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The temptations of Cynthia Ozick

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Title:
The temptations of Cynthia Ozick
Creator:
Myers, William C
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Language:
English
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v, 56 leaves : ; 28 cm

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Subjects / Keywords:
Ethics ( lcsh )
Jews in literature ( lcsh )
Judaism in literature ( lcsh )
Ethics ( fast )
Jews in literature ( fast )
Judaism in literature ( fast )
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Criticism, interpretation, etc. ( fast )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )
Criticism, interpretation, etc ( fast )

Notes

Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 55-56).
General Note:
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree, Master of Arts. English.
General Note:
Department of English
Statement of Responsibility:
by William C. Myers.

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Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
|Auraria Library
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All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
36392096 ( OCLC )
ocm36392096
Classification:
LD1190.L54 1996m .M94 ( lcc )

Full Text
THE TEMPTATIONS OF CYNTHIA OZICK
by
William C. Myers
B.S., University of Southern Colorado, 1972
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
English
1996


This thesis for the Masters of Arts
degree by
William C. Myers
has been approved
by
-V 7h0y MC,
Date


Myers, William C. (M. A. English)
The Temptations of Cynthia Ozick
Thesis directed by Professor Joel Salzberg
ABSTRACT
Cynthia Ozick, an observant, orthodox Jew, faces a
unique obstacle to writing: the possibility that her
works may be idols, which Jews are forbidden to worship.
Thus, she fashions words into secular constructs offered
as potential objects of worship in place of God,
producing moral tensions and internal conflicts resulting
in feelings of guilt. I propose that she mitigates this
problem by creating works of deontology, studies of moral
obligation that function, for readers, as sermons on
idolatry and, for artists, as lessons in channeling
idolatrous "works of their hands" into moral endeavors
that reinforce the Covenant rather than challenge it.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the
candidate's thesis. I recommend its publication.
Signed
Joel Salzberg
iii


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
I would like to thank Joel Salzberg for suggesting a
title and directing my thesis and Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky
for introducing me to Cynthia Ozick's fiction.


CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION .................................. 1
2. "THE PAGAN RABBI"...............................7
3. THE SHAWL.................................... . 18
4. "LEVITATION".................................. 26
5. THE MESSIAH OF STOCKHOLM ..................... 35
6. CONCLUSION................................... . 53
LIST OF WORKS CITED.................................. 55
V


CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION
The Biblical history of the Jews chronicles the
conversion of pagan, polytheistic tribes into
monotheists, members of a Covenanta theological
contract defining the obligations of both partieswith
the one God. It was not an easily-made transition. The
Hebrews were famously stubborn, and the temptation to
worship other gods, incarnated as idols, was difficult to
abjure. Admonitions concerning the evils of idolatry and
God's warnings of dire consequences abound in sacred
literature. Certain warnings, such as the Second
Commandment, are attributed to God Himself, while others
were delivered indirectly through the mouths of the
Prophets. As recorded in Jeremiah 1:16, for example,
reversion to old habits violated the Covenant: "They
have forsaken Me / And sacrificed to other gods / And
worshipped the works of their hands." When admonitions
failed, God, ironically, utilized the enemy armies of
pagan nations to chastise His chosen people for
succumbing to the temptations of idolatry.
Cynthia Ozick is a Jewish writer who, like her
ancestors, has experienced a personal struggle with the
1


issue of idolatry, and the brief historical perspective
above provides a context for understanding a statement
suggesting the nature of her dilemma. She wrote in a
1979 essay that "Literature, one should have the courage
to reflect, is an idol" (Art & Ardor 196). It must be
recognized that Ozick is speaking from two antithetical
positions not easily reconciled: first, as an artist, a
writer of fiction, and second, as an orthodox Jew, a
believer in the Covenant. Judaism traditionally
mistrusts words used for other than sacred purposes since
there is a danger of violating the Second Commandment.
Elaine Kauver expands and delineates this important
concept:
[The power of her storyteller's intellect
allows Ozick to] invent her own world and in
the process emulate the Creator; usurping His
place, she replaces it with the work of her
hands and falls prey to idolatry (Ozick's
Fiction 100).
Kauver's statement obviously echoes Jeremiah, previously
quoted. Ozick's own comment on this issue is even more
succinct: "When man is turned into . god he is freed
from any covenant with God" (A <& A 163). This implies
that the writer of fiction is a potentially god-like
being who fashions words into secular constructs offered
as objects of worship in place of God, and this, for the
observant Jew, produces moral tensions resulting in
2


feelings of guilt.
The question of how Ozick rationalizes this conflict
in a manner permitting her to continue writing requires
exploring a thought process that has undergone a
fascinating evolution over many years. The trail begins
with her status as a twenty-two year old pagan disciple
of Henry James. James, her literary idol and the subject
of her masters thesis, consumed her so completely that
she lost her own identity"I became Henry James" (A & A
294), she flatly states. She was seduced by the Jamesian
aesthetic and she readily admits squandering her youth
as well as huge amounts of creative effortin the
pursuit of writing a Jamesian novel. The end result of
this Herculean effort was Trust, published in 1966, but
events did not transpire as she planned:
Furthermore, that immense and silent and
obscure labor had little responsemy work did
not speak to the Gentiles, for whom it had been
begun, not to the Jews, for whom it had been
finished. And I did not know why. Though I
had yearned to be famous in the religion of
Art, to become ... a saint of Art, I remained
obscure (158).
We realize from this statement that Ozick recognizes
not only her own idolatry but also her longing to be
idolized herself through her art as well. James did not
advocate idolatry, as some critics believe, and Ozick7s
mistake was based on "misreading" his views concerning
3


Art (paganism) and Life (morality). She absolves him of
guilt by observing that "James, although a recorder of
internal scriptures, was no Blake, and never fashioned
gods and demigods" (gtd. in Kauver, Ozick's Fiction 3).
Further, she accepts full responsibility for her error:
it is a lesson about misreading . the great
voices of Art, and suppos[ing] that, because
they speak of Art, they mean Art. The great
voices of Art never mean only Art; they also
mean Life, they always mean Life, and Henry
James, when he evolved into the Master we
revere, finally meant nothing else (A & A 296).
With this awareness of Life's value over Art came a
degree of repentance and a very public struggle with her
attraction to writing and the knowledge that her stories
were potentially idols, graven images of art in violation
of the Second Commandment. This view, however, was
eventually moderated. By 1987, in her interview with Tom
Teicholz, she was able (apparently after a conversation
with a "good thinker") to proclaim:
I/m in the storytelling business, but I no
longer feel I'm making idols. The insight that
the largest, deepest, widest imaginative
faculty of all is what you need to be a
monotheist teaches me that you simply cannot be
a Jew if you repudiate the imagination. This
is a major shift for me (168).
Teicholz, to his credit, pushed for more explanation than
a simple change of feelings and Ozick responded:
"whether I were ultimately to regard storytelling.as
idol-making or not ... I would go on writing fiction."
4


He demanded more detail.
"Because I will do it. Whether
it is God's work or Satan's work, I will do it," she shot
back. Teicholz persisted, asking a final "Why?" Ozick's
highly intriguing answer was "Willfulness" (168).
Interpreting her last remark could lead one to
believe that Ozick is characterizing herself as
obstinate and perverse, but we might then conclude that
her work is Satan's. Willfulness also denotes an
intentional, purposeful act done with a conscious goal in
mind, and this leads to the positive conclusion that she
performs God's work. The latter idea is surely the case
with Ozick. From the point of view of a self-conscious
artist as Jew, I believe she can do no less. This is not
to say that the seductive call of idolatry will ever
abate for her, but rather that she has devised a way to
contend with it.
An early statement by Ozick on the purpose of
literature from Art & Ardor claims that "We are safe with
it when we let the child-part of our minds play with
poems and stories as with a pack of dolls" (196). This
surely fails to state adeguately the importance of her
work or what she hopes to accomplish. The views of
certain critics seem to bring us closer to the truth.
Sarah Cohen describes Ozick's work using terms bearing
theological tones, such as "midrash" and "parables" (64).
5


Katha Pollit prefers the designation "jeremiads" (63) and
even addresses Ozick as "rabbi" (64). Finally, as
Elizabeth Rose has observed, "Her stories groan with
idolaters and idol-makers. ." (94).
I conclude from these facts that Cynthia Ozick has,
indeed, chosen to do God's work. I propose that she
creates works of deontology, studies of moral obligation
that function, for readers, as sermons on idolatry and,
for artists, as lessons in channeling idolatrous "works
of their hands" into moral endeavors that reinforce the
Covenant rather than challenge it. The ambiguous nature
of these sermons requires readers and artists to play an
active role in Ozick's artistic creation and draw
appropriate, ethical conclusions. My analysis will use
the terms "pagan" and "idolater" somewhat interchangeably
since pagan polytheistic belief typically involves idol
worship.
I will utilize four of Ozick's shorter works to
examine her lessons on the perils of idolatry for the Jew
and the artist. The works chosen chronologically span
the years 1971 to 1987; The Shawl, however, originally
published separately in 1980 and 1983 before a unified
appearance in 1989, will be placed between The Pagan
Rabbi (1971) and Levitation (1982). The Messiah of
Stockholm (1987) completes the selections..
6


CHAPTER 2
"THE PAGAN RABBI"
"The Pagan Rabbi" is based on an aphorism (used as
an epigraph) from The Ethics Of The Fathers ("Pirke
Avot") dealing with the dangers of an attraction to
Nature for religious Jews. According to Ozick, her work
addresses, in part, "a large theme; the aesthetic versus
the moral commitment" (Teicholz 166). The story's
protagonist is Rabbi Isaac Kornfeld, a brilliant scholar
who turns away from God and Judaism toward pagan Nature,
seeking the means to free his immortal soul from his
mortal body. These efforts ultimately end in suicide,
and the aftermath of his downfall is subsequently
discussed by his widow, Sheindel, and his apostate
friend, the unnamed narrator of the story.
Ozick's expansion of the aphorism's theme into a
"what if?" scenario is a technique Cohen identifies as
the "midrashic mode" (64), a concept she borrows from
Joseph Lowin, who in turn may have borrowed from Ruth
Wisse. Simply stated, this mode is "one in which a
familiar story or theme is given a new reading" (Wisse
43). Lowin also identifies the midrashic mode as a
process of usurpation, by which he means reusing or
7


rewriting themes from other authors or sources for one's
own purposes. The "midrashic mode" could thus be defined
as the elaboration of, explanation of, of commentary on a
preexisting idea. An alternate understanding of this
term seems to have been overlooked, especially as it
relates to Isaac Kornfeld, the pagan rabbi. To remedy
this oversight, it is first necessary to establish a
basic understanding of the terms midrash and mishnah.
Midrash evolved in the Second Temple era from the
common people's need for soferim (scribes) to explain
meanings of obscure scripture and their relevance to
contemporary problems of the day (Rosten 243). Like
Isaac, whose magnificent imagination could "concoct
holiness out of the.fine line of a serif" ("PR" 4),
necessity (that proverbial "mother of invention")
inspired the scribes to "read involved ideas into simple
verses, and [find] esoteric meaning in every jot and
tittle of the holy texts" (Rosten 243). Such hermeneutic
improvisations, from simple men performing a task they
were educationally unequipped to fulfill, ranged from the
improbable to the fantastic. As Max Dimont, a Jewish
historian, concludes, "The exposition used . was
naive allegory and simple homiletics. Fortunately, as
the audience did not surpass the scribes in intellect,
their banalities passed for profundity" (119-120).
8


From midrash evolved mishna, a more refined,
scientific tool of exegesis for scriptural clarification.
Dimont follows the traditional practice of crediting the
legendary Rabbi Hillel with the additions of rabbinic
scholarship, and especially Greek-inspired logic, to the
deductive reasoning process (122). Mishna was so
successful a tool that the conclusions of the rabbis
employing it were codified, eventually becoming an
important part of the Talmud* Isaac bears the ponderous
title "Professor of Mishnaic History," ("PR" 8) and is
thus a scholar of Talmud, the "Oral Law" which encourages
"guestioning, arguing, refinements of distinction and
analysis" (Rosten 395). One might assume that he
practices the logical approach mentioned above, but this
seems to be an incorrect assumption. His Jewish
education fails him, since he utilizes the illogical
midrashic, rather than mishnaic, reasoning.in his
challenge to orthodoxy. Mishnah invites him to guestion
the status guo, but midrashic reasoning opens the path to
apostasy, idolatry, and death.
Kauver correctly identifies Isaac's conflict as an
internal "struggle to reconcile his attraction to two
utterly disparate and discordant ways of life" (Ozick's
Fiction 41). An avid reader of everything from the
Romantics to non-Jewish philosophers, Isaac challenges
9


the traditional Jewish belief that body and soul are
inseparable elements of each person. He analyzes
traditional Jewish belief, based on Torah and Talmud,
written and oral Law. Using midrashic, revisionist
reasoning in the ultimate non sequitur, Isaac first
concludes that the sacred texts are nothing but
"mythologies" ("PR" 19). A different aphorism from the
"Pirke Avot" cautions: "Be heedful in study, for an
unwitting error in study is accounted wanton
transgression" (Lieberman and Beringause 83). If an
inadvertent error is wanton, then Isaac's imaginative
reclassification of scripture as fiction surely damns
him. The Talmud also warns Jews that "Whoever accepts
idolatry, denies the entire Torah."
Isaac's growing interest in nature prompts his
widow, Sheindel, to inguire of the bookseller-narrator
whether the rabbi purchased secular books concerning
agriculture, agronomy, gardening, and the like. Sheindel
excuses books from blame in Isaac's death and she also
believes "If he had been faithful to his books (i.e.:
holy texts), he would have lived" (12). Her assessment
is incorrect. Jewish reverence for books is legendary;
in this situation, however, even sacred texts may not
escape culpability. As an example, one section of mishna
titled "Seeds" deals with agriculture, orchards, fields,
10


and their associated laws and rituals. The advice of the
aphorism Ozick chooses for her source is thus somewhat
contradictoryIsaac should abjure nature in favor of
study, but the mishna itself discusses nature!
Once the rabbi abandons the Covenant, any sacred
book is subject to midrashic interpretationusurpation,
of a sortleading to flawed conclusions. Anything which
contradicts his philosophy can be cleverly explained
away. Sheindel realizes that Isaac could rationalize his
beliefs "By eventually finding a principle to cover them"
(25). God and his creation, Nature, are one entity to
Isaac. He rationalizes that in Nature, "idolatry does
not existbecause death does not existand ... in the
world of nature, the soul is able to be free" (Lowin 71).
Spinoza's heretical philosophy is guoted as a source for
this belief (even though he agreed with the orthodox
position on the unity of soul and body), but Isaac's
midrashic approach leads him illogically to this
perverted theology in which God and Nature are one.
Achieving immortality for his indwelling soul is
Isaac's ultimate goal. Genesis teaches that after God
expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, He posted
a cherubim with flaming sword to deny them access to the
tree of life, the source of immortality. In place of
this "mythology," Isaac turns to paganized Nature and its
11


free-dwelling souls. Ozick pointedly places his
substitute "tree of life," an oak inhabited by a dryad,
in a corrupted Eden, a despoiled public park near a bay
full of sewage. The name "Trilham's Inlet" echoes the
Pelham Bay section of the Bronx where Ozick grew up and
introduces an autobiographical element to the story. The
sexual relationship that develops between the rabbi and
the plant-like dryad becomes the means to the end of
freeing Isaac's soul, but Ozick intends that we recognize
their coupling as a form of pagan worship. The dryad,
addressed as "Loveliness" (23) by Isaac, is Nature and
Beauty personified in a form capable of physical and
emotional love.
The resolution of this midrash comes when Isaac
accomplishes the separation of his soul from his body and
the dryad disappears. His soul's appearance as an old,
ugly Jew walking along the road studying "A Tractate of
the Mishnah" (35) startles the rabbi. The old man, bent
under his bag of books and oblivious to nature's beauty,
is a classic symbol tied into the epigraph at the story's
beginning. Isaac's soul represents the covenanted Jew
bound by the Law. All Jews from all times were present
at Sinai when God spoke to the assembled tribes to
introduce himself to his chosen people. As Ozick
affirms, "In Jewish thought, there are no latecomers" (A
12


& A 194). Isaac reasons himself away from the covenant
and abandons the continuity of history which all Jews
share. His soul reveals the error of his reasoning:
"The dryad, who does not exist, lies. It was not I who
clung to her but you, my body. Sir, all that has no real
existence lies11 (36, emphasis mine). The Law, rewritten
to satisfy the demands of Isaac's midrash, is reality and
the dryad was but a figment of his overactive
imagination, a self-willed fantasy of longing for which
he sacrificed his soul. Isaac resembles the subject of
Isaiah 44:20: "He pursues ashes! A deluded mind has led
him astray, And he cannot save himself."
Yet a third garden, a scriptural garden of mishna,
based on an allusion to the layout of a page of Talmud,
is introduced. His soul cleaves to the truth of
scripture, personified as denizens of nature:
". .1 will walk here alone always, in my
garden"he scratched on his page"with my
precious birds"he scratched at the letters
"and my darling trees"he scratched at the
tall side-columns of commentary" (36).
Isaac refuses to accept the truth of his soul's words,
and in a final act of desperation, he hangs himself from
the oak tree, symbolizing paganism, with his tallis
(prayer shawl), symbolizing the Law. In Kauver's
opinion, he "judges his lust for Nature with his
knowledge of the Law: he attempts to bring paganism into
13


accord with Judaism" (Ozick's Fiction 46). Isaac's
dualism is suggestive of Ozick's attempts to realize an
accord between her literary idols and the moral aims of
Judaism. Unlike Ozick, who achieves a degree of success
because Judaism is not compromised, Isaac's attempts at
an accord between the two theologies fail. Given this
knowledge of failure, death is the only remaining reality
acceptable to the pagan rabbi.
On another level, "The Pagan Rabbi" is a story of
fences, physical and symbolic barriers serving to keep
things in or out, structures which protect or imprison.
Fences as symbols receive examination from three
different perspectives including Sheindel, Isaac, and the
unnamed narrator. The author/artist is not implicitly
included in this list, but several important inferences
may be made to Ozick's position.
Sheindel, born in a concentration camp, experienced
imprisonment behind a fence, nearly lost her life to it,
and bears a scar on her cheek from its barbs. Her
primary function in the structure of the story, though,
is to represent "traditional, rational Judaism" (Kauver
47). Judaism is the theological Fence of the Law, a
barrier delineating boundaries of belief for Jews and a
barricade offering protection from all that is outside
the boundary. Sheindel's faith is a rock, unshakable in
14


the face of any challenge.
The narrator and Isaac, both children of rabbis and
classmates at seminary school, represent denial and
circumvention of the Fence respectively. The narrator
becomes, in one sense, a surrogate for Ozick, a figure of
ambiguity, a literal Fence sitter, attracted by what lies
on both sides of the barrier. He is one who abandons
traditional belief and marries a Gentile, yet still
stocks Jewish theological books in his shop. He is
romantically attracted to Sheindel while simultaneously
repelled by the strength of her orthodoxy and, in a
classic psychological approach/avoidance dilemma, does
little about it. He refuses to condemn Isaac even when
faced with the overwhelming evidence of his idolatry,
much to Sheindel's amazement, but he does flush his house
plants down the sewer, a symbolic yet meaningless act.
The ambiguity inherent in his character does not allow us
to speculate whether he will ever fully return to the
Law.
Isaac "scaled the Fence of the Law" (Pi? 24) by his
midrashic, illogical, self-serving dissection of Biblical
text, retaining what met his requirements and casually
discarding the remainder as he did with the verse from
Deuteronomy. Lowin finds Isaac's creation of fairy tales
for his children fascinatingthe pagan rabbi has become
15


"a teller of seemingly supernatural stories and a person
who has himself lived inside these stories" (69, emphasis
mine). Lowin further attributes Isaac's death to the
realization that he is ultimately unable to live inside
his creations (72). It is instructive to compare his
position to that of the author of fiction.
In 1976 Ozick wrote, "Literature, one should have
the courage to reflect, is an idol. We are safe with it
when we let the child-part of our minds play with poems
and stories as with a pack of dolls . ." (A <5 A 196).
We know that she (apparently) resolved this dilemma by
the time of the Teicholz interview. Since literature is
an artificial construct of the artist's mind, we must
guestion the usefulness of this early rationalization,
especially if "all that has no real existence lies."
Isaac the artist wrote a midrashic fantasy to fulfill his
desires, attempted to live inside of it, and paid the
ultimate price. His was surely a "deluded mind" at play
with devastating results.
If, as was suggested earlier, Ozick deals in
deontology, this is strong evidence of an early position
she no longer believes. Stories like "The Pagan Rabbi"
do achieve existence of a sort in the mind of the reader;
it is here that meaningful insights of a moral nature
occur through relational experience. For Ozick, fiction
16


that does not enlighten must surely be an idol and must
be avoided. Wisse brings the issue into sharp focus with
an example:
Into the mouth of the errant rabbi the author
has put part of her own aestheticist longing,
raising worship of the beautiful to the highest
philosophic and religious pitch, but only to
oppose it finally, almost pitilessly, in the
name of religious values (41).
The rabbi's soul gets the final word: "The sound of the
Law ... is more beautiful than the crickets" (Pi? 36).
This appears to be another way of saying that nature and
its glories are God's creations, not things to be
worshipped in place of God. The Law provides proper
order and perspective for humankind.
Such insights are not always so neatly portrayed in
Ozick's fiction and she makes freguent, purposeful use of
ambiguity. The reader forced to dig beneath the surface,
forced to face ambiguous issues and draw his or her own
conclusions becomes a reader much more likely to
comprehend the lesson and internalize its message.
17


CHAPTER 3
The Shawl
My wife and I had the pleasure of hearing Elie
Wiesel speak locally many years ago at Colorado College
concerning his Holocaust experiences. The audience that
night was remarkably guiet; nobody wanted to miss a word.
In a soft, accented voice he told of Nazi einsatzgruppen
(extermination squads), concentration camps, and of those
caught up in the horror of the Shoah. "Not all victims
were Jewish," he observed, "but all Jews were victims."
In retrospect, Mr. Wiesel could have been speaking
of Rosa Lublin, the protagonist of The Shawl. Rosa, like
Sheindel in "The Pagan Rabbi," is a concentration camp
survivor whose infant daughter Magda suffered the death
at the electric fence that Sheindel miraculously escaped.
Rosa also resembles Isaac Kornfeld because her writing
attempts to create an alternate reality; the focus of her
paganism, however, is not a dryad, but rather her dead
daughter. Rosa,expresses feelings of guilt over her
inability to save Magda by admitting, "Where I put myself
is in hell" (Shawl 14). Rosa's inability or
unwillingness to forget the past and move on with her
life is viewed by Stella, the niece who accompanied her
18


to the camps, as possible insanity. A third character,
Simon Persky, a Jew who escaped the Holocaust, takes an
interest in Rosa and draws her toward reality with his
philosophy of life.
\
Understanding Rosa's Jewish identity can begin by
contemplating a statement of Kauver's that also functions
nicely as a corollary to Wiesel's: "The Nazis made no
distinction between Jews who abandoned their Jewishness
and Jews who celebrated it: religious Jews were murdered
alongside assimilated ones" (Ozick's Fiction 186-187).
In other words, under Nazi laws blut, the blood,
determined who was Jewish or not Jewish. For all highly
acculturated, upper-class Jewish families like the
Lublins who considered themselves Polish, the reality of
being shoved into the Warsaw ghetto "with teeming
Moskowiczes and Rabinowiczes and Perskys and
Finkelsteins" (Shawl 66) came as a totally unexpected
shock. "Her father, like her mother, mocked at Yiddish;
there was not a particle of ghetto left in him. ."
(21), and he "knew nearly the first half of the Aeneid by
heart" (69). Strandberg correctly identifies Jews of
this class as products of the eighteenth century
Enlightenment (145), the Haskalah that freed minds of
shtetl mentalities. He views Rosa as "a child of Europe"
and cites her "Euro-Hellenism" as the source of "her
19


disdain for all things Jewish" (148).
The Enlightenment emancipated the intellect and it
also encouraged secular education, loosening the ties to
traditional Jewish beliefs and opening the door to other
beliefs, encouraged by the endemic Euro-Hellenistic
culture. Ozick has commented on this topic in several
ways, most notably through an essay in which she writes
of her "revulsion against the valuesvery plainly I mean
the beliefsof the surrounding culture itself" (A & A
196). Rosa's attitude toward her Jewish roots falls
somewhere between hostility and indifference:
I don't believe in God, but I believe, like the
Catholics, in mystery. My mother wanted so
much to convert; my father laughed at her. But
she was attracted. She let the maid keep a
statue of the Virgin and Child in the corner of
the kitchen (Shawl 41).
These are the words of an apostate, a Hellenized
Jew who has lost sight of "the point on which Jews are
famously stiff-neckednothing but the Creator, no
substitute and no mediator" (A & A 207). Rosa is guilty
of making Magda into a substitute, and in order to
comment on her mediator aspect, Ozick uses numerous
Christological references. Rosa is referred to as a
"madonna" (Shawl 59) and "Magda's swaddling cloth,"
"Magda's shroud" still holds "the holy fragrance of the
lost babe" (31). Rosa's niece, Stella, identifies the
20


shawl for what it truly is, "your idol" (31), a holy
relic. Stella is brutally frank with Rosa, attempting to
force upon her the realization that she is just "like
those people in the Middle Ages who worshipped a piece of
the True Cross, a splinter from some old outhouse as far
as anybody knew" (31-32).
Magda's death on the electric fence is described as
"a butterfly touching a silver vine" (9). As the lowly
caterpillar enters a death-like cocoon phase to emerge as
a butterfly, so Magda transforms into Rosa's "Queen of
Bloom and Blossom" (66), her "butterfly" (69) resurrected
from the dead, metamorphosed into eternal life. There
are also clever references to Stella as a cannibal intent
on eating Magda and Rosa drinking the shawl, which are
certainly meant to parody the Christian communion.
Preparing herself to receive the shawl, Rosa performs a
pagan ritual:
Everything had to be nice . She spread
jelly on three crackers and deposited a
Lipton's teabag on the Welch's lid. It was
grape jelly, with a picture of Bugs Bunny
elevating an officious finger (34).
Protestant churches have always used bits of cracker to
represent the body of Christ, and unlike their Catholic
counterparts, who substitute wine for blood, Baptists and
Methodists have always made do with grape juiceWelch's
grape juice. It takes little more imagination at this
21


juncture to transform poor Bugs into a parody of the
priest blessing his flock as communion is administered.
Ozick creates sufficient ambiguity around the issue
of Rosa's mental state that each reader must ultimately
decide the question of her madness, but there is little
doubt that her guilt over Magda's Nazi father ("You could
think she was one of their babies" (4) and the infant's
subsequent death at the hands of a camp guard has caused
her to become an idolater. Whether Rosa will ever cease
her idolatrous activities and/or return to the Law is
also left purposely ambiguous as well. The book ends
with three sentences of uncertainty: "Magda was not
there. Shy, she ran from Persky. Magda was away" (69).
Persky, the representative of positive-natured
Judaism, opens a crack in Rosa's shell, allowing a small
light of reason to enter, but again the reader must write
the ultimate ending and decide whether Magda will ever
return. Rosa lives in three separate but interrelated
realities, "The life before, the life during, the life
after" (58), referring to life before, during, and after
her imprisonment in the concentration camp. Explaining
her feelings about each segment of her personal history,
she reveals to Persky, "Before is a dream. After is a
joke. Only during stays. And to call it life is a lie"
(58). During, of course, was Hitler.
22


Persky, a realist looking for the positive, tells
her earlier that "Life is short, we all got to lie" (56).
The irony of this dialectic is that Rosa denies the
"during" of Magda's death and resurrects her through
epistolary ramblings, a lie in the "after." Magda is the
intended recipient of Rosa's letters and Kauver
identifies her as Rosa's muse as well (191), a role
foreshadowed by her infant "pencil legs." Friedman
correctly states that the letter's purpose is to
"reinvent the past even as they invoke it" (116).
Rosa revises the disturbing facts of Magda's
conception and creates a fictionalized account of the
"dream" before, the "great light" of Warsaw's high
culture of art and beauty. She lives partially in this
"before" alternate reality, partially in the fairy tale
"after" world in which Magda lives as a doctor or
professor, depending on her mood, and always in the
"during" where her life was stolen. Stella and Persky,
people who have personal knowledge of pre-war Poland,
receive sharp rebukes from Rosa when their reality
clashes with hers. Stella, who knows the truth, is
accused of creating lies and Persky repeatedly hears, "My
Warsaw isn't your Warsaw" (19).
Lowin, predictably, believes Ozick has taken the
earlier section of the work, The Shawl, and written the
23


latter, Rosa as a midrash on it (109). This works well
given the first sense of the term as discussed above, but
Rosa also writes a midrash on her life, transforming fact
into fantasy allowing her to live her present through the
imaginary accomplishments of her daughter. Her letters
are thus akin to the fairy tales Isaac Kornfeld wrote for
his children, and Magda becomes a princess in a magic
land. While Isaac chose death as the only acceptable
alternative to a reality he could not accept, The Shawl
leaves us with an enigma. Choosing to live a real life
in the "after" will reguire Rosa's acceptance of Magda's
death and will end the fantasy life her letters create.
The continued presence of Persky and the shyness of Magda
suggest the possibility of reform.
Cohen confronts the difficult issue of writing about
the Holocaust by suggesting two commandments. The first
reguires respect for the subject matter and the avoidance
of altering its facts to further art; the second is an
admonition to treat the subject matter seriously, without
"detract[ing] from its gravity" (146). Ozick clearly has
obeyed the letter and spirit of these injunctions in The
Shawl, yet she also admitted to Kauver,
I don't admire that I did it. I did it because
I couldn't help it. It wanted to be done . .
and afterward I've punished myself ... I
wasn't there, and I pretended through
imagination that I was" ("Interview" 391,
24


emphasis mine).
The fascinating thing about this confession for the
writer is that tiny sentence, "It wanted to be done."
This declaration can be elaborated into something like
"Sometimes you write the story and sometimes the story
writes you." The Holocaust is perhaps the most
documented instance of humanity's brutality toward one
race and is thus difficult for a Jewish author to avoid.
Ozick writes fiction, and in this instance her fiction
does not lie; nor does her imagination discredit the
actions of her protagonist. It is instructive at this
point to recall Wisse's comments concerning intellectual
writers who specialize in the "fictional realization of
ideas" and what she termed "truth of feeling" (43). The
Shawl is paradoxical since Ozick appears to fit both
definitions at once; the truth of feeling contributes to
a fiction that is both ethnic and universal.
25


CHAPTER 4
"LEVITATION"
Leslie Epstein reviewed "Levitation" in 1982 for The
New York Times Book Review and ruefully observed: "the
game [of fiction] is no longer being played by the rules
of fiction" (25). Before one judges the value of
Epstein's criticism, it is interesting to consult Ozick
for practical theory regarding the "rules" of fiction.
The most important essay in this connection was published
in 1987 and is cleverly titled "Portrait of the Artist as
a Bad Character." "In the compact between novelist and
reader," Ozick declares, "the novelist promises to lie,
and the reader promises to allow it" (Metaphor & Memory
98). This is a useful clarification, but there is more:
"Novelists invent, deceive, exaggerate, and impersonate
for several hours every day, and freguently on the
weekend" (98). Mr. Epstein needs to be aware that Ozick,
like novelists in general, follows her own rules. She is
perfectly aware that fiction, to use the well-known
phrase, is "the art of lying."
"Levitation" is another tale filled with ambiguity
in which Ozick, the "bad character", observes her own
rules. Cohen categorizes the story as "an urban comedy
26


of manners" (68) involving a couple from different
religious traditions. The plot develops around just how
different they really are. Feingold, the husband who
seems to have no first name, other than the diminutive
"Jimmy", and his spouse, Lucy, the minister's daughter
are the protagonists; other characters are somewhat
stereotyped. The Feingolds are admitted "Secondary-
level" authors ("Levitation" 7) residing in "New York,
among the lions" (8), the literati with whom they aspire
(futilely) to socialize. Despite differences in writing
styles and choices of subject matter, "they understood
they were lucky in each other . Lucy said: 'At least
we have the same premises'" (6). This presumption on
Lucy's part, the critics universally agree, is far from
reality.
As writers "sharing premises," the Feingolds
probably represent a satire on postmodern writing
(Friedman 122). "As a New York Jewish writer writing
about writers writing, Ozick may be poking fun at the
self-referential fiction so prevalent in the 1960's and
1970's," (122) Friedman believes. Lucy suggests that she
and her husband are "sunk in a ghetto" ("Levitation" 8).
This reflection operates on two levels: the urban,
crime-plagued streets as a physical ghetto, and a ghetto
of the mind, a result of their too narrowly-focused
27


writing interests.
Their religious premises, it becomes abundantly
clear, are vastly disparate and the resulting commentary
is vintage Ozick. Lucy, like Jane Austen, writes only
about domestic life, and fancies herself "an Ancient
Hebrew" (3). She converted to Judaism in order to marry
Feingold, the result of a wish "to marry out of her
tradition" (3). Feingold, who writes only about Jews,
attended Seminary without becoming a rabbi and harbors a
morbid fascination for the history of Jewish persecution
by Christians. His obsession at the time of this story
is with a Christian "compassionate knight" (5) credited
with the rescue of a Jewish scholar from a massacre in
Spain. Feingold's curiosity about the uncharacteristic
(for the age) actions of the knight represent a genuine
attempt to comprehend a different tradition. His planned
approach to understanding is to "invent a journal" (5)
for the knight, but this futile method would only project
Feingold's fictionalized fantasies and imagined traits
into a character he can never truly understand.
Given the detail that the Feingolds live in a
"ghetto" and the indications of Feingold's "spasm's of
fanaticism" (12), it is possible that he pictures Lucy as
his own Christian compassionate knight, someone to save
him from a similar fate should need arrive. This
28


perception, if accurate, is another example of his poor
understanding, since Lucy is not a knight in armor, a
Jew, or a Christian at all. She is a pagan.
This reality is first demonstrated at the party
where Jews congregate in the living room, Gentiles and
non-religious Jews in the dining room, and Lucy shuttles
between the two rooms through the dividing center hall,
symbolizing her detachment from both groups. Her
fascination, though, lies with the living room where
Feingold indulges his vampirish interests. A Holocaust
survivor in "This chamber of Jews" (15) diverts the
discussion from early to recent history by relating the
atrocities he personally witnessed under Hitler's reign.
His singular voice triggers a vision in Lucy:
[It was] as if hundreds and hundreds of
crucifixions were happening at once. She
visualized a hillside with multitudes of
crosses, and bodies dropping down from big
bloody nails. Every Jew was Jesus" (14).
She thus attempts to bring his experience into a frame of
reference she can understand. Cohen is probably close to
the truth with her analysis of the situation: "The only
persecution that speaks to her is Christ's . since
the cruelty of it is left to her imagination" (70).
The levitating room symbolically distances Lucy from
the Jews both physically and theologically. It matters
little whether the floating room is real or fantasy
29


because Lucy's perception of the event is the crucial
component. The refugee, like all Jews, resembles Jesus
to her and Lucy equates the sound of his voice with the
voice of God. She considers him "a messenger from the
land of the dead", the death camps literally and Hades
symbolically, kidnapping the Jews with his "power"
("Levitation" 15), a term carrying connotations of magic
or sorcery. Again we observe Lucy attempting to
understand these events, but her context is pagan.
Lucy experiences a second vision or memory (Ozick
ambiguously calls it an "illumination") that recalls
Sicilian peasants in a park, representing Nature,
performing dances and songs with fertility themes "in a
dialect of archaic Greek" (17) to celebrate mother
goddess worship stretching back to Astarte. Lucy values
gods above God, and Jesus to her is "God entering nature
to become god" (18). Although Lucy's polytheistic
beliefs are highlighted here, Ozick certainly intends the
reader to recognize that the Creator entering His
creation, the very essence of Christianity, is paganism
from the Jewish point of view. A well-known analogy for
understanding this distinction is that of the painter and
the-painting., The artist as creator cannot enter his art
or become his artthey are separate. The same is true
of God and his creations, so by blaming "the God of the
30


Jews" (18) for her lost faith, Lucy must be labeled a
blasphemer from the monotheistic standpoint.
Lucy's physical traits described earlier in the
storyeerie, luminous eyes and her likeness at times to
"a tall copper statue" (7)begin to acquire new meaning;
she resembles an idol herself. Kauver, recognizing
Ozick's extraordinary mastery of mythology, discovered
through her research that this portrayal of Lucy alludes
to a bronze statue of Aphrodite in a temple on Cyprus
(Ozick's Fiction 117). Kauver is also the only critic to
connect her name to Saint Lucy of Syracuse, a Christian
with beautiful eyes who was martyred when her pagan lover
denounced her for her faith (113). This is an
interesting reversal of the possibility of Feingold
denouncing Lucy as a pagan.
. Lucy's paganism clearly prohibits her from riding
the levitating living room separating her from the
monotheistic Jews, so she returns to the dining room. In
what must be one of the most puzzling parts of the book,
just before the story's highly ambiguous ending, Ozick
writes,
The humanistsLucy saw how they were all
compassionate knightsstood up. A puddle from
an overturned saucer was leaking onto the
floor. "Oh, I'll get that," Lucy told the
knights, "don't think a thought about it"
("Levitation" 20).
31


This curious passage may represent Ozick in a playful
mood. Lucy is a lady and the knights stand for her in
courtly fashion, as knights should. Gentlemen also are
known to assist ladies over puddles; thus, the failure of
the knights to help lucy with the spilled coffee is a
breach of etiquette. On a more serious note, it is the
word "humanists" that intrigues. Practitioners of
English Humanism, for example, attempted to blend
Classical (Hellenistic) thought and logic with Christian
belief in order to strengthen the latter. The logical
conclusion must be that Lucy the pagan is estranged from
both Jews and Christian "humanists" by her beliefs. This
conclusion further supports Ozick's earlier segregation
by rooms of the two groups, but if Christianity is a
pagan religion, the logic behind Lucy's segregation from
fellow pagans is difficult to discern.
"Levitation" ultimately emerges as a book of
negative examples. The contrast of the Feingolds with
notable authors and their resulting self-pity of their
condition seems to show that they lack both writing
skills and the necessary temperament. Jewish identity is
a more problematic issue. In Art & Ardor Ozick provides
a theological definition of Jews: "A Jew is someone who
shuns idols, who least of all would wish to become like
Terech, the maker of idols. A Jew . is like Abraham,
32


who sees through idols" (188). Rather than revealing how
Feingold and the levitators meet the definition of Jews,
Ozick paints Lucy as a negative illustration of pagan and
Christian belief in one character. While all Jews need
not be illustrious, the Jewish characters portrayed in
this story are poorly-drawn examples. Feingold is
consumed by the martyrdom of his people and remembering
martyrs is an obligation, a "cultural responsibility" as
Ozick might say. This is acceptable to a degree, but he
ignores everything positive about Jews and even has to be
dragged into recent history by the Holocaust witness.
Feingold verges on making idols of martyrs, something to
be avoided. The former rabbi is now an agnostic, a
doubter who still keeps kosher to judge by his eating
habits. He and Feingold seem to be members of a Judaism
without room for God. We are uncertain if "God had
stepped out of history ... or was there no Creator to
begin with, nothing had been created, the world was a
chimera, a solipsist's delusion" ("Levitation" 12).
If Ozick's goal is deontology, then I must judge
this as one of her weaker pieces of fiction because the
distinction between Lucy and pagan Christians is too
nebulous. The example of Lucy's paganism has obvious
moral value, but Ozick seems to absolve Christians of
paganism while simultaneously pointing out that
33


Christianity is pagan. The actions of the compassionate
knight represent a humanity that seemingly transcends
religion, and this fact becomes a stumbling block for
Feingold, who cannot abandon his ghoulish preoccupation
with dead Jews and those who caused the centuries of
carnage. The final disturbing element is the portrayal
of Jews as cultural, rather than religious, stereotypes
without a positive belief in God. Without God, the
Covenant becomes meaningless and Jews are no longer
compelled to a moral code. Without the Covenant, the
Jews of "Levitation" belong on the ground with the other
pagans.
34


CHAPTER 5
THE MESSIAH OF STOCKHOLM
The importance of a relatively new book is often
difficult to judge until sufficient time passes in order
to allow literary critics a chance to read and comment.
If we are to judge The Messiah of Stockholm by the number
of critics it has attracted and the sheer volume of
commentary published in the years since its appearance,
we must conclude that it is Ozick's most important work
to date. Harold Bloom, the distinguished (and always
controversial) critic views this book as a "triumph" for
Ozick and comments that it "reflects a developed
awareness that her earlier view of art as idolatry was
too severe" (32). Robert Alter finds little "Jewish
presence" other than the shade of Bruno Schulz, and he
worries that "so much of what Cynthia Ozick cares about
deeply ... is excluded from this book: the Jewish
people as the bearer of a distinctive history; Judaism
with its uncompromising monotheistic imperatives" (54).
Bloom apparently recognizes something Ozick herself
admitted the same year, that she no longer agonized over
creating idols, but Alter's opinion is completely without
merit. As with other Ozick works, the reader must often
35


work to identify the Jewish issue. In Messiah, ideas
manifest themselves in profusion, knotted and clumped
together, complex and densely layered.
The setting for Messiah is the city of Stockholm,
recreated by Ozick and turned into a literary construct
permeated by fire imagery. These images include roasting
and smoldering smells, numerous chimneys and furnaces,
ash and flames, to name but a few examples. The phrase
"0 the chimneys" (17, 18), twice utilized, comes from a
Holocaust poem of the same title by Nellie Sachs, the
Nobel Prize poet. It must be immediately recognized that
Ozick is evoking the Holocaust, the Final Solution, the
crematoria, and the memory of the Six Million, another
instance of what is.termed "cultural responsibility" for
Jews. The fire imagery also relates to the pagan idol
Moloch, the fiery consumer of child sacrifices, as a
general symbol for the Holocaust specifically and for the
destructive nature of idols generally. It is the
refugees of the Holocaust, transplanted survivors wary of
their Jewish identity, who find even in this innocuous
haven of safety reminders of that atrocity. The book's
protagonist, Lars Andemeningalias Lazarus Baruch, is
one such example, a war orphan searching for a means to
complete his inchoate identity, an idolater who will
learn to see through idols.
36


Lars, a newspaper book reviewer who possesses "an
orphan's terrifying freedom to choose" (Messiah 102),
imprudently utilizes this freedom to invent a personal
history based upon the scanty facts of his birth. He
knows he is a Polish war refugee and his name choice
leads us to believe he is a Jew, although Ozick is
characteristically ambiguous on this point. Lars was
smuggled out of Poland into the hands of "an elderly
cousin with a sliver of luck" (24) who conceivably could
have provided the details of his religion and parentage,
but such particulars are apparently missing. Out of his
need to connect to a past and an identity, Lars somehow
chooses a most unlikely candidate for his unknown father:
an obscure Polish Jew, the writer Bruno Schulz.
Ozick's characterization of Lars emphasizes his
youthful, unfinished appearance and the narrator informs
us "there was something in his face that opened into
unripeness . The hand of an indifferent maker had
smeared his mouth and chin and Adam's apple" (4). Lars
is also described as having "the face of a foetus; it was
as if he was waiting for his dead father to find him, and
was determined to remain recognizable" (6), and Kauver
notes the similarity of Lars to lares, the Swedish word
for embryo (Ozick's Fiction 206). The words "maker" and
"Adam" used in such close conjunction above recall
37


Genesis and God's creation of the first man. Lars can
thus be viewed either as a character not yet completely
written by his deified father or a creation left
unfinished by his god, his father in the biological and
theological sense. His orphan's freedom liberates him to
write his own life, but he requires a co-author father
Schulzto complete the creation of the son. His attempt
to write himself into Schulz's life includes a fancied
resemblance between his features and those of Schulz, but
his creation is really an issue of self-creation, of
living in an alternate reality. It is not until the end
of the book that lessons are learned and he finally
begins to look his true age.
The pagan, idolatrous nature of his relationship to
Schulz is suggested early on by the narrator's comment
that for Lars, "his father had become his craze" (4). As
we learned in The Shawl, when Ozick uses abnormal mind
states for characters, idolatry is afoot. Rose
acknowledges this obsessive behavior toward Schulz, but
she further concludes that Lars "also chooses him as a
god" (96), an object of worship other than God, which is
the real problem. Lars is frequently, called a priest or
holy man, and when the character Heidi first finds him in
her bookshop, he is kneeling, as if in prayer, while
reading Schulz's Cinnamon Shops.
38


The worship of Schulz by Lars takes the form known
as Gnosticism. Pagels explains that gnosis, from the
Greek word meaning "knowledge," is an intuitive process
of self-knowledge and that "to know oneself, at the
deepest level, is simultaneously to know God" (xix).. The
god Lars struggles to know is Schulz and by employing
gnosis, he attempts to become Schulz through his book
reviews which his editor complains are "practically
theology" (Messiah 66).
The narrator also informs us that Lars, like Ozick
herself, "had long ago thrown himself on the altar of
literature" (Messiah 7), an act that introduces us to the
second facet of his idolatry. He worships not only his
father's works of art, but those of other Slavic writers
as well, including many known literary friends and
epistolary acquaintances of Schulz. Referring to his
Monday book reviews for the newspaper, a coworker
comments that "what we've got in Lars is a Monday Faust,"
and he chides Lars, "Central Europe, that's your trouble"
(14). Lars is truly a Faustian figure risking his soul
while striving to reveal the literary mastery of his
idols to an indifferent, non-intellectual readership more
interested in American novels. His skill as a reviewer
is based upon a kind of illuminism that allows him to see
thorough his father's dead eye in a dream or trance
39


state, a gnostic ritual with magical overtones. Once he
reads the book for his review, Lars eats, sleeps, has a
vision, and then writes his review "straight off, a
furnace burning fat," with the pen creating "haloes of
hot grease" (8) in the air over his paper. The fire
imagery previously mentioned echoes through these
sentences symbolizing the concept of Lars's sacrificial
offerings to Moloch, and it reminds the reader that these
authors, like Schulz, did not bodily survive the
Holocaust.
Stockholm provides Ozick with the ideal setting to
provide commentary on the problems of literature and
idolatry since it is home to the Nobel Prize and the
Library of the Academy which houses the books of a "long,
long stupendous list of Winners" (16) of the coveted
prize. Lars believes Schulzhad he livedwould have
joined the ranks of these literary immortals and that he
"had been born to be of that pantheon" (16), the last
word denoting a home to gods. The result is that
Stockholm becomes a sacred place, a holy site, and the
"Academy, more sacred to him than any cathedral" (15)
turns into a pagan temple to the many gods of literature.
The impression that Schulz could join the pantheon is
strengthened when Heidi refers to Schulz's "canon" (32).
In context, canon can mean the authentic works of an
40


author, but an alternate meaning word relates to books
that are accepted as holy scripture. This is a simple
comparison of the Bibleas God's wordto Schulz's work
as sacred scripture for Lars. The implications of
replacing the Bible are idolatrous. Xt would thus seem
that Ozick is saying, in effect, that if literature is
allowed to become holy writ, to compete with God, the
fires of Moloch may burn brightly. Ozick works very hard
at convincing herself that her deontological works are
not idols, but she makes no such claims for the works of
others.
Lars, unlike his presumed father, writes reviews
rather than fiction, but they are essentially idolatry-
laden sermons in praise of writers whose works do not
suit the philistine tastes of his reading public. This
prompts him to ponder whether he could be fired for "the
sins of unwholesomeness, theology, surrealism,
existential dread ... or for the larger sin of
unpopularity" (68). The latter sin is most important
from a practical standpoint and eventually wins out.
Heidi often pointedly lectures Lars on his beliefs. "You
think the world is made of literature. You think reality
is a piece of paper" (93) she tells him, and she
challenges him to "Go knock at the door of the Academy
and tell them to let your father in" (40}. She assails
41


Lars with the reality that Schulz will not join the
pantheon of false gods, but her censure does not end
there; Lars also faces the certainty that his Schulz-
given writing skill will not earn him a place in this
pantheon either. "Nobody gets the Nobel Prize for
writing on Mondays!" (41) she jeers. He is a reviewer of
extraordinary skill and insight whom no one reads or v
comprehends, and his natural talent is enhanced magically
by idolatrous worship, but idolatry does not lead to
immortality in life or literature.
The relationship of Lars and Heidi, the bookseller
who admits I have my own story!" (24), is depicted with
great ambiguity. Heidi fully appreciates the nature of
Lars's idolatry and lectures him on its dangers:
"You want to resurrect him. You want to be
him." She did not soften. "Mimicry. Posing
in a mirror. What's the point of it? What
will it bring you" You throw out your life"
(41).
Her perception is correct; in this instance she speaks
with a strong, authoritative Jewish voice, as a
monotheist who cautions Lars concerning the danger of
becoming a Terech, an idol maker who creates and worships
a false god.
Nevertheless, Heidi takes more than a passing notice
of his interest in Schulz: "She was all at once willing
to be entangled with him" (31). The irony of her
42


reprimands is that she both discourages his idolatry as a
Jew and encourages his idolatry to further the success of
a scheme she and her family members hatch involving the
recovery of the lost manuscript of The Messiah, presumed
missing in the war. Lars finds himself drawn into an
unholy apostolate consisting of Heidi and Alter Eckstein
and their daughter, Elsa. His planned role is to
function as the messiah who will "pave the way" (118) for
"the heralding . The annunciation" (115) of the
recovered manuscript through his newspaper. His belief
in himself as Schulz's son, his writing skill, his
passion for and knowledge of the work of his "father,"
and his access to mass media all combine to make him the
ideal target for a fraudulent schemeor for the
announcement of the genuine manuscript.
Ozick first introduces the thought that Lars is a
messiah by telling us that "he met his rent by getting a
job as a messenger boy on a newspaper" (24). His
function as the introducer of Slavic authors and his
proposed role in heralding The Messiah also fit this
pattern. Lars undertakes a trial run of sorts as a
messiah when he announces to his coworkers at Morgontorn
that the manuscript has been found, as if he is trying on
the role to see if he can carry it off, but the news is
treated with indifference by the unbelievers.
43


Stromberg's lover jokingly tells everyone that he is
announcing the Second Coming, and she dismisses him with
"Lars Andemening, the Messiah of Stockholm" (65). This
humiliation from his peers contributes to the unraveling
of his idolatrous belief and foreshadows his refusal to
be a false messiah for the Ecksteins.
Elsa/Adela also plays a messianic role of sorts,
although her role is more paganistic in nature. She is
portrayed as "Hebe the cupbearer, messenger, deliverer"
(101) who resurrects the "dead" manuscript from the ashes
of Poland and bears it to a clandestine meeting of all
parties in a brass amphora. Ozick seems to be following
Schulz's assertion that "There is no dead matter . .
lifelessness is only a disguise behind which hide unknown
forms of life" (Complete Works 31). This thought relates
to the present text in several ways. First, the Jewish
name chosen by Lars, Lazarus Baruch, echoes the Biblical
Lazarus raised from the dead by Jesus. If he is Schulz's
son, he has truly been raised from dead matter. Second,
we have Heidi, who has her "own story"; she knows far too
much detail concerning what occurred inside the fences of
concentration camps to seem coincidental to Lars. He
rightly suspects that she and her family were behind
those fences as inmates and therefore they, too, are dead
matter resurrected, new Swedes from the ashes of the
44


Jewish people.
The presentation of Lars and Elsa as messiahs
obviously plays on the titles of Schulz's book and
Ozick's as well, but the concept of the messiah as a
messenger to humanity and the theme of resurrection also
relate to Jesus, the resurrected Christian messiah.
The abundance of Christological references leads us to
wonder if Ozick is making a statement on the validity of
Judaism over Christianity, of monotheism over pagan
belief. If so, a reading of Messiah should support this
supposition.
Replying to the comment by Lars, "That I'm my
father's son" (29), Fishman surmises that "he becomes in
his own eyes the only begotten son of Bruno Schulz, a
unique savior" (89, emphasis mine), a Christ-like figure.
A comparison of this statement with the Christian New
Testament claims for Jesus as the Son of God reveals
interesting, fitting parallels to the text, but having
advanced this idea Fishman unfortunately abandons it.
Christianity is based upon the Trinity of God,
Jesus, and the Holy Ghost, but for Jews, sundering God
into parts of a whole is evidence of Hellenistic
influence. Ozick parodies the trinity and creates
several of her own including the three book reviewers,
the three locales of flat, bookshop, and newspaper, and
45


the trio of Olle, Heidi, and Elsa. Far more significant
is the trinity consisting of Schulz, the father; Lars,
the earthly incarnation of the son/messiah; and Schulz's
writing (consisting of three major works!), a form of
spiritual logos, holy canon, or Gospel (Good News). If
Lars believes himself to be the son of the god Schulz,
then Ozick is suggesting that this is Hellenism, a pagan
perversion of monotheism. Lars himself begins to
understand his error when he is confronted with the
possibility that Schulz may have fathered Adela/Elsa with
one of his students. A trinity is three, so the addition
of another member blows apart the symmetry and brings
into question holy scripture as well as the god involved:
"Malice, its malice! With a schoolgirl, his own pupil!
As if such a mansuch a manwould copulate with a
child!" (Messiah 102). The simple substitution of "God"
for "man" in the previous quotation produces a fair idea
of the Jewish response to the grotesque notion that God
would cause Mary to conceive and give birth to Jesus, an
action comparable to the devious means employed by Greek
gods to father children with human women. Lars, given
time for contemplation, begins to believe that Adela may
indeed be Schulz's child and this probability disrupts
his theology. There is no room in his belief system for
another child or, dogmatically, for the thought of Schulz
46


indulging his carnal desires more than once.
The final link to these motifs concerns the
recovered text of The Messiah as usurped and recreated by
Ozick and Lars's role in the Ecksetin's plan. In her
speculative version, Schulz's town of Drobhobycz, emptied
of people, is totally populated by idols. The absence of
human worshippers prompts the idols, whose only purpose
for existing is to be worshipped, to begin sacrificing
other idols, a scenario which recalls Ozick's statement
that "In the absence of the Second Commandment, the hunt
for victims begins" (A & A) 190). Her probable intent is
a comparison of idol-plagued Drobhobycz with Stockholm
and its Academy of literary idols. The reader might draw
the inference that books (and authors, for that matter)
are not worthy objects of worship. The messiah who
appears in Drobhobycz is a creaky, decrepit organic
creature made of ordinary materials, as opposed to Jesus
as God in man, and it most resembles a book with pictures
of the idols on its pages, another reference to literary
idolatry, it would seem. This monstrosity exists just
long enough before collapsing to give birth to a tiny
bird who then destroys the idols using a flimsy piece of
straw as its only weapon. The mild nature of this
redemptive act meets certain Jewish criteria for a
messiah and is vastly different from Christian concepts,
47


notably the book of Revelations.
For Lars, "The best inventions are those with the
most substantial particulars" (Messiah 78), and his
awareness that the Ecksteins are not what they seem opens
the door to doubting the manuscript. Lars consequently
begins to shed his idolatry. He surrenders the mystical
vision granted by his father's eye, a point illustrated
by the fact that he later requires eyeglasses, but as
compensation, his new sight allows him to see that the
Ecksteins intend to take some advantage of his idolatry
in order to promote the manuscript, and genuine or not,
he perceives that they "want to be in competition with
God" (128) by its promotion. Lars comes to realize "He
could choose and he could relinquish. He was horribly,
horribly free" (102). This newfound perception of choice
is graphically illustrated when he sets fire to the
manuscript in its brass amphora, a symbolic act that sets
him free. If the manuscript is genuine, Lars ironically
sacrifices what may be the only true child of Schulz to a
ravenous, howling Moloch, but his act also symbolically
illustrates the Jewish belief in salvation through deeds,
not words. The manuscript may be genuine, as Elsa later
asserts, but the risk that it is not forces Lars to
choose between being an idolater and false messiah and
being a Jew, a monotheist. Perhaps he recalls a line
48


from Schulz's Sanitorium Under The Sign of The Hourglass
concerning another book: "The Book is a myth in which we
believe when we are young, but which we cease to take
seriously as we get older" (120). Lars "gets older" in
time to force himself to reevaluate what is real and what
is illusion, the theme of Heidi's lectures. Reality is
not as thin as paper. The Polish tutor does not think
she's a countess, she only says so. People are not what
they appear to be on the surface, and words on paper do
not father children. Heidi once more succinctly
expresses the truth of the matter: "Nincompoopery.
Standing Things on their head. What's real is real"
(Messiah 37). Lars becomes an orphan once more, an
ordinary reviewer of ordinary books who chooses to live
in the real world, free of idols and their dangerous
influence. We never learn if he becomes a fully realized
Jew, but if he is no longer an idolater, he has met
Ozick's demands.
A fascinating and difficult aspect of Messiah is the
absence of Schulz's words and, by extension, his beliefs.
Ozick and Lars have an advantage over the reader by
virtue of their knowledge, so in a contradictory,
fashion, Schulz (like God Himself) is both present and
absent in this book. We depend on the author and her
character to interpret him for us, and the reader
49


unfamiliar with his work may still be confused. The
whole notion of creative freedom relates to the
unorthodox qualities in Schulz's writing, such as the
small section Ozick uses for an epigraph. The Second
Commandment against idols and their veneration is really
a logical extension of the First Commandment, "You shall
have no other Gods beside Me," which has anti-idolatry
implications of its own. It calls into question human
activities that infringe upon powers reserved for God,
notably creation, that, taken literally, effectively
stifled Jewish artistic efforts for centuries.
We can determine, with the assistance of Ficowski's
introduction to the collected letters and drawings of
Schulz, that the Slavic word for writing, Tworczosc,
translates into English as "creation" (20). It is not
clear exactly how this may have influenced Schulz's
opinion of himself as a writer and a Jew or his literary
output, but his views on creation undeniably appear
heretical and paganistic. In The Street of Crocodiles he
wrote, "The Demiurge.," said my father, "has had no
monopoly of creation, for creation is the privilege of
all spirits" (Complete Fiction 30). A "demiurge," by
definition, is a lesser gnostic deity responsible for the
creation of the material world. His philosophy of
usurping creative powers for "all spirits," bears a
50


striking resemblance to the teachings of Spinoza,
encountered earlier in "The Pagan Rabbi." It would be
interesting to discover the degree of Schulz's
familiarity for Spinoza's beliefs, but that may be
impossible to determine. For Lars to grant himself this
"privilege of all spirits" is to deify himself and his
father, clearly a sin against the Second Commandment. It
further blurs the distinction between God and man and
opens up the possibility that other gods existvery
touchy subjects for Jews whose "monotheistic imperative"
dates back more than two thousand years.
The closest we come to understanding Ozick's
thoughts on Schulz is Heidi's description of his work as
"animism, sacrifice, mortification, repugnance!" (33),
words that echo an Ozick essay on Schulz in Art & Ardor.
The Drohobycz sequence borrows several recurring elements
from Schulz's known work which are fashioned into a tale
that suits Ozick's needs and still maintains a distinct
Schulzian flavor, but it hardly meets the harsh
assessment above. Kauver believes that Ozick is
attempting to redeem Schulz from his obvious paganism
(Ozick's Fiction 224). It is also possible that her
usurpation of Schulz's text, borrowing his tale and
rewriting it to meet her own artistic needs, allows her
to edit his material to avoid subjecting her readers to
51


his heretical beliefs, a reluctance to stoke the fires of
Moloch. If this is true, as I believe, it is but one
more instance of her desire to further the aims of Jewish
monotheism, but it conceivably discourages potential
readers of Schulz from arriving at their own opinions of
his work.
52


CHAPTER 6
CONCLUSION
Kauver, who obviously admires Ozick, expresses the
following opinion of her work: "To experience its
splendor is to attend to its ambiguity and complexity"
(Ozick's Fiction xvii). Splendor would seem to be a
highly subjective component of fiction; the other two
qualities, however, are definitely in evidence. There
are those who will appreciate Ozick and those who will
not, but it must be admitted that she is a fascinating
writer, whether it is her fiction or her essays that most
intrigue the reader's taste. Ideally, one should read
both since the essays directly address many of the same
concerns portrayed more ambivalently in her fiction.
In the final analysis, what makes Ozick truly unique
is the opportunity for readers of her work to trace the
working of her mind on topics including idolatry and to
contemplate the way a Jewish writer can balance guilt
with creativity. I believe that her contemporaries in
Jewish-American literature have faced the same dilemma
and struggle with the idolatry of their art as well. It
is interesting to note how many of these artists have
publically expressed their flat rejection of the title
53


"Jewish writer" at various times. Ozick herself has
pondered their discomfort: "if Philip Roth still wants
to say 'I am not a Jewish writer, I am a writer who is a
Jew,7 the distinction turns out to be wind" (A & A 166).
It is "wind" because Cynthia Ozick is determined to
be both at once, to actively promote moral monotheism
over paganism, and she believes that Jewish artists must
not "repudiate the imagination," as declared above in the
introduction. "For me . literature is the moral
life," (244) she has stated. This is not to say that she
no longer hears the siren call, that she is no longer
drawn to the pagan:
To be a Jew is an act of the strenuous mind as
it stands before the fakeries and lying
seductions of the world, saying no and no again
as they parade by in all their allure. And to
be a writer is to plunge into the parade and
become one of the delirious marchers
("Interview" 359).
Ozick's solution to this quandary requires awareness
of the creative process and its accompanying dangers,
awareness that she can simultaneously instruct and
delight, and, finally, awareness that her work does honor
to herself and the Covenant.
54


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Dimont, Max I. The Indestructable Jews. New York:
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Epstein, Leslie. "Stories and Something Else." New York
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Ozick's 'The Messiah of Stockholm'." Studies in
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Friedman, Lawrence S. Understanding Cynthia Ozick.
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1988.
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