Style and Technique

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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...

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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

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The Three Denominations of Judaism
There are three main denominations of Judaism— Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Orthodox Judaism maintains the strictest observance of traditional Jewish law and ritual. (Hasidism is an even more traditional practice of Orthodox Judaism.) Conservative Judaism, while maintaining most of these traditions, concedes to some modernization of the observance of Jewish law. Conservative Judaism can be traced back to Germany in the 1840s. In 1985, a significant change in the policy of Conservative Judaism was the decision to ordain women rabbis. Reform Judaism, which dates back to the early 1800s, is the observance most adapted to modern society, and focuses less on the strict observance of traditional Jewish law. Reform Judaism was the first branch to include a girls’ Bat Mitzvah confirmation equivalent to the traditional boys’ Bar Mitzvah confirmation. A newer and more radical practice of Judaism is Reconstructionism.

The Rabbinical Council of America
The Rabbinical Council of America is a national organization of Orthodox rabbis, founded in 1923. It is a branch of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, founded in 1898. Together, these organizations are devoted to supporting Orthodox Jewish observance and education, as well as supporting the State of Israel. They are also the primary body that overseas the approval of manufactured foods as ‘‘kosher,’’ or consistent with Jewish dietary laws.

The Medieval Ghetto
Rabbi Isaac Kornfeld in this story at one point mentions the ‘‘medieval ghetto’’ in the ‘‘letter’’ that the narrator reads. In modern American usage ‘‘ghetto’’ generally refers to low-income areas of a city, often inhabited primarily by minority populations. However, the term ‘‘ghetto,’’ first dubbed in the early sixteenth century, referred to areas of many cities in which Jews were legally forced to live, segregated from the rest of the population. A high fence or gate usually enclosed ghettos, and Jews had to observe special rules and precautions when venturing outside of the walls of the ghetto. In Nazi Germany, the practice of the ‘‘ghetto’’ was brought into use as a means of temporarily containing Jews in one area of a city before sending them off to the death camps.

Yeshiva University
A yeshiva is an institution of Jewish learning and scholarship. In the United States, the first yeshiva was established in New York City in 1886. In 1928 it became Yeshiva College, and in 1945 Yeshiva University.

Philip Roth
Philip Roth is a contemporary modern Jewish- American writer, perhaps better known than Ozick. Roth’s stories, while very different in style, address many similar themes and concerns as do Ozick’s. His first book, Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories (1959) addresses themes of Jewish identity and faith in the context of secular American culture, as well as themes of family and sexuality. His most famous, most popular, and most controversial work is Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), a novel in which Alexander Portnoy, a Jewish man in his thirties, addresses his psychotherapist concerning his preoccupations with his Jewish identity, overbearing mother, and neurotic sexuality.

Literary Style

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Narrative Point-of-View
This story is told from the first person limited perspective, meaning that the reader is given only information which the narrator, also the protagonist of the story, also has. This is effective in that, while the story centers on the suicide and religious crisis of Isaac Kornfeld, the ‘‘pagan rabbi,’’ it is portrayed as a reflection upon the religious and identity crisis of the narrator himself. The reader is presented with the events and characters only from the perspective of the narrator. Thus, each element of the story further develops the character of the narrator.

Story Framing
As in many of Ozick’s stories, this one is built upon multiple types of story framing. The first person narrator begins by narrating the events of the ‘‘present’’ time in the story, which begin when he learns of the suicide of rabbi Kornfeld. The narrator, however, explains the significance of the present events in relation to past events, which are related in a sort of ‘‘flashback’’ mode, jumping between past and present. When he goes to visit Sheindal, the rabbi’s widow, she in turn narrates to him the story of her husband’s behavior leading up to his suicide. When she gives the narrator the rabbi’s notebook, the story unfolds through the narrator’s discussion of direct quotes from the rabbi’s writings. Later, when Sheindal hands him the letter Isaac left, the narrator is reluctant to read it; instead, Sheindal reads the letter aloud to him. This narrative technique creates a kind of ‘‘Chinese box’’ or Russian tea doll effect, whereby a story is revealed through multiple framing. The narrator is telling a story which is based on Sheindal’s story of the rabbi, which is based on her reading aloud the rabbi’s letter.

Literary References
Ozick’s writing is known to be difficult due in part to the erudite literary references that play a significant role in her stories. In describing Rabbi Isaac Kornfeld’s reading habits, the narrator explains that, ‘‘One day he was weeping with Dostoyesvski and the next leaping in the air over Thomas Mann.’’ It would be important to know about the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyesvski and the great German writer Thomas Mann to appreciate the significance of these references to the themes of the story. In reading Isaac’s notebook, the narrator mentions a number of literary references. The rabbi jotted down passages and quotes from various writers, which the narrator describes as ‘‘the elegiac favorites of a closeted Romantic.’’ The narrator here is referring specifically to the literary period of Romanticism, which flourished in the early nineteenth century. The narrator cites some of the most renowned romantic poets from the rabbi’s notebooks: ‘‘He had put down a snatch of Byron, a smudge of Keats . . . ’’

Greek Mythology
In his pursuit of the worship of Nature, the rabbi turns to Greek mythology. In his notebook the narrator finds the statement, ‘‘Great Pan lives.’’ This refers to the Greek god Pan, half goat, half man. The goddess of Nature who seduces the rabbi into paganism is given the Greek-sounding name of Iripomoñoéià.

Character Names
Most of the characters in this story have names taken from the Old Testament. The rabbi’s name is Isaac. Isaac is the only son of Abraham and Sarah. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his own son; Abraham demonstrates his faith in God by preparing to carry out this command, but at the last minute, God commands Abraham to spare the boy’s life. This biblical tale points to both the unquestioning faith of Abraham and the mercy of God. In Ozick’s story, Isaac’s daughters also have biblical names such as Naomi, Esther, and Miriam. Each name thus refers to a biblical character and story. Learning more about these biblical references would shed further light on the themes of the story.

Compare and Contrast

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

1980s–1990s: After 1985, Conservative Judaism begins to ordain female rabbis.

1960s: Ozick’s story mentions that the rabbi’s parents had traveled to the ‘‘Holy Land.’’ This refers to the nation of Israel, established in 1948 as a Jewish state. Ongoing conflict between Israel and surrounding Arab nations lead to several wars, which result in redrawing of boundaries and changes in the balance of power in the Middle East. The Six-Day War of 1967 marks a watershed in Israeli relations with bordering Arab nations, when Israeli acquires control over considerably more territory in the Middle East.

1980s–1990s: There have been various attempts at peace negotiations throughout the 1980s and 1990s between Israel and the Middle East.

1960s: Before the Six Day War of 1967, Israeli rule over Arab sections of the city of Jerusalem is relatively mild, and resistance on the part of the Arab population is minimal.

1980s–1990s: After the Six Day War of 1967, the Israeli government begins to institute stricter control over Arab sections of Jerusalem. This eventually leads to acts of terrorism on the part of the Palestinian Liberation Organizations, and such uprisings as the Intifada, which begins in 1987. Attempts at peace negotiations have occurred within this context of terrorist and counterterrorist struggles between Israel and the Palestinians. However, attempts to reach a peace between Israel and the Palestinians have resulted in changes toward self-rule of Palestinians in some areas of Israel.

1960s: Orthodox Jewish interpretations of the Talmud place specific restrictions on issues concerning death and the body. For instance, any activity that may hasten death is forbidden. Mutilation of the body is also forbidden. Such laws are subject to further interpretation by Jewish scholars to accommodate new medical technologies.

1990s: Advances in medical science and technology over the past thirty years (such as organ transplants, genetic research and advanced methods for, and increased availability of, euthanasia) have raised further challenges to rabbinical scholars in interpreting the significance of the ancient texts of the Talmud. Provisions that make exceptions in the interest of ‘‘the preservation of life’’ can be interpreted by Jewish theologians to be in keeping with various practices of modern medical technology.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Cohen, Sarah Blacher, Cynthia Ozick’s Comic Art: From Levity to Liturgy, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 9, 64, 68.

Friedman, Lawrence S., Understanding Cynthia Ozick, University of South Carolina Press, 1991, pp. 6, 8, 10, 14, 16.

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

———, ed., A Cynthia Ozick Reader, Indiana University Press, 1996, pp. ix, xix, xxi.

Knopp, Josephine Z., ‘‘Ozick’s Jewish Stories,’’ in Cynthia Ozick, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1986, p. 29.

Lowin, Joseph, Cynthia Ozick, Twayne Publishers, 1988, p. 67.

Nocera, Gigliola, ‘‘Cynthia Ozick and ‘The Pagan Rabbi,’’’ in Intertextual Identity: Reflections on Jewish-American Artists, edited by Franco La Polla and Gabriella Morisco, Patron Editore, 1997, p. 109.

Pinsker, Sanford, The Uncompromising Fictions of Cynthia Ozick, University of Missouri Press, 1987, pp. 1, 39.

Rovit, Earl, ‘‘The Two Languages of Cynthia Ozick,’’ in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 1989, p. 34.

Strandberg, Victor, ‘‘The Art of Cynthia Ozick,’’ in Cynthia Ozick, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1986, pp. 80, 102, 119.

Further Reading
Block, Gay, and Malka Drucker, Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust, Holmes & Meier, 1992. This photographic work of pictures by Cynthia Ozick shows people who helped Jews facing persecution in the Holocaust, and contains an afterword by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis.

Burstein, Janet Handler, Writing Mothers, Writing Daughters: Tracing the Maternal in Stories by American Jewish Women, University of Illinois Press, 1996. Burstein presents a critical discussion of themes of motherhood in Jewish literature. This work includes a discussion of the work of Cynthia Ozick, in a chapter entitled ‘‘Mirroring the Mother: The Ordeal of Narcissism.’’

Curtis, C. Michael, ed., God: Stories, Houghton Mifflin, 1998. Curtis’s book is a collection of short stories on themes of faith, spirituality, and religion, and includes ‘‘Rosa’’ by Cynthia Ozick.

Gutkind, Lee, ed., Surviving Crisis: Twenty Prominent Authors Write about Events that Shaped Their Lives, Putnam, 1997. This text includes the essay ‘‘The Break’’ by Cynthia Ozick.

Shapiro, Gerald, ed., American Jewish Fiction: A Century of Stories, University of Nebraska Press, 1998. Shapiro presents a collection of international short stories by Jewish writers, which includes ‘‘Envy; or, Yiddish in America’’ by Cynthia Ozick.

Stavans, Ilan, ed., The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories, Oxford University Press, 1998. This book is a collection of international short stories by Jewish authors, which includes ‘‘The Shawl’’ by Cynthia Ozick.

Updike, John, ed., The Best American Short Stories of the Century, Houghton Mifflin, 1999. This book is a collection of short stories gathered from the series Best American Short Stories, which has been published annually since 1915. It contains an introduction by John Updike and includes ‘‘The Shawl’’ by Cynthia Ozick.


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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.

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