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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Cynthia Ozick
(b. 1928)

For Cynthia Ozick, literature is seductive: stories “arouse”; they “enchant”; they “transfigure.” Ozick describes herself in “early young-womanhood” as “a worshipper of literature,” drawn to the world of the imagination “with all the rigor and force and stunned ardor of religious belief.” Yet the pleasure of attraction is tempered by danger. Adoration of art can become a form of idolatry—a kind of “aesthetic paganism” that for her is incompatible with Judaism because it betrays the biblical commandment against graven images. Art can also “tear away from humanity,” and Ozick worries that the beauty of language can distract from art’s moral function of judging and interpreting the world. These tensions—between art and idolatry, between aestheticism and moral seriousness, between the attraction of surfaces and the weight of history—lie at the heart of Ozick’s fiction and essays. Indeed, Ozick is often considered a writer of oppositions, many of which are reflected in her efforts to translate what she calls a “Jewish sensibility” into the English language. “I suppose you might say that I am myself an oxymoron,” she explains, “but in the life of story-writing, there are no boundaries.”

Cynthia Ozick was born in New York City on April 17, 1928, to Russian Jewish immigrants, William and Celia Regelson Ozick. Her childhood was spent in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx, where her parents worked long hours to maintain a pharmacy during the Depression. She recalls these years as an idyllic time of reading and dreaming of writing; she also remembers being made to feel “hopelessly stupid” at school and being subjected to overt anti-Semitism. After graduating from Hunter High School, Ozick went on to complete a B.A. at New York University and an M.A. in English Literature at Ohio State University, where she wrote a thesis on the late novels of Henry James. James became a kind of obsession for her, both inspiring and inhibiting her burgeoning writing career. For nearly seven years she struggled to write a long, “philosophical” novel entitled Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love, which she finally abandoned after writing 300,000 words. During this time, Ozick moved back to New York, married Bernard Hallote, and began working as an advertising copywriter. She also wrote short stories and labored for six more years on what became her first novel, Trust, published soon after the birth of her daughter Rachel in 1965. At this time, she also began the intensive study of Jewish philosophy, history, and literature that eventually transformed her writing.

Although slow to come into her own as a writer, Ozick is now prolific and widely acclaimed. She has been recognized through numerous awards and grants, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Strauss Livings grant, and the Jewish Book Council Award. Three of her essays have been republished in the annual collection of Best American Essays, five of her stories have been chosen to appear in Best American Short Stories, and three have received first prize in the O. Henry Prize Stories competition. Perhaps best known for her fiction and essays, Ozick also writes and translates poetry, and she has recently written a play based on two of her short stories, “The Shawl” (1981) and “Rosa” (1984) (later published together in a single volume).

In characteristically contradictory terms, Ozick has described herself—as a first-generation American Jew—to be “perfectly at home and yet perfectly insecure, perfectly acculturated and yet perfectly marginal.” However, unlike many Jewish American writers who were the children of immigrants, Ozick does not write about the sociological experiences of assimilation and subsequent generational conflict. Rather, her sense of being simultaneously inside and outside the dominant culture is manifested in a real faith in “the thesis of American pluralism,” a pluralism that accommodates particularist and diverse impulses. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, one of Ozick’s greatest contributions to American literature is her unwavering effort to remain “centrally Jewish” in her concerns by perpetuating the stories and histories of Jewish texts and traditions. “The Shawl,” reprinted in the book, reflects Ozick’s commitment to Jewish memory, as well as her long-standing fears about the dangers of artistic representation. Although many of Ozick’s works address the historical and psychological consequences of the Holocaust, “The Shawl” is an exception: only here does she attempt to render life in the concentration camps directly. She has explained her reluctance to write fiction about the events of the Holocaust by insisting instead that “we ought to absorb the documents, the endless, endless data....I want the documents to be enough; I don’t want to tamper or invent or imagine. And yet I have done it. I can’t not do it. It comes, it invades.” The imaginative origin of “The Shawl” was, in fact, a historical text: the story evolved out of one evocative sentence in William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich about babies being thrown against electrified fences.

In an extraordinarily compressed and almost incantatory prose, Ozick depicts such horrifyingly familiar images of Nazi brutality as forced marches, starvation, dehumanization, and murder, while nevertheless managing to convey her ambivalence about using metaphoric language to represent an experience that is nearly unimaginable. The story makes clear that speech itself is dangerous: despite Rosa’s desire to hear her child’s voice, Magda is safe only as long as she is mute. The consequence of her cry—the only dialogue in the story—is death. Through a series of paradoxical images that combine the fantastical and the realistic, Ozick demonstrates that in writing and thinking about the unnatural world of a death camp, all expectations must be subverted: here, a baby’s first tooth is an “elfin tombstone”; a breast is a “dead volcano”; a starved belly is “fat, full and round”; and a shawl can be “magic,” sheltering and nourishing a child as an extension of the mother’s body. Yet neither motherhood nor magic can save lives here; that which protects is also that which causes death. By overturning the natural order and unsettling the reader’s ability to “know,” Ozick makes the powerful point that the “reality” of the Holocaust is fundamentally inaccessible and that conventional means of understanding simply do not apply.

Tresa Grauer
University of Pennsylvania

In the Heath Anthology
The Shawl (1980)

Other Works
Trust (1966)
The Pagan Rabbi, and Other Stories (1971)
Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976)
Levitation: Five Fictions (1982)
Art & Ardor: Essays (1983)
The Cannibal Galaxy (1983)
Rosa (1984)
The Messiah of Stockholm (1987)
Metaphor & Memory: Essays (1989)
Epodes: First Poems (1992)
Blue Light: A Play (1994)
Fame & Folly: Essays (1996)

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Cynthia Ozick
An extensive bibliography.

Jewish Virtual Library
A detailed, substantive biography.

The Many Faces of Cynthia Ozick
An interview conducted by Katie Bolick for The Atlantic.

Transcript: Cynthia Ozick
Ozick's keynote speech at the Academy of American Poets awards ceremony, 1997.

Secondary Sources