artist's conflicted state parallels Rosa's obsession with her past, as indicated by the epithet with which Stella labels Rosa, “parable-maker” (41). It is as a parable maker, one who keeps recalling the past but recalling it in an altered manner, that Rosa undertakes the problematic yet necessary task of Jewish authors who write about the Holocaust.

Although Rosa's rejection of her Jewish contemporaries and her strangely anachronistic assimilationist attitude may be troublesome from Ozick's perspective, Rosa's refusal to forget the past signifies her importance. Unlike the niece whom she ridicules for forgetfulness (“‘Stella is self-indulgent. She wants to wipe out memory’” [58]) and American exceptionalism (“Stella Columbus! She thinks there's such a thing as the New World” [42]), Rosa continually finds reminders in her surroundings: the stripes of a dress summon forth a camp uniform, and the clinically detached language of a midwestern professor researching Holocaust victims resembles dehumanizing Nazi rhetoric. When the environment fails to trigger associations, she deliberately sets out to remember. In a letter to Magda, she tells of physical privations in the Warsaw Ghetto and the loss of her secularized, urban Polish-Jewish identity, as expressed in the outrage of her family, who had affirmed Enlightenment ideals, at being treated like “these old Jew peasants worn out from their rituals and superstitions” (67). But Rosa also fashions a new past for herself and Magda, one with which she rejects Stella's seemingly more accurate memory: “Your father was not a German. I was forced by a German, it's true, and more than once, but I was too sick to conceive. Stella has a naturally pornographic mind, she can't resist dreaming up a dirty sire for you, an S.S. man!” (43). Rosa recalls being raped in a Nazi brothel, yet she detaches Magda from these memories, instead substituting the image of a Polish Gentile husband and father to Magda, “respectable, gentle, cultivated” (43).5

Rosa's invented lineage for Magda coupled with her monologues directed toward a fictive adult daughter denote her madness, yet they also link her to the writer's work. A writer's tendency toward obsession and madness motivates “Envy,” and a more general connection between madness and the imagination may be found in “The Pagan Rabbi”; but, unlike these early Ozick stories, The Shawl specifies the Holocaust as the source of a disruptive yet recuperative imagination. Rosa's obstinate inventiveness certainly reflects a Holocaust survivor mentality insofar as it manifests an amalgam of guilt, shame, fear of not being believed, and an inability to accept powerlessness in the face of deadly force. As if to compensate for this powerlessness, Rosa invents, and this outrages Stella and elicits the label “parable-maker.” It is the making of parables about the Holocaust, the rules to guide or limit a post-Holocaust aesthetic, that The Shawl dramatizes and questions.

Ozick's critics have offered commentaries and insights on the symbolism and the ethical import of The Shawl, but they generally have displayed only passing interest in the aesthetic implications of juxtaposing its two stylistically dissimilar component pieces.6 In part this no doubt reflects the tendency in Ozick's own essays to diminish the significance of aesthetic issues in favor of the ethical. Critics have followed Ozick's lead when tracing the progress of her career from the Jamesian convolutions of her first novel, Trust, to her most recent works, which, despite Jamesian overtones (such as the similarly compulsive searches for manuscripts in The Messiah of Stockholm and “The Aspern Papers”), assert the primacy of the ethical. Alone among scholars writing on The Shawl, Joseph Lowin has focused on the relationship between the utterly disparate styles of its two stories, suggesting that the elaboration in “Rosa” on the sparse language of “The Shawl,” which fills a mere seven pages, amounts to a midrashic commentary. Lowin's observation, however, would seem to contradict Ozick's own assertion, regarding the need to negotiate between traditional Jewish and Western Enlightenment aesthetic forms, that “Such a project cannot be answered with a proposal to ‘compose midrashim,’ by which is usually meant a literature of parable” (Metaphor 238). Midrashic parable, though perhaps not constitutive of The Shawl in the straightforward manner that Lowin suggests, does furnish the basis from which Ozick attempts to elaborate a way of telling post-Holocaust stories, of exploring the relationship between dominant Western fictional forms and this traditionally Jewish one.

The inclusion within the past decade of midrash among the arsenal of terms available to literary theorists has brought to the foreground the debate over definitions and descriptions of the methodologies of midrash. This debate, which like midrash itself does not lend itself to summary without loss, nevertheless yields several points useful to a discussion of the aesthetics and argument of The Shawl. Although it primarily concerns itself with the exegesis of sacred texts, midrashic activity frequently takes the form of fiction, especially didactic fiction. These fictions focus on textual gaps, which may be regarded in two ways. Midrash as textual exegesis attempts to render comprehensible fissured or otherwise perplexing biblical passages. A second, related function of midrash is that which brings about interpretations consistent with contemporary religious beliefs and circumstances. Thus the didactic or moralistic aspects of midrash work to cast contemporary intellectual and ethical dilemmas as extensions of tradition. This process of mediating the intellectual distances between sacred scripture and a present largely constituted by relationships with non-Jewish cultures locates for itself space within an otherwise canonically foreclosed past by identifying interpretive problems in sacred texts.7

It is with the first sense of midrash in mind, the act of filling textual gaps, that Lowin discovers a midrashic quality in “Rosa,” which elaborates and explains much of the earlier story. “The Shawl” provides little more than the most essential information for the construction of a narrative: the names of the three characters, descriptions without explanations of their deprivations, sketchy accounts of their journey on foot to a camp, Rosa's act of hiding the silent Magda in her shawl, and, finally, a depiction of how Magda, deprived of the shawl by Stella, comes out crying into the roll call area where a helmeted guard throws her against an electrified fence. The only dialogue reported is Stella's response to her study of Magda's face (“Aryan” [5]) and her explanation of why she took Magda's shawl (“I was cold” [6]). The lack of explanation, the omissions in this brief story, recalls Daniel Boyarin's succinct description of midrashic exegesis: “The biblical narrative is gapped and dialogical. The role of the midrash is to fill in the gaps” (17).

“Rosa” might be considered the equivalent of a supplementary or exegetic commentary on “The Shawl” were it not for the complexity of their relationship: “Rosa” delivers an account of a survivor's life that ultimately refutes the lesson learned from “The Shawl,” seeking to displace it rather than merely elaborate on it. From the perspective suggested by the later story, “The Shawl” resembles less a primary and sacred text that needs to be interpreted than it does a potential obstacle to understanding. “The Shawl” describes how Rosa is brutalized, and to these events she reacts with a tangled set of inconsistent beliefs that include the importance of remembering history, the distortions of her own and Magda's histories, and a sense of alienation from others in her community. Rosa's feeling of alienation from other Jews did not begin with the Holocaust—“Her father, like her mother, mocked at Yiddish; there was not a particle of the ghetto left in him, not a grain of rot” (21)—but her experiences would appear to have reinforced it. By the conclusion of the second story, however, a shift in her attitude has appeared, one that induces Rosa to become more social and to diminish the imaginary role of her daughter in her life. The need for this final change in attitude, for this reconfiguration of “The Shawl” by “Rosa,” becomes apparent when we observe that “The Shawl” itself appears to be a midrashic commentary on a biblical story, a midrashic commentary of the second type, one that seeks to reconcile the Bible with recent history.

The midrashic dimensions of “The Shawl” emerge upon a comparison with what Jewish commentators typically treat as the preeminent episode in Genesis, Abraham's binding of Isaac, an episode referred to among midrashic writers by the Hebrew word for binding,Akedah.8 The Akedah features a series of basic plot elements and symbols that are refracted through Ozick's reconfiguration in “The Shawl.” The sparsely worded biblical account begins with God calling to Abraham and summoning him to travel to Moriah and, once there, to prepare Isaac for a burnt sacrifice. In contrast to, for example, his extended debate with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham responds without question to the instructions, and, accompanied by Isaac and two others, he travels for three days. He then takes Isaac alone to prepare an altar, and he binds Isaac as for a sacrifice. At this point, an angel intercedes, commanding Abraham to not harm Isaac. After Abraham sacrifices a ram, the story concludes with God's final iteration of the promise to Abraham that his descendants will be plentiful and have strength against their enemies.

The parallels between the two stories are sufficiently striking to make “The Shawl” seem like a female version of the Akedah.9 Each story features a parent of the same gender as the imperiled child traveling through unnamed territories, the biblical wilderness and the ironically equivalent wilderness of World War II Europe. And the children resemble each other in that both were conceived in unlikely circumstances: Isaac is born to the postmenopausal Sarah, and, as Rosa states in the second story, she thought she was “too sick to conceive.” The children are greatly loved by their parents; the prominence of parental love is indicated in the Akedah by God's initial words to Abraham, in which Isaac is identified as the son “whom you love” (Genesis 22: 2), coincidentally the first biblical use of the word love.10 Correspondingly, Rosa makes clear her devotion to Magda throughout both “Rosa,” as her ongoing conversation with her daughter suggests, and “The Shawl,” in which she hides the fifteen-month old at obvious peril to herself.11 In their journeys to the places where their children are threatened with death and burning, the protagonists are accompanied by companions of the same gender who are not actually present when the final actions occur. The protagonists' minimal speech is balanced against the surveillance over both sets of actors by largely silent powers with control over life and death. The binding of the two children, of Isaac in preparation for a sacrifice and of Magda with the shawl to keep her hidden and silent, furnishes each story with its name and serves as the single most prominent symbolic point at which the two stories converge.

But why should Ozick have chosen the Akedah as the occasion for a midrash? An answer to this question needs to take into account the attitude of God as it frequently has been explained by Jewish commentators. The Akedah typically has been understood to display God's abhorrence of human sacrifice and preference for spiritual dedication. In a direct commentary on the Akedah, Ozick uses this reading as the grounds for her interpretation of the episode, citing its insistence on “Judaism's first social task, so to speak. The story of Abraham and Isaac announces, in the voice of divinity itself, the end of human sacrifice forever. The binding of Isaac represents and introduces the supreme scriptural valuation of innocent life” (Metaphor 274).12

Ozick thus interprets the Akedah as God's unambiguous rejection of human sacrifice, a rejection that reveals not merely some distinction from other deities—Ozick characteristically juxtaposes the Jewish deity against those of the Greeks—but an imperative that helps make the Akedah a defining episode. Her view of the ethical centrality of the Akedah harmonizes with the midrashic understanding that the Akedah refers not merely to Abraham but to the entire nation of Israel as well. In his remarks on the midrashic commentary Genesis Rabbah, Jacob Neusner summarizes the traditional attitude, asserting that “the testing of Abraham stands for the trials of Israel” (269). Abraham thus proves himself worthy of God's blessing, the promise to protect Abraham's descendants: “I will make your seed many, yes, many, like the stars of the heavens and like the sand that is on the shore at the sea; your seed shall inherit the gate of their enemies” (Genesis 22: 17).

This final point creates the need for a midrash—not an exegetical midrash that seeks to bridge scriptural gaps but an attempt to resolve the tension between a biblical story and human history. The circumstances of death camp victims test God's promise to Abraham, and the deaths of children pose some of the most intense psychological and theological problems to writers on the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel's Night, itself largely organized around the relationship between a son and his father, presents perhaps the paradigmatic dramatic enactment of this situation when it tells of how three inmates implicated in an act of sabotage were publicly hanged. The two adult victims shouted, “‘Long live liberty’” (61), and they quickly died, but the one child among them died slowly and silently. Wiesel recounts that he heard a man behind him repeatedly asking,

“Where is God now?”

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

“Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging there on this gallows. …”


The question asked by Wiesel's fellow inmate is one implied by Ozick in “The Shawl.” This question is accusatory, as is so much Holocaust writing, and in Ozick's story, which ultimately offers a different response than the one supplied by Wiesel, it takes the form of a midrashic problem because of the dramatic link between her story and that of Abraham and Isaac.

The differences between the Akedah and “The Shawl” signal Ozick's attempt to make salient the tension between sacred scripture and human history. The most consequential difference between the two stories is the nature of supreme power: in the Akedah, the power over life and death ultimately resides in God, while in the camps a human power prevails, and from this all other distinctions devolve. The sites are themselves infused with the characters of each type of power: Rosa marches to a slave labor camp, whereas Genesis identifies Abraham's destination as Mount Moriah, the future location of the Temple.13 The way by which the protagonists submit themselves to power reflects basic differences: although Rosa has the most limited range of choice, which she exercises in her attempt to preserve Magda, Abraham and, according to midrashic tradition, Isaac voluntarily submit to God's command. Moreover, the vastly differing conclusions characterize the two types of power: Abraham elicits words of blessing and the promise of life, while by contrast Magda dies, and Rosa, to maintain the secret of her motherhood and thus her own life, smothers a scream by stuffing the shawl into her mouth. The words of an angel direct Abraham to spare Isaac's life, but the only sound accompanying Magda's murder by a silent guard is the incomprehensible chatter of the electric wires.

Despite the differing relationships between speech and silences (or incomprehensibility) in the two stories, silences structure the actions in both, the lapses of speech, not surprisingly, also denoting distinctive moral responses and responsibilities. Unlike Rosa's silence and secretive preservation of Magda, an enactment of her maternal devotion, Abraham's wordless acceptance of God's command signals a detachment from both his paternal bond and his relationship with Sarah, who presumably would challenge his intention. Abraham's withdrawal from his family leads Jacques Derrida to speculate that silence and secrecy are essential to our understanding of Abraham's action and inaction: “He doesn't speak, he doesn't tell his secret to his loved ones. … Abraham is a witness of the absolute faith that cannot and must not witness before men. He must keep his secret” (73). Abraham's commitment to secrecy and his silence most tellingly elides the “paradox, scandal and aporia” that Derrida locates between an ethics that would prioritize Abraham's ordinary allegiances to family and his devotion to a transcendent deity. From Derrida's perspective, the eruption of the paradoxical and the scandalous in the Akedah, which calls into question the function of morality and moral judgment, would seemingly highlight by contrast Rosa's silent preservation of Magda; for despite the question of Magda's paternity, Rosa's silence and actions coalesce in an unambiguous devotion to family that on its face comports with normative ethics. Yet when we juxtapose the silences of “The Shawl” against the speech of “Rosa,” we may find, if not the aporia of the Akedah, both paradox and scandal; once again we encounter the unseemliness and impropriety of Holocaust fiction, particularly that which attempts to restore speech to the camps, a realm that its creators treated as secret.

The speech of “Rosa” fills many textual gaps left by “The Shawl,” but speech also functions in its own right as an obsessional focus for Rosa, one that ultimately and ironically isolates her. Rosa treats her language as essential to her being. When she tells Persky, “My Warsaw isn't your Warsaw” (19) and, again, “Your Warsaw isn't my Warsaw” (22), her point is obviously less geographical or temporal than it is linguistic, cultural, and, in the final instance, constitutive of her identity. She took her cue from her parents, who eschewed Yiddish and instead “enunciated Polish in soft calm voices with the most precise articulation” (68). It is this memory of language that anchors Rosa in a family network, as she rhapsodizes in one of her letters to Magda: “A pleasure, the deepest pleasure, home bliss, to speak in our own language” (40; emphasis added). Now that her immediate family is gone and she lives in the United States, her Polish language remains as her home.

Rosa's sense of a linguistic home is challenged by the instrumentalist vision of language Persky reveals when conversing with Rosa in her room:

“… this is very nice, cozy. You got a cozy place, Lublin.”

“Cramped,” Rosa said.

“I work from a different theory. For everything there's a bad way of describing, also a good way. You pick the good way, you get along better.”

“I don't like to give myself lies,” Rosa said.

“Life is short, we all got to lie.”


To Persky's conventional sensibilities, what matters is getting along, and any epistemological or aesthetic orientation in language-use should at most be secondary. Hence, when describing his “loiterer” son, who is what Rosa wishes Magda to be, a philosopher, he bluntly opines, “Too much education makes fools” (25). But Rosa the parable maker labels Persky's use of language “lies,” and she resists the notion that one can find a “good way” to describe her experiences, metaphorically speaking to Persky of her three lives, “The life before, the life during, the life after” (58). Persky, with the embarrassment of a Jew who had spent the Holocaust years in the United States, nevertheless echoes the ordinary advice given to one who has experienced loss: “it's over. … You went through it, now you owe yourself something” (58). Persky here professes the wisdom of a button manufacturer, his belief that gaps exist to be spanned and veiled with cloth, an outlook he initially displays when professionally observing a missing button at Rosa's waist: “A shame. That kind's hard to match, as far as I'm concerned we stopped making them around a dozen years ago” (25).

Despite his commonplace advice to the obsessed Rosa, Persky seems attracted to Rosa's display of a loss for which no compensation is available; if Persky cannot answer Rosa's demand for a wisdom or a language commensurate with her loss, then what he offers is relationship. Relationship is paramount to Rosa's idea of a “mother tongue” (57) that connects her to a literary tradition (“For literature you need a mother tongue” [57]) and that also, and more significantly, forms the basis of her “home bliss,” her bond not only to her parents but to the language that constitutes her own ongoing sense of motherhood and being. Her roomful of letters to Magda in a “lost and kidnapped Polish” (20) would bond her with Stella as well, “but her niece had forgotten Polish” (14). Rosa's fervor for her language isolates her and structures the devotional posture Stella criticizes as idolatrous; yet her fantasy of Magda as a professor at Columbia University, which approximates the epithet “Stella Columbus,” brings these two relatives into at least a lexical relationship. The tension between Magda and Stella, a competition that began even before Stella took Magda's shawl in the camp, is suggestive of Rosa's inevitably fractured worldview.

The most basic of Rosa's contradictions is between her private idolatry and her public role as an idol breaker. Rosa's foremost public act, her moment of American fame, was, according to newspaper headlines, as the destroyer of her second-hand furniture store: “WOMAN AXES OWN BIZ” (18). Rosa's bizarre action remains unexplained until late in the narrative when she recalls in a letter to Magda some of the humiliations and privations of everyday ghetto life, experiences she had tried to relate to uncomprehending or unsympathetic customers. As she ruefully remarks, even when she tried to pare down the enormity of her loss to some particular item, “no one understood” (67). The customers “were in a hurry” (67), too great a hurry to hear of her history and, presumably, too averse to the painful stories of an obsessed woman. Her destruction of the items within her shop would serve to enact her criticism of their misplaced attention; more pointedly yet, her destruction of her own store is a mute critique of the American iconization of business.

In her role as a destroyer of American icons, Rosa once more recalls Abraham, specifically the Abraham of midrashic stories who had to depart his homeland after smashing the idols in his father's shop.14 Rosa's rescue and subsequent emigration to the United States may not quite parallel Abraham's leave-taking from home nor his destination, but her willingness to mark herself as an outcast by wrecking things and images that others prize, but which she considers meaningless diversions, complicates Stella's accusation that Rosa is an idol worshipper. This complication serves to thematize a pair of related problems entailed by the worship of lifeless things (whether physical objects or language itself). First, the silence of idols demands explanatory speech, such as Abraham's provocative story to his father that the idols had destroyed one another or Rosa's own provocations, her making of parables. And second, an isolating engagement with something that cannot reply, like the shawl, may displace dialogue with those who can. The dramatizations and structurings of silences, unanswered speech, and interpretive elaborations in The Shawl link it to another text that considers the Akedah: Erich Auerbach's comparison of Hebraic with Hellenic modes of literary representation in the opening chapter of Mimesis.

The relationship between the need for textual interpretation and the Akedah has been prominent to literary theorists since Auerbach chose the Akedah as his representative biblical text, a choice that seems as deliberate as Ozick's when we recall that he wrote Mimesis between 1942 and 1945 while at the Turkish State University at Istanbul. (In 1935 Auerbach had been forced to leave his professorship at the University of Marburg as a result of Aryanization policies and the Nuremberg laws.) Most relevant to the coincidental choice of biblical texts are questions about interpretation and the Akedah, and the relationship of Ozick's ideas about aesthetics with Auerbach's. In his comparison between the relative clarity of the Homeric and the biblical, which in its textual sparseness relies on a dense background of motivation and history, Auerbach insists that radically differing modes of interpretation, and thus cognition, are both assumed and demanded; and this insistence entails for Auerbach—as for Ozick—extensive ethical and political consequences.

These consequences result from the particular method by which the biblical works to intrude on its readers' lives: it attempts to propel itself, through mediating interpretive processes, into the historical realm. By contrast, the Homeric, characterized by a “procession of phenomena [that] takes place in the foreground” (7), a “legendary” style (18), and static, unvarying characters, assumes a uniformity of explicative strategies and an ideal of hierarchical social stasis, the latter understood to reflect an immutable underlying order resistant to historical change. When confronted with the Homeric, the job of the critic is to analyze, for Homer presents “no teaching”; and because there is no underlying stratum, “he cannot be interpreted” (13). The danger of the Homeric, with its implied rejection of historical complexity, leads Auerbach to ask his reader to “think of the history which we ourselves are witnessing; anyone who, for example, evaluates the behavior of individual men and groups of men at the time of the rise of National Socialism in Germany” (19) will understand how ahistorical legend defies the complexities of history; Auerbach feels no need to elaborate on the problems that such simplifications entail. Although the more historically oriented Hebrew writings also lend themselves at times to such simplification, for the most part they demand a more complex interpretive mode, one outlined in Auerbach's essay “‘Figura.’”

In “‘Figura,’” first published in 1944, Auerbach conveys the sense of crisis over National Socialism that pervades Mimesis. “‘Figura’” elaborates on the interpretive processes briefly described in the opening of Mimesis, and Auerbach here identifies interpretation as a site where history, ethics, and aesthetics intersect. Figural interpretation, unlike the “symbolic” interpretations he associates with “magic power,” “must always be historical” (57). The historical dimension of figural interpretation derives from its method: “Figural interpretation establishes a connection between two events or persons, the first of which signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second encompasses or fulfills the first. The two poles of the figure are separate in time, but both, being real events or figures, are within time, within the stream of historical life” (53). As Geoffrey Green points out, Auerbach's insistence on historically oriented interpretation serves his refutation of Nazi mysticism and aestheticism in both a direct manner and in an indirect one as well. Auerbach painstakingly describes in “‘Figura’” the development of the historicized figural method as a foundation for Christian interpretation and theology. Without commenting on the analogies with certain midrashic interpretative methods, he effectively tethers the Christian to the Jewish as he attempts to drive a theoretical wedge between Nazism and Christianity.15

When Auerbach affixes Christian to Jewish interpretive traditions, we confront the distance of four decades that separates his from Ozick's work; the crisis of survival facing Auerbach, and thus the need to cultivate potential allies by stressing the cultural affinities of Christians and Jews while casting Nazism as essentially anti-Christian, no longer has relevance. Contemporary American Jewish writers accordingly tend to stress the complicity of Christianity with Nazism rather than seek distinctions.16 This sort of pointed assessment may be found in one of Ozick's essays, “Of Christian Heroism,” which distinguishes between heroic rescuers of Holocaust victims, victimizers, the victims themselves, and the bystanders who, “taken together,” she judges to be “culpable” (Fame & Folly 201). Attention to such distinctions is typical of Ozick as an essayist who prizes clarity and moral judgment, yet Ozick's fiction reveals greater tension and ambiguity, as in her presentation of Rosa as simultaneously an idolater and an iconoclast. This kind of ambiguity, which suggests a continuity between her reasoning and Auerbach's coupling of the Christian with the Jewish, pervades The Shawl from its opening pages.

The Shawl begins with an epigraph taken from Paul Celan's “Todesfuge”: “dein goldenes Haar Margarete / dein aschenes Haar Sulamith.” Celan's Holocaust poem uses these two phrases as a kind of refrain; he routinely returns to the distinction between the Jews and the Germans with his apostrophic lines, “your golden hair Margarete” and “your ashen hair Shulamith” (Celan 63). The distinction between Margarete and Shulamith, between the golden and the ashen, appears to be an odd one for Ozick to emphasize, for, while both Celan's poem and her story respond to the Holocaust, she blurs Celan's distinction. Blue-eyed Magda, whom Rosa addresses in her letters as “my gold” (66), “my yellow lioness” (39), is the subject of Rosa's and Stella's scrutiny during their forced march in “The Shawl”; and Stella, with an observation that sets Magda apart, calls her “Aryan” (5), adjudicating Magda's status based on her presumptive paternity.17 Rosa obviously rejects Stella's desire to make the kind of exclusionary racial appraisal that replicates those of the Nazis, and her own steadfastness toward Magda points out a different irony, the fact that Judaic matrilineal law would lead both Jews and Nazis to recognize the golden, blue-eyed Magda as a Jew. Thus Celan's distinction between the golden and the ashen is effaced by Ozick in a move that suggests her valuing of categorical purity or distinctions operates, like Auerbach's, as a secondary element of some larger strategy.18

Ozick's stories may offer a greater degree of aesthetic complexity than the stark dichotomy outlined in Celan's brief poem, yet this should not obscure her skepticism toward aestheticist demands, a skepticism as profound as Auerbach's. Auerbach's distrust of aestheticism pervades his historicist, philological methodology, while Ozick's repeatedly emerges in her essays. Her position is apparent, for example, in her 1970 criticism of contemporary fictional trends, as opposed to the tradition of the densely historical nineteenth-century novel whose ethical concerns she more clearly values: “Now it is the novel that has been aestheticized, poeticized, and thereby paganized. … The most flagrant point is this: the nineteenth-century novel has been declared dead” (Art 164). For both Ozick and Auerbach, the turn toward historical understanding is primary, and the story of the binding of Isaac provides the two with an occasion to raise questions about interpretation and to affirm an ethical imperative: a rejection of appeals to higher authorities and causes that diminish the quotidian world of human sociality and history. In a discussion of the Holocaust, Ozick declared “that Nazism was an aesthetic idea. … Let us have a beautiful and harmonious society, said the aesthetics of Nazism; let us get rid of this ugly dark spot, the Jew, the smear on the surface of our glorious dream. Do we not know the meaning of aesthetic gratification?” (“Roundtable” 280). The price of aesthetic consistency that Ozick raises in this question is the issue central to The Shawl and Ozick's Holocaust literary aesthetics.

Ozick's Holocaust literature has thematized invariably unsuccessful attempts at accommodating cultural fissures. Joseph Brill's “dual curriculum” in The Cannibal Galaxy, a juxtaposition of Jewish and European classics, and Lars Andemening's attempt in The Messiah of Stockholm to retrieve a manuscript lost during the Holocaust—gestures aimed at relieving the historical and cultural tensions either deepened or precipitated by the Holocaust—are, in Ozick's fictions, doomed. The midrashic dimensions of The Shawl, by contrast, convey inescapable and irreconcilable tensions. “The Shawl,” with its retelling of the Akedah in a world where no angel arrives to save the child, presents a story understood by its protagonist as a model for human relations, a story that overshadows the original biblical promise of rescue and life. Rosa is left with nothing but contempt and anger toward the living, an alienation that by the conclusion of the second story begins to yield. “Rosa” thus attempts a midrashic displacement of “The Shawl,” just as “The Shawl” had rewritten the Akedah; and, in so doing, “Rosa” restores the primacy of the Akedah. But this restoration does not blot out the memories of “The Shawl.” Rather, as Rosa's mental image of Magda recedes yet does not disappear when she accepts Persky's visit at the conclusion, the memories of Holocaust deaths do not disappear, nor can they simply be assimilated into life afterwards.

This failure to assimilate Holocaust experiences into the everyday serves as a defense against Adorno's challenge to a post-Holocaust literary aesthetic. If fiction may properly operate in a kind of productive tension with history, then the central fantasy of “Rosa,” her ongoing relationship with her dead daughter, may be understood to preserve the memory and experience that history or the well-meaning, therapeutic sociality of a Simon Persky could well occlude. The ending of The Shawl sees Rosa reunited with the magical shawl that brings with it the memory of Magda, allowing Magda briefly to live again within Rosa's altered memory. Rosa's defiance of her own history is hardly unique to Holocaust literature. In Jĭrí Weil's Life with a Star, the narrator routinely addresses his lover, a woman whose death was triumphantly announced over loudspeakers in Prague. And still more similar to The Shawl is Sandra Brand's account of survival that concludes, after her arrival in the United States, “For me, my child has remained alive. He is with me whenever I want him. … ‘Bruno, you are the only child I have ever had,’ I murmur fiercely to a little boy that only I can see. ‘Nothing can come between us any more!’” (204). The line of demarcation between the living and the dead appears in such accounts to soften momentarily, but the limits of language and literature to compensate for loss remain intact. In Primo Levi's words, “the injury cannot be healed” (24).

If the promise of healing is compromised by the almost inevitable accompaniment of sentimentality—“to give myself lies,” as Rosa might put it—nevertheless a nonremedial intervention may plausibly constitute a central feature of a post-Holocaust aesthetic. In The Shawl, the preservation of invention and parable is maintained despite a wariness toward universalizing myth and the dangers of emotional appeals. Notwithstanding the ways that personal experience might be sacrificed by attention to common history, the most efficacious gesture remains the return to the historical and social realm advised by Auerbach and enacted with difficulty by Rosa. The return to the social and historical as well as the desire to preserve personal experience may furnish the clearest intellectual response to the Holocaust, but it is Rosa's posture of wariness that may prove most telling. Derrida's discussion of the Akedah, a discussion that more than once slides into the topic of the Holocaust, begins by referring to Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling; Derrida observes that the trembling associated with the Akedah “suggests that violence is going to break out again” (54). The unpredictability of the Akedah is its salient feature here: the fantastic and unprecedented directive to Abraham with its implied threat comes against all rational expectation and without warning (as does the timely angelic intercession and appearance of the ram); similarly, it is not unreasonable to adduce from experience that the more general threat of political, possibly genocidal, violence may apparently diminish but persists in the world. For the traumatized Rosa, who, when faced with an uncooperative hotel manager, summons forth the accusation, “Finkelstein, you S.S., admit it!” (52), the Holocaust remains a paradigmatic experience. Yet the excesses of her interpretations and responses to the world, her avoidances and distortions of reality, call into question the uses of rather than the need for her Holocaust remembrances.

The issue facing Rosa is one that, in a somewhat attenuated form, faces those in the United States who attempt to memorialize the Holocaust: how does one build museums, commemorative structures, or archives without turning away from the present moment? In the case of narrative structures, a turning away from the present generally devolves into the kind of sentimentality and universalist interpretations that have accompanied Anne Frank's story. Obverse to these evasions are such moments as the confrontation in Operation Shylock between Roth's ghostly cousin Apter, a Holocaust survivor with an extraordinarily difficult person: “Cousin Philip, I understood what I was up against. I said to her, ‘Madam, which camp?’ ‘All of them!’ she cried, and then she spat in my face” (58). The fury she broadcasts, like Rosa's, may be understandable, but her unsocial behavior renders her less than the ideal victim, one who should be ennobled by suffering. The “useless violence” of the Holocaust analyzed by Primo Levi or what Emmanuel Levinas has termed “the paradigm of gratuitous suffering” (162) may not generate sympathetic victims receptive to Persky's prescription of conventionality; yet it is interesting to note how Persky's intercession dramatizes the interpersonal focus of Levinas, for whom the interpersonal in ethics has a philosophical and metaphysical priority.

The measured advocacy of the interpersonal realm offered in The Shawl comports with Ozick's characterization elsewhere of the Jewish “Lord of History” (Metaphor 253), yet it presents less a developed ethical or theological position than it does the grounds for an aesthetic tension. While Ozick the essayist is quite ready to argue forcefully in favor of or against artistic and social agendas, her fiction, particularly The Shawl, maintains greater equanimity. Such balance is, of course, not suggested by Rosa's definitions of her life in terms of dichotomies: either Magda or Stella, either the assimilationist view of her parents or the separatism of Yiddish speaking or Zionist Jews, either full speech in her language or a partial, circumscribed, inadequate English. Like the logic of God's initial directive in the Akedah, which presents Abraham with a stark choice of allegiances, Rosa's logic has remained exclusionary, reminiscent of those times the Holocaust has been sentimentalized or memorialized in opposition to a present historical moment. But Rosa's uneasy acquiescence to sociality, as suggested by her concluding decisions to restore her telephone and to invite Persky to her room in which the ghostly presence of Magda remains, reveals a departure from her either/or mentality, a departure for which fidelity to Holocaust experience does not necessarily overwhelm sociality. Like the angelic intercession of the Akedah, which preserves Abraham's metaphysical and familial allegiances, The Shawl maintains the two basic categories as defined by the moments of the two constituent stories. Yet the irreconcilable tensions of The Shawl reinforce Primo Levi's insistence that there are wounds without the promise of healing, experiences without the offer of positive significance. Those who seek such a positive significance reveal their own desire for a happy ending more than anything else, for unlike acts of martyrdom or victimizing, either of which reveals moral choice, there is no moral stance implicit in being a victim.


  1. As recently as 1974, Norma Rosen deplored the fact that although “the Holocaust is the central occurrence of the twentieth century. … by and large, American Jewish writers have omitted it from their work” (8–9). S. Lillian Kremer speaks of the Eichmann trial and the 1967 Arab-Israeli War as events that spurred American Jewish writers to examine the Holocaust (“Post-Alienation” 576). To this I would add that increasing attention to the importance of recording the testimony of aging survivors may have enhanced Jewish writers' sense of urgency about the topic during the past decade.

  2. Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi describes the problem dramatized by Roth: “In America a kind of sentimentality has covered the victims with a thick haze dispelled only by the pious formulas of popular culture, while a certain indulgent fascination with the potential for evil in Everyman has largely replaced the outrage and empathy that suffering traditionally commands. All the facts of human behavior are admissible in a kind of neutral effort to classify all the news that's fit to print” (217–18). Elaine Kauver expresses a similar concern about the translation of the Holocaust into a figure for general human suffering (“Some Reflections” 344–47), but James E. Young warns that the alternative “is to risk excluding it altogether from public consciousness. And this seems to be too high a price to pay for saving it from those who would abuse its memory in inequitable metaphor” (133). S. Lillian Kremer distinguishes between Jewish American Holocaust literature and that of Europeans and Israelis, noting that American writers focus less on survival experiences and are more inclined to attend to post-Holocaust survivor trauma (Witness 19–20). This may represent an unspoken recognition of what Naomi Diamont has described as the “cruel paradox facing the survivor—the inadequacy of language to bear witness as against the imperative of testimony” (97). Along similar lines, Lawrence L. Langer has expressed the concern that literary structure “can deflect our attention from the ‘dreadful familiarity’ of the event itself” (Holocaust Testimonies xii–xiii). A similar desire for experiential immediacy informs Patterson's and Roskies's studies, though they also explore potential relationships to older Jewish traditions.

  3. Elaine Kauver describes “the themes that obsess Ozick's fiction—the battle between Hebraism and Hellenism, the lure of paganism and the dangers of idolatry, the implications and consequences of assimilation, the perplexities of the artist and the besetting dangers of art” (Ozick's Fiction xii). Victor Strandberg's study of Ozick concentrates on these and other bifurcations in Ozick's writings (as the title of his book indicates). Lawrence Friedman similarly describes the underlying tension in Ozick's work as the struggle between a Jewish-historical consciousness versus romantic-ahistorical religions (11–12). Sarah Blacher Cohen approaches this tension in Ozick's work through form, finding in the comic genre a means for Ozick to explore moral questions. Michael Greenstein calls Ozick's actuating tension a postmodern combination of polemical essay and fiction. In an interview, Ozick bluntly identifies her own position: “Pagans excel at art; Hebrews (as Matthew Arnold and George Eliot understood) engage themselves in deed” (Rainwater and Scheick 260).

  4. Louis Harap describes this conflict between morality and art: “She interprets the Mosaic commandment against idolatry to mean not only to reject worship of material objects or images, but also not to pursue anything for its own sake apart from moral or religious status. Thus literature enjoyed for its own sake as an aesthetic object is ‘idolatry’” (167). Sanford Pinsker similarly poses Ozick's question: “In what way—sometimes subtle, sometimes not—was the writer a usurper of God, a maker of idols?” (2).

  5. Joel Shatzky, discussing The Pawnbroker's image of a Jewish woman in an S.S. brothel, claims that because the Nuremberg laws illegalized sexual relations between German officers and Jewish women, such contact could not have been institutionalized. Chaim A. Kaplan's Warsaw Ghetto diary recounts an incident that seems to support Shatzky: “When the Nazis confiscated our apartment, they permitted our Christian maid to remain. Since she is exempt from the Nuremberg Laws, they raped her” (46). Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's Anya accordingly features a Jewish woman who fears her non-Jewish appearance creates the threat of enslavement in a German army brothel. Yet it seems difficult to rule out the possibility that camp brothel administrators failed to scrupulously avoid potential violations of the Nuremberg laws, particularly when the enslaved women were as highly assimilated as Rosa Lublin. For a discussion of sexual abuses in Holocaust literature, see Heinemann, 27–33.

  6. In her meticulous reading of The Shawl, which treats the pairing of the two stories as a reflection of the antitheses and tensions that inform Ozick's writings, Elaine Kauver comments on the significance of doubling; she perceives the dislocated style of the first story to reflect the understanding that to its victims the Holocaust does not end (Ozick's Fiction 185). Lawrence Langer insightfully observes that the second story challenges easy notions of recovery from the loss and trauma outlined in “The Shawl” (“Myth and Truth”). Lawrence Friedman finds in the temporal relation of the two stories a progression from death to rebirth.

  7. A concise, lucid introduction to midrash is presented by Barry Holtz, who notes that the rabbis believed “God would foresee the need for new interpretations; all interpretations, therefore, are already in the Torah text” (185). From this assumption, it logically follows that midrashic writers felt justified in bridging gaps between history and Torah. The relationship between midrash and contemporary literary theory necessarily must take into account the goals of midrash; accordingly, Daniel Boyarin frames his densely theoretical discussion of midrash by attempting to mediate between the positions that midrash manifests the desire “to take a position on the burning questions of the day” and interpretive impulses that are less ideological and more concerned with textual problems in scripture (3–5). On the relationship between contemporary theory and midrash, also see Stern and Kermode. For differing understandings of the history and goals of rabbinic midrash, see Kugel and Neusner (What Is Midrash? 43–51).

  8. The liturgy for the Jewish New Year reflects the centrality of the Akedah: the traditional Torah reading for the first day of the New Year, from Genesis 21, recounts the birth of Isaac; the reading for the second day is from Genesis 22, the Akedah. The authoritative scholarly work on the midrashic literature associated with the Akedah is Shalom Spiegel's The Last Trial.

  9. Ozick earlier had transformed a traditional Jewish story though gender exchange: in “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” Ruth Puttermesser, a lawyer working in New York's municipal government, substitutes for Rabbi Judah Loew of sixteenth-century Prague as one who brings to life a golem. A provocative feminist interpretation of the Akedah is offered by Nancy Jay, who understands the retraction of Abraham's knife as a patriarchal displacement according to which Isaac “received his life not by birth from his mother but from the hand of his father as directed by God” (102).

  10. Everett Fox's translation of Genesis is used in this essay.

  11. Barbara Scrafford centers her discussion of “The Shawl” on Rosa's heroic affirmation of motherhood as a contrast to the reality of the death camps.

  12. Ozick offers her traditional interpretation as a conscious repudiation of what she describes as “current anthropology” (Metaphor 273), which suggests that since human sacrifice was not customary in ancient times her traditional interpretation of the episode, as a rejection of religions that practiced such sacrifice, has no basis. Nahum Sarna offers a brief exposition of the view with which Ozick is in accord, claiming that “Such an understanding of the narrative [of the Akedah] cannot be supported either by history or by biblical tradition” (392–93).

  13. The one other biblical reference to Mount Moriah may be found in 2 Chronicles 3.1, in which the building of the temple under Solomon is described.

  14. In response to the silence of the biblical account with respect to Abraham's early life, midrash supplies motivation for his sudden departure from the land of Terah, Abraham's father, as well as the initial blessing conveyed in Genesis 12. According to legend, Abraham destroyed Terah's smaller idols, placed a hatchet in the hand of the largest, and then told his distressed father that the largest idol had broken the others while fighting for the food set before them. When Terah insisted this was not possible, Abraham responded by asking how one could worship a powerless idol, and, the legend continues, Abraham was brought before the Babylonian ruler, Nimrod, who had him imprisoned and then sentenced to death. Abraham's miraculous rescue from the fire by an angel rewards him for his faith, a faith that brought about his departure from home and elicited the initial, seemingly arbitrary, blessing in Genesis. For traditional stories of Abraham's iconoclasm, see Ginzberg, 193–217.

  15. Auerbach emphasizes this by asserting, “We may say roughly that the figural method in Europe goes back to Christian influences, while the allegorical method derives from ancient pagan sources, and also that the one is applied primarily to Christian, the other to pagan materials” (63). Green regards “‘Figura’” as Auerbach's attempt to restore Jewish scripture within a Judeo-Christian tradition, thus foregrounding Nazi discomfort with the Jewish sections of the Christian Bible (26–35). Interestingly, the difference between Jewish midrashic and Christian figural interpretations of the Akedah may have affected the English translation of Mimesis, which renders the German word “Opfer” as “sacrifice” (e.g., “the sacrifice of Isaac” [8]). This translation implies a typological understanding of the Akedah as a prefiguration of Christ's death. Had “Opfer” been translated as “offering,” the more traditionally Jewish understanding of the Akedah that the incomplete nature of the act signified God's rejection of such sacrifice would have been connoted.

  16. See, for example, Kremer's Witness, 17–18.

  17. Distinctions are blurred still further when Rosa ironically opens a letter to her niece with the words, “Golden and beautiful Stella” (14).

  18. In a midrash on the Book of Ruth, Ozick considers the situation of Ruth, a Moabite—against whom stood a biblical proscription against inter-marriage, for her people had been among the most abhorred of the Israelites' enemies (see Deuteronomy 23: 4–5). Ozick clearly is fascinated with the integration of historical enemies in this story, albeit one based on Ruth's acceptance of the Hebrew god, for which Ozick offers the highest commendation: “one can almost imagine her a kind of Abraham” (Metaphor 259). Ozick asks a question that resonates with the situation she outlines in The Shawl: “The Book of Ruth … is sown in desertion, bereavement, barrenness, death, loss, displacement, destitution. What can sprout from such ash?” (Metaphor 264). For Ozick, the answer will lie in a covenantal theology.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Notes to Literature. Trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen. 2. New York: Columbia UP, 1992. 2 vols.

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1953.

———. “‘Figura.’” Scenes from the Drama of European Literature. Trans. Ralph Mannheim. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984. 11–76.

Boyarin, Daniel. Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.

Brand, Sandra. I Dared to Live. New York: Shengold, 1978.

Burstein, Janet Handler. “Cynthia Ozick and the Transgressions of Art.” American Literature 59 (1987): 85–101.

Celan, Paul. Poems of Paul Celan. Trans. Michael Hamburger. New York: Persea, 1989.

Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Cynthia Ozick's Comic Art: From Levity to Liturgy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.

Diamont, Naomi. “Writing the Holocaust: Canons and Contexts.” Prooftexts 11 (1991): 96–106.

Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death. Trans. David Wills. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.

Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.

Fox, Everett, trans. In the Beginning: A New English Rendition of the Book of Genesis. New York: Shocken, 1983.

Friedman, Lawrence S. Understanding Cynthia Ozick. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1991.

Ginzberg, Louis. The Legends of the Jews. Trans. Henrietta Szold. Vol. 1. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1968. 7 vols. 1909–38.

Green, Geoffrey. Literary Criticism and the Structures of History: Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1982.

Greenstein, Michael. “The Muse and the Messiah: Cynthia Ozick's Aesthetics.” Studies in Jewish American Literature 8.1 (1989): 50–65.

Harap, Louis. In the Mainstream: The Jewish Presence in Twentieth-Century American Literature, 1950s–1980s. New York: Greenwood, 1987.

Heinemann, Marlene. Gender and Destiny: Women Writers and the Holocaust. New York: Greenwood, 1986.

Holtz, Barry W. “Midrash.” Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts. Ed. Barry W. Holtz. New York: Summit, 1984. 177–211.

Jay, Nancy. Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Kaplan, Chaim A. Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan. Trans. and ed. Abraham Katsch. New York: Collier, 1973.

Kauver, Elaine. Cynthia Ozick's Fiction: Tradition and Innovation. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.

———. “Some Reflections on Contemporary Jewish American Culture.” Contemporary Literature 34 (1993): 337–57.

Kermode, Frank. “The Plain Sense of Things.” Midrash and Literature. Ed. Geoffrey Hartman and Sanford Budick. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986. 179–94.

Kremer, S. Lillian. “Post-Alienation: Recent Directions in Jewish-American Literature.” Contemporary Literature 34 (1993): 571–91.

———. Witness Through the Imagination: Jewish American Holocaust Literature. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1989.

Kugel, James L. “Two Introductions to Midrash.” Midrash and Literature. Ed. Geoffrey Hartman and Sanford Budick. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986. 77–103.

Langer, Lawrence L. Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991.

———. “Myth and Truth in Cynthia Ozick's ‘The Shawl’ and ‘Rosa.’” Admitting the Holocaust: Collected Essays. New York: Oxford, 1995. 139–44.

Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Levinas, Emmanuel. “Useless Suffering.” The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other. Ed. Robert Bernasconi and David Wood. New York: Routledge, 1988. 156–67.

Lowin, Joseph. Cynthia Ozick. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Neusner, Jacob, trans. Genesis Rabbah: The Judaic Commentary to the Book of Genesis, A New American Translation. Vol. 2. Atlanta: Scholars P, 1985. 3 vols.

———. What is Midrash? Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987.

Ozick, Cynthia. Art & Ardor. New York: Knopf, 1983.

———. Fame & Folly. New York: Knopf, 1996.

———. Metaphor & Memory: Essays. New York: Knopf, 1989.

———. “Roundtable Discussion.” Writing and the Holocaust. Ed. Berel Lang. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1988. 277–84.

———. The Shawl. New York: Knopf, 1989.

Patterson, David. The Shriek of Silence: A Phenomenology of the Holocaust Novel. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1992.

Pinsker, Sanford. The Uncompromising Fictions of Cynthia Ozick. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1987.

Rainwater, Catherine, and William J. Scheick. “An Interview with Cynthia Ozick.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 25 (1983): 255–65.

Rosen, Norma. Accidents of Influence: Writing as a Woman and a Jew in America. Albany: State U of New York P, 1992.

Roskies, David G. Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.

Roth, Philip. Operation Shylock: A Confession. New York: Random House, 1993.

Sarna, Nahum M. Commentary. The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Scrafford, Barbara. “Nature's Silent Scream: A Commentary on Cynthia Ozick's ‘The Shawl.’” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 31 (1989): 11–15.

Shatzky, Joel. “Creating an Aesthetic for Holocaust Literature.” Studies in Jewish American Literature 10.1 (1991): 104–14.

Spiegel, Shalom. The Last Trial: On the Legends and Lore of the Command to Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice: The Akedah. Trans. Judah Goldin. 1950. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1993.

Stern, David. “The Rabbinic Parable and the Narrative of Interpretation.” The Midrashic Imagination: Jewish Exegesis, Thought, and History. Ed. Michael Fishbane. Albany: State U of New York P, 1993. 78–95.

Strandberg, Victor. Greek Mind/Jewish Soul: The Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1994.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. Trans. Stella Rodway. New York: Bantam, 1982.

Young, James E. Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.

Susanne Klingenstein (essay date 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 years, she is also a literary intellectual whose mind has profoundly shaped the direction of my work. I realized quickly that despite my familiarity with many facets of her life and work, I would not be able to grasp her inner gestalt. Ozick's fundamental sense of self, the core of her being, would still elude my pen.

Writers cannot be adequately described with the help of social categories. Writers are the passionate moments of literary creation. They are coextensive with the span of time when something comes into being on the page. The writer's social circumstances are secondary to the acts of literary creation. His or her situation in life—gender, class, religion—may inspire elements of plot, for instance, but it does not determine the writer's artistry. In short, it is quite meaningless to speak of an author as a woman, Jew, or middle-class American. One does not thereby say anything that goes to the core of the writing process, because the writer is just that, a writer. “Art comes first,” Ozick declared. “The writer who is the real thing begins with the lure, mandate, and bliss of the alphabet, and then falls, who knows how, into content. Writers who begin with subject and content are bound to be programmatic, and a programmatic writer is by definition second-rate.”1 Virginia Woolf, speaking about women and fiction writing, said very much the same thing. “The desire to plead some personal cause or to make a character the mouth-piece of some personal discontent or grievance always has a distressing effect,” she wrote. “It introduces a distortion and is frequently the cause of weakness.”2

Cynthia Ozick therefore may be somewhat less than happy to find her portrait included in a collection whose explicit purpose is to assemble essays on Jewish American women writers. While it is true that she is a Jewish woman living in America and a writer by profession, she has always insisted that the social and biological coordinates of her life do not define her as a writer:

When I write, I am free. I am, as a writer, whatever I wish to become. I can think myself into a male, or a female, or a stone, or a raindrop, or a block of wood, or a Tibetan, or the spine of a cactus.

In life, I am not free. In life, female or male, no one is free. In life, female or male, I have tasks; I have obligations and responsibilities … I am devoured by drudgery and fragmentation. My freedom is contingent on need. I am, in short, claimed. …

But when I write … I am in command of a grand As If. I write As If I were truly free. And this As If is not a myth. As soon as I proclaim it, as soon as my conduct as a writer expresses it, it comes into being.3

Ozick has emphatically protested both against being called a woman writer, because she disagrees with the political program of segregation that this appellation currently entails, and against being called a Jewish American writer, because, as she said, she was becoming “more and more skeptical—doubtful—of the meaning of ‘American Jewish writing’ anyhow. … I am getting deeply bored by unliterary approaches, as exemplified by a woman's question at the [New York Public] Library: How does the growing rate of intermarriage affect your writing?”4 The woman's question was addressed to a panel that included, along with Ozick, Max Apple, Michael Chabon, and Ted Solotaroff (as moderator), and it was asked in response to the panelists' discussion of American Jewish writing. In her brief opening remarks Ozick had argued that the epithet Jewish writer, connoting either subject matter or descent, was inappropriate as a definition for the kind of writer she wanted to be. Ozick concluded that

Jewish writers, whatever language they write in, and whether they are in Israel or the various Diasporas, must be writers first, and then Jews; otherwise it may turn out that there is prose on Jewish themes, but no Jewish literature—which is something different from prose on Jewish themes. …

But by and large, if you lead with Jewish themes, your fiction will falter and stutter into polemic, politics, tendentiousness. Maurice Samuel is resplendent as essayist, but his theme-novel on the ancient Ebionites, is secondary work. A fictionized essay is not literature. The work of the intellect is not the work of fiction-making, which is dream-and-word work. … No one can will to make a novel: novels and stories are not willed but surprised into being.

In the same way, Jewish writers are surprised into being. Real writers know about themselves only that they must write, not to write is a dying. Then the world comes, looks at content and subject, and says, “Eureka! You are a Jewish writer,” as if the writer had all along intended to press a cause. Writers as citizens may have causes; writers as Jews do indeed have causes; but writers as writers have only the alphabet, a certain chaotic dreaminess, and the wish to leave something standing that was not there before the wish began.5

Taking my cue from these remarks, I examine in this essay some of the Jewish causes that have left their imprint on Ozick's writing. I shall try to spell out what it means to her, in terms of “obligations and responsibilities,” to be Jewish. My intention, however, is not primarily to comment on Ozick as a fiction writer. The recent slew of monographs and critical articles on Ozick's fiction allows me to bypass many of her novels and stories and to focus on some less accessible sources.6 In particular, I want to examine Ozick's preoccupation with Yiddish poetry.7 I will illuminate some Jewish facets of the citizen Cynthia Ozick and illustrate how those aspects of her being in which she is not free but “claimed” do impose themselves on her freedom as a writer. There is little doubt that in the areas of Jewish life and thought she “falls, who knows how, into content.”


“To be Jewish,” Ozick once declared, “is to be a member of a civilization—a civilization with a long, long history, a history that is, in one way of viewing it, a procession of ideas. Jewish history is intellectual history. And all this can become the content of a writer's mind; but it isn't equal to a writer's mind. To be a writer is one thing; to be a Jew is another thing. To combine them is third thing.”8

Few would doubt that Ozick has successfully combined being a writer and a Jew, and produced not “prose on Jewish themes, but … Jewish literature.” Her fiction, which may or may not be written in an overtly Jewish lexicon, using Jewish protagonists, settings, or subject matters, is inescapably shaped by the structure of Jewish thought, which evolved from the intellectual axioms of Torah and Talmud. Ozick's fictions are written, then, in the intellectual grammar of rabbinic thought, and it matters very little whether the lexicon her fictions use (the naming of protagonists, settings, and subject matters) is Italian, Swedish, American, or Jewish.

The intellectual grammar that shapes Ozick's fictional work is in fact very simple. The starting point of all Jewish thought, that of the Talmudic rabbis as well as Ozick's, is the basic tenet of Judaism posited in the first verses of Genesis, which declare the radical separation of the material and the divine, of immanence and transcendence. The axiom of separation, which may be summarized quite simply as God is not in nature although nature is God's creation, is so scary—leaving humanity to fend for itself—that there have been many attempts to reverse or undo it and to put God back into nature. The most successful attempt was Christianity.

If one accepts the axiom of separation, as the Torah does, however, the problem arises of how one establishes a relation between the two incommensurate realms. The Torah presents an ingenious metaphor to allow humanity a relationship with the divine without being too presumptuous about the realm of transcendence, which is, by definition, beyond humanity's ken. The Torah's metaphor is that of the covenant (brith); it defines the relation between God and his chosen people as contractual—that is, regulated by the voluntary agreement of both parties to abide by the terms spelled out in a contract. As the Torah tells the story, God had a hard time gaining recognition as Master of the Universe until He found the ear of a certain Avram. In exchange for the promise of land and descendants—that is, physical continuity through space and time—Avram promised to translate the will of God into deeds (causing God to change his name to Abraham, “father of a multitude of nations,” as a sign that He intended to fulfill His part of the contract). Hence, the only way transcendence manifests itself in immanence is through the deeds of those bound by the covenant to execute the divine will. The Jews define themselves as heirs to Abraham's brith; “to be a Jew is to be covenanted,” Ozick wrote.9

The two constituent works of the Jewish tradition, Torah and Talmud, document how the Jews came to inherit and pass on the legacy of the covenant and explain precisely what obligations adherence to the contract entails. The rabbinic discussions, compiled and edited in the second century of the Common Era, amount to more or less informed guesses as to how the will of God is best translated into deed. Halakhah—Jewish law, or, better yet, precepts of Jewish conduct—spells out Abraham's part of the contract. There is little speculation about God's obligations beyond the hope that He may preserve the executors of His will (a hope that was disappointed often enough). But this is where Jews draw the line: it would be presumptuous of those confined to immanence to assess and describe what is, by definition, beyond their reach. All speculation about the divine is unequivocally cut off in Deuteronomy 29:29, where Moses announces to the people of Israel: “The secret [unsayable] things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed [in God's speech to Moses] belong to us and to our children for ever that we may do all the words of his law.” The emphasis is on doing the word, on translating will into deed.

In Ozick's early fiction the basic source of tension lies in the incompatibility of the realms of moral conduct and “volcanic high imagination.”10 The obligation to a life of moral conduct stands over and against the temptation to approach the realm of high imagination and to disappear in its hallucinogenic vortex. Isaac Kornfeld in “The Pagan Rabbi,” Ruth Puttermesser in “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” and Lars Andemening in The Messiah of Stockholm spin in ecstatic bliss until the creative drive they released spins out of control and turns destructive. While Ruth and Lars escape their brush with high imagination by regaining their rational faculty and hence self-control, Isaac Kornfeld is consumed in a passionate Liebestod (death in the act of love).

It is evident that even in her fiction, Ozick not only accepts but agrees with the admonition of Deuteronomy 29:29. This has tempted critics to conclude that she condemns the writing of fiction. The fact is, however, that Ozick sees no fundamental contradiction between the moral life and the production of literature. “The novel at its nineteenth-century pinnacle,” she once declared, “was a Judaized novel: George Eliot and Dickens and Tolstoy were all touched by the Jewish covenant: they wrote of conduct and of the consequences of conduct: they were concerned with a society of will and commandment.”11 Yet as a writer, she is propelled, as if by a perverse impulse, to explore precisely the force that separates her from ordinary life and chains her to the desk.

The nature of the creative drive, condemned in Genesis as yetzer ha-ra (Gen. 6:5, 8:21), is the fundamental issue broached in all of Ozick's early fiction. The way it is broached, namely as an illicit subject—as pagan-poetic impulse, cannibalistic drive, or imagemaking shop set up in competition with the Creator12—evokes as its cultural frame of reference not only the rabbinic suspicion of the imaginative faculty but also the Jewish tradition of fictional and historical narratives about runaway imaginations in the shape of idols, golems, dybbuks, false messiahs, and the like. But what Ozick pursues, despite the rabbinic censure of indulgence in the ecstasy of the creative impulse, is a vision of pure writing in which the impediments of subject matter, the bits and pieces of ordinary life that cling to the writer as she walks into her study, are consumed in the fiery passion of the creative act.

Ozick's image of the writer, contrived when she had just finished the manuscript of her third novel, The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), was that of a “beast howling inside a coal-furnace, heaping the coals on itself to increase the fire. The only thing more tormenting than writing is not writing. … What I did, a child crazed by literature, was to go like an eremite into a cavern and spin; I imagined that I would emerge with a masterpiece. Instead I emerged as an unnatural writing-beast, sooty with coal dust, my fingers burned and my heart burning up.”13

It is perhaps no coincidence that in The Messiah of Stockholm, Ozick's most ambitious fiction to date about literary passion and the vortex of the imagination, fire is the decisive leitmotiv, beginning with the “smell of something roasting,” that seems to hang in Stockholm's night air. The odor evokes in the literature-crazed protagonist Lars Andemening the recollection of the verse “O the chimneys” by Nellie Sachs, who in 1940 had found refuge from the Nazis in Sweden. Lars, a book reviewer for the unread Monday pages of the newspaper Morgontörn, has a singular way of producing his highbrow literary reviews. He reads from morning till afternoon, and then falls into bed, exhausted from the effort.

When he awoke at seven into full blackness of night, he felt oddly fat—he was sated with his idea, he understood what he thought. He sat down immediately to his review. He wrote it straight off, a furnace burning fat. It was as if his pen, sputtering along the line of rapid letters it ignited, flung out haloes of hot grease. The air brightened, then charred.14

Lars imagines himself the son of the Jewish writer and artist Bruno Schulz, who was shot dead by SS in Drohobycz, a small town in Nazi-occupied Poland, in 1942. When Lars finally holds in his hands what he believes to be the lost manuscript of his father's only novel, The Messiah, he discovers that it is about the occupation of Drohobycz by idols, who eventually burn each other up in ever-increasing bonfires “in a frenzy of mutual adoration” (Messiah 109). Recovering from his gluttonous reading of the manuscript, Lars is shaken in his belief that he has seen the authentic Messiah.

Yet he is pushed by the proprietors of the manuscript into accepting its authenticity and to become The Messiah's prophet in the pages of the Morgontörn. He is asked to announce there the resurrection of The Messiah from the ashes of Jewish culture. But Lars is suddenly shocked into recognition of the truth:

“Fakery. I've lived for fakery.” …

His transient little fear. His hands were hot. His fingers were heating up like the staves of a fence on fire.

The Messiah went into the camps with its keeper.” Lars shook: the ape had him by the throat. “That's all that could have happened, nothing else. The Messiah was burned up in those places. Behind those fences, in those ovens. It was burned, Mrs. Eklund, burned!”

(Messiah 121)

At this point the fires of Andemening's literary imagination are reigned in by their real-life counterparts—the fires of the Shoah. In much of Ozick's fiction, the destruction of the European Jews functions as the reality that renders morally dubious, if not even illicit, any indulgence in the pleasures of art. In The Messiah of Stockholm Ozick, self-critically, equates the passion for the hermetic life of literary idol-worship with a ferocious, pagan passion for aesthetic perfection, which, in her view, found its culmination in the Nazis' obsession with racial hygiene, their compulsion to cleanse the master race of its imperfect elements. In 1970 Ozick declared,

The German Final Solution was an aesthetic solution: it was a job of editing, it was the artist's finger removing a smudge, it simply annihilated what was considered not harmonious. In daily life the morality of Germans continued as before, neighbors were kindly, who can deny it? From the German point of view, getting rid of the Jew had nothing to do with conduct and everything to do with art. The religion of Art isolates the Jew—only the Jew is indifferent to aesthetics, only the Jew wants to “passionately wallow in the human reality.” … Even now, in the whole planet of diverse cultures, the Jew is the only one who stands there naked without art. The Jewish writer, if he intends himself really to be a Jewish writer, is all alone, judging culture like mad, while the rest of culture just goes on being culture.15

In many of Ozick's fictions the representatives of history, Jews touched by the Shoah, judge those who indulge in the freedom of art. In the short story “The Pagan Rabbi” (1966), Sheindl, whose life began in a concentration camp, condemns her husband's love affair with nature and poetry. In “The Suitcase” (1971), the artist's Jewish lover, Genevieve, declares that the scene at a gallery opening resembles a concentration camp. “‘Everybody staring through the barbed wire hoping for rescue and knowing it's no use.’”16 She compares the paintings of her love, who is of German descent, to “‘shredded swastikas, that's what,’ Genevieve announced. ‘Every single damn thing he does. All that terrible precision. Every last one a pot of shredded swastikas, you see that’” (109). In “Bloodshed” (1970) the protagonist's guns, the real one and the toy gun—the latter a symbol of deadly make-believe that is compared to the “toy showerheads, out of which no drop fell”—are confiscated by a Hasidic rebbe, who is a survivor of Buchenwald.17

At all points Ozick's artists are either mocked or stopped from going further in their imaginations by representatives of history, by those for whom death was not make-believe but real. It is precisely here that Ozick's obligations as a Jew intrude on her freedom as a writer and judge her literary pursuits. Although she claims, “I am trying to give myself the freedom to be free—to do whatever I damn please, however I damn please,”18 being a Jew curtails her sense of being entitled to such freedom. As she once said in a debate about the Holocaust, during which she argued that the destruction of the European Jews ought to be perceived not as a past but as a contemporary event, “To be a Jew means to be a carrier of that kind of history.”19 It is Ozick's intense awareness of the deadly facts of Jewish history that makes her suspect the moral legitimacy of the flights of fancy to which she wants to yield as a writer.

The distinctions Ozick draws between being a writer, a Jew, and a combination of the two are less clear than she would have us believe. In much of her fiction she has achieved the “third thing” by writing within the moral and intellectual framework of rabbinic Judaism about the subject that compels her, the unsettling nature of the creative imagination. At the same time she insists that she is keeping separate her obligations as a Jew and her desires as a writer. In 1989 she explained that, “To be a Jew is an act of the strenuous mind as it stands before the fakeries and lying seductions of the world, saying no and no again as they parade by in all their allure. And to be a writer is to plunge into the parade and become one of the delirious marchers.”20 Yet more often than not in Ozick's fiction the Jew grabs the Writer by the collar just as she is ready to plunge and restrains her by pointing out that “the fakeries and lying seductions of this world” spell the death of the Jews.

In all other respects, however, it is true that Ozick separates her passions as a writer and her causes as a Jew. In a short essay, responding to the question “Does the Jewish writer have a particular responsibility to the Jewish community?,” Ozick declared that she could not put her writing into the service of political causes, even when she recognized their importance. She maintained that stories are “the central human purpose around which all politics flows.” She continued,

But how to prove it? How to prove, for instance, that one sentence in a single story of Agnon's is worth an armada of op-ed pieces? … How can one argue that a story about polished mirrors is as much a service as, say, being a nurse or a neurologist in Hadassah Hospital? It is a difficult, perhaps an impossible, argument, and I don't know how to make it. But I bring my devotion to such a proposition, if only out of a tremulous hope of exculpation; the hope that a polished mirror, itself no more than a bauble, will somehow catch a reflection of Sinai.21


As a writer Ozick does not hope to do more for the Jews than provide them with fiction written within the moral framework to which Jews committed themselves at Mount Sinai; as a Jew, however, she has devoted time, energy, and her skills to causes essential to the preservation of the Jews and their culture. Foremost among these causes is the safety of the state of Israel and, concomitantly, the adequate representation of its policies in the American press. Since 1973 Ozick has written numerous op-ed pieces for and letters to the New York Times, as well as a few articles for other publications on Israel and the Palestinian problem.

Needless to say, Ozick accords language great political force. She thinks of Hebrew not only as the vessel and vehicle of Israeli culture but also of Jewish moral ideals and principles of civilization. Because ancient and modern Hebrew are recognizably continuous, Ozick can indeed assign Hebrew the function of a “unifying substratum,” linking temporally and spatially widely dispersed Jewish cultures in a tight fabric of one Jewish people. The language of the diaspora Ozick considers “perishable” tongues, whereas Hebrew was the “language of perpetuation.”22

The diaspora language that perished most dramatically and painfully was, of course, Yiddish. Between the two world wars there were an estimated 11 million Yiddish speakers, among them also Ozick's parents and grandparents. It was one thing to declare dispassionately that Yiddish shared the ontological status of all diaspora tongues, and quite another to witness its death through atrophy in America and murder in Europe. Yiddish was too intimately connected with Ozick's personal and cultural identity to allow her to sit still. And while she could not revive the language, she might at least rescue what it once conveyed. She began to translate Yiddish poetry into English, first on her own, then for Irving Howe's famous anthologies. This translation project, a constant in Ozick's life for some twenty-five years, has been overlooked by most critics. And yet her translation of Yiddish literature “with the fury of lost love” illuminates, like few other examples, the confluence of Jewish subject matter and literary craftsmanship, or the emergence of Ozick as a Jewish writer.23


Ozick's involvement in what was really Howe's rescue effort for Yiddish literature dates back to the early 1960s when she became, almost by accident, one of the translators in Howe's illustrious stable of American poets, essayists, and educators literate in Yiddish. In 1963, when Ozick had just finished but not yet published her long first novel, Trust, she read somewhere that Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg were planning to edit an anthology of Yiddish poetry in translation. She wrote to them and sent along a story by David Bergelson she had translated on her own, “just for the fun of it.”24 Some two years later a batch of Yiddish poems arrived. The timing was perfect. In September 1965 Ozick's daughter Rachel was born. She seriously disrupted her mother's nocturnal “visionary toil.”25 For despite the fact that Virginia Woolf had famously claimed that the novel, as “the least concentrated form of art,”26 could be interrupted without detriment by domestic chores, Ozick did not find this to be the case. Yet a translation was “perfect to do with a baby because you could pick it up and you could put it down. I would make endless versions, endless drafts. I would have pages and pages for two lines” (TI).

Ozick's toil on the poetry of David Einhorn, H. Leivick, and Chaim Grade was fired by her passion for language as artistic material—that is, by the mental gymnastics cum aesthetic judgment required by the task of coming up with le mot juste. This sums up Ozick's early view of writing, which Elaine Kauvar has aptly called “the struggle for exactitude.”27 Although Kauvar's phrase refers to the writing of Ozick's first novel, Trust (1966), which consumed the author's late twenties and early thirties (1956 to 1963), it could just as well refer to the poetry Ozick composed at the time.28 In fact, she has often emphasized the linguistic range and lyrical qualities of Trust. To her critic Victor Strandberg Ozick wrote in 1991, “The energy and meticulous language-love that went into that book drew on sources that were never again so abundant. In certain ways it is simply an immensely long poem.”29 Whether these sources were indeed “never again so abundant” will be questioned by any reader familiar with Ozick's later work. What is important, however, is that her language-love and sense of linguistic wealth propelled her to try her hand at the tricky task of literary translation.

In the early 1960s, Ozick recalled recently, “I was really interested in poetry and in translating and in Yiddish. Also I was in an insatiable belles lettres place where I wanted to try my hand at everything, which explains my current theatrical folly.” For Howe's project it was almost more important to be a superb poet than to be a competent Yiddish speaker, because he wanted, as Ozick recalls, “not a translation but another poem in English.” The finished text “had to stand as a poem in English while at the same time being as faithful as possible a translation. His criterion and Ruth's [Wisse, who replaced Eliezer Greenberg as collaborator after his death] was a poem that could last forever in English” (TI). When A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry appeared in 1969, the anthology looked very much like a collection of English poems, not least of all because a good quarter of the translators were themselves distinguished poets. They included Irving Feldman, Edward Field, John Hollander, Carolyn Kizer, Stanley Kunitz, William Merwin, Adrienne Rich, Jerome Rothenberg, Harvey Shapiro, Karl Shapiro, and James Wright. How successful some of their translations were was indicated by Harold Bloom's wicked praise, meaning “not to dispraise Hollander in judging his version of [Moshe Leib] Halpern's ‘The Bird’ to be his best poem so far.”30

While finding herself in such company strengthened Ozick's somewhat shaky self-confidence, the actual labor on the translations and the “astonishing education” she acquired as she moved into the language and explored the cultural contexts of the Yiddish poems, had, of course, a much more lasting effect on her as a writer. When she started her work, she recalls, “I didn't know these poets by name; I knew nothing about the history of Yiddish poetry; I was a total tabula rasa” (TI). As a child she had had some exposure to Yiddish poetry because her parents, immigrants from a small town near Minsk in White Russia, subscribed to the Tog, the most literary of the American Yiddish dailies. It featured a daily poem, which Ozick used to read. “I was not aware of it then, but those poems were by the great Yiddish writers of the time” (TI).

For Ozick, who was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1928, and grew up with English as her mother tongue, Yiddish was a household language until the death of her grandmother in 1939, when it declined into the “speech of reminiscence” for her parents.31 Her entire education in written Yiddish was acquired “in four hours in four days, one hour a day, over a week in heder, when the rabbi announced that this week we were going to learn Yiddish. Since we already knew the Hebrew alphabet, it was a simple thing to learn. My so-called Yiddish literacy, which is at a very low level, came from that week in heder” (TI). Like other New York Jewish children with immigrant parents and grand-parents, she did not cherish the language that was to her such a simple and natural part of family life. Instead she was fascinated by the initially unfamiliar. “I went the way of my not very distinguished generation, and forgot, if I had ever really known it, that there was a world of Yiddish letters; or, rather, I forgot, like almost everyone of my shamed generation, that the world of Yiddish letters mattered. I entered the life of the universities and became obsessed by English and American literature.”32 It was not until she had embarked seriously on the translations for Howe's anthology that she began to recover bits of an extraordinary Jewish world that had been slipping away from her. But she could not have caught it by the coattails without her father.

Unlike Ozick's mother, who was brought to America at the age of nine, Ozick's father arrived at twenty-one as a “finished adult” (TI). He had graduated from a Russian Gymnasium, where he had studied Latin and German, yet he had retained his ability to write “beautiful Hebrew paragraphs” and to read “in Yiddish all of Sholom Aleichem and Peretz.” He also read Bernard Malamud's novel The Assistant when his daughter asked him to.33 In America Velvl became William, who made a living as the apteker of the Park View Pharmacy in Pelham Bay, New York. “My father grinds and mixes powders, weighs them out in tiny snowy heaps on an apothecary scale, folds them into delicate translucent papers or meticulously drops them into gelatin capsules.”34

But when the Yiddish poems arrived, Velvl stepped out from behind William. He sat down with his daughter and explained the poems to her. “He would not only help me with the deep inner meanings of words and phrases but with all kinds of cultural contexts that I didn't understand, whether they were religious, linguistic, historical, or sociological references” (TI). Velvl, who was Mr. O. to his wife, unfolded his past before the eyes of his daughter. It is easy to imagine that with the exuberance of discovery came also excruciating pain at the extent of what was lost in the murder of the Eastern European Jews. “For the whole of the project,” Ozick wrote, “I came as a suppliant to Yiddish, imploring it to let me reenter the language. I drank the dictionary, supped on idiom, and explored my father's brains and life—and with the pursuit of each poem, I more and more recovered, and also discovered, not only what had been, but what would be, and not only the future but the present.”35 That discovery would be turned into story, but not until a few years later.

When after endless drafts Ozick arrived at a “final polished version, that which I regarded as completely finished,” she would send it to Irving Howe. “Generally, he accepted them as is, but once in a while he quarreled with a word. In [Chaim Grade's] ‘Elegy for the Soviet Yiddish Writers’ he tampered with phrases, making them much too prosaic. Always, I thought, his touch was on the side of prose” (TI). Ozick was not merely unhappy with Howe's interference but genuinely upset about it because Howe's changes destroyed what, as a poet, she believed to be the Yiddish poem's English equivalent. “The poem's translation,” she held, “is not the poem's shadow or reflection. The poem and its translation are two separate artifacts, each equal to the other; and not only ‘equal’ in the sense of being ‘alike,’ but each having become the other.” She maintained, moreover, that the original poem's equivalent could be “found” in an arduous process of linguistic work, during which the translator became the poet.36

When Ozick sent off a “final polished version,” she was sending Howe the poem he had asked for. But while Howe was indeed interested in the lyrical qualities of the translations, he had still another agenda: he wanted clarity of content wherever content mattered to him. His meddling with the translation of Grade's “Elegy” is a case in point.

The fairly long poem (twelve stanzas of sixteen lines each) commemorates the murder of the Soviet Jewish intellectual elite by Stalin's henchmen on 12 August 1952.37 More specifically, Grade's poem mourned the Yiddish writer Aaron Kushnirov, who died in 1949, having suffered a stroke while speaking on Jewish literature before the Assembly of Soviet Writers; the Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, brutally killed in a car accident engineered by the Soviet secret police in 1948; and the executed Yiddish writers Dovid Bergelson, Dovid Hofshteyn, Leib Kvitko, Itsik Feffer, and Peretz Markish.38 Grade exposed their self-deluding trust that the Communist Revolution would bring forth “the New Enlightened Man,” when, in fact, it reproduced precisely the reign of terror, persecution, and slaughter from which so few Jews had just escaped. Throughout the poem the backdrop for Stalin's assault on the remaining Jewish elite is the Nazi annihilation of the Jews. Grade's despair at the suicidal idealism of the Jews, blinding them to the similarities between fascist and communist dictatorships, is channeled into the ineffectual outcry of Der Nister (that is, Pinkhas Kaganovich), a writer who was arrested a bit later than his colleagues and died in a camp hospital in 1950.39

Dobrushin speaks: “The world is all Hitler! Cursed, a snare!
Blessed be our Soviet land, and sacred Socialism!”
Only der Nister warned: “Children, beware,
run away!” He alone ran off, old man, into the ground.

At the climax of the poem in stanzas 8 and 9, the dead Markish appears to the poet. Having described the wild nature of Markish's person and poetry in stanza 8, Grade ties up in stanza 9 all of his leitmotives: the Jewish fate under German occupation, the Jews' vain hope for a better life in the Soviet Union, and his own relation to the Soviet Yiddish writers:

Remember the poet who had no legs!
The Germans hurled his wooden pegs
after him, onto the pile of dead. Vilna townsmen both,
Gradzenski and I. They threw his legs with a jeer. And I am loath,
Markish, mourning you, to pierce your pride with grisly metaphor
made to mourn your song: but it was a god of wood
flung after you into the grave—that poem where with a roar
of rage you paid violent tribute to the dead.
“Who can sleep? The horror!” you used to gasp. “The German
hangmen! To throw at a legless man his legs!”
Since then your mouth is numb and dumb. And since you fell,
I have no sleep or praise for God for any miracle,
though I came safe away. The miracle you waited for—
that the Revolution's poets might not become its prey—
vanished with the verdict on that fearful day:
“Slay the Jewish poet, slay his Lenin medal, slay, slay, slay!”(40)

At the outset of the stanza Grade reminds Markish of the death of the Yiddish writer Aharon-Yitzhak Gradzenski. Having lost his legs in a trolley accident in 1916, he had since then moved around on wooden ones. Like Grade a resident of Vilna, Gradzenski was caught there by the Germans, interned in the ghetto, and brutally killed in 1941. Grade's two-line narrative—

Dermon zikh dem poet fun vilne oyf di fis fun holts!
Der daytsh hot zey im nokhgevorfn oyfn toytn-vogn.(41)

—is based on Shmerke Kaczerginski's recollection of the events. Resisting his arrest by the Germans, Gradzenski was beaten, “aroysge trogn fun shtub, arayngevorfn in a farmakhtn oyto, vos hot avekgefirt oyf Ponar di alte un kranke, velkhe hobn tsufus nit gekent geyn” [Carried out of the room, and thrown onto a closed truck that carted away to Ponar the old, the sick, and those who could not walk on their own].42 Ozick's translation is more layered with allusions than is the original. Her rendition of Gradzenski's fate as being thrown onto a “pile of dead” and his legs after him, alludes to Markish's poem Di kupe (the pile, heap), a long, furious work of mourning about the anti-Jewish pogroms in the Ukraine in the early 1920s. Markish, who was traveling in the area at the time, was thought to have gotten killed there. Rumors of his death began circulating and obituary notices appeared in the Yiddish press.43 But Markish miraculously emerged unscathed from “the pile of dead” to publish his poem Di kupe in Warsaw in 1922. Choosing an allusion to Markish's poem over a wording more faithful to the original serves Ozick three purposes. First, it strengthens the theme of the miraculous escape, articulated by Grade more fully later in the stanza. Second, it reinforces Grade's leitmotiv of the sameness of Jewish fate. The uncanny similarity of the names Grade and Gradzenski, underscored by Ozick's translation of “mayn ben-ir Grodzenski” as “Vilna townsmen both, / Gradzenski and I,” as if Grade's name and fate were engulfed by Gradzenski's, alerts readers to the fact of how easily Gradzenski's fate could have been Grade's own, just as Markish could easily have shared the death of the Ukrainian Jews. But while Grade's miraculous escape sufficed him as a warning, Markish's did not. And finally, Ozick's allusive translation intensifies Grade's main point, which he makes rather more bluntly than Ozick:

Vi mayn ben-ir Grodzenski, der poet un invalid,
vos s'hot a daytsh im nokhgevorfn zayne fis mit khoysek,
hot oykh dayn opgot nokhgevorfn in dayn grub—dayn lid
vu du host mit a shturm-vint fun reyt geloybt im broyzik.

As invitations to gestures of cynicism and derision, Grade compares the cripple's wooden legs, flung by a German after his bloody corpse, to Markish's poem, praising his political idol in stormy rhetoric, flung after him into the grave by that very idol. What Grade has in mind here is most likely Markish's twenty-thousand-line epic Milkhome (war), written in the 1940s, which abounds in praise of Stalin. The tenor of Ozick's translation is completely different from that of Grade's original. Her earlier allusion to Di kupe reverberates in her line (not found in Grade's poem) “where with a roar / of rage you paid violent tribute to the dead.” This poem, written after the killings in the Ukraine, and the poetry Markish wrote during the forties, in which he expressed his Soviet patriotism along with his sorrow over the annihilation of the Jews, Grade compares, in Ozick's translation, in their absurd uselessness to Gradzenski's wooden legs (in the original invalid [cripple] rhymes with lid [poem]). Cunningly Ozick translates Grade's (ironic) representation of Markish's delayed recognition of the reality of Jewish fate in Eastern Europe with an allusion to Kurtz's final insight into the heart of darkness, “‘The horror!’ you used to gasp.”44

In the last third of the stanza Grade relents somewhat in his critique of Markish. In Ozick's translation Grade even concedes that from the moment Markish was shocked into recognition his mouth was “numb and dumb.”45 In fact, however, Markish was exceptionally productive from the beginning of the Russian-German war in 1941 until his arrest in 1949.

In the Yiddish poem Grade's emphasis is on the similarity between the Jewish fate under Nazi and Soviet rule. Quoting Markish as saying that he can no longer fall asleep (presumably after having learned about the slaughter of the Jews), Grade adds that having learned of Markish's death, he too cannot sleep any longer, nor can he praise God for the miracle of his own escape. Grade's modest half-verse, “vos ikh bin gants aroys,” one of the simplest in the poem, reflects his stunned awe at the miracle wrought in him. Ozick's elegant rendition, “though I came safe away,” keeps Grade's meter, three iambic feet, in an allusion to the traditional iambic elegiac meter (alternating hexameter and pentameter lines). The half-verse itself conceals a triple miracle, Grade's triple escape: first from the delusion that the Communist party's social promises also extended to the Jews (the Moscow trials of 1937 were warning enough for Grade), then from German-occupied Vilna (Grade got away with the retreating Soviet forces in 1941), and, finally, from Stalin's domain. (Grade left the Soviet Union in 1946 for Poland; he continued on to Paris, and in 1948 settled in New York).

By contrast, Markish's very natural expectation, “as s'vet di revolutsye ir bazingers nit dermordn” [that the Revolution will not kill those who sing its praises], which Grade with superb irony likens to waiting for a miracle, is of course sorely disappointed. Grade drives the point home when in the stanza's last line, conveying the death sentence of his farcical trial, he chose “lenin ordn,” the Lenin Medal given to Markish in 1939, as the perfect rhyme for “dermordn” (to murder). The poem itself ends after three more elegiac stanzas with Grade's acceptance of the bitter legacy left him by the Soviet Yiddish writers:

                                                                                You left
me your language, lilted with joy. But oh, I am bereft—
I wear your Yiddish like a drowned man's shirt,
wearing out the hurt.

To Irving Howe this particular poem must have meant a great deal. That he would argue for changes in Ozick's translation that were “on the side of prose,” that would prefer prosaic clarity to poetic diction, seems entirely understandable in light of the poem's allusiveness and Grade's heightened rhetoric. Mani Leib, quite possibly America's preeminent Yiddish poet, who welcomed Grade's arrival in New York and located him as a poet in the tradition of “‘Rosenfeld, Yehoash, Frug, Peretz, Bialik, Liessin, and Abraham Reisin,’” privately expressed reservations about Grade's style. “Grade's rhetoric and his inflated attempt to describe the national Jewish sorrow represented for Mani Leib the worst tendencies in modern Yiddish verse—‘fat exaggerated metaphors,’ ‘forced rhymes,’ ‘superfluous repetition’—all introduced to swell the importance of khurbn, the subject of the Holocaust.”46 On a subject as important as the murder of the Soviet Yiddish writers Howe may have preferred that the translation not be the original's poetic equivalent because English readers would, for the most part, not know the poem's historical context. On other subjects, Howe let Ozick's versions stand.

In her essay on the translation project, Ozick records her exchanges with Howe about David Einhorn's poem “Geshtorbn der letster bal tfile” (the last bal tfile is dead). Initially Howe insisted that bal tfile be rendered as “prayer leader.” In the end, Ozick's version began with an elegant pentameter, “The last to sing before the ark is dead,” despite the fact that a strong argument could be made against substituting for bal tfile, connoting a communal function, a term signaling individuality and joyful exuberance. But Howe acquiesced to Ozick's version.47 Ozick took the greatest—and in my view poetically most successful—liberties with the poems of H. Leivick, especially with “Oyf di vegn sibirer,” which begins like this:

Oyf di vegn sibirer
ken emets nokh itster gefinen a knepl, a shtrikl
fun mayns a tserisenem shukh,
a rimenem pas, fun leymenem krigl a shtikl,
a bletl fun heylikn bukh.
Even now
on the roads of Siberia
you can find
a button,
a shred of one of my shoelaces,
a belt,
a bit of broken cup,
a leaf of Scripture.(48)

Leivick's two five-verse stanzas both break into a gallop of dactyls after a calmly scanning first verse, indicating the running pace at which those condemned to hard labor, like Leivick, travel the roads and rivers of Siberia. Ozick's English version, by contrast, with its emphatic use of enjambements and radical shortening of Leivick's lines, brings into focus the austerity of the Siberian landscape, the isolation and deprivation of the prisoners, the few traces their suffering left. Ozick's translation works as a poem because its form expresses its content. However, her poetic choices also result in a toughening of the original poem. By sacrificing Leivick's galloping dactyls Ozick eliminates any sense of movement and thereby any trace of a human presence. Leivick's rapid meter, by contrast, creates the eerie illusion that those who once lost the button and left the footprint still haunt the place.

Ozick's deep immersion in a Yiddish poetry that consistently mourned the death of Jews in Eastern Europe,49 and her own struggle to recover their culture from the brink of oblivion, led her to think about the fate of Yiddish in America and the human tragedies forged by its decline. In 1967 she wrote what has become one of her most famous stories, “Envy; or, Yiddish in America.” “I put it in a drawer for a whole year,” Ozick recalls, “because I regarded it as a bad story. I was ashamed of it. I remember calling it pedestrian. I had submitted it somewhere and it had been turned down. … And then one day I took it out of the drawer, thinking, what the hell, I'll send it to Commentary and see what happens.” Norman Podhoretz, the magazine's young Hotspur editor, fell in love with it, but asked Ozick to rewrite the end. His objections were purely editorial, so she felt she could oblige. “This is the only time that I ever rewrote anything. I was not really publishing and I was old. I would have stood on my head if Norman Podhoretz told me to stand on my head. And then he published it [in the November 1969 issue] and the reaction was terrible. Unbelievable” (TI).

The story caused an outcry of pain and fury to rip through the Yiddish community. In the eyes of the Yiddish writers the story was a scandale. Its protagonists are two poets, Edelshtein and Baumzweig, who have no audience for their works because the Yiddish-speaking community has shriveled to a few aging souls. “Yiddish dead, vanished. Perished. Sent into darkness. … To speak of Yiddish was to preside over a funeral. [Edelshtein] was a rabbi who had survived his whole congregation. Those for whom his tongue was no riddle were specters.”50 Edelshtein and Baumzweig believe fervently in the literary quality of their poetry and insist that if they could find a translator, they would become famous like Yankel Ostrover, a “writer of stories” (“Envy” 46).

Ostrover's glory was exactly in this: that he required translators. Though he wrote only in Yiddish, his fame was American, national, international. They considered him a “modern.” Ostrover was free of the prison of Yiddish! Out, out—he had burst out, he was in the world of reality.

And how had he begun? The same as anybody, a columnist for one of the Yiddish dailies, a humorist, a cheap fast article-writer, a squeezer-out of real-life tales. Like anybody else, he saved up a few dollars, put a paper clip over his stories, and hired a Yiddish press to print up a hundred copies. A book. Twenty-five copies he gave to people he counted as relatives, another twenty-five he sent to enemies and rivals, the rest he kept under his bed in the original cartons. Like anybody else, his literary gods were Chekhov and Tolstoy, Peretz and Sholem Aleichem. From this, how did he come to The New Yorker, to Playboy, to big lecture fees, invitations to Yale and M.I.T. and Vassar, to the Midwest, to Buenos Aires, to a literary agent, to a publisher on Madison Avenue?

(“Envy” 47–48)

The rest of the story deals with Edelshtein's and Baumzweig's desperate envy of Ostrover and their efforts, Edelshtein's in particular, to duplicate his success. Believing the secret to lie in translation, Edelshtein woos Hannah, a young woman, literate in Yiddish, whom he gets to know through her uncle, Ostrover's crazy translator Vorovsky. Edelshtein begs Hannah to take on his work. But Hannah rejects Edelshtein as outdated. And Ostrover? Edelshtein asks: “‘… even in Yiddish Ostrover is not in the ghetto. Even in Yiddish he's not like you people,’” is Hannah's reply. They continue to quarrel until Edelshtein bursts out:

“Very good, he's achieved it, Ostrover's the world. A pantheist, a pagan, a goy.”

“That's it. You've nailed it. A Freudian, a Jungian, a sensibility. No little love stories. A contemporary. He speaks for everybody.”

“Aha. Sounds familiar already. For humanity he speaks? Humanity?”

“Humanity,” she said.

“And to speak for Jews isn't to speak for humanity? We're not human? We're not present on the face of the earth? We don't suffer? In Russia they let us live? In Egypt they don't want to murder us?”

“Suffer suffer,” she said. “I like devils best. They don't think only about themselves and they don't suffer.”

(“Envy” 95)

Turned off by Edelshtein's insistence on Jewish suffering, the young American denies his request. Seeing in Hannah his last chance to escape oblivion, Edelshtein continues to plead with her. But her final answer is incontrovertible: “She said desolately, ‘You don't interest me. I would have to be interested’” (“Envy” 99). The story ends with a still uncomprehending Edelshtein caught in the fury that precedes the work of mourning, lashing out at all anti-Semites from the Amalekites to Nasr, and concluding, “On account of you children become corrupted! On account of you I lost everything, my whole life! On account of you I have no translator” (“Envy” 100).

Ozick's story touched a raw nerve in the insular community of Yiddish writers. The character Ostrover was easily identified as Isaac Bashevis Singer. (“The Singer character is the Singer character”—(TI). He had been catapulted into the world of modern American letters by Saul Bellow's translation, done at the insistence of Irving Howe, of “Gimpel the Fool,” which appeared in the May 1953 issue of Partisan Review. It stood to reason that if Ostrover was so clearly I. B. Singer, that Baumzweig and Edelshtein also had their real-life counterparts—Chaim Grade and Jacob Glatstein thought of themselves as possibilities—whose vain hopes and petty quarrels Ozick had seemingly exposed. But the real source of pain lay elsewhere, Ozick surmised. “The story said that Yiddish was a dying language. That's really what killed them; because it was truthful and bitterly exposed. It was too painful. If people are alive and well and old and working as artists in the only language they have, which is for them both a source of art and an expression of art,” how can they bear to hear their language pronounced dead?

The Forward came out with a long article by its editor, Shimon Weber, condemning Ozick as a wolf in sheep's clothing. The Yiddish idiomatic equivalent “hasershde fiselakh [pig's feet],” which Ozick remembers Weber using, is in fact much more insulting than the English image for inimical deceit. The proverbial phrase suggests that the true nature of a disgusting object cannot be disguised. If you try to cover up a pig, its feet will stick out and its cloven hoofs will give it away as treyf (non-Kosher). “That was a very powerful image. The idea was that I looked like somebody respectful of Jewish themes and Yiddish [literature], but if you looked again, I was definitely treyf. They said that the commissars in Moscow and Warsaw could not be more anti-Semitic. … And so I became the enemy of the Jewish people. It was my little Philip Roth adventure. Yet I think it was more painful, in a way, than Philip Roth's. His was much more public; mine was more private. Why was it more painful? Because his dealt essentially with more ignorant Jews” (TI).

The bitter, grieved reaction of the Yiddish intellectuals, whom Ozick regarded as the Jewish cultural elite, came as an absolute shock to her. “I felt as if I had held a gift up to my mother and father, and in return they had struck me a blow on the skull.”51 She had written “Yiddish in America” (“Envy” had been Podhoretz's addition52) without the satirist's sharp ridicule and the detractor's scorn. Quite to the contrary:

I wrote it as an elegy, a lamentation, a celebration, because six million Yiddish tongues were under the earth of Europe, and because here under American liberty and spaciousness my own generation, in its foolishness, stupidity, and self-disregard had, in an act tantamount to autolobotomy, disposed of the literature of its fathers. I thought of my own, now middle-aged generation of American Jewish writers as unwitting collaborators in the Nazi extirpation of Yiddish.53

Clearly the story came out of the intellectual and emotional turmoil caused by Ozick's immersion in Yiddish poetry. She was ashamed that her generation had been so incurious about their parents' culture. She was pained by its brutal death in Eastern Europe, and yet she had been carried into the story by the “bliss of alphabet,” as well as by her discovery of an artistically and morally sophisticated literature. Although Ozick had developed a good grasp of Yiddish poetry in the course of her work for Irving Howe, she had written the story in complete ignorance of the ins and outs of the living Yiddish writers' community in New York. “I had no gossip about their lives or their relation to each other. I did not know these people personally. What I remembered from my childhood was this tiny group called the Hebrew Poetry Association of America. It was my uncle [Abraham Regelson] and the American Hebraists. I remembered their meetings and their schisms and factions, and their bitterness and spite. I based the story on the Hebrew Poetry Society of America—that was its official name. They had a magazine of which my uncle was the editor” (TI).

The magazine was Riv'on Katan le-Mahshava ve-Shira (little quarterly of thought and poetry), founded in New York in 1944. Like Baumzweig, who published in his biannual Yiddish periodical Bitterer Yam “much of his own poetry and a little of Edelshtein's” (“Envy” 46), Regelson was the Riv'on Katan's sole editor and main contributor.54 An accomplished Hebrew poet, Regelson created a surprising connection to the world of Yiddish letters. He was an ardent Zionist with socialist leanings, but being badly in need of money in the early 1940s, he began working as a journalist for the Yiddish daily Morgen Freiheit, an organ of the Jewish Communists. Through his work he got to know many of the Yiddish writers; and one fine day, in 1942, he found himself sharing the dais with a Yiddish poet in an awards ceremony at the Forward. In the audience was his niece, fourteen-year-old Cynthia Ozick, with her parents.

What I remember best about that afternoon is a smoky crowded hall, and my aunt singing in Hebrew with her thin pure voice. And at last the hall grew quiet, and the prizes were given—one, for a book of poetry in Hebrew, to my uncle. … The other poet to receive a prize that day had written a book of Yiddish poetry. His name was Jacob Glatstein.55

It was, in fact, Glatstein who felt most deeply hurt and personally wounded by Ozick's story. From his perspective there could be little doubt that he was Edelshtein.56 As Elaine Kauvar pointed out in her analysis of “Envy,” it is possible to recognize in Edelshtein's poetic program the goal of the Inzikhisten, the Introspectivists, who included Glatstein among their ranks, “to bring Yiddish poetry into the mainstream of Modern Yiddish literature.”57 Moreover, the ill feelings of the Yiddish writers toward Singer as a literary celebrity were notorious. In 1965, Glatstein had even written an essay against Singer in which he couched his objections in literary terms. The “fortuitous growth of Bashevis' fame,” Glatstein charged, was due to the depraved taste of his English readers. The Yiddish reader, Glatstein claimed, was much “less enthusiastic over Bashevis' tales of horror and eroticism” and less attuned to his “distasteful blend of superstition and shoddy mysticism.” Yiddish literature, Glatstein declared, “did not commit any wild and perverse crimes against its heroes.” But Bashevis dehumanized his “so-called heroes … forcing them to commit the most ugly deeds.” In short, to a Yiddish reader, “Bashevis' superstitious stories savor of a warmed-over stew of hoary old wives' tales, made alien by villainy, brutality, and cynicism.” To make things worse, the decadent content was not compensated by literary artistry, since Bashevis lacked “an ear for language and a sense of style” and had “no artistic breath of his own.” His autobiographical writings were “trivial, common-place and egocentric effusions,” and his most recent stories showed a wasted talent in decline. “Bashevis, the once facile and competent story-teller, has become weary, prolix, and written-out.”58

In Ozick's story, Edelshtein and Baumzweig also articulate their dislike of Ostrover by way of literary analysis:

They hated him for the amazing thing that had happened to him—his fame—but this they never referred to. Instead they discussed his style: his Yiddish was impure, his sentences lacked grace and sweep, his paragraph transitions were amateur, vile. Or else they raged against his subject matter, which was insanely sexual, pornographic, paranoid, freakish—men who embraced men, women who caressed women, sodomists of every variety, boys copulating with hens, butchers who drank blood for strength behind the knife. All the stories were set in an imaginary Polish village, Zwrdl, and by now there was almost no American literary intellectual alive who had not learned to say Zwrdl when he meant lewd.

(“Envy” 47)

The differences between Glatstein's critique and Ozick's fiction are obvious enough, but these were of no moment to the Yiddish writers. Rather, the uncanny similarities between Glatstein's essay and the complaints of Ozick's characters were simply taken as further evidence that Edelshtein was based on Glatstein. And yet the similarities were coincidental. “[Edelshtein] was not based on him at all,” Ozick explained. “He was made up! I did not know, when I wrote that story—just think of my ignorance!—that there had been a great fight between Glatstein and Singer, and that Glatstein had written this essay against Singer. I had no idea. I didn't know anything about their gossip. I didn't read their papers. I couldn't. It is hard for me to read Yiddish. Each paragraph is a major labor. So it's impossible” (TI).

There was no chance to make up with Glatstein, to explain that he had misunderstood “sorrowing love for hatred, and mourning for self-hatred.”59 Glatstein died in 1971. The remaining Yiddish community eventually understood. In 1972 Ozick was presented with the Jewish Heritage Award by the B'nai Brith for her story collection The Pagan Rabbi, which contained “Envy; or, Yiddish in America.” At the same ceremony an award for excellence in literature was posthumously given to Glatstein. Ozick titled her acceptance speech “A Bintel Brief for Jacob Glatstein,” sending after him the explanation he may (or may not) have needed in life.

A decade later, however, the opportunity for fuller restitution presented itself. Irving Howe, Ruth Wisse, and Khone Shmeruk were beginning to put together what became The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse (1987), and they invited Ozick to participate. Again, the task was “to create an English poem for every Yiddish original.” They would reprint two of her Leivick translations since her rendering coincided with the editors' sense that “in order to capture for a culture of greater emotional restraint the same passion that Leivick carries in Yiddish, we [needed to present] him through a selection of poems that was all sinew, tight lines, spare diction, emotion controlled.”60 Ozick's Leivick fit the bill.

For fresh translation the editors sent her new batches of poems by two other writers, Jacob Glatstein and Abraham Sutzkever. In the early 1980s, when the project got really under way, Ozick was no longer unknown. Through her stories collected in The Pagan Rabbi (1971), Bloodshed (1976), Levitation (1982), her novels Trust (1966) and The Cannibal Galaxy (1983), and her essays, assembled in Art & Ardor (1983), she had established herself as a superior English stylist and as one of the “new Jewish writers.” The latter Wisse defined as “writers who self-consciously define themselves as Jews and attempt to express their artistic vision in Jewish terms. Their interest is not in the sociological or even the psychological legacy of a Jewish background, but in the national design and religious destiny of Judaism, in its workable myths.”61

Despite Wisse's own firm commitment to Jewish literature—she had turned from the study of English to research on Yiddish—her first reaction to Ozick as a fiction writer was far from favorable. Although Wisse considered “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” “a masterpiece of contemporary fiction,” she found Ozick “not on the whole successful at creating autonomous characters whose destiny will tantalize or move the reader.” But Wisse responded strongly to the intellectual force in Ozick's work, leading her to conclude, “Miss Ozick is, in fact, an intellectual writer whose works are the fictional realization of ideas.”62 And Wisse recognized clearly, despite her misgivings about Ozick's “cockamamie idea”63 of creating a “centrally Jewish” or “liturgical” literature in English, that here was a writer who was deeply at home in Jewish and gentile literary high culture, yet able to articulate movingly the immigrant artist's anxieties. Above all, she was surprisingly ready to make her stories “Jewish assaults on fields of Gentile influence.”64

In fact, Ozick's fictions even went a step further and indicted the gentile world for the indignities to which it had subjected the Jews. Wisse concluded that Ozick would be able to relate to the “anti-Gentile outburst” in Glatstein's poetry and could be trusted to solve the difficult problem of conveying fury with poetic subtlety. Indeed, Ozick's translation of Glatstein's “Mozart,” in which the speaker “imagines himself the apostle of what is sublime in western civilization, the St. Paul of its desecrated culture,” is witty and playful, without softening the poem's bitter sarcasm.65 The other nine poems Ozick was given to translate, with subjects ranging from “Genesis” to “Old Age,” made equally great demands on her verbal skills, contextual knowledge, and poetic judgment. As the translations progressed, Ozick received encouraging letters from Wisse, who served as “the overseer of the language.” In the end, Ozick could say with confidence, “I got good at it” (TI). She had retrieved what she had once mourned as lost.

Perhaps the strongest sign of how much Wisse trusted Ozick as a translator was that she sent her poems by Abraham Sutzkever, the living poet who, personally and artistically, meant most to Wisse.66 Born near Vilna in 1913, Sutzkever belonged to the exclusive literary circle Yung Vilne. The left-leaning group was highly political, and the poems Sutzkever submitted when he sought admission to the group (“ballads about Kirghisian horsemen”) seemed to the group “irresponsibly asocial and naive.”67 Recognizing Sutzkever's great talent, however, the members relented and Sutzkever became part of an artistic circle that included Shmerke Kaczerginski (who recorded Gradzenski's death) and Chaim Grade. When the Second World War erupted in September 1939, the Soviet Army invaded Vilna and ceded it to Lithuania two months later. The city was flooded with Jewish refugees escaping from German-or Russian-occupied Poland, increasing Vilna's Jewish population from sixty to eighty thousand. On 24 June 1941, German troops marched into the city; the persecution and execution of the Jews began immediately.68 Sutzkever not only continued to write poetry but also insisted with growing fervor on aesthetic perfection. Survival, he believed, hung on the precision with which each Yiddish word was chosen. “In the face of so much degradation,” Wisse explained, “Sutzkever's passion for the exactitude of every word and every syllable is the highest restorative measure of dignity.”69

On 6 September 1941, the Jews of Vilna were herded into two ghettos of which the smaller was liquidated forty-six days later. In January 1942, the various political groups in the ghetto created a unified fighting organization, the F.P.O. (Fareynigte Partizaner Organizatsye). Sutzkever, his wife, and Kaczerginski joined. Total liquidation of the Vilna ghetto began in August 1943 and concluded on 2 September 1943. The Sutzkevers and Kaczerginski left the ghetto through sewers eleven days before the final deportations and broke through to a Byelorussian partisan group that operated in the forests and swamps around Vilna. German troops combing the area forced the Sutzkevers to hide in freezing water. Sutzkever continued to write scrupulously perfected poems even in the intolerable conditions the partisans endured in the winter of 1943 to 1944. In March 1944, the Anti-Fascist Committee of the USSR airlifted Sutzkever from German-occupied territory to Moscow because his poetic summons to cultural and physical resistance had made him a symbol of heroism.70

The Sutzkevers lived through the war in Moscow but went to Israel as illegal immigrants at their first opportunity in 1947. In 1948 Sutzkever became the editor of what is now the most distinguished Yiddish quarterly, Di goldene keyt, in which he brought together what remained of Yiddish culture in Europe, the Americas, and Israel. Sutzkever's life comprises all major aspects of the Jewish experience in modernity. By a fortunate accident of chronology his poetry concluded The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, thus ending the book on an “artistic peak”71 that testified to the continued vitality and sophistication of Yiddish letters after the war.

For this anthology, Ozick translated a highly formal poem of twelve rhyming couplets and intricate meter, written in Moscow in July 1944, in which the poet is suddenly overwhelmed in the summer heat by his remembrance of “frozen Jews, row on row.” But Ozick was also given Sutzkever's latest poems, written between 1975 and 1981. In the most recent and final poem of the anthology, simply titled “1981,” the poet receives a letter from “mayn heymshtot in der lite,” his hometown in Lithuania. The poet is haunted by the letter's enclosure, which dissolves the speaker's real world in remembrance and becomes the poem's steady refrain: a blade of grass from Ponar.

Ponar is a lovely wooded country retreat about ten miles from Vilna. In the summer of 1941, prior to the establishment of the Vilna ghetto, the Germans murdered some thirty-five thousand Jews there and buried them in a gigantic mass grave. Ponar is the anthology's final word. Although Wisse was right to point out that with Sutzkever the book did not peter out but ended on an artistic high note, Ponar is the final word in Yiddish poetry. While it is not the final theme in Yiddish poetry—in the Shoah's aftermath “Baumzweig wrote mostly of Death, Edelshtein of Love” (“Envy,” 46)—there is no reader of Yiddish poetry who is not at any moment aware of the culture's violent death.

To read Yiddish is to become inescapably engulfed in the hum of Ponar. In the first stanza of “1981” Sutzkever presents a fitting metaphor for Yiddish poetry. All that remains of Yiddish culture, he seems to say, is a letter arriving from the poet's home town, sent by someone whose appeal as a young woman still holds the poet in its grip (lite [Lithuania] rhymes with shlite [obsession, idée fixe]). But enclosed in the letter, conveying inseparably affection and sorrow, he finds a blade of grass from Ponar. In the poem's last stanza, the poet allies himself with the dead. In a gesture invoking the questioning of God's justice from Hiob to Tevye, the poet intends to bring “a matone farn har: / dos grezl fun Ponar” (“to the Lord my oblation at last: / the blade of grass from Ponar”).72

Sustained immersion in Yiddish poetry creates a singularly eery effect: it drives home the finality of the German Final Solution and transforms what one has self-protectively come to think of as mechanical mass murder back into what it was at the time: the utterly unexpected slaughter of individuals. Just as Sutzkever, after thirty years in Israel, is still obsessed with his “heymshtot in der lite,” so Ozick would never be free again, after her deep immersion in Yiddish poetry, of the maddening knowledge of its bloody death. What had died were real people. She went on to write about happier topics in Yiddish letters. A long essay on Sholom Aleichem, for instance, appeared in 1988.73 But the brutal liquidation of his audience has become one of the most vibrant and prominent themes in Cynthia Ozick's writing.


  1. Cynthia Ozick, panel presentation on American Jewish writing, New York Public Library, May 1994.

  2. Virginia Woolf, “Women and Fiction,” reprinted in In Depth: Essayists for Our Time, ed. Carl Klaus, Chris Anderson, and Rebecca Faery 2d ed. (Fort Worth, Tex.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1993), 792–93.

  3. Cynthia Ozick, “Literature and Politics of Sex: A Dissent” (1977), in her Art & Ardor: Essays (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984), 285–86. In an interview by Toni Teicholz Ozick said, “I think of the imagination as a place of utter freedom. There one can do whatever one wants.” See “The Art of Fiction XCV: Cynthia Ozick,” Paris Review 29 (Spring 1987): 178.

  4. Cynthia Ozick to author, [31] May 1994. The renaissance of Jewish American writing was the subject of an interview with Cynthia Ozick conducted by Elaine Kauvar and reprinted in Contemporary Literature 34 (Fall 1993): 359–94.

  5. Ozick, presentation at the New York Public Library, May 1994.

  6. The most notable critical endeavors include Elaine Kauvar, Cynthia Ozick's Fiction: Tradition and Invention (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993); Sarah Blacher Cohen, Cynthia Ozick's Comic Art: From Levity to Liturgy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994); Victor Strandberg, Greek Mind, Jewish Soul: The Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994); Gislar Donnenberg, Innovation und Orthodoxie: Cynthia Ozick und der Versuch eines neuen amerikanisch-jüdischen Romans (Ph.D. diss., 1993, University of Innsbruck, Austria); Norman Finkelstein, The Ritual of New Creation: Jewish Tradition and Contemporary Literature (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992); Rosellen Brown, “The Ozick-Bloom Controversy: Anxiety of Influence, Usurpation as Idolatry, and the Identity of Jewish American Literature,” Studies in American Jewish Literature 11 (Spring 1992): 62–82; Mark Krupnick, “Cynthia Ozick as the Jewish T. S. Eliot,” Soundings 74 (Fall-Winter 1991): 351–68: Michael Greenstein, “Ozick, Roth, and Postmodernism,” Studies in American Jewish Literature 19 (Spring 1991): 54–64. Two collections of essays continue to be interesting: Daniel Walden, ed., “The World of Cynthia Ozick,” Studies in American Jewish Literature 6 (Fall 1987), and Harold Bloom, ed., Modern Critical Views: Cynthia Ozick (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986).

  7. Other Jewish aspects, covered in an earlier and much longer version of this essay, were Ozick's attitude toward ritual observance, Israel, Hebrew, Germany, and the Holocaust.

  8. Ozick, interview by Teicholz, 172. In a 1979 essay on Harold Bloom Ozick speculated that “if there can be such a chimera as a ‘Jewish writer,’ it must be the kind of sphinx or gryphon (part one thing, part another) Bloom himself is, sometimes purifying like Abraham, more often conjuring like Terach, and always knowing that the two are icily, elegiacally, at war.” In Art & Ardor, 198.

  9. Cynthia Ozick, “Bech, Passing” (1970), in Art & Ardor, 123.

  10. Ozick, interview by Elaine Kauvar, in Contemporary Literature 26 (Winter 1985): 375–401.

  11. Cynthia Ozick, “Toward a New Yiddish” (1970), in Art & Ardor, 164.

  12. Cynthia Ozick, interview by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick, Texas Studies in Literature and Language 25 (1983): 259.

  13. Ozick, interview by Teicholz, 188.

  14. Cynthia Ozick, The Messiah of Stockholm (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1987), 8. Further references to this novel are cited in the text as Messiah.

  15. Ozick, “Toward a New Yiddish,” 165–66.

  16. Cynthia Ozick, “The Suitcase,” in her The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971; reprint, New York: Schocken, 1976), 108.

  17. Cynthia Ozick, “Bloodshed,” in her Bloodshed and Three Novellas (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1976), 69–71.

  18. Ozick, interview by Rainwater and Scheick, 258.

  19. “Debate: Ozick vs. Schulweis,” Moment 1 (May—June 1976): 78.

  20. Cynthia Ozick, quoted in Elaine Kauvar's introductory remarks to her 1993 interview with Cynthia Ozick, 359.

  21. Cynthia Ozick, “Of Polished Mirrors,” presentation at the conference “The Writer in the Jewish Community,” Berkeley, Calif., 23–25 October 1988, distributed by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

  22. Ozick, “Imagining the Other,” proceedings of the conference “The Writer in the Jewish Community,” Berkeley, Calif, 23–25 October 1988, distributed by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. The last quote is taken from Ozick, “Hadrian and Hebrew,” 77.

  23. Ozick, “Toward a New Yiddish,” 172.

  24. Cynthia Ozick, telephone interview by author, 2 February 1995; all further references to this source will be cited in the text as TI.

  25. Cynthia Ozick, “Mrs. Virginia Woolf: A Madwoman and Her Nurse,” in Art & Ardor, 54.

  26. Virginia Woolf, “Women and Fiction,” 792.

  27. This is the title of the first chapter in Kauvar's study Cynthia Ozick's Fiction (1993).

  28. Ozick has never bothered to collect her poetry. However, forty-seven of her poems were made available in a bibliophile edition, accompanied by prints by Sidney Chafetz, in Cynthia Ozick, Epodes: First Poems (Columbus: Logan Elms Press and Paper Mill at Ohio State University, 1992).

  29. Strandberg, Greek Mind/Jewish Soul, 57. Strandberg's is the only study I know of that considers Ozick's poetry at some length.

  30. Harold Bloom, “The Sorrows of American-Jewish Poetry,” Commentary 53 (March 1972): 73.

  31. Cynthia Ozick, “A Bintel Brief for Jacob Glatstein,” Jewish Heritage (14 September 1972): 58.

  32. Ozick, “A Bintel Brief,” 59. How the world of books and literary high art became the focal point of Ozick's intellectual life she described in a series of personal essays that includes “A Drugstore in Winter” (1982), in Art & Ardor, 298–305; “Washington Square, 1946” (1985), in her Metaphor & Memory (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1989), 112–19; and “Alfred Chester's Wig,” New Yorker 68 (30 March 1992): 79–98.

  33. Ozick, “A Drugstore in Winter,” in Art & Ardor, 304. About Ozick's mother see Cynthia Ozick, “Passage to the New World,” Ms. 6 (2 August 1977): 70–74, 87.

  34. Ozick, “A Drugstore in Winter,” 300.

  35. Ozick, “A Bintel Brief,” 59–60.

  36. Cynthia Ozick, “A Translator's Monologue” (1983), Metaphor & Memory, 201. The essay describes her work on the translations for A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry.

  37. About this event the historian Nora Levin writes: “The writers Markish, Feffer, Bergelson, Kvitko, Hofshteyn, and Halkin, who had been arrested in 1948–49, languished in prison until the summer of 1952 and were among the twenty-five Jews brought to trial on July 11, after going through Beria's inquisition cells. They were charged with being enemies of the USSR, agents of American imperialism, guilty of bourgeois national Zionism, and trying to sever the Crimea from the Soviet Union. It is believed that there was a secret trial from July 11 to 18, at which twenty-five Yiddish writers, actors, cultural activists were tried, including Bergelson, Feffer, Hofshteyn, Kvitko, Lozovsky, Markish, Nusinov, Persov, Spivak, and Zuskin. … Dr. Lina Shtern, a gifted scientist, was also among the twenty-five defendants, and the only one among them who survived. The others were executed on August 12, 1952, in the cellar of Moscow's Lubyanka prison.” Nora Levin, The Jews in the Soviet Union Since 1917: Paradox of Survival (London: I. B. Tauris, 1988), 2: 527–29.

  38. Short biographies, compiled by Mendl Pyekasz, can be found in Khone Shmeruk, ed., A shpigl oyf a shteyn: Antologye poezye un prose fun tsvelf farshnitene yidishe shraybers in ratn-farband [A Mirror on a Stone: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose by Twelve Murdered Yiddish Authors in the Soviet Union] (Tel Aviv: J. L. Peretz Publishing House, 1964).

  39. Ibid., 740.

  40. Chaim Grade, “Elegy for the Soviet Yiddish Writers,” trans. Cynthia Ozick, in A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry, ed. Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), 341, 343.

  41. Chaim Grade, “Ikh vayn oyf aykh mit ale oysyes fun dem alef-bet,” Der mentsh fun fayer: lider un poemes [“I weep for you with all the letters of the alphabet,” The Man of Fire: Songs and Poems] (New York: CYCO, 1962), 107.

  42. “Grodzenski, Aron-Yitskhak,” Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur (New York: Congress for Jewish Culture, 1958), 2: 335.

  43. Shmeruk, ed., A shpigl oyf a shteyn, 752.

  44. Howe, Greenberg, eds., A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry, 343.

  45. Ozick reads Grade's verse “un sint du host a fal geton mit a farglivert moyl” metaphorically as referring to the death of the poet shocked into muteness by his recognition of the fate of the Jews symbolized by Gradzenski's death. I read Grade's verse literally. Only as he is being shot and collapses does Markish's mouth congeal.

  46. Ruth R. Wisse, A Little Love in Big Manhattan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 228.

  47. Ozick, “A Translator's Monologue,” 203–7.

  48. H. Leivick, “Oyf di vegn sibirer,” trans. Cynthia Ozick, in The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, ed. Irving Howe, Ruth R. Wisse, and Khone Shmeruk (New York: Viking, 1987), 228–30.

  49. In addition to the translations printed by Howe (three poems by Einhorn, six by Leivick, and two by Grade), Ozick had also done Itsik Manger, “A Song about Elijah the Prophet,” Congress Bi-Weekly 36 (28 April 1969): 13; and H. Leivick, “Father Legend,” Midstream 17 (April 1971): 29–32. A few years later Howe asked her to translate an essay by A. Tabachnik, “Tradition and Revolt in Yiddish Poetry,” for Voices from the Yiddish: Essays, Memoirs, Diaries (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972), edited with Eliezer Greenberg.

  50. Cynthia Ozick, “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” in The Pagan Rabbi, 42–44. All further references to this story are cited in the text as “Envy.”

  51. Ozick, “A Bintel Brief,” 60.

  52. Cohen, Cynthia Ozick's Comic Art, 62.

  53. Ozick, “A Bintel Brief,” 60.

  54. Steven P. Hudson, Fragmentation and Restoration: The Tikkun Ha-Olam Theme in the Metaphysical Poetry of Abraham Regelson (Chicago: Adams Press, 1988), 8.

  55. Ozick, “A Bintel Brief,” 59.

  56. Nor did anyone else doubt the identification very much, as Ozick was to learn. “When I went to see Gershom Scholem for the first time and I was ready to fall on my knees to him in homage and I walked in the door on Barbanel Street and the first thing he said to me [was], ‘So tell me, Ms. Ozick, is Edelshtein Glatstein?’ I almost fell through the floor. It amazed me” (TI).

  57. Kauvar, Cynthia Ozick's Fiction, 58. In her reading of “Envy” Kauvar persists in identifying Edelshtein with Glatstein, basing her argument to a great extent on Ozick's translation of Glatstein's poetry. These translations, however, were not undertaken until the early eighties, almost two decades after the conception of the story.

  58. Jacob Glatstein, “The Fame of Bashevis Singer,” Congress Bi-Weekly 32 (27 December 1965): 17–18.

  59. Ozick, “A Bintel Brief,” 60. Irving Howe relates that he once argued with Glatstein about Ozick's story, “which he read as an assault on Yiddish writers at a moment when they were all but defenseless. I suggested the story was really written out of affection, and eyes blazing, he turned to me, ‘Do you think it is affection we need?’” Irving Howe, “Journey of a Poet,” Commentary 53 (January 1972): 77.

  60. Ruth R. Wisse, “What Shall Live and What Shall Die: The Makings of a Yiddish Anthology,” Twelfth Annual Rabbi Louis Feinberg Memorial Lecture in Judaic Studies, Judaic Studies Program, University of Cincinnati, 3 May 1989, 8, 12.

  61. Ruth R. Wisse, “American-Jewish Writing, Act II,” Commentary 61 (June 1976): 41. Ozick's response to this article was reprinted in “Writers and Critics,” Commentary 62 (September 1976): 8–10.

  62. Wisse, “American-Jewish Writing, Act II,” 42, 43.

  63. Ruth R. Wisse, interview by author, Cambridge, Mass., 18 July 1994.

  64. Wisse, “American-Jewish Writing, Act II,” 41.

  65. Wisse, “What Shall Live,” 19–20; for Wisse's analysis of the poem and Ozick's translation see 19–21.

  66. See the chapter on Ruth Wisse in my forthcoming study, Enlarging America: The Cultural Work of Jewish Literary Scholars, 1930–1990 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press).

  67. Ruth R. Wisse, introduction to Burnt Pearls: Ghetto Poems of Abraham Sutzkever, trans. Seymour Mayne (Oakville, Ont.: Mosaic Press, 1981), 10.

  68. Abraham Foxman, Encyclopedia Judaica, S. V. “Vilna—Holocaust Period,” (Jerusalem: Keter, 1972), 16: 148.

  69. Ruth R. Wisse, “Abraham Sutzkever the Storyteller,” introduction to Abraham Sutzkever, Di nevue fun shvarteaplen: dertseylungn / The Prophecy of the Inner Eye (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press of the Hebrew University, 1989), xix.

  70. Wisse, Introduction to Burnt Pearls, 16; Benjamin Harshav introduction to Abraham Sutzkever, Selected Prose and Poetry, trans. Barbara and Benjamin Harshav (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 20.

  71. Wisse, “What Shall Live,” 26.

  72. Howe, Wisse, eds., The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, 702–3.

  73. Cynthia Ozick, “Sholem Aleichem's Revolution,” The New Yorker (28 March 1988): 99–109; reprinted in Metaphor & Memory, 173–98.

Millicent Bell (review date winter 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 pleased that the film (although it had happy-ended his story) gave notice that he had not been merely a “Jewish writer.” He had always been interested in writing “for all men,” he said. The Natural had successfully evoked the most American of myths as expressed by our national sport. But the novel had not, in doing this, cast a single character as a Jew—a false start for Malamud whose Jewishness was the ground water of his imagination. His second novel, The Assistant, now thought to be his best taps directly into his own early memories. It has a hero who resembles Malamud's father, an immigrant grocer struggling to survive in New York during the Depression. And the short stories he had begun writing derive from early observation of the Jews without money he had known in his boyhood, especially small shopkeepers or craftsmen who lived isolated lives amidst the alien corn, bereft of a lost shtetl world. Critics compared Malamud to Chekhov, Hemingway, and Joyce as well as to Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Yiddish teacher from whom he had learned how to make a tale both vernacular and universal. “The Magic Barrel” is the title story of his first collection of tales, a National Book Award winner.

It portrays the anguish of Leo Finkle, a poor Rabbinical student who goes to a marriage broker to find a bride and falls in love, perhaps by the broker's contrivance, with the broker's prostitute daughter. But, in “The First Seven Years,” there is also Feld, the shoemaker whose aspirations for his daughter are balked by love she arouses in his unpromising apprentice. In “The Mourners,” Kessler, formerly an egg candler, living on social security in his dirty flat, provokes repugnance and sadism in the tenement janitor and the building owner. In “Take Pity,” Rosen, a coffee salesman, falls in love with a grocer's impoverished widow who refuses his charity. In “The Bill,” Schlegel, a janitor, runs up a bill he cannot pay at a delicatessen being squeezed to death by a new self-service. Tommy Castrelli (who might just as well be Jewish) watches, with silent pity, as a ten-year-old steals candy in his store in “The Prison.” Malamud had received a Rockefeller grant (sponsored by PR) and went to Italy for a year, and some of the Magic Barrel stories reflect the foreign scene the writer observed as sharply as he had seen the streets of New York. But, in an odd, Henry Jamesian way, these are representations of a transplanted state of mind. “The Last Mohican” is the first of Malamud's stories about a New York déraciné in Rome, the failed painter Fidelman, pursued by a schnorrer he cannot shake off and must embrace.

These stories are not just genre sketches despite their representation of the comic/pathetic circumstances and pretzel-bent English of the characters. There is a mysterious, visionary element in them, a flirting with the fabulous that heightens their meaning as morality tales. In “Angel Levine” the tailor, Manischevitz, oppressed by reverses, is visited by a black man whom he first takes for a down-at-the-heels social worker but who identifies himself as a wingless Jewish angel sent to succor him. “So if God sends me an angel, why a black?” asks Manischevitz. Only after his troubles multiply beyond bearing does he seek out Levine. He finds him drunk and in bad company at a disreputable Harlem honky-tonk. An authentic angel, this person? “Manischevitz was recalling scenes of his youth as a wheel in his mind whirred: believe, do not, yes, no, yes, no.” He decides: “I think you are an angel from God.” After this, Levine sprouts wings. When Manischevitz finds his wife recovered from deathly sickness, he tells her, “A wonderful thing, Fanny. Believe me, there are Jews everywhere.” A religious story? Yes. No. A story about racial division and its repair. About redemptive trust and the recovery of community.

Perhaps the supernatural that surfaces in some of the stories derives from Rabbinical tradition; religious mythology and moral teaching is often implied where the fabulous suggests another, sacred world. We wonder where we are as we begin “Take Pity”:

Davidov, the census-taker, opened the door without knocking, limped into the room, and sat wearily down. Out came his notebook and he was on the job. Rosen, the ex-coffee salesman, waited, eyes despairing, sat motionless cross-legged, on his cot. The square, clean, but cold room, lit by a dim globe, was sparsely furnished: the cot, a folding chair, small table, old, unpainted chests—no closets but who needed them?—and a small sink with a rough piece of green, institutional soap on its holder—you could smell it across the room.

Is this a hospital room? A prison cell? We are in hell or purgatory, though those places are not referred to. The “census-taker” seems another wingless angel, making up the record for Rosen who had finally killed himself so that he might leave his property to the widow who sent back all his letters. “Let her say now no.”

Malamud's stories—like Joyce's—climax in secular epiphanies. What, after all, is magic about the matchmaker's barrel full of the pictures of impossible brides? That it reveals to young rabbi Finkel what he truly is—someone “unloved and loveless” who “has come to God not because [he] loved him but because [he] did not,” while the same barrel contains, also the bride he can love, the woman who will redeem him, though she is the most impossible. After Kessler, the isolated ex-egg-candler, has been thrust out of his miserable lodging but has broken in again, he cries out to his landlord, “What did I do to you? Who throws out of his house a man he lived there ten years and pays every month on time his rent?” His suffering makes him recall the reason for his loneliness—how years before he had abandoned his family—and he rocks, moaning, on the floor. And Gruber, the landlord, his enemy, suddenly joins him in sitting shira. “With a cry of shame he pulled the sheet off Kessler's bed and wrapping it around himself sank to the floor and became a mourner.” It is the same discovery of redemptive mutuality that makes the climax in The Assistant between the grocer Morris Bober and Frank Alpine, the small-time crook and drifter who works for him: “‘What do you suffer for, Morris?’ said Frank. ‘I suffer for you,’ Morris said calmly. ‘What do you mean?’ asked Frank. ‘I mean you suffer for me.’” Their illumination is as much Christian as Jewish, resembling what occurs in certain stories by Flannery O'Connor deriving ultimately from her Catholicism (O'Connor, when she read The Magic Barrel, exclaimed to a friend, “I have discovered a short-story writer who is better than any of them, including myself”). His stories give such universality to the theme of Jewish loneliness that they justify Malamud's own remark. “All men are Jews.”

Malamud would write six more novels after The Assistant, most notably The Fixer (which won a Pulitzer Prize) about a Jewish handyman accused of a ritual murder in Czarist Russia, and The Tenants, a darker vision of black-Jewish relations than had been expressed sixteen years before in “Angel Levine.” But it is the shorter fiction, written throughout his life that distinguishes him as a modern master. Following The Magic Barrel, there were three more collections of stories he continued to publish in PR,Commentary, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and other magazines. Some of these have been further reprinted many times but it is only now that we have all fifty-five in one volume. In The Complete Stories we can even read the earliest, which appeared in college magazines in the forties—realistic Depression stories typified by “The Grocery Store” which depicts the despair of the defeated shopkeeper: “Eighteen hours a day, from 6 a.m. to midnight, sitting in the back of a grocery store waiting for a customer to come in for a bottle of milk and a loaf of bread and maybe—maybe a can of sardines.” Still missing is the shimmer of sacred mystery that lights up the literal in The Magic Barrel. But once that breakthrough is achieved it continues to illuminate the best of his later work. In “Idiot's First” (1961) Mendel, who is dying, is resolved to provide for his retarded son by sending him to an uncle in California. He hasn't the price of the rail ticket even after he pawns his watch, and he is turned off by a rich man who tells him, “Private contributions I don't make—only to institutions. … Take him to an institution.” A sympathetic rabbi hands him his own coat to pawn, however, and there is just time enough to buy the ticket. Yet in the station the platform gate is closed, the train is pulling out, and “Ginzburg” stands guard: “Favors you had enough already. For you the train is gone. You shoulda been dead already at midnight.” Mendel cries to the angel of death (for who else can this “Ginzburg” be?), “You bastard, don't you understand what it means human?”—and the gate opens.

In The Complete Stories one can read again, with delight, “The Jewbird” (1963), Malamud's fable about a ragged crow who flies, uninvited, through the window of the apartment of a frozen-food salesman. “Gewalt, a pogrom,” the bird says as Harry Cohen whacks at it. The refugee hangs around till it wears out its welcome, though it has entertained the family with its jokes, tutored the schoolboy son, and asked only for a bit of herring on a crust from time to time. Its reluctant host, a Jewish “anti-semeet,” begins to persecute the jewbird, exiles it to the wintry balcony of the apartment, introduces a murderous cat, and, finally, throws the bird to its death in the street. “The Silver Crown” (1972) is a story about an ambiguously supernatural miracle. Albert Gans pays a faith healer to save his dying father by making him a magical healing crown. A high school biology teacher, an educated skeptic, he has no reason except desperation to believe in the cure promised by the shifty, shabby old rabbi. He suspects he is being conned and finally panics and wants his money back. “Think of your father who loves you,” the old man says—making Albert suddenly retort, in a burst of unforeseeable truth-telling, “He hates me the son of a bitch, I hope he croaks.” The confession is the miracle, whether the death of Albert's father is inevitable or caused by Albert's curse.

Malamud died in 1986, but Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer, the three other horsemen of the Jewish-American literary apocalypse that galloped into view in the 1950s and 60s, are still clattering down the highway. This past season saw new books by all three—a major novel by Roth, a wise novella by Bellow, and a characteristic illustration of his rash self-confidence by Mailer, to be discussed below. In addition, there is a new book of fiction from Cynthia Ozick, her first in a decade. She has always been aware of the dominating presence of her male rivals. When she heard Malamud read “The Silver Crown” at the 92nd Street Y in New York, the effect, Ozick says, was “so electrifying that I wished with all my heart it was mine”—an event she reproduces in a story called “Usurpation (Other People's Stories).” But Ozick's exploitation of Jewish humor and mysticism is not identical with Malamud's—she is more complexly and self-consciously intellectual, for one thing. Except for Bellow—the most intellectual of them all—she is more constantly embroiled in the play and contest of ideas than her male counterparts, and it is not surprising that she has become famous as an essayist with a quirky, swaggery, brightly readable way of dealing with difficult questions. But her fiction expresses her thought on a deeper level.

Where she differs most from Mailer, Roth, Malamud, and even Bellow has been in her view of Jewish identity. She does not believe that “all men are Jews.” She dedicated her novel The Messiah of Stockholm to Roth because he had drawn her attention to the novel's historical subject, the Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, and perhaps because her plot was suggested by Roth's “Prague Orgy.” Yet her use of their shared heritage—her unique literary tone—is different from his. To Roth's disclaimer—not unlike Malamud's—“I am not a Jewish writer; I am a writer who is a Jew,” she responded in 1970, “Roth's words do not represent a credo; they speak for a doom.” More than these fellow writers, Ozick herself has wanted to hang fast to an unassimilated Jewish identity, to use the structures of traditional Hebrew exegesis in viewing the world. There is a resemblance between her early story, “Bloodshed,” and Roth's “Eli, the Fanatic,” in which an orthodox believer is contrasted with a modern, assimilated American Jew, but Roth is more interested in the conflicted Jewish-American, Ozick in the strength of her orthodox refugee from the Nazi camps. Yet she is not all-of-a-piece. The problem of achieving Jewish self-definition obsesses her, and it sometimes seems that she despairs of a solution. Who can forget Isaac Kornfeld in “The Pagan Rabbi,” the pious scholar who becomes a passionate pantheist, who struggles for union with nature and couples with the dryad of the tree on which he finally hangs himself? But does Ozick see herself in him? Or in the story's skeptic narrator who abandons his religious vocation, goes into his uncle's fur business, and marries an American Protestant “puritan” from whom he is soon divorced—while Rabbi Kornfeld marries a holocaust survivor? Or in this wife of the transcendental apostate who hides her beautiful hair in the orthodox married woman's wig and bears seven daughters? Or is Ozick herself present in none of these but rather in the ironic, rationalist mind that molds the narrative? “The Shawl,” published with its sequel “Rosa” in 1989, confronts the question of Jewish identity through that most inexpressible of subjects, the holocaust experience—the historic trauma which haunts all writing about Jewry in our time. Like Bellow—“whose whole fiction is a wrestling with the Angel of Theodicy,” as she has said—Ozick seeks to comprehend the “Creator who admitted Auschwitz into His creation”—and this darkest of puzzles remains unilluminated. Despair concerning ultimate meaning—despite a superficial lightheartedness—seems represented in the five stories joined together in The Puttermesser Papers.

They do not compose a novel although the separate stories give portions (not always logically connected) of one Ruth Puttermesser's history from youth to death and the afterlife. The book is uneasily taken as a whole. Ozick once criticized Roth's The Counterlife because its characters seemed to her “so wilily infiltrated by postmodern inconstancy that they keep revising their speeches and their fates: you can't trust them to stay dead.” But The Puttermesser Papers is as postmodern and skeptical as anything Roth has written. One of its best moments is a scene between young Ruth and her great-uncle Zindel who has been giving her Hebrew lessons and acts as an ancestral reference until the narrator breaks off to say he died before she was born: “Stop, stop! Puttermesser's biographer, stop! … Though it is true that biographies are invented, not recorded, you invent too much!” The authorial voice engages the formulas of conventional story-telling and mocks them, as when she pauses to say,

Now if this were an optimistic portrait, exactly here is where Puttermesser's emotional life would begin to grind itself into evidence. Her biography would proceed romantically, the rich young Commissioner of the Department of Receipts and Disbursements would fall in love with her. She would convert him to intelligence and the cause of Soviet Jewry. He would abandon boating and the pursuit of bluebloods. Puttermesser would end her work history and move on to a bower in a fine suburb. This is not to be.

The Puttermesser Papers is a dancing combination of straight and “magic” realism, of actual and pretended authorial self-reference and self-consciousness. But witty and astonishing as they are, the “papers” seem to compose a grim allegory signifying the defeat of various idealisms which Ozick herself may once have cherished. It is not an “optimistic portrait.” The character with the ridiculous name of Butter Knife is a defeated pilgrim. In the most astonishing of the stories, “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” Puttermesser makes a golem, like the famous rabbis of old, but she is herself a kind of golem created by her own maker to work temporary wonders until she is compelled to subside into dust.

Puttermesser, who is and looks Jewish—she would not be invited to pose for a Breck Shampoo ad, she reminds us—begins by reading the hardest books, getting the best marks in law school, going to work in a prestigious WASP law firm. Soon she discovers that she will never rise above a drudge's status in the back office. Having better faith in the fairness of a democracy's civil service, she enters the City's Department of Receipts and Disbursements and labors in its Kafka-like warren of bureaucratic complications and futilities. Here, too, she fails to progress and is arbitrarily demoted. In addition, she is jilted by her married lover because she reads in bed. But as “Puttermesser and Xanthippe” relates, she finds a naked girl in her apartment one day, a creature she discovers to be a golem she has unknowingly created. With the golem's help, she is elected Mayor and transforms New York. “Gangs of youths have invaded the subway yards at night and washed the cars clean. … In their high secret pride, the slums undo themselves. … The ex-pimps are learning computer skills.” But this paradise on earth must soon decay. The golem's own lust and ambition get out of hand—and Puttermesser destroys her.

Later stories return to the realism of the opening and reinforce the pessimism of the Xanthippe story as one or another of Puttermesser's beliefs is shown to be fallacious. Middle-aged Puttermesser does not seem to have ever made a golem but merely retired as a municipal civil servant. She falls in love with a painter who copies works in the Metropolitan Museum, and she tries to enact with him the union of George Eliot and George Henry Lewes. But her lover replicates instead the role of John Cross, to whom Eliot was briefly married after Lewes' death and who attempted suicide. The moral in this odd affair may concern the dangers of imitation, whether of art or others' actuality, or merely, perhaps, the likely failure of idealized relationships. A more successful, very funny story casts into the dustbin Puttermesser's sentimental view of the Soviet Jew. She takes in a refugee Russian cousin who turns out to be neither pathetic victim nor freedom fighter but a savvy beauty who makes money selling Lenin medals and other souvenirs of the land from which she has fled and to which she returns thousands of dollars richer. Finally, Puttermesser meets her death, like a true New Yorker raped and murdered by a ski-masked burglar. Fantasy returns to the narrative as we follow our heroine to Heaven, where “the lost, the missing, the wished for,” are recovered—the love of a man who had rejected her when she was nineteen and the birth of a child she never had. But like the golem-created paradisal New York or the perfect marriage of the two Georges or the myth of the idealistic revolutionary, paradise crumbles: “The secret meaning of Paradise is that it too is hell.” On this note of final disillusion a poetic and bizarre book closes.

In 1970, Ozick wrote that Norman Mailer was, to her mind, “a tragic American exemplar of wasted powers and large-scale denial [who,] born in the shtetl called Brooklyn, so strenuously and with little irony turns himself into Esau.” She predicted, “One day he will become a small Gentile footnote, about the size of H. L. Mencken. And the House of Israel will know him no more. And he will have had his three decades of Diaspora flattery. Esau gains the short run but the long run belongs to Jacob.” I would guess that her view has not altered and that Mailer's latest work seems to her a fulfillment of her prediction. This, his thirtieth book, may be the ultimate expression of what Ozick might consider his role as Esau—the rewriting of the canonical life of the founder of Christianity. It is, in any case, no major addition to a reputation that continues to be that of one of our most talented writers whose best achievements have often fallen short of complete success while proving his abundant versatility, his interest in the whole of life, his readiness to take risks and to change.

The Gospel According to the Son is either a novel or a novelized “true life,” the latest in the succession of free-form Mailer biographies of diverse remarkable persons—Marilyn Monroe, Lee Harvey Oswald, Gary Gilmore, Pablo Picasso. The subject has appealed to novelists ever since David Friedrich Strauss (whose Das Leben Jesu was first translated into English by George Eliot) first offered the image of a real man who lived an extraordinary life without necessarily performing the miracles attributed to him. Ernest Renan's historical Vie de Jesus (1863) became as popular as the novels that began to be written in which Jesus is at least a minor character (as in George Moore's The Brook Kerith) and sometimes the central one. Even Dickens wrote a Life of Our Lord for children. Among recent novelistic recapitulations and variations of the story intensely familiar to millions have been books written by Nikos Kazantzakis, Anthony Burgess, Guy Davenport and many others; last year Walter Wangerin's 850-page The Book of God: the Bible as a Novel was published, as was novelist Reynolds Price's Three Gospels. What seems strange in Mailer's case is the fact that this famous nose-thumber so driven in the past by the desire to subvert the conventional produces a bland retelling that fleshes out the Bible story in a way that might easily be exceeded for inventive extrapolation by an inspired gospel preacher eager to “bring home” the story to his auditors. Mailer adds no new episodes, introduces no startling challenge to traditional doctrinal interpretations. Where he might have taken advantage of modern speculation that revises the Gospels he doesn't do so, unlike such recent controversial polemicists as A. N. Wilson (Jesus: A Life) or John Dominic Crossan (Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus), who argue, for example, that Jesus was the victim of the Roman state rather than of his fellow Jews.

Mailer's Jesus presents himself as undertaking, somewhat querulously, to set the record straight, but hardly changes much. “While I would not say that Mark's gospel is false, it has much exaggeration. And I would offer less for Matthew, and for Luke and John, who gave me words I never uttered.” Of the Sermon on the Mount, Mailer's Jesus says,

Later those who became my scribes, and most notably Matthew, in his gospel, would speak of my Sermon on the Mount. They had me saving all manner of things, and some were the opposite of others Matthew put so many sayings together, indeed, that he might as well have had me not ceasing to speak for a day and a night, and speaking out of two mouths that did not listen to each other.

That Mailer makes Jesus commit the solecism of referring to listening mouths may not be important. But his Jesus immediately refutes himself by recapitulating, in their usual order, both Matthew's Beatitudes and most of Jesus's subsequent remarks about those who are the “light of the world,” about turning the other cheek and loving one's enemy, about the lilies of the field, and other things, with the inclusion of the Lord's Prayer. Mailer does exclude a good deal, including some of the best of the parables, perhaps because they are not so much events in the narrative of Jesus's life as stories within the story, or perhaps because they are too ambiguous for his matter-of-fact Son. His alterations in the direction of a suppositional verity include occasional naturalistic explanation; one miracle, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, is explained as simply having been a matter of cutting up the original small amounts of each into tiny pieces and distributing these in the place of full portions. But there is no consistent effort in this direction; Mailer's Jesus raises the dead, walks on water, and does most of his reputed miracles without strain.

Mailer's chief innovation has been to allow his Jesus to tell his own story. One possible precedent is The Life of God (as Told by Himself) by Franco Ferrucci, which appeared in Italian ten years ago but was published in English translation last year. Taking the whole stretch of history from Genesis through the times of Jesus and beyond to the brink of the second millennium, the autobiography of Ferrucci's God is a witty satire on the life of Man. His bemused Creator and Ruler who absentmindedly starts everything and witnesses history unroll with distracted interest and often ineffectual efforts at control is more like one of the Greek or Roman Olympians than the God of either the Old or the New Testaments. Mailer, however, focuses without satiric intent on the elusive individuality reverently portrayed by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and attempts to supplement the gospels by a “told by himself” apologia. Needless to say, the materials for such an inside view of Jesus have never been available. Those first apostolic biographers had not witnessed the events they describe nor even known the chief actor directly. For them, even more than for those who might have known him better, Jesus's private thought remained hidden—and this unreachableness has probably been an assist to religious response. The stark yet immensely pregnant character of Jesus's utterances is very different from the Gospel authors's own prose, giving some ground to the idea that Jesus' words made so strong an impression on hearers that legend preserved them accurately, but we are given no more than those words. The selfhood of the Man-God is, after all, pretty unimaginable. Mailer avoids the problem of portraying Divinity conscious of itself in the child and young carpenter's apprentice by simply having Jesus forget—or suppress—the truth concerning his birth which he had been told at twelve. At thirty, with the help of John the Baptist, the knowledge arrives, and with it some wonderworking skills, but does not seem to change him much or give him a special sense of connection with God's purposes. The flat, patiently explanatory first-person voice of Mailer's autobiographer irons out mystery.

Like many writers before him, Mailer really does better with fallen than unfallen nature and the Devil briefly has a lively presence in the scenes of Jesus's temptation, in which Mailer allows himself a little inventive freedom. Judas is also interesting—and one wishes Mailer had done more with him; he is portrayed as a sort of sixties radical, a dropout rich man's son who follows Jesus not because he believes in his promise of heavenly salvation but because his message makes the poor think they are as good as others—and so forwards the earthly Revolution. But holiness becomes human in Mailer's account only by becoming too ordinary. Jesus's relations with Mary and with God the Father are explained by a somewhat pat Maileresque psychologizing. The Virgin Mother is a stupid woman who wants to keep her son in rompers. It seems that “if Mary was modest she was also vain. … She did not enjoy what she did not understand.” She tries to make her son afraid of the Romans when he is young and later she is obsequious to wealthy Jews. She always thinks she knows what is good for him better than he does himself, and she becomes something of a nuisance. So, he rejects her with his “Who is my mother?” God the Father is also a banal disappointment: “My Father … does not often speak to me. Nonetheless I honor him. He sends forth as much love as he can offer, but his love is not without limit.” Jesus cries out vainly for paternal help in his last moments, but afterwards the old oedipal anger subsides in a cozy reconciliation: “My Father was only doing what He could do. Even as I had done what I could do. So He was truly my Father. Like all Fathers He had many sore troubles … and some had little to do with his son.” Jesus and his relatives are, alas, duller, in Mailer's account, than one had supposed them.

Finally, what does it mean to live in modern times on the margin of a culture that calls itself Christian? David Mamet, no less than these seniors, continues to ponder the question by writing a novel about a true American episode, the 1915 trial of a Jew accused of raping and murdering a Southern girl. He is Leo Frank, factory manager of the National Pencil factory in Atlanta, Georgia. The Pulitzer prize-winning playwright gives dramatic form to the forgotten events—his adroitly-told story progresses by means of dialogue—but what is heard and what is thought interlace in a Mametian way, in abrupt, half-uttered fragments in which actual speaking presence alternates with recollection and reflection. At one moment we seem to overhear the discussions of a small cluster of Jews established for two generations in the midst of a community from which the Ku Klux Klan has begun to hound and harry them. Yet we are also inside the head of Frank, who is often arguing with himself during a succession of moments recalled in brilliant kaleidoscope during his trial. Some of these moments seem culled at random from the trivial details of his former routines at home or in his office; they are vivid, immediate, and without obvious significance, the ordered sensations of a man who seems to find his place in an ordered world, the life of the well-adjusted assimilated stranger. Yet they vibrate with a sense of doom as Mamet exhibits the racist world that crunches Frank in its jaws. This is the society that oppresses and segregates its outcasts within the gates, its Blacks, yet uses a Black man as a false witness to accuse the Jew who is called “the Nigger to the nth degree.” Frank's Jewishness is grounds for suggesting sexual perversity; factory girls testify that he is a lecher: “He came up to me one Saady, and we were going out, by the second floor, and he ast me to stay.”

We are with Frank during the months when he is waiting for execution, goes through forty-seven Trollope novels in the prison library and learns to read Hebrew to study the Torah. He ponders, “If, in an atmosphere of possibility, in a land of plenty, we thrived; if, free of persecution, one has managed, two have managed, and thrived, was this not the principle upon which the country was built?” But he also decides that it is necessary “to serve God”—though he is not sure what that means. With the Rabbi who visits him he ponders such things as the return twice but not a third time of Noah's dove. “Could it not be that the dove had wanted to remain on the ark? That when Noah expelled it, it returned hurt, hurt and fearful; that when he sent it out again, it returned with this evidence: the land exists, but it is bitter. … Then, when Noah repulsed it again, it went forth, having been given no choice but to make its way in that bitter world.” Again and again, he remembers the Confederate Memorial Day when his ordeal begins, the Saturday that begins so calmly when he happens to knock over the salt cellar at his breakfast table and senses a portent. Now the time comes when his throat is cut by an assassin inside the prison—yet he is still alive, recovers, is taken by force from the hospital by a lynch mob, castrated, and hanged. It is the stark end of Mamet's story, but not the end of social memory. A photo taken of his hanging body “sold for many years in stores throughout the South.” Mamet's combination of harrowing historic recall and a mystic self-questioning of Jewish tribal destiny is ambitious in its aim and moving in its results.

Janet L. Cooper (essay date spring 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 deal about who they are in relation to those around them (Walden 2). Therefore, it is virtually impossible to read one of Ozick's texts without thinking a great deal about Jewish American identity.

Ozick's message, however, often is not clear; her texts are tightly condensed and often difficult, especially for the non-Jewish reader. Rather than mitigating the complexity of her fiction, Ozick's impressive volumes of essays further complicate the reader's understanding of her message. If one believes that Ozick's characters suffer from crises of identity because they are Jewish, it seems logical to browse Ozick's essays in search of what she believes to be the key elements of Jewishness, but one will again find the consummate artist challenging her readers. At various points, Ozick defines Jewishness as originating in the covenant (Art & Ardor 123), history, the avoidance of idolatry, the ability to make distinctions, and study (Metaphor & Memory 224). This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it demonstrates that Ozick avoids essentializing Jewish identity and posits the meaning of such an identity outside of one concrete, stable definition.

One of Ozick's most straightforward, yet most profound statements regarding Jewish identity indicates where a fruitful examination of this identity lies. “To be a Jew,” she asserts, “is to be old in history” (Metaphor & Memory 224). According to Paul Mendes Flohr in Contemporary Jewish Thought, a historical consciousness transmits traditions, rituals, and legends through generations (378) so that they may inform the present and the future. Such a definition of history indicates both the collective memory and the common ancestry of Jewish people, such as traditions passed down through centuries of Judaism and experiences of diaspora and exile due to persecution. On a familial, communal, or national level, this concept of history may also include memories of immigrating to America and growing up Jewish in an unfamiliar or hostile Christian environment. This lens of history encompasses the divergence of experiences that Jewish people have had in America, and yet calls into simultaneous play many elements that Ozick and literary scholars such as Leon Yudkin and Victor Strandberg have pinpointed as the foundation of Jewishness.

Identity, or a sense of self constructed through forces, institutions, and structures, however, is not created by a simple integration of the stories or collective and familial histories passed down by others. “To own a future is not only to redeem the past,” states Elaine Kauvar, “[but] to judge its meaning” (xii). One creates himself or herself when he or she makes sense of the past and then, according to Peter Kerry Powers, brings that past into a living relationship with the present (90) in order to inform the present and the future. I would extend Kauvar's and Powers' arguments to assert that history is not only judged by each individual, but reinvented and reconstructed by each individual as he or she selectively attends to details and carefully revises the historical narratives of others from his or her particular viewpoint. Each person then accommodates this invented history into his or her own consciousness or identity. A fruitful examination of the identities of Ozick's characters lies in their struggle to reinvent history and not in any consistent or unchanging definition of Jewishness.

Two excellent examples of texts by Ozick in which the main characters struggle to achieve self-knowledge through a reinvention of history are “The Pagan Rabbi” and “Envy; or, Yiddish in America.” Predictably, Ozick has not made this examination a straightforward one for the reader; he or she must struggle just as the characters do. According to Kauvar, Ozick “scrutinize[s] her [own] ideas from disparate angles” so that there is an “ongoing dialectic” regarding both history and identity (xiii). Sanford Pinsker expands this dialectic to a dialogic and describes the process that leads the reader to understand Edelshtein's identity in “Envy; or, Yiddish in America” as a triangle; Ozick creates three characters who carry Ozick's message between them (45). “The Pagan Rabbi” has a similar structure.

By combining Pinsker's concept of the triangle with Kauvar's insistence on the importance of history, I will demonstrate that meaning is most effectively derived from “The Pagan Rabbi” and “Envy; or, Yiddish in America” through a construction of the identities of the protagonists. This construction is accomplished by an analysis of the discourses of the three main characters of each story and a synthesis of these three viewpoints into a complex and coherent whole. This process is challenging for the reader because all three characters who make up these triangles are both telling the truth and completely off the mark; all three are both attractive and repulsive (Pinsker 47). In each story, the two supporting legs of the triangle cause the main character to rethink his construction of history and have a large impact on his identity. It is up to the reader to decide which parts of each triangle's legs' discourse is useful and relevant and then to combine these parts to inform the identity formation of the main character and ultimately the meaning of the story.

The title of “The Pagan Rabbi” reveals the primary tensions of the story, the divisions between holy and pagan, nature and study, Pan and Moses. The conflicting appeal of Pan and Moses is also a central theme of Ozick's first novel Trust. In Trust, the narrator is torn between her pleasure seeking, sensual biological father Nick and her deeply Judaic and learned stepfather Enock (Lowin 44). The narrator's struggle between Pan and Moses is a brief one; she sloughs off her interest in Pan to live “within the Jewish ideal” (Cohen 36). Ozick returns to the Pan versus Moses theme and complicates it in “The Pagan Rabbi.” Rabbi Kornfeld, a famous author of “remarkable” collections of responsa and Professor of Mishnaic History, finds himself inextricably drawn to nature, a practice typically denounced as “Idolatry” in Judaic Law. Kornfeld finds that he cannot choose between Pan and Moses without losing crucial parts of himself. He therefore attempts to reconstruct biblical history so that Pan and Moses are not mutually exclusive.

Kornfeld insists that, “It is false history, false philosophy, and false religion which declare to us human ones that we live among Things. … There is nothing that is Dead. … Hence in God's fecundating Creation there is no possibility of Idolatry, and therefore no possibility of committing this so-called abomination” (20–21). These statements exhibit Kornfeld's conclusion that the second commandment, which requires that Jews shun idols, is misleading. Kornfeld is also strongly attracted to the idea of a free soul and is anguished by the fact that men are “burdened” by being “chained” to their souls. He reconstructs biblical history to explain the origin of the rootedness of men's souls and the false commandment against Idolatry: “It was not out of ignorance that Moses failed to teach about those souls that are free. … [He knew] our ancestors … would not have abandoned their slavery in Egypt had they been taught of the free souls. … Therefore Moses never spoke to them of the free souls, lest the people not do God's will and go out from Egypt” (22–3). After convincing himself that he has accurately reconstructed biblical history and declaring that “the condition of men is evil and unjust” (22), Kornfeld desperately tries to free his own soul by communing with nature, confident that “if only I could couple with one of the free souls, the strength of the connection would likely wrest my own soul from my body … to its own freedom” (28).

It is clear the Kornfeld, tortured by the conflict between his faith and his love for nature, has attempted to choose a path between the two by breaking apart the binary that divides them and creating an intermediary space. In this intermediary space, faith and nature are not mutually exclusive, but mutual in their nourishment of the individual. Kornfeld successfully couples with the dryad Iripomonoeia, and experiences “marvels, blisses, and transports no man has slaked himself with since Father Adam pressed out the forbidden chlorophyll of Eden” (32). His story, however, is to have an unhappy ending. His soul, greedy to possess Iripomonoeia, escapes his body by attaching itself to her. However, Kornfeld is horrified by the sight of his nature-spurning, Torah-reading soul, who shows him that he cannot worship both nature and the word; he must choose one or the other. Moreover, because of Kornfeld's successful attempt to separate himself from his soul, he will lie in his grave alone and his soul will forever “walk here alone … in my garden” (36). Distraught, Kornfeld commits suicide by hanging himself from a tree with his prayer shawl. Ironically, nature and religion have joined to take him from this world and into the next.

The reader learns this information, which occurs before the narrative time of the story, through Kornfeld's suicide letter. However, Ozick creates a triangular narrative structure in which the narrator of the tale reads most of this letter aloud as both he and Kornfeld's widow comment on its content. The reader can construct Kornfeld's identity only by combining parts of each characters' assertions regarding history, both biblical history and personal history prior to the narrative time of the story, into a coherent whole.

Sheindel, Kornfeld's orthodox and uncompromising widow, has a very different interpretation of Kornfeld's actions than either of the other legs of this triangle. In her opinion, Judaic biblical laws and tradition are sacred and unchangeable, and Kornfeld's presumptuousness in altering them makes him a pagan. Her concrete and unwavering declarations provide a foil for her husband's quavering and uncertain struggle to integrate both Hellenic and Hebraic parts of his identity. A symbol of Sheindel's black and white approach to life is a fence. Sheindel wears the mark of a fence on her face; she was born in a concentration camp, and an SS guard attempted to kill her by hurling her against an electrified fence. Inexplicably, the current vanished from the fence at this moment and Sheindel was saved. She interprets Jewish law as a fence as well (Lyons 19), one that protects by clearly distinguishing between what belongs within and what should be kept without. In Sheindel's mind, the most damning aspect of Rabbi Kornfeld's struggle to integrate nature and the sacred is that “he scaled the Fence of the Law” (24), a fence that has both saved her life and given it coherence and meaning. Kornfeld's act of scaling the fence, according to Sheindel, can only lead him to join what lies beyond it; according to her, one is either Jew or pagan.

Although some readers may discount Sheindel's viewpoint because of her pitiless contempt for her deceased husband, Ozick supports Sheindel's points by highlighting that she has a long line of religious textual history behind her. The epigraph to the story, which asserts that one who worships nature “hurt[s] his own being,” is an excerpt from The Ethics of the Fathers, a text supported by hundreds of years of religious tradition and the Torah. This excerpt establishes the importance of religious study, and asserts that anything that disrupts or detracts from that study is forbidden. Sheindel possesses the ability to distinguish clearly between what is Jewish and what is not because her judgments are informed by religious texts and traditions.

The unnamed narrator of the story interprets Kornfeld's search in an entirely different manner. He and Kornfeld grew up as friends and went to seminary together; both of their fathers were rabbis. The narrator, however, became an atheist and married outside the Jewish faith. These events give the narrator a complex positionality. Although he is no longer a believer, he spent several years in a rabbinical seminary and is very knowledgeable about Jewish religion and law. This inside/outside position makes the narrator's interpretation of Kornfeld's questioning of the sacred very different from Sheindel's. Whereas Sheindel judges Kornfeld's reinterpretation of Moses as sinful, the narrator exclaims, “The man was a genius” (23). The narrator, when faced with doubt about his religion, relinquished his religion and became an atheist; he respects Kornfeld's straggle to reconcile nature and religion instead of abandoning his faith. In other words, while the narrator has crossed the “fence” of Judaism to stand firmly on the other side, Kornfeld has straggled to perch himself precariously atop the fence with a leg on either side; to the narrator, such a straggle is admirable and demonstrates a deeply religious identity, not a pagan one.

While all Sheindel feels for her husband after his death is scorn, the narrator states, “Pity him” (37). According to Vera Kielsky, the second commandment, which warns against idols and which Kornfeld has “proven” false, also makes a case for pity as “the fundament on which the Mosaic idea stands” (206). Therefore, in denying pity for her husband, Sheindel is not following the second commandment; like Kornfeld, she is outside of Judaic law in her refusal to adhere to the second commandment. The narrator reveals that he recognizes Sheindel's disobedience when he declares, “only the pitiless [implying her] are illusory” (37). The narrator launches his final attack on Sheindel's feelings of smug spiritual superiority when he commands, “Your husband's soul is in that park. Consult it” (37). The narrator views Kornfeld's struggle as admirable, exceptional, and even heroic, and his fall as worthy of pity. As an insider/outsider to the faith, the narrator interprets Kornfeld's pursuits as both intellectually ambitious and informed by faith, and therefore not sacrilegious. Instead of concentrating on the scandal of Kornfeld's story, the narrator focuses on the pain that Kornfeld's struggle caused him.

One place for the reader to begin interrogating the discourses of the major characters in an effort to discern which elements will be useful in the construction of Kornfeld's identity is by isolating the elements that make Kornfeld Jewish. In many ways, Kornfeld's reinvention of biblical history makes him more, and not less, Hebraic. According to Ruth Wisse, the midrashic mode of Jewish scholarship is concerned with providing a new reading for a familiar story (42). Kornfeld is never more within this tradition than when he is reinventing the story of Moses. Additionally, Kauvar asserts that Kornfeld's letter takes the form of a “responsa” by both its reasoning and style (44). Kornfeld is not turning his back on his religion, but using the form and style of the midrashic tradition to create a new tradition, one in which loving nature will not be a “hurt [against] his own being.” Kornfeld's enterprise is not to debunk religion, but to find a place within religion where he is comfortable to love both God and nature.

There are, however, definitely pagan elements in Kornfeld's reinvention of history. According to Ozick, a major standard of the Jewish idea is the second commandment or the avoidance of idols (Metaphor & Memory 224). This is a standard that distinguishes Jews from all other people. By asserting that the second commandment is false and by embracing nature, which is identified as an idol in the epigraph from The Ethics of the Fathers, Kornfeld is clearly disengaging himself from Hebraic practice. Furthermore, his lust for nature causes him to remain in the park until dawn for months, thus causing him to neglect his responsibilities to his synagogue and his family. His suicide can be interpreted as the height of his selfishness; what will happen to his wife and seven children? His rejection of Hebraism is also dramatized in his confrontation with his soul. When his stereotypically Jewish soul asserts, “the smell of Law is more radiant than moss. The taste of the Law exceeds clear water,” Kornfeld exclaims, “It is not mine! I will not have it be mine!” (36). He clearly rejects traditionally Jewish aspects of himself.

The narrator's position inside/outside the Jewish faith causes him to attempt to insert an intermediary space between the binaric divisions of Jew and pagan. The narrator judges Kornfeld as a brilliant intellectual whose only sin was to reach too far beyond his grasp. Kornfeld's last act is to call to his nature dryad, for whom he has forsaken his soul, for assistance. His cries fall on deaf ears. In an effort to integrate the sacred with nature, Kornfeld loses both. He is, according to the narrator, a pathetic figure, deserving of compassion and pity.

All three sides have their points; all are telling parts of the truth. At this point, one could assume that the reader is left to agree with the character that he or she finds most sympathetic or credible. However, the ending of the story prevents such a solution. When the narrator first meets with Sheindel to discuss Kornfeld's death, she tells him she disposed of the plants in her house: “I couldn't sleep in the same space with plants. They are like little trees” (15). The reader can infer that the trees remind her of what led her husband to his downfall; without his love of nature, he could have remained a model rabbi, husband, and father.

Although by the end of the story the narrator seems to disagree completely with Sheindel's assessment of Kornfeld, the last paragraph of the story reveals, “I remembered her [Sheindel's] earlier words and dropped three green house plants down the toilet.” Why does the narrator replicate Sheindel's action? He continues, “after a journey of some miles through conduits they straightway entered Trilham's Inlet,” the site of Kornfeld's suicide, “where they decayed amid the civic excrement” (37). Why does the narrator abhor (he trees? Do they signify the loss of a great mind? The impossibility of satisfactorily mediating the conflict between Hebraism and Hellenism?

Although Sheindel and the narrator dispose of their plants for different reasons, this action holds the key to understanding this story and Kornfeld's character. For both Sheindel and the narrator, the plants are a reminder of Kornfeld's failure. More specifically, they symbolize Kornfeld's failure to break down the binary between pagan and Jew and place himself between it. The reader, however, must break down this binary in his or her assessment of Kornfeld's identity. Kornfeld was neither pagan nor Jew, but both. He was neither selfish nor heroic, but both. It is in his struggle for identity where the truth of this story lies, and the houseplants symbolize this struggle. Although Sheindel and the narrator mourn different aspects of their loss (Sheindel the loss of a model rabbi, husband, and father, the narrator a loss of a great mind), the real pathos of the story is caused by the picture of a man who could not reconcile himself to the binaries his society placed on him. Kornfeld attempted to mitigate the discomfort he experienced within these binaries by rewriting biblical history, only to discover that his successful efforts to separate his body and soul produced a soul that he neither expected nor accepted. Therefore, he chose to take his own life. It is only through a critical examination of the viewpoints of all three characters in this story that a complex understanding of Kornfeld can be reached.

“Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” also utilizes the triangular structure to encourage the reader to construct a complex version of Jewish American identity, yet the reader may find the construction of Edelshtein's identity even more difficult than that of Kornfeld. Not only are all three characters that make up the discourse triangle in “Envy; or, Yiddish in America” unattractive, but none of them communicate their identities in a consistent manner. All of their identities are shifting due to a struggle between collective and personal history, which makes the reader's task of interpreting their discourses more difficult.

The main character of the story is Edelshtein, a Jewish American poet who writes in Yiddish and is frustrated by his anonymity. He asserts that his goal is to save Yiddish, which has been destroyed by the Holocaust: “a language that never had a territory except Jewish mouths, and half the Jewish mouths on earth already stopped up with German worms” (74). He warns all who will listen, “whoever forgets Yiddish courts amnesia of history” (74). As critic Vera Kielsky asserts, Yiddish is not only a language, but symbolizes the bond between Jewish people, is the location of Jewish culture, and is the “storehouse” of history (154). Edelshtein quotes the Talmud to reinforce the importance of Yiddish to Jewish identity in America: “in Talmud if you save a life it's as if you saved the world.” He continues, self-indulgently, “And if you save a language? Worlds maybe. Galaxies. The whole universe” (83).

These assertions may, on the surface, lead the reader to believe that Edelshtein is sincere and selfless in his effort to resurrect Yiddish, and by extension, Jewish history and culture. His use of Jewish history, however, makes him feel superior to other Jews rather than creating a bond of memory and connection with them (Powers 91). Furthermore, Edelshtein's solution to his problem reveals his hypocrisy; he wants to procure an interpreter. Obviously, translating his poetry into English will do nothing to save Yiddish, but it will, he believes, rescue him from obscurity. At heart, Edelshtein is languishing from envy of Ostrover, the Yiddish writer who is translated into English and enjoys immense fame. Edelshtein's only venue for his poetry is an obscure Yiddish periodical edited by his friend Baumzweig called Bitterer Yam,1 while Ostrover is the subject of graduate dissertations and gives densely attended readings to adoring fans.

Edelshtein attends one such reading where Ostrover reads a new story that is a thinly disguised parable about Edelshtein. In the story, the main character gives one fourth of his soul to Satan to learn a new language that will guarantee his fame as a writer. However, this new language does not achieve the desired effect, and the writer makes the same bargain for another language, and then another, and then another. As a result, he loses his soul and arrives in hell where he must toss each page he writes into flames, but he declares, “No difference, no difference! It was the same up there!” (60). Ostrover's point is that it is Edelshtein's lack of talent, and not his lack of access to English, that causes his lack of fame.

Edelshtein is enraged by the story, and spends the rest of the evening railing at all who will listen. He blindly flees the reading, only to have an angry altercation with Paula Baumzweig, the wife of his friend and editor. Although he self-righteously insists in his anger that “Ostrover wanted to save only himself, Edelshtein wanted to save Yiddish,” Edelshtein cannot fool even himself; it is envy over Ostrover's success, and not a sense of duty to Yiddish, that causes much of his anguish. It becomes even clearer that Edelshtein is not a sincere advocate for Yiddish when he takes an honest look at himself. Ozick dramatizes this self-realization through the metaphor of a mirror through which Edelshtein sees himself as others do: “an old man crying, dragging a striped scarf like a prayer shawl” (67). This insight disturbs him so thoroughly that in despair, he “wishe[s] he had been born a Gentile” (68). Edelshtein, although he adopts a “Jewisher-than-thou” exterior, would forsake his Jewish identity for fame and positive regard.

Immediately after he makes this wish into the mirror, Ozick presents a dialogue between Ostrover and Edelshtein. In Edelshtein's rage following Ostrover's reading, Ozick presents the reader with several conversations between Edelshtein and others in the form of drama dialogue and several letters composed by Edelshtein that may or may not have been sent. Due to the multiple forms presented in this section of the short story and Edelshtein's obviously perturbed mental state, it is not clear whether his conversation with Ostrover actually occurred or is merely imagined. Nonetheless, this dialogue provides the reader with most of Ostrover's leg of the discourse triangle; even if Edelshtein imagined this conversation, Ostrover's words impact how Edelshtein sees Ostrover, and ultimately how he sees himself.2

During this dialogue, it is never quite clear to the reader who or what Ostrover is. Ostrover makes several contradictory statements that confuse the reader who is trying to construct his identity. He asserts, “I'm one of them” (68), “I'm only a make-believe Gentile,” and “I play at a Jew to satisfy them” (69). In the first line, it appears that Ostrover is aligning himself with the Gentiles. In the second, although he admits that he dons the exterior of a Gentile in a “make-believe” game, it seems clear that inside, he identifies himself as a Jew. In the third quote, the meaning is more complex. In acting the part of a Jew “to satisfy them,” Ostrover could internally identify as either Gentile or Jew. The satisfaction of another group does not necessarily impinge on Ostrover's identity. However, he never identifies who “them” is. Is it the Gentile community, or the Jewish one?

Ostrover's troubling parable further complicates his identity: “In my village when I was a boy they used to bring in a dancing bear for the carnival, and everyone said, ‘It's human!’—They said this because they knew it was a bear, though it stood on two legs and waltzed. But it was a bear” (69). Who is Ostrover, a Gentile who plays at being a Jew or a dancing bear of a Jew who plays at being a Gentile? Is the show independent of how Ostrover sees himself, or are the two intimately entangled? Although it is clear that Ostrover accurately interprets Edelshtein's hypocrisy in the line, “envy sounds the same in all languages” (83), Ostrover's credibility is seriously diminished when it is not clear to the reader who or what he is.

One way for the reader to organize Ostrover's words so that they may be usefully applied to Edelshtein's identity is to break down the binary between Jew and Gentile. Ostrover does not proclaim himself to be either Jew or Gentile; he insists that he “plays” the part of both when it is to his advantage. Yet again, Ozick is struggling with the Pan versus Moses debate and pointing to instances where the binary between the two breaks down.

Hannah, the daughter of one of Ostrover's interpreters, makes up the third leg of the triangle in this story. She both dramatizes Edelshtein's concerns about Jewish American identity and complicates the construction of Edelshtein's identity. Hannah, “born in 1945, the hour of the death camps” (91), represents the next generation of Jewish Americans. She speaks Yiddish, which as the “storehouse” of history should align her with her ancestors, but ironically, she wants nothing to do with them. During an angry altercation with Edelshtein on the night of Ostrover's reading, she clearly identifies herself only by what she is not; she tells Edelshtein she is not “your kind” of Jew, and asserts, “all you people want to do is suffer” (92). She clearly separates herself from her Eastern European Jewish ancestors and their heritage when she asserts, “history's a waste” (92). She has turned her back on the history and anguish of her people, and wants only “universalism” or assimilation into the American mainstream. She admires Ostrovet because “he speaks for everybody” (95). According to critic Sarah Cohen, this rush to assimilate reveals the internalization of anti-Semitism (60).

Hannah's feelings of anti-Semitism become clear when she shouts, “Hanging on my neck, him [her uncle] and now you, the whole bunch of you, parasites, hurry up and die” (97). Her lack of respect and love for her ancestors, many of whom share a lived memory of Hider, is appalling. More dangerous is her rush to forget all of those who have come before her. Her conception of history as a burden will not allow her to use history to bring meaning to her life. Her hate for her ancestors' history is really a self hate that paralyzes rather than assists identity construction. Without a history, she has no identity, and can only pinpoint what she is by rejecting what she thinks she is not.

Edelshtein is accurate in assessing that Jewish American identity is in grave danger due to American freedom, acceptance, and thus assimilation (Kielsky 151). He also pinpoints why assimilation threatens Jewish identity; it demands historical amnesia. However, because Edelshtein sometimes bastardizes Jewish history for his own personal gain, he lacks credibility in his interactions with others. For example, when he urges Hannah to “grow old in Yiddish … and carry your fathers and uncles into the future with you” (74), even he can see through his selfish siren song, as he indicates by asking, “What did the death of Jews have to do with his own troubles?” (75). The pull of his personal history has overshadowed a committed struggle to save Yiddish in America both because it so fully engages his personal energies and because it causes Edelshtein to become a lone railer whom others do not take seriously.

The truth of this story lies in the ways the characters use history to construct identity. All exhibit how to use history by how they misuse it. Although Edelshtein retains Jewish culture and history by speaking Yiddish, he also exploits historical memory for his own selfish ends. Instead of using history to inform his present, Edelshtein tries to invoke feelings of guilt in others so that they will help him in his quest for fame. Hannah refuses history, and therefore does not really know who she is or feel a connection to other Jews. Ironically, in her rejection of her ancestors, she allows them to define her by what they are not. Although Ostrover has immigrated from Poland and carries history with him, both through memory and his usage of Yiddish, Ozick never clearly presents Ostrover's identity to the reader. Therefore, the reader cannot identify Ostrover as Jew or Gentile, but must invent a classification in between these categories.

A desirable state of using history is one in which history informs what one is, and not just what one is not, as is true in Hannah's case. It is also a state in which collective and personal histories work together to inform identity construction rather than struggling against one another, as they do in Edelshtein's case. Finally, history arises from an internal straggle, and not a simple rejection of history or an employment of history when it suits one's ends. It is only through viewing Edelshtein's concern for Yiddish filtered through Hannah's violent disentanglement from history and Ostrover's bear dance that one can construct this lesson from the story.

Cynthia Ozick's triangular structure of creating meaning out of competing inventions of history prevents her stories' lessons from being simple, essentialist, or stereotypical. Ozick strongly implies that Jewish identity is both complex and always changing as each person straggles to discover who he or she is by reinventing personal and collective histories. If these strivings were not evident by her characters' actions, Ozick further highlights them by making her readers struggle as well. Ozick's structure of triangular discourse forces the reader to become an active participant in making meaning. One does not merely read Ozick's texts, but struggles to understand her by taking parts of characters' historical discourses and trying to fit them into the emerging picture of the main character's identity like a complex and shifting jigsaw puzzle. Such a painstaking enterprise prevents the reader from creating simplistic meaning from Ozick's stories and fosters constructions of Jewishness that are as complex as Ozick's vision.


  1. Bitterer Yam is translated into Bitter Sea in English. However, the journal “had so few subscribers that Baumzweig's wife called it Invisible Ink” (47).

  2. Also, although critics such as Lowin have asserted that Ostrover is a thinly veiled I. B. Singer, I will discuss Ostrover independent of Singer's biographical information in order to reach a conclusion regarding what Ozick is implying about Jewish identity on a larger scale.

Works Cited

Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Cynthia Ozick's Comic Art. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.

Kauvar, Elaine M. Cynthia Ozick's Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.

Kielsky, Vera Emuna. Inevitable Exiles: Cynthia Ozick's View of the Precariousness of Jewish Existence in a Gentile Society. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.

Lowin, Joseph. Cynthia Ozick. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Lyons, Bonnie. “Cynthia Ozick as a Jewish Writer.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 6 (1987): 13–23.

Mendes-Flohr, Paul. “History.” Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought. Ed. Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr. New York: Scribner's, 1987. 371–87.

Ozick, Cynthia. Art & Ardor. New York: Knopf, 1983.

———. “Envy; or, Yiddish in America.” 1969. Rpt. in The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1995. 39–100.

———. “The Pagan Rabbi.” 1966. Rpt. in The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1995. 1–38.

———. Metaphor & Memory. New York: Knopf, 1989.

Pinsker, Sanford. The Uncompromising Fictions of Cynthia Ozick. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1987.

Powers, Peter Kerry. “Disruptive Memories: Cynthia Ozick, Assimilation, and the Invented Past.” MELUS 20.3 (1995): 79–97.

Strandberg, Victor. Greek Mind/Jewish Soul: The Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1994.

Walden, Daniel. “Introduction.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 6 (Fall 1987): 1–4.

Wisse, Ruth. “Ozick as American Jewish Writer.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 6 (1987): 35–45.

Yudkin, Leon Israel. Jewish Writing and Identity in the Twentieth Century. London: Croom Helm, 1982.


Cynthia Ozick Long Fiction Analysis


Ozick, Cynthia (Vol. 28)