Envy: Or, Yiddish in America Summary
by Cynthia Ozick

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Envy: Or, Yiddish in America Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Envy: Or, Yiddish in America” first appeared in Commentary, then was published as part of Ozick’s first short-story collection two years later. The connection between language and culture is explored as an aging Yiddish poet, a fictionalized Joseph Glatstein, centers his life on his all-encompassing jealousy of Yankel Ostrover, a thinly disguised Isaac Bashevis Singer.

True to Ozick’s belief that large themes can be explored in short fiction, she expresses her concern with the nature of language while entertaining her audience with a comically wry story. It takes place in New York City, where Hershele Edelshtein, son of a Polish Hebraic tutor, has lived for forty years. Edelshtein writes Yiddish poetry for an obscure publication edited by his friend, fellow Yiddish poet and Ostrover envier Baumzweig. Baumzweig and Edelshtein are “secret enemies” (a concept that recurs in “The Pagan Rabbi” as well as in “The Shawl”). Their shared obsessive hatred of Ostrover, however, is the force that binds their tenuous friendship.

Ozick’s treatment of the demise of Yiddish, the mother tongue of European Jews, reveals her fondness for the language of her forebears. Yet the death of Yiddish lacks sentimentality; in fact, it faces a brutal rejection from an educated young Jewish writer, Hannah. She represents the first generation of English-speaking secularized American Jews, those who have reduced the richness of Yiddish to a smattering of commonly used exclamations and insults.

Ironically, Edelshtein earns his meager living lecturing—in English—on the death of Yiddish. He is also forced to reduce Yiddish to a medium for telling jokes in order to hold the interest of his waning audiences. Edelshtein tells two of his jokes to the reader, one about a funeral. Then Edelshtein, never able to read people well enough to mesh with current trends, realizes too late that the jokes “were not the right kind.” Envy has kept Edelshtein in the pitiable position of being on the outside looking in since his boyhood in Minsk. In his dotage, Edelshtein daydreams about the past, when he was taken as a boy to Kiev, where his father taught the wealthy young boy with the beautiful face and the intricate German toys with whom Edelshtein could never play.

Several decades later, Edelshtein remains outside, watching his Yiddish universe modernize without him. He makes a fool of himself by sending pathetic letters that display his desperation, then blames his utter failure on everything he can think of: lack of a translator, the Nazi extermination of six million Yiddish speakers, and anti-Semitism. Edelshtein blames everyone but himself. His fury is twofold: He sees his beloved culture dying and he craves Ostrover’s success.

Ozick endows her fictionalized Isaac Bashevis Singer with popular appeal and a quick wit. Ostrover goes so far as to use Edelshtein’s failure as the basis for his latest successful fable, told as a story within the novella. Years earlier, Ostrover had done the same thing; after Ostrover’s affair with Edelshtein’s wife, he had written another successful story inspired by yet another of Edelshtein’s failures.

“Envy: Or, Yiddish in America,” while about a petty, narrow man with frustrated ambitions, also depicts, with a feeling of great loss, the deterioration of a culture as it disappears into the melting pot. While some, Ozick seems to say, can adapt and be translated, others, who are less flexible, can only look in from the outside, knowing the obscurity of death is imminent.

Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The basic premise of this novella-length, seriocomic story is Edelshtein’s envy of the success of the writer Yankel Ostrover and his obsession with sustaining Yiddish as a language. Parallel to this plot line is the contradiction involved in Edelshtein’s ironic need for a translator, without which he can never achieve success as a writer, but with which he cannot really sustain Yiddish. Although Edelshtein finds American writers of Jewish...

(The entire section is 1,298 words.)