Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Cynthia Ozick

OZICK, CYNTHIA (1928– ), U.S. writer, best known for literature exploring the opposition between the Jewish and the pagan worlds and the problem of what it means to be a Jew in the U.S. diaspora. Ozick was born in New York to Yiddish-speaking Russian Jewish immigrants and was educated at New York University. She did graduate work in literature at Ohio State University (1949–50), writing her thesis on the later novels of Henry James, an important early aesthetic influence. She later taught a fiction workshop at the Chautauqua Writers' Conference.

Ozick emerged as a gifted short-story writer in the early 1960s, publishing her first full-length novel, Trust, in 1966. This ambitious work, praised as both Jamesian and Tolstoyan in its stylistics, has strong mythological tendencies and an allegorical frame. The novel follows an unnamed female narrator's quest for identity amid the confusion of modern American life. Judaism, with its responsibility to the past and future (represented by Enoch, her mother's current husband), provides one option; the spontaneous life of nature (represented by Nick, the mysterious father she has never met but is seeking) provides another option. In Ozick's second and more successful book, The Pagan Rabbi, and Other Stories (1971), the title story is a fantasy about a young rabbi's struggle between Pan and Moses, nature and Judaism. The second tale, "Envy; or, Yiddish in America," likewise explores the conflict for the traditional Jew living in a gentile world; the protagonist, Edelshtein, an immigrant Yiddish poet who cannot get translated or published in English, satirically attacks the successful but secular, pantheist Yiddish novelist, Ostrover, a figure based on Isaac Bashevis Singer. Edelshtein reveals Ozick's belief that for Jewish literature to be valuable it must remain focused on Jewish themes and reject assimilation. The central problem and paradox for Ozick is that, as an observant Jew living in the U.S. and writing in English, she cannot escape the belief that all fiction is to some degree idolatrous and all writing in English a betrayal of Judaism. The last story in the collection, "Virility," is a feminist, Jewish tale exposing the falsehood of an assimilated male Jewish writer's claim to be a spokesman of universal values. The celebrated poet Edmund Gate turns out to be a plagiarist, while the true poet is none other than his aged "Tante Rivkah" who has remained true, in poverty and loneliness, to her Jewish origins. Ironically, when Rivkah's final poems are published posthumously under her own name, they no longer receive the glowing reviews they received when published under Gate's name.

Many of Ozick's other works, including Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976) and The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), explore the issues and moral dilemmas facing the Jewish writer who, as Harold Bloom has written about Ozick, must struggle to reconcile her need to create fiction and her "fear of making stories into so many idols." The Messiah of Stockholm tells the story of Lars Andemening, an orphan of World War II who becomes fixated on the idea that he is the son of Bruno *Schulz, the famous Polish Jewish writer killed by the Nazis. The devastating impact of the Holocaust is a dominant theme in many of Ozick's works, including Levitation: Five Fictions (1982), the novels The Cannibal Galaxy (1983) and The Shawl (1989). The Cannibal Galaxy is the story of Joseph Brill, a young Orthodox Parisian Jew, who survives the war hidden in a priest's library only to unsuccessfully attempt after the war to create a Jewish school that braids the best of Jewish and western traditions. The Shawl, arguably Ozick's most powerful and controversial work, combines two short stories. The title story, a work of bare, brutal horror, tells of the murder of Magda, the baby daughter of the assimilationist Jewish Pole, Rosa Lublin; Magda is killed when a Nazi throws her against an electrified fence. The second story, "Rosa," follows the destructive impact of the Shoah on Rosa, who has become "a madwoman and a scavenger" in Miami, writing letters in her best Polish to her dead daughter. While continuing to explore ethical, theological, and philosophical issues, Ozick turned to a lighter tone in her comic novel, The Puttermesser Papers (1997), a fantastic, episodic novel reminiscent of 18th-century picaresque tales. The novel follows the magical adventures of Jewish attorney Ruth Puttermesser, from hercreation of a female golem who helps her to become mayor of New York to her death and experiences in paradise. Here and elsewhere Ozick combines the realistic and the surrealistic, comedy, tragedy, and philosophy, in order to create beautifully rich texts exploring Jewish life in America. Her 2004 realistic novel Heir to the Glimmering World is the story of a teenage orphan working for a German immigrant family headed by a professor who obsessively studies the Karaites, an obscure Jewish sect.

Despite her brilliant use of humor, Cynthia Ozick is a philosophical writer who takes Judaism more seriously than did the first generation of post-World War II Jewish writers in America. In a series of forthright and brilliant essays published in the Jewish press, she has written of the Messiah and the need to find a place for him in the modern city, of Holiness and the Sabbath day, and of the Jewish commitment to history as an answer to present-day idolatries. But she is aware of the tensions and difficulties which such commitment implies, especially for the creative writer ("Holiness and its Discontents," 1972). Her collections of essays, including Art and Ardor (1983), Metaphor and Memory (1989), Fame and Folly (1996), and Quarrel and Quandary (2000), explore a variety of topics with insight and thoughtfulness. Ozick does not betray the nostalgia of some older writers for the pieties of the ghetto; her sense of the relevance of the Jewish "myth" is related to a keen awareness of the contemporary western world with its combination of enchantment and squalor. At the same time, she shows a more positive identification with Israel and its fate than is to be found in her older contemporaries among the New York Jewish novelists. This became marked after the Six-Day War of 1967, and even more so after the Yom Kippur War of 1973.


H. Bloom (ed.), Cynthia Ozick: Modern Critical Views (1986); H. Fisch, in: Haaretz (Oct. 10, 1973); E. Kauvar, Cynthia Ozick's Fiction: Tradition and Invention. (1993).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.