Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Three Denominations of Judaism
There are three main denominations of Judaism— Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Orthodox...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Narrative Point-of-View
This story is told from the first person limited perspective, meaning that the reader is given only...

(The entire section is 649 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1960s: While Reform Judaism allows the ordaining of female rabbis, Conservative and Orthodox denominations do not.


(The entire section is 373 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

• One of the pagan rabbi’s preoccupations, based on the notebook he leaves behind, is with Romantic poetry. Find out more about the...

(The entire section is 270 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971) by Cynthia Ozick is the collection in which ‘‘The Pagan Rabbi’’ first appeared....

(The entire section is 227 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Cohen, Sarah Blacher, Cynthia Ozick’s Comic Art: From Levity to Liturgy, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 9,...

(The entire section is 422 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Cynthia Ozick: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Cynthia Ozick’s Comic Art: From Levity to Liturgy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Friedman, Lawrence S. Understanding Cynthia Ozick. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

Kauver, Elaine M. Cynthia Ozick’s Fiction: Tradition and Invention. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Lowin, Joseph. Cynthia Ozick. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Pinsker, Sanford. The Uncompromising Fictions of Cynthia Ozick. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.

Rainwater, Catherine, and William J. Scheick, eds. Three Contemporary Women Novelists: Hazzard, Ozick, and Redmon, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

Strandberg, Victor H. Greek Mind/Jewish Soul: The Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Walden, Daniel, ed. The Changing Mosaic: From Cahan to Malamud, Roth, and Ozick. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Walden, Daniel, ed. The World of Cynthia Ozick: Studies in American Jewish Literature. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1987.