As befits a tale that explores a scholar’s inner turmoil, Ozick’s style is, by turns, lively, ironic, humorous, and, above all, calculated. From her imposing command of classical imagery to her dazzling use of figurative language, Ozick creates a text of depth and breadth that demands a close reading. Starting with the title of the tale, she addresses the central conflict in the story, Rabbi Kornfeld’s divided nature. A “pagan” rabbi is an obvious impossibility, because it literally means a Jew who is not a Jew. This is precisely what ailed Isaac: It epitomizes his struggle.
The oxymoron in the title, with its combination of antithetical terms, is reflected in the separateness of the human relationships in the story. Just as the title represents a juxtaposition of opposites, so did Isaac’s marriage. Although he exhibited an almost magnetic attraction for the imagination, his wife came to symbolize cold intellect. She was the astonishingly learned bride of seventeen, who entered life in a place of death—the concentration camp. While her birth occurred in the midst of destruction, Isaac’s demise resulted when he sought the birth of his soul. Appropriately, Sheindel’s asterisk-like scar symbolizes her association with the scholarship that ultimately proved to be the rabbi’s undoing.
Ozick heightens this sense of division through the image of the lace runner on the dining table in Sheindel’s apartment. The fact that the table is separated “into two nations” suggests irreconcilable opposites, not only within Kornfeld but between his widow and the visiting narrator. This effect is underscored when Sheindel sits across from the narrator “on the other side of the lace boundary line.” Another salient division is the rift between the narrator and his own father. Just as an invisible barrier separates the bookseller and the widow, his rejection of the seminary creates one more antithesis—that of the apostate and the rabbi. There is one division in the story that does not hold and whose loss contributes greatly to Kornfeld’s destruction: the separation between sanity and insanity.