Cynthia Ozick

Ozick's version of Jewish literature is more than Yiddish words and slapstick.


“The term ‘Jewish writer’ ought to be an oxymoron,” observed Cynthia Ozick in her typically sharp essay “Tradition and (or versus) the Jewish Writer,” from her 2006 essay collection The Din in the Head. Here Ozick is specifically referring to novelists like Norman Mailer, whose best work, she believes, stems from a rejection of the bonds of tradition—be it literary or religious.

Ozick admires those writers who do not identify as Jewish in their work, believing their rejection of tradition encourages their fearlessness in exploring the literary unknown. And yet Ozick has made a career–and burnished a fearsome reputation–as a writer whose Jewishness is part and parcel of her authorial persona. Ozick, relatively conservative in Cynthia Ozickher artistic temperament, writes as one absorbed in Jewish heritage and literature in equal parts. She describes herself in her essay “On Discord and Desire” as sitting, “in my room with its yellow wallpaper reading Henry James and volumes of Jewish history and The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.”

Ozick was born in New York City in 1928 to Russian immigrants who owned a pharmacy. She earned her Bachelor’s degree from New York University and an M.A. in English literature from Ohio State University. Ozick did not publish her first work of fiction, Trust, until she was nearly 40, but has kept a steady pace of publications since, writing six novels, six story collections, and seven essay collections.

As an essayist, Ozick has won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her book Quarrel & Quandary in 2000. She writes as someone who cannot but see the world through a Jewish lens. Ozick did, after all, name her first collection of essays All the World Wants the Jews Dead (1974). Considering Tolstoy’s novel The Cossacks, she ponders its elision of Cossack horsemen’s anti-Semitic raids, and its author, “who, though steeped in principles of compassion, turned away from what he knew.” For Ozick, the writing of literature and writing about literature also intertwine. One of her most beloved books, The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), is about one of her literary heroes, the short-story writer Bruno Schulz, who was murdered by the Nazis.

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Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.

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