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.
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).
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.
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.