The Pagan Rabbi, and Other Stories, 1971
Bloodshed and Three Novellas, 1976
Levitation: Five Fictions, 1982
The Shawl, 1989
The Puttermesser Papers, 1997
The Cannibal Galaxy, 1983
The Messiah of Stockholm, 1987
Epodes: First Poems, 1992
Blue Light, pr. 1994 (adaptation of her short story “The Shawl”)
Art and Ardor, 1983
Metaphor and Memory: Essays, 1989
What Henry James Knew, and Other Essays on Writers, 1993
Fame and Folly: Essays, 1996
Quarrel and Quandry: Essays, 2000
The Best American Essays, 1998, 1998
A Cynthia Ozick Reader, 1996
Many critics consider Cynthia Ozick (OH-zihk) to be among the most talented authors of the second half of the twentieth century. She certainly ranks high among women authors and Jewish authors, although she disclaims the first category as demeaning and meaningless. Born in New York City on April 17, 1928, to pharmacist William Ozick and Celia Regelson Ozick, Cynthia Ozick showed promise throughout her academic career. She was a Phi Beta Kappa and graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in English from New York University. She taught from 1949 to 1951 at Ohio State University, where she earned a M.A. Ozick married Bernard Hallote, a lawyer; the couple had a daughter, Rachel. After returning to New York University as an English instructor from 1964 to 1965, Ozick turned to a full-time writing career.
From her first work, Trust, Ozick revealed herself as a writer of ideas. This novel, which received mixed reviews, concerns a young woman estranged from her Jewish culture and her own father, whom she eventually meets in the course of the novel. Ozick’s other works treat more successfully problems of morality, Jewish identity, and the significance of storytelling itself. The Pagan Rabbi, and Other Stories, Bloodshed and Three Novellas, Levitation, The Cannibal Galaxy, and The Messiah of Stockholm all received general critical acclaim as her standing as an important American author grew.
Ozick maintains her connections with the academic and Jewish communities, as demonstrated by numerous awards and positions recognizing her contributions to literature. She taught at the Chautauqua Writers’ Conference in 1966, held the position of Elly Stolnitz Memorial Lecturer at Indiana University in 1972, and served as O’Connor Professor at Colgate University in 1973. She won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1968; Epstein Fiction Awards from the Jewish Book Council in 1972 and 1976; the Hadassah Myrtle Wreath Award in 1974; the Pushcart Press Lamport Prize in 1980; a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1982; a Rea Award for the Short Story from the Dungannon Foundation in 1986; and O. Henry Awards in 1975, 1981, 1984, and 1992. Her works were nominated for a National Book Award in 1972; National Book Critics Circle Awards in 1982, 1983, 1990, and 2000; and a PEN/Faulkner Award in 1984.
An early work, “The Pagan Rabbi,” typifies Ozick’s concerns in its focus on the Jew’s attraction to all that is “pagan,” or non-Jewish. It also demonstrates her blending of realistic and fantastic elements: A rabbi falls in love with a dryad and then commits suicide. In her later works, she addresses what appear to be conflicts between feminism and Judaism, between the act of storytelling and the proscription against creating images and thereby competing with God as creator. Another important concern running through Ozick’s work is the nature of language, which she explores perhaps most effectively in “Envy: Or, Yiddish in America,” a tale of a Yiddish writer who bitterly envies Isaac Bashevis Singer’s success.
Ozick’s short story “The Shawl” is perhaps her most popular and powerful short story. It involves Rosa and her niece Stella, inmates in a concentration camp. Stella’s desire for the shawl, while understanding that Rosa’s baby (Magda) depends on it for survival, manifests the desperation of Holocaust victims and the ability of the Nazis to turn their victims against themselves. Rosa’s dilemma when Magda slips out of the barracks in search of the shawl–whether to pursue Magda or the shawl–illuminates the everyday life-threatening decisions that were faced by Jews in concentration camps and the pain of those who suffered the loss of loved ones.
The companion piece to “The Shawl,” entitled “Rosa,” provides the ramifications of Rosa’s heartbreaking experience involving Magda. Three decades later, Rosa still has not forgiven Stella for the latter’s selfishness and has become an embittered loner. Ozick creates the character of the persistent and flirtatious Persky, who advises Rosa that she must forget the past. He did not suffer during the Holocaust and does not fully comprehend her agony; she is thus resentful toward him initially. Yet Rosa, who previously had never expressed interest in Judaism, learns to accept her religion, demonstrated by her agreement to allow Persky to enter her room as the story concludes.
Critics most often praise Ozick’s work for its brilliance of language and philosophy while expressing less admiration for her skills in characterization and development of the narrator’s viewpoint. Indeed, her central characters are often cold, less than appealing, more aflame with the passion of ideas than with the warmth of human love. At times her work verges on obscurity, but at her best, this refusal to classify ideas is stimulating and artful.
One of her most important accomplishments is what Ruth R. Wisse, in the June, 1976, issue of Commentary, identifies as the “Judaization of English.” Ozick brings Jewish ideas to a non-Jewish language, and although this may leave some readers and critics mystified, she manages in her most effective work to broaden the scope of her readers while she creates distinctively Jewish literature. Ozick constantly explores and tests the seductive quality of the Gentile world, showing that the attraction of the beautiful, as represented in nature and philosophy, conflicts with her understanding of the obligations of Talmudic law. Paradoxically, she participates in what she views as profane acts–telling beautiful stories, creating images–in the service of celebrating what she views as the sacred elements of Jewish tradition.
Although Ozick’s work addresses Jewish concerns, her appeal is universal. From her first novel, she has grappled with the search for personal and cultural identity, a quest that knows no national or ethnic boundaries. Whether to have the courage to keep entering foreign territory or to slink back into the safety of ignorance is a choice everyone makes on a daily basis. Ozick challenges her readers to examine their own lives, past and present, regardless of their particular cultural background, and it is this courageous moral quest that most clearly distinguishes her work.