In her fiction, Ozick’s central concerns are the conflict between Hebraism and Hellenism and the fear that the production of art is a breach of the Second Commandment’s prohibition against creating idols. Ozick is particularly harsh with those characters who abandon their Jewish identity in favor of pagan imagination, but she is also sensitive to the dangers of a personality that focuses on history and forgets to produce the future. With the exception of the essay “Freud’s Room,” Levitation: Five Fictions focuses particularly on women artists and the difficulties surrounding their efforts to create both identity and art.
In “Levitation,” the title story, the reader first believes that the author-couple are solidly united by their literary ambitions. Their main connection, however, is a rejection of their respective traditions. Feingold has chosen a non-Jewish wife, and Lucy abandons Christianity to convert to Judaism. Although this alliance seems superficially happy, both are dissatisfied by their secondary status as writers. Their minimal production, one book each, is reflected in the absence of their actual children, who are mentioned but never appear. During a party that the Feingolds give, Lucy’s visions make her realize that she is stifled by Jewish monotheism, and she chooses instead the goddesses of fertility, the Madonna and Astarte. Meanwhile, Feingold has joined the group of Jews who are repeating the stories of their shared history. Although the story ends without a resolution, it is Lucy’s failed conversion to Judaism that is most problematic: How will she proceed with her marriage and her art? How can Jewish history be reconciled with creativity? Ozick leaves these questions unanswered as she leaves the room of Jews suspended in the air.
In “Shots,” the dominant imagery emphasizes the sterility and stagnation of this female photographer’s life. Although she becomes infatuated with a historian named Sam, he loses his umbrella with a horse-head handle at their first meeting. Horses generally indicate virility, but Sam has lost his sexuality, at least in relation to the protagonist, and refuses to betray his wife sexually. The narrator’s artistry, motivated by her desire to capture time, is unable to create life. Instead, one of her photographic shots coincides with the subject’s death by gunfire. While the photographer visits Sam, his wife, named Verity, truthfully predicts the photographer’s future when she drapes her in a nun’s habit, thus consigning the narrator to an antique infertility.
The weakest stories in this collection are the pair referred to by Ozick as “From a Refugee’s Notebook.” Their juxtaposition, however, is interesting because of the inclusion of the stone idols that fascinate the narrator of “Freud’s Room.” The idolatry of stones is repeated in the companion piece “The Sewing Harems,” in which the children of the harem members erect stone vulvas everywhere in their deification of motherhood. Because the children are themselves failures of their mother’s intention to artistically render themselves sterile, the new idolatry is an ironic reversal of the old idolatry: Both are obsessed with the reproductive choices of women.
In contrast, Ruth Puttermesser is one of Ozick’s most interesting creations; she represents a woman clearly defined by her name, which means “butter knife.” Puttermesser has no edge, no effectiveness. Giving up on private law practice because of barriers erected by sexism and anti-Semitism, Puttermesser leads a quietly nonproductive life in New York’s bureaucratic maze. Instead of producing or reproducing, Puttermesser consumes, thinking of heaven as a place where one could read all day without distractions and consume candy without contracting gum disease. Unfortunately, time will not leave Ruth alone; she is forced from her comfortable nest in her parents’ apartment, and her job is taken over by a political appointee. Although she wishes to avoid change, she is unable to stop history.
In the Puttermesser stories, Ozick presents a character who learns about her religious tradition but does not participate in it, thus opening a door for disaster. When she is enraged by her treatment at City Hall, she unthinkingly forms a golem/daughter to help her achieve power and change New York for the better. This act of creativity, however, while proceeding from Puttermesser’s knowledge of folklore, lacks both religious faith and the necessary participation of other Jews. In folk tales, golems grow too large and become destructive; Puttermesser, by acting alone and transgressing her tradition, has amplified the danger involved. When Puttermesser is finally forced to destroy her creation, she experiences the pain of destroying her only child and her hope of participating in the future.
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