Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1341

Lawrence S. Friedman refers to ‘‘The Pagan Rabbi’’ as ‘‘a quintessential Ozick story.’’ It was first published in The Hudson Review in 1966, and then in 1971 as the title piece in the first collection of Ozick’s short stories, The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories . Garnering extensive critical acclaim,...

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Lawrence S. Friedman refers to ‘‘The Pagan Rabbi’’ as ‘‘a quintessential Ozick story.’’ It was first published in The Hudson Review in 1966, and then in 1971 as the title piece in the first collection of Ozick’s short stories, The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories. Garnering extensive critical acclaim, this collection won the B’nai B’rith Jewish Heritage Award in 1971, The Jewish Book Council Award, and the Edward Lewis Wallant Memorial Award in 1972, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1973. It was also nominated for a National Book Award in 1971. ‘‘The Pagan Rabbi’’ is included in the collection Neurotica: Jewish Writers on Sex (1999). Critics have consistently praised Ozick as a leading writer of short fiction. Five of Ozick’s short stories have been included in the annual anthology, The Best American Short Stories, and three of her stories have won the O. Henry Award.

While critics haggle over whether or not Ozick, an Orthodox Jew, can only be understood as a Jewish-American writer, or if she is more accurately categorized in the larger canon of American writers, most agree on the central themes of Ozick’s fiction: the place of the Jew in secular American society; the role of the writer in Jewish culture; and the lure of paganism or idolatry in opposition to Judaism. Ozick’s first novel Trust (1966), which took her over six years to write, received only mild attention and mixed, lukewarm reviews. However, with the publication of The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories, Victor Strandberg asserts that ‘‘Ozick makes the transition from being an ‘American novelist’ to being one of our foremost Jewish American storytellers.’’ Josephine Z. Knopp states that ‘‘Jewishness and Judaism are among Cynthia Ozick’s central concerns as a writer.’’ Strandberg states that ‘‘a master theme’’ of Ozick’s work is ‘‘what, in this time and place, it means to be a Jew.’’

Gigliola Nocera concurs that Ozick’s ‘‘main concern as a writer’’ is ‘‘the difficulty of being Jewish today.’’ Sanford Pinkster points to the originality of Ozick’s early work as a Jewish writer: ‘‘‘The Pagan Rabbi’ is so unlike any previous Jewish-American story one can think of that its central tension has become Ozick’s signature.’’ Pinkster claims that Ozick ‘‘has changed radically the way we define Jewish-American writing, and more important, the way Jewish-American writing defines itself.’’ Elaine M. Kuavar, however, makes the case that the stories of Ozick should be understood in a broader context of American literature, claiming that ‘‘Cynthia Ozick’s art is central to American literature, not peripheral to it.’’

Friedman states that ‘‘with the publication of her first volume of short fiction, Judaism is firmly established as the dominant force in Ozick’s work.’’ Friedman sees Ozick’s Jewishness as central to her fiction: ‘‘Ozick observes the world through the eyes of a deeply committed Jew.’’ He points to a central theme in her work, in which ‘‘opposing ideologies clash on the moral battleground of fictions peopled largely by contemporary Jews.’’ These ‘‘opposing ideologies’’ are ‘‘conventional Judaism’’ in con- flict with ‘‘whatever is not: paganism, Christianity, secularism.’’ The lure of assimilation into mainstream American culture for the contemporary Jew is one focus of this theme. According to Friedman, in Ozick’s fiction, ‘‘assimilation is anathema, involving as it does the yielding up of Jewish identity, the homogenization of Jewish uniqueness.’’

One of the most central and recurring conflicts in Ozick’s fiction is that between Hellenism (Greek mythology) and Hebraism (Jewish theological doctrine). Critics have also referred to this conflict in Ozick’s work as ‘‘Pan-versus-Moses.’’ Friedman explains that: ‘‘In her fiction the Hellenism that spawned pagan gods repeatedly squares off against the Hebraism that invented monotheism. The battle between conflicting values is fought in the hearts and minds of Ozick’s Jewish protagonists—all of whom can attain, maintain, or regain moral stature only in fidelity to Judaism.’’ Friedman claims that ‘‘The Pagan Rabbi’’ is one of two of her ‘‘most powerful stories’’ that ‘‘illustrate[s] the surrender to pagan temptations associated with the Hellenistic world.’’ Calling ‘‘The Pagan Rabbi’’ Ozick’s ‘‘most inventive amalgam of the whimsical and the moralistic,’’ Sarah Blacher Cohen concludes that ‘‘it stresses the injurious effects of choosing pagan aesthetics over Jewish ethics and spirituality.’’ Closely associated with paganism is the worship of nature; as Friedman claims, ‘‘A recurring motif in Ozick’s fiction is the opposition of pagan naturalism to Jewish traditional religious practice.’’

Idolatry, in opposition to the Second Commandment, is one of the most important recurring themes in Ozick’s work. Friedman states that ‘‘in a typical Ozick story idol worship signifies moral transgression.’’ Quoting from Ozick’s essay ‘‘The Riddle of the Ordinary,’’ Kuavar explains that, for Ozick ‘‘an idol’’ is ‘‘‘anything that is allowed to come between ourselves and God. Anything that is instead of God.’’’ Sarah Blacher Cohen points out that ‘‘Ozick’s characters fall prey to an alluring idolatry, with its false promise of fulfillment.’’ Kuavar points out that ‘‘idolatry and idolaters abound’’ in Ozick’s fiction.

Ozick’s concern with idolatry has also affected her understanding of the role of the writer in Jewish culture. Friedman explains that ‘‘like any Jewish writer, Ozick is subject to the tension created by the sometimes antithetical demands of religion and art. To be a writer is to risk competing with the Creator, thereby drawing perilously close to what the Jew must shun . . . .’’ Such an act of creation in defiance of God is associated in Ozick’s writing with the pagan worship of multiple gods, also a form of idolatry. Friedman states that ‘‘the fear that those who make art serve pagan gods instead of the Jewish God threads through Ozick’s writing.’’ Joseph Lowin explains that ‘‘for many years, Ozick has been asking herself, and us, how it is possible to be both Jewish and a writer. For her, the term ‘Jewish writer’ is an oxymoron—like ‘pagan rabbi’—in which each half of the phrase is antithetical to the other . . . ’’

Critics agree that an awareness of Jewish history, particularly the Holocaust, is also central to Ozick’s stories. Knopp states that:

As with other Jewish-American writers who merit serious attention, Ozick’s work displays an acute historical consciousness, an understanding of the role of Judaism in world history. Her Jewish stories earn that designation by virtue of a perspective shaped by the author’s sense of Jewish history. They succeed in placing contemporary Jewish problems within their historical framework, thus illuminating the anomalies of modern Jewish life while at the same time revealing the significance for the present of the link with the Jewish past.

Critics have also made note of the ‘‘difficult’’ nature of Ozick’s stories, from the perspective of the reader. Friedman states that ‘‘while her stories dealing with what it means to be Jewish understandably fail to achieve broad popular success, they have earned wide critical acclaim.’’ Earl Rovit points out that, because of its ‘‘density, allusiveness, intellectual concern, and ambiguity,’’ Ozick’s body of work ‘‘presents formidable difficulties for its readers.’’ He goes on to explain that ‘‘the typical Ozick tale is multilayered, deliberately skewed, and elusive in meaning.’’

In assessing Ozick’s body of fiction as a whole, Strandberg sees her focus on Jewish themes as a strength in her literary achievement as an American writer:

What matters in the end is the imaginative power to elevate local materials toward universal and timeless significance. By that standard, I judge Ozick’s work to be memorably successful. Her variety and consistent mastery of styles; her lengthening caravan of original and unforgettably individualized characters; her eloquent dramatization through these characters of significant themes and issues; her absorbing command of dialogue and narrative structure; her penetrating and independent intellect undergirding all she writes—these characteristics of her art perform a unique service for her subject matter, extracting from her Jewish heritage a vital significance unlike that transmitted by any other writer. In the American tradition, Cynthia Ozick significantly enhances our national literature by so rendering Jewish culture.

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