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The Golden Age of Jewish American Literature
(Released March 2010)

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  by Ethan Goffman  


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Cynthia Ozick and the Struggle for Jewish History


While critics repeatedly cite the triumvirate of the golden age of Jewish American as Bellow, Roth and either Singer or Malamud, notable is an absence of women. As the feminist critic Susan Gubar explains, "The so-called 'Jewish American renaissance,' . . . includes writers-Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Lenny Bruce, Stanley Elkin, Woody Allen-whose narrative exuberance and sometimes comic, sometimes satiric experimental performances have no female-authored counterparts."Coming only slightly later, however, and in fact overlapping with the life and work of the central male figures, is Cynthia Ozick, who draws on the same font of Yiddish literature reconstituted in America and themes of Jewish identity in contact with an assimilationist society, as do the males. Ozick sees herself as in the same tradition as Singer and Bellow, and shows little interest in being recognized by feminist critics such as Gubar.

Ozick is overtly Jewish. Pinsker describes her as "the product of a background in which Jewishness meant religious study and observance, community affiliation and work on behalf of Israel." Early in her career she declared that nothing thought or written in diapora has lasting value unless it has been "centrally Jewish" (Art). She later backed away from that claim, and the obvious influence of European modernism on her work belies it, as does her obsession with Henry James, an American ensconced in British culture. James is a strange role model for Ozick, given his critique of the alien influence of Jews in New York. This modernist forefather illuminates a paradox at the heart of Ozick's career, that she is herself a hybrid, hyphenated product (as is Jewish American writing by its nature).

children behind barbed wire
Children from Auschwitz liberated by the Red Army in January, 1945. The Holocaust is central to much of Ozick's fiction.

Although self-consciously Yiddish inflected, Ozick's prose is extremely literary, her writing a modernist palimpsest. Indeed, she has been described as "the voice of the New York intellectual brought to bear on the composing of fiction" (Shechner). Her early short story "The Pagan Rabbi," in which a rabbi turns to worship of nature and hangs himself in a tree that he believes to be a goddess, reveals religious questioning and angst in a new world that has jarred the historical continuity of the Jewish people. Like "The Pagan Rabbi," many of Ozick's short stories mix Jewish themes, modern day America, and a touch of magic realism. Another related key theme is the nature of art and the vexing question of whether it can or should be divorced from (in her case Jewish) history and identity. Ozick, according to Susanne Klingenstein, writes "within the moral and intellectual framework of rabbinic Judaism about the subject that compels her, the unsettling nature of the creative imagination. At the same time she insists that she is keeping separate her obligations as a Jew and her desires as a writer."

Another central theme of Ozick's, upon which her work of memory and change is brought to bear, is the Holocaust. The search for the meaning of art and literature in light of the Holocaust's destructive nihilism is central to The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), a literary work based upon a lost text, The Messiah, by the literary master Bruno Schultz, killed by the Nazis in his prime. Although the manuscript is recovered, it is probably a fake, and the protagonist burns it. Symptomatic of Ozick, a literary work is a central symbol of the Holocaust, of a world destroyed, and it can be recovered only briefly and in inauthentic form.

Ozick deals with the Holocaust most directly in The Shawl (1989), her most famous work. The two-part novella begins with a short story of a forced march to a concentration camp in which Rosa, the narrator, protects her infant daughter, Magda, in a magic shawl. Magda, however, is killed when Stella, Rosa's niece, steals the shawl. The second part of the novella takes place years later, when Rosa and Stella have survived the death camp and moved to America. Rosa cannot escape the past and is haunted by fantasies of Magda had she survived; she is also plagued by letters from a sociologist studying the Holocaust in a reductive, dehumanizing way. The novella, however, ends on a note of hope and possible romance, an intimation that new life is possible in the new world of America, that the Holocaust will not remain forever an impenetrable blot.

A paradigmatic work for Ozick, mixing short stories and novellas from a swath of her career, is The Puttermesser Papers (1997). Some critics see the protagonist, Ruth Puttermesser, as a version of Ozick herself, lost in a world of literature, more at home in books than with people. Yet Puttermesser lacks two elements apparent in Ozick's life: a literary career and a strong Jewish identity. She may therefore be more of a warning of what America can do to Jewish women, stripping them of their identity, of a sense of place and purpose. As Peter Kerry Powers puts it, "Puttermesser is a character in search of history, or more precisely, an ancestry, a living connection to the past that will give her life meaning beyond her mundane efforts in a civic bureaucracy." All that Puttermesser has left is her literary imagination, which seems to be the source of the book's magic realism. Puttermesser creates, or one day there appears, a female golem, who procedes to take over Puttermesser's life, making her mayor of New York City, a fantastical turn of events that quickly ends in disappointment. In other chapters, Puttermesser flirts with unlikely loves who dissipate as surely as her other fantasies. She is the modern feminist, single woman, adrift, perhaps a warning of what America means to those who have forgotten their Jewish identity.

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