Philip Roth is dead, but Cynthia Ozick lives. The former’s passing unleashed a pent-up torrent of praise, and a not-insignificant stream of criticism, much of it flowing from Roth’s depiction of women. Remarkably little attention, however, has been paid to the truth that after Roth’s passing, the greatest Jewish writer who still has access to pen, paper, or laptop is a demure woman in New Rochelle who has been writing the most extraordinary prose for a generation. It is long past time not just to celebrate Ozick, but to really read her. Perhaps the best reason to do so is that far more than Roth, her work has anticipated the current weather of Jewish life.
Never as famous as her elder peers Roth and Saul Bellow, she nevertheless is central to understanding American Jewry and its books. The audiences for which Roth wrote, antagonized, and played a part in defining are demographically exiting the stage. Jewish fiction, like Jews, will either become more overtly Jewish, or cease to be Jewish at all. Ozick is the kind of altneu writer whose style will outlast the vagaries of literary fashion. At a time when Jewish writers were enraptured by what Roth called the “American beserk,” Ozick worried and wondered about the content of Jewishness; its books, theology, and art. Most of all, she puzzled over how to be Jewish, and write Jewishly, in English. These concerns once seemed remote, her own ideological cul de sac. Lengthening perspectives, however, have revealed her centrality. Any writer who wants to speak to where the Jews are now will have to sound like Ozick, no matter the literary sheepskin in which they choose to parade around.
It is an improbable development, to be sure. Ozick has always been a different, and to some degree difficult, kind of writer. Mostly that’s because she takes religion seriously. For her, art is not a way to flee the synagogue, but to burrow more deeply into its nooks and crannies. While Ozick can write realist prose that rivals the greatest practitioners, her writing comes alive most when it meets ideas and magic. Her work is filled with golems and druids, rabbis and magicians. Her sentences are well acquainted with the spiritual. This writer who worries over semi colons and seraphim is of great use to our troubled moment. The first thing she offers is a robust roster of female characters: the conjuring would-be-mayor Ruth Puttermesser, the haunting Rosa from The Shawl, and perhaps most indelibly of all Ozick herself; the character who speaks her way into being in the essays, slashing, anxious, heretically pious.
Second, unlike Roth, the people who populate her books are rarely famous in their own worlds. She creates no Carnovsky, swaggering down the street to annoying acclaim, nor a Swede Lvov still vaulting through the dreams of middle-aged men from Newark. Her people are the little people: Edelshtein from “Envy,” the rabbi from “The Pagan Rabbi.” These are odd, sideways characters who vibrate with a particular frequency of Jewish intensity. As Edelshtein sputters about the newer crop of Jewish writers,
Spawned in America, pogroms a rumor, mamaloshen a stranger, history a vacuum. Also many of them were still young, and had black eyes, black hair, and red beards. A few were blue-eyed, like the cheder-yinglach of his youth. Schoolboys. He was certain he did not envy them, but he read them like a sickness. They were reviewed and praised, and meanwhile they were considered Jews, and knew nothing.
Edelshtein’s motives, and those of much of Ozick’s brood, spring not from sex, but from syntax; conversations about Jewishness that are quick witted and thickly learned. It is a singular stroke of good fortune that our greatest prose stylist is also our most serious thinker, conjoining two traits that usually wander off in separate directions. This is a perilous kind of union, and risks violating the prohibition of kilayim, yoking together breeds of different species. Ideas can kill fiction, and fiction can enervate ideas. If the cadence is right, however, the two form a truth-telling armada well equipped to handle the hybrid threats of aesthetic philistinism and intellectual cant.
Style and thought map onto Ozick’s twinned virtuosity in fiction and nonfiction. This too makes her contemporaneously indispensable. Hard times, and hard thinking, lie ahead for the Jews. At a time when Israel is a a divisive issue for American Jews ensuring that the community does not fracture, or that the break mends, requires both the ludic resources of fiction and the pungent pliability of the essay. The union also calls to mind older Jewish literary forms: the mixture of modes in the Bible, the extraction of law from narrative in parshanut, and the swirling hybrid that is the Talmud. The difference between Ozick and these other works is that she is profoundly troubled by this braiding together. Modernity presents new and interwoven dangers.
Ozick knows that the churn of modern life can wash away the moral and ethical distinctions that limn the boundaries of a well-shaped people and finely-hewed art. Her genius is everywhere one that rebels against the Tower of Babel. For her, salience adheres in difference. As she notes in a review of Martin Amis’ Holocaust novel The Zone of Interest, “Characters in novels (unless those novels are meant to be allegories) are no one but themselves, not stand-ins or symbols of societies or populations. History is ineluctably bound to the authenticity of documents; but all things are permitted to fiction, however contradictory it may be of the known record.”
If there is no genre, nothing is permitted. But within constraint, freedom is found. Elsewhere, in a key essay entitled “The Rights of History and the Rights of the Imagination,” Ozick draws the point even more sharply: “When the imposture remains within the confines of a book, we call it art. But when impersonation escapes the bounds of fiction and invades life, we call it hoax – or, sometimes, fraud.” The language of medium shades into a kind of martial or cross-border resonance that suggests the stakes Ozick sees in these distinctions. The sharpness of the line invites speculation on the payoff that comes from smudging it and wondering about a more fluid choreography for the dance between life and letters. As Adam Kirsch observes, “nearly all of Ozick’s best fiction is about writers and writing.” This is not only because Ozick is a writer who thinks through writing. Fiction is not only “the nearest thing to life,” in George Eliot’s phrase. The writing of it happens in life, and it loots the materials of life, and reshapes lives. Blurred boundaries are part of the charm.
Ozick’s troubling over borders now seems to be a prophetic anxiety. Just one Jewish example can stand in for a set of concerns that resonate globally. Michael Chabon’s recent commencement speech at HUC was a clarion call that conflated metaphoric walls with literal ones, and urged Jews to dispense with both. For Chabon, holiness is not kedushah but compound; his is a musar of mixture. He concluded his address with this rousing peroration: “The survival of Judaism was ensured not through standing pat, turning inward, or building walls but through adaptation, moving outward, opening our minds to the ideas, and our ears to the music, and our mouths to the languages, and our bellies to the kitchen-wisdom of the people living on the other side of whatever boundary line we chose, in our collective wisdom, to ignore.” Ozick, whose work is full of well- spiced kitchen wisdom and many-tongued language, would not disagree with this voraciousness, but might remind us that the task is to eat, and not be consumed in turn.
Very well. “Knock down the walls” and “Abolish the checkpoints,” as Chabon urges. But remember and do not forget that the capacity to create is only as valuable as the ability to preserve, which holds true for a nation, a country, or a writer. And the words that save must be as sharply bounded as black fire on white, and as fibrously knotted as the medley of flames that singe the line between secular and sacred, and show us our glimmering selves at the very tips of our haunted fingers.