(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...

(The entire section is 575 words.)


(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 extraction such as Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow puerile, vicious, and ignorant, he reserves his most passionate vituperation for Ostrover, who seems patterned after Isaac Bashevis Singer in some ways and Jerzy Kosinski in others. Ostrover is a writer of stories in Yiddish that, when translated into English, have become highly popular. For Edelshtein and his friend Baumzweig, editor of a Yiddish periodical, Ostrover’s Yiddish is impure and his subject matter is pornographic. They call him “Pig” or “Devil” or “Yankee Doodle.” With his focus on an imaginary Polish village named Zwrdl, however, Ostrover is considered “modern” by contemporary critics. Free of the prison of Yiddish, he has burst out into the world of reality. Taking Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy as his literary gods, he has been published in The New Yorker and Playboy.

There are other reasons for Edelshtein’s hatred of Ostrover than his envy of his success. Thirty years earlier, Ostrover had an affair with Edelshtein’s wife; Edelshtein blames Ostrover for the fact that he and his wife have remained childless. It is the envy that gives the story its title, however, that most eats at Edelshtein. He writes Ostrover’s publishers asking them to provide him with a translator so he might show...

(The entire section is 723 words.)