Happy 95th birthday, Cynthia Ozick!

"All the world wants the Jews dead." Cynthia Ozick was the prophetic voice that we needed. And, still need.

Bernard Malamud. Saul Bellow. Philip Roth. Joseph Heller. Herman Wouk. J.D. Salinger. Norman Mailer. E.L. Doctorow. Chaim Potok. Leon Uris.

That is a partial list of American Jewish writers of the recent past — all of them lions of literature, and all of them now dead.

And yes, it is disconcerting to see that all of them were men. It is a veritable literary men’s section.

I could include Ayn Rand, though I wonder how many contemporary Jews would claim her as a kindred spirit.

Which is why we should celebrate that this generation of Jewish literature is far more inclusive: Nicole Krauss, Allegra Goodman, Tova Mirvis, Anita Diamant, Judy Blume, Dara Horn…

There is one woman who belongs on that earlier list, and she is the only one left of that generation. I refer to Cynthia Ozick, who last week celebrated her 95th birthday.

Cynthia Ozick’s literary output has been prodigious. Not only fiction, but non-fiction and literary criticism — at a dizzying intellectual level. Cynthia Ozick is not only our greatest surviving literary figure from that generation; she is also one of American Jewry’s and America’s preeminent public intellectuals.

I stand in awe of her writing. A better word would be: “intimidated.” When I read her work, especially her fiction, I feel that I am swimming in water way over my head.

With one notable exception, and that is the novella that had a profound effect on me as a college student, during those years during which I journeyed through the world of modern Jewish literature.

That work is “The Pagan Rabbi.” It is the tale of a modern rabbi who commits suicide by hanging himself in a public park. As it turns out, the rabbi had begun to worship nature, drifting from Judaism into ancient paganism.

My favorite non-fiction essays of hers are on the theme of antisemitism.

In “The Modern ‘Hep! Hep! Hep’,” (2004) she writes about the persistence of vulgar antisemitism in the form of anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism.

She wrote:

We thought it was finished. In the middle of the twentieth century, and surely by the end of it, we thought it was finished, genuinely finished, the bloodlust finally slaked…

In “The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!”—an 1878 essay reflecting on the condition of the Jews—George Eliot noted that it would be “difficult to find a form of bad reasoning about [Jews] which had not been heard in conversation or been admitted to the dignity of print.” She was writing in a period politically not unlike our own…

Hep! was the cry of the Crusaders as they swept through Europe, annihilating one Jewish community after another; it stood for Hierosolyma est perdita (Jerusalem is destroyed), and was taken up again by anti-Jewish rioters in Germany in 1819…

As an anti-Semitic yelp, Hep! is long out of fashion. In the eleventh century it was already a substitution and a metaphor: Jerusalem meant Jews, and “Jerusalem is destroyed” was, when knighthood was in flower, an incitement to pogrom. Today, the modern Hep! appears in the form of Zionism, Israel, [general and then Prime Minister, Ariel] Sharon. And the connection between vilification and the will to undermine and endanger Jewish lives is as vigorous as when the howl of Hep! was new…

Dizzying, dazzling, and challenging.

Or, consider my first encounter with Cynthia Ozick. It was, in all places, on the cover of “Esquire” magazine, and it happened in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

The article: “The Whole World Wants the Jews Dead.”

Yes, the title was overheated.

And yes, that title re-surfaces, subtly, in Dara Horn’s wonderful recent collection, “People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present” (If Ms. Ozick needs an inheritor, it might well be Dara).

But, that article moved this then-college sophomore who had helped found the Jewish students’ organization at SUNY Purchase, and who was intent on becoming a rabbi.

Especially this paragraph — about the meaning of the Yom Kippur War, which had a profound effect on me as a college student:

In New York, on Yom Kippur, I knew well enough they meant me — not only the millions of citizens of of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The Nazis too had rejoiced in Yom Kippur as a “special” day for “special” treatment. The massacre at Babi Yar — the shooting of thousands of Jews on the lip of a ravine outside Kiev in the Ukraine…had begun on the eve of Yom Kippur and continued all through the next day. The inner nature of the Yom Kippur War was recognizable. The word for it is pogrom.

That paragraph moved me so deeply, that I actually called Ms. Ozick. She lived in New Rochelle, NY, a stone’s throw from my campus.

I shall always remember how gracious she was to me: “You really like the article? Gee, thanks. That is so kind of you” — as if she were anyone other than, well, Cynthia Ozick.

But, for me, her greatest literary achievement, and among her least heralded and perhaps least read, is her poem, “In the Synagogue.” I included it in my first book, “Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah,” for which Ms. Ozick generously gave permission.

I do not understand

the book in my hand.


Who will teach me to return?

Loss of custom, ruin of will,

A memory of a memory

thinner than a vein.


Who will teach us to return?


To whom nothing speaks

Not shofar, not song, not homily.

On whom nothing was wrought

Not slaughter, not horror, not holocaust.


History is not my concern.


Suppose even God

turned out to be a god?

We do not want to come back.


We do not know where we are.

Not knowing where we are, how can we know

where we should go?

It is a heartbreaking piece of verse, a devastating critique of modern Jewish identity.

In a way that few have imitated, it points to the costs of Jewish assimilation. Such assimilation is not only a loss of Jewish identity. It is also the loss of connection to our inherited texts; our inability to see the prayer book as a script, however much edited and revised; our relativism about our faith; our loss of connection not only to the ancient sounds, but to the modern horrors and even triumphs.

“History is not my concern.” That pretty much sums it up.

But, history is very much Cynthia Ozick’s concern — as is the fate and future of the world, and the Jewish people, and the infinite world of letters, and the humanities, and even of being human itself.

All of which causes me to say to her: May you live to be 120!




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