The Pagan Rabbi, and Other Stories, Cynthia Ozick’s first collection of short stories, was nominated for the National Book Award. Short fiction would subsequently form the basis of Ozick’s literary reputation. The collection’s seven stories—originally published in various periodicals—explore interrelated themes that mark Ozick’s work: Jewish identity, the lure of secularism, and the vocation of the artist. In Ozick’s view, Western civilization, rooted in Greek paganism, extols nature and physical existence and is therefore hostile to Judaism. The Western artistic tradition, moreover, dares usurp God’s role as creator.
A prominent symbol in the title story, “The Pagan Rabbi,” is the tree on which the protagonist eventually hangs himself with his prayer shawl. The tree’s dryad and the heretical rabbi have coupled. In “The Dock-Witch,” the protagonist’s immersion in nature also leads to sexual union with a pagan goddess, yet because he is a Gentile, lacking Judaism’s horror of idolatry, his seduction is guilt-free.
Lust for the world’s beauty undoes these characters; lust for the world’s acclaim corrupts others. In “Virility,” an immigrant Jewish poet, who anglicizes his name to Edmond Gates, becomes a literary sensation, until he confesses that an elderly aunt wrote his verses. When poems are published under her name after her poverty-induced death, the same gift that when considered his was declared “seminal and hard” is dismissed as “a spinster’s one-dimensional vision.” Along with satirizing associations between sexuality and artistry, Ozick condemns Gates for rejecting kin and heritage. He lives out the rest of his life in penitential drag and dies a suicide.
The aging Yiddish poet Herschel Edelshtein of “Envy: Or, Yiddish in America” is in futile pursuit of a translator who would free him from the obscurity of writing in a dying language; meanwhile, he rails against popular American Jewish novelists, for whom history is a “vacuum.” In “The Suitcase,” a notable German architect and his son’s Jewish mistress engage in a paradigmic struggle, as Jew cannot allow Gentile to forget history, particularly its production of an Adolf Hitler.
Some critics have questioned the accessibility of Ozick’s work, with its self-consciously Jewish style and content. Others find that its imaginative reach transcends its specifics of cultural origin.