(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

After Rabbi Isaac Kornfeld commits suicide in an obscure city park, the unnamed narrator, his lifelong friend, wants to know why the rabbi has hanged himself, and visits the site. The narrator explains that his father and Isaac’s were nominal friends who were, in fact, scholarly enemies. Both Isaac and the narrator attended the same seminary, but the latter dropped out, earning the silence and the hatred of his unforgiving father. Although they remained affectionate, if distant, friends, the two young men were perfect opposites. Isaac became a brilliant Talmudic scholar, published widely, married a Holocaust survivor, and had seven daughters. The childless narrator never returned to the seminary, became a furrier and later a bookseller, and divorced his gentile wife.

The narrator visits Isaac’s widow, Sheindel Kornfeld, hoping to learn the reason for the tragedy. What he finds is a contemptuous, tearless widow who queries the bookseller concerning Isaac’s interest in books on plants. The narrator is shocked by Sheindel’s bold declaration that Isaac was never a Jew. She then relates her husband’s increasingly bizarre behavior: his sudden insistence on lengthy picnics, the numerous second-rate fairy tales that he wrote and later burned, and his seemingly inexplicable passion for public parks. The narrator’s first visit to Sheindel concludes when she commands him to study Isaac’s small notebook in order to solve the mystery. In effect, he...

(The entire section is 551 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Pagan Rabbi” explores a modern Jewish problem, the overwhelming appeal of things non-Jewish, or “pagan.” The title piece in Ozick’s first short-story collection, “The Pagan Rabbi” is a mythical tale set in the modern world. There are three voices in the story: the intense dialogue controlled by the widow, the information provided by the narrator, and the reading of the deceased’s suicide note.

Rabbi Isaac Kornfeld, a gifted and renowned intellectual, teacher, and writer, has hanged himself in the public park. The narrator, a childhood friend of the deceased. seeks to discover why a pious man, about to reach his intellectual peak at age thirty-six, would choose to end his life. Ozick was thirty-six years of age two years before “The Pagan Rabbi” was first published; she created a character similar to herself in age and talent. Kornfeld’s mythical world exists in a modern city filled with parks bisected by filthy rivers rather than in an idyllic, nonpopulated nature reserve. In this unlikely setting, with his unique vision, Rabbi Kornfeld dares to experience the excruciating beauty, as well as the horrifying ugliness, of the pagan world forbidden to him.

In trying to unravel the mystery of his friend’s death, the unnamed narrator pays condolences to Kornfeld’s widow, Sheindel, a very clever mother of seven daughters, who as an infant miraculously survived a Nazi concentration camp. The widow reveals a letter left...

(The entire section is 452 words.)


(Short Stories for Students)

In ‘‘The Pagan Rabbi,’’ The narrator, an unnamed Jewish man in his mid-thirties, hears that Isaac Kornfeld, a childhood friend, has...

(The entire section is 713 words.)