After Rabbi Isaac Kornfeld commits suicide in an obscure city park, the unnamed narrator, his lifelong friend, wants to know why the rabbi has hanged himself, and visits the site. The narrator explains that his father and Isaac’s were nominal friends who were, in fact, scholarly enemies. Both Isaac and the narrator attended the same seminary, but the latter dropped out, earning the silence and the hatred of his unforgiving father. Although they remained affectionate, if distant, friends, the two young men were perfect opposites. Isaac became a brilliant Talmudic scholar, published widely, married a Holocaust survivor, and had seven daughters. The childless narrator never returned to the seminary, became a furrier and later a bookseller, and divorced his gentile wife.
The narrator visits Isaac’s widow, Sheindel Kornfeld, hoping to learn the reason for the tragedy. What he finds is a contemptuous, tearless widow who queries the bookseller concerning Isaac’s interest in books on plants. The narrator is shocked by Sheindel’s bold declaration that Isaac was never a Jew. She then relates her husband’s increasingly bizarre behavior: his sudden insistence on lengthy picnics, the numerous second-rate fairy tales that he wrote and later burned, and his seemingly inexplicable passion for public parks. The narrator’s first visit to Sheindel concludes when she commands him to study Isaac’s small notebook in order to solve the mystery. In effect, he becomes the scholar to Kornfeld’s text.
The late rabbi’s writing proves to be just as baffling to the bookseller as was the suicide itself. Written in Greek, Hebrew, and English, it contains mostly quotations from the Bible and Romantic poetry, the latter displaying a marked emphasis on English Romantic views on nature. The bookseller returns to visit Sheindel with the intention of eventually marrying her. Sheindel produces an even more perplexing document—Isaac’s suicide note. She says that it is a love letter and proceeds to recite it to the reluctant narrator. The letter discloses an imaginative, even irrational human being who is wholly at odds both with his vocation as a rabbinical scholar and also with the tenets of Judaism.
The lengthy suicide note, which may more accurately be described as a tract, is the antithesis of the rabbi’s scholarly work. Its affirmation of sylvan spirits and its denial of the possibility of idolatry account for Sheindel’s dry-eyed demeanor and her bold declaration that her husband was a pagan. As the narrator follows Sheindel’s recitation, his role shifts from the reluctant listener to that of the active participant: He seizes the note from her when she can no longer continue. The bookseller is incredulous as Kornfeld’s note progresses from a rejection of Talmudic law to a celebration of nature imagery, characterized by such mythical beings as dryads, naiads, and oreads. The rabbi practiced abstinence with his wife in order to copulate with one of these spirits, and claims in the note that he has done so. This dryad, whom Isaac calls “Iripomooéià,” declares a book-laden old man to be Isaac’s soul. When the latter chastised Isaac for abandoning the Law, the rabbi seized the old man’s prayer shawl and hangs himself with it.
The tale concludes with the narrator parting from the unforgiving widow for good.
“The Pagan Rabbi” explores a modern Jewish problem, the overwhelming appeal of things non-Jewish, or “pagan.” The title piece in Ozick’s first short-story collection, “The Pagan Rabbi” is a mythical tale set in the modern world. There are three voices in the story: the intense dialogue controlled by the widow, the information provided by the narrator, and the reading of the deceased’s suicide note.
Rabbi Isaac Kornfeld, a gifted and renowned intellectual, teacher, and writer,...
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