This Week’s Guest: Cynthia Ozick
In the year 1970, the distinguished American writer Cynthia Ozick published an essay arguing that Jewish literature might succeed if it embraced and conveyed the rich particularism of the Jewish experience. In a famous metaphor, she wrote that “If we blow into the narrow end of the shofar, we will be heard far. But if we choose to be mankind rather than Jewish and blow into the wider part, we will not be heard at all; for us America will have been in vain.”
Fifty years later the Jewish people’s relation to the surrounding culture is a subject that still preoccupies Ozick. Her new novel, Antiquities, deals in the same themes. It depicts an elderly American man who, in the process of writing his memoirs, fixates on a friendship he developed with an outcast Jewish boy during the time they shared decades before in an exclusive private school. On our podcast today, in conversation with Jonathan Silver, Ozick explains how this relationship caused the man to question whether there was a more “significant thing” he could devote himself to, and she reveals some of the subtle wrinkles in the book that direct the reader toward monotheism and to the Jewish tradition.
Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.
Our purpose is to discuss your most recent novel, Antiquities, and I thought we could just begin by providing our listeners a plot summary. The way that we could do that is for you to explain the inspiration for various characters that we meet early in the text.
I think I can also explain the very source, the very initial germ, which brought me to all these characters, because there’s a whole history of excavations and papyri in all this. Very belatedly, I discovered that there is such a thing, there was such a thing as a Jewish temple at the same time, simultaneous with the temple in Jerusalem. Now that is anti-Torah because there’s a specific ordinance, so to speak, against other shrines, other temples. So this was so interesting. Whoever could dream of it? Of course, we’ve heard of the Samaritan temple, but a Jewish temple? That’s what started me off. The next step was to have a character narrate, and he turned out to be, to my great surprise and puzzlement, an Episcopalian blueblood, who had gone to such a school in his childhood.
At that school, he met a very strange fellow pupil two years older, whose name was Ben-Zion Elefantin, and of course, nobody called him “Bentzion,” he was known as Ben-Zion, and he was very strange in this environment. In chapel, which he attended, he kept his cap on, a school uniform cap, when you must out of respect remove hats from your head in refectory. He ate nothing but some scraps of hard-boiled eggs. His room door, against the rules, was always shut, and emanating from the room was the sound of what we know to be davening, because he had a strange book with strange letters and he chanted strangely.
We should say, Cynthia, the character who observed Ben-Zion is Lloyd Petrie. He’s the main character who narrates the novel through a series of written submissions in a memoir that he is composing.
Yes. His name is Petrie and a peculiar thing is that at the time the school was vital, there was another Petrie, a very famous Petrie, who was excavating one of the greatest pyramids along the Nile. He was a very famous archeologist. This is a figure in real life. So famous that, after he died in Jerusalem, his head was removed from his body to be kept in London in some mausoleum because of the curiosity over his remarkable mind. The young Petrie, the twelve-year-old, has a connection to the older, but it really isn’t a connection. It’s an imagined connection with the famous Petrie, not through himself, but through his father. The young Petrie’s father was among the earliest members of a family firm, a law firm of great respect, dignity and repute, very high WASP. And his father was obsessed with Sir Petrie, Sir Flinders Petrie as he was known, and decided genealogically speaking, that he was a distant cousin. And his father left the law firm, it was a mystery why, after leaving a new bride soon after the wedding, to go in search of his cousin, as he thought of him, and there he joined this excavation for an entire summer.
When the summer was over, he went into nearby Cairo and began searching for antiquities. Now, the narrator of the book is something of an antiquity himself. He is living in the very building of the school which was dismantled more than 30 years ago. And he’s there alone because he’s a trustee. There were 25 of them originally, and there are now only seven and they were permitted to live there, as a kind of old-age, retirement home in the very school that they were boys in. You couldn’t be a trustee unless you’d been through the school. So at the school the twelve-year-old Petrie and the boy peculiarly named Ben-Zion met.
I want to pause here for a moment just to untangle the different, if you like, archaeological layers of the story so far. The main narrator Lloyd Petrie is himself by now an elderly gentleman, living at the school, the Temple [Academy], which has been converted to an old-age home for the remaining trustees of the school. But he is remembering the time when he was a youth, a student of the school, at ten, eleven, or twelve years old. And at that time he came to meet this mysterious Ben-Zion Elefantin.
Now, this whole business of Lloyd Petrie’s father is another layer of memory that he presents to the reader. He doesn’t quite remember because of course he himself was too young, but from the refracted basis of his mother’s retelling, he imagines that he remembers his father’s journey to Egypt in search of his possible relative, or certainly a person who shares his name, Sir Flinders Petrie, the distinguished Egyptologist.
What daddy Petrie discovers in Egypt on that island, and which he brings back, are antiquities that he’s bought in the souks in Cairo. But he also brings back a record of his journey and of his thoughts in a notebook, which Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, the son, is given by his mother. His mother earlier was estranged from his father because he left in such an ungainly, awkward, and embarrassing way. So after this trip, he returns to her. He’s not really welcomed, but for decorum, for appearance’s sake, the marriage is renewed. And the boy is in the school in possession of the notebook and also of objects that the father brought home from the dig. He cherishes these objects because they represent his father, his father’s spirit, his father’s mind. So in this school, this young boy Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie has to hide these treasures. He’s too young really to understand much of what he sees in the notebook, but he learns a great deal about his father’s trip.
What is never revealed is the story of his father abandoning his mother. She calls these precious objects, “your father’s toys,” with contempt. So this is part of the background. Now the boys in this school are like every adolescent or preadolescent group, a bunch of wild boys, rowdies. And there are a handful of other Jewish boys in the school, a small handful brought in around the time that Ben-Zion Elefantin joins the school. There’s a headmaster, a new headmaster, a principal who is kinder than any of his predecessors, and so he is liberal and he brings in this little Jewish contingent.
Well, the rowdies and the six boys assault Ben-Zion for his peculiarities. The Jewish boys, except for Ben-Zion, are totally at home in the school, totally assimilated, terrific on the football field. They wear their wild hair in the same way that is the style that year. And they join in the persecution of Ben-Zion Elefantin. So this is the meaning of the school. It’s anti-Semitic. And the narrator, Lloyd Petrie, is an unwitting anti-Semite himself. He would never do what the other boys do. The rowdies will put a cigarette in a Jewish boy’s beds. He would never be this kind of thing. He’s very mannerly, exceptionally so, but he joins in. There were other indications, some subtle, some less subtle, of Lloyd’s anti-Semitism that come up along the way.
There’s something of a piece with the air that suffuses the school that carries this kind of impressionistic anti-Semitism. The culture of the school, one should say, is much inspired by British public-school gentility and includes all kinds of affectations to raise these WASPy North American boys as if they were of the best tradition of the British aristocratic class, the class they very much mimic.
Yes, its a fake Eton I guess. Now the point of this story is Judaism. This is why I wrote the book. It’s the heart and soul of it. And it’s not completely visible because I’ve not been didactic or utterly open about Judaism. It’s there in clues, many, many clues.
Lloyd finds himself gradually changed by his friendship with Ben-Zion. He too, then becomes a pariah because of this friendship. He’s a pariah with his own peers, with these fake Eton boys. This throws him more and more in deep friendship with the peculiar boy. They basically hang out together. They have nobody else but themselves. And little by little, in no obvious way, Lloyd develops a sympathy for the boy even while not wholly understanding him. But the point is he has befriended, in the most intimate way, a peculiar Jewish boy. And that is how I think I wanted to show the unmaking of an anti-Semite. Now, this unmaking really doesn’t stick forever.
There is something about the child Lloyd’s desire to be close to his deceased father, such that he comes to adopt his father’s desires. His father, for reasons that we, the reader, do not know, was compelled to search for something in the East and left the firm and left his new bride and went searching for some sort of significance that maybe was not known even to him in the East. And in our character Lloyd Petrie’s reception of his father’s desires, he has so nurtured his father’s “toys,” as his mother called them, the relics that his father brought back from that episode. In his then meeting with Ben-Zion, he comes to, in a way, seek this Jewish boy, this new Jewish friend’s approval somehow, to seek his conferral of authenticity on these items. And it seems to me that part of his desire and affection for Ben-Zion has to do with this desire to get from him approval
Precisely so. The reason for this is the boy has proclaimed actually far and wide in the school that he is a descendant of the Jews on Elephantine Island who had built their own temple. He has declared it. He is identified with it. So he, in a sense ancestrally, is in possession of this significant thing, whatever it may be. But, the significant thing is never identified. But it’s there, it’s there in these Egyptian artifacts, it’s there because those artifacts hark back to Elephantine Island perhaps. You never know. There are looters. There are fakers. There are fabricators of antiquities. But nevertheless, these antiquities, these precious toys do reflect that era that we think of as being the revelation at Sinai.
Or so Petrie wishes that it was because he himself so desires to be in touch with this significant thing. By the way, the search for the significant thing is in some ways the most exciting drama of the book. The desire that Petrie has to be in touch with this significant thing, leads him to wish that it can be found in these toys, these relics. Ben-Zion Elefantin is never fully sure, is never fully willing to confer agreement that it is in fact to be found in them. Maybe we should move ahead to the adult Lloyd and his own preoccupations in remembering all of this.
As an adult Lloyd is living post-war. His book of memory is dated 1949. In 1949, the smoke of the chimneys was there metaphorically and historically. And he has a certain indifference to it because it doesn’t touch him personally. He’s so remote from it. So in a way, this WASP superiority, this Christian supersessionism has always stayed with Lloyd and probably always will. Yet, he has had this transcendent experience of a child who claims actually to be of that time, at least ancestrally, and who seems to be a carrier of that time and who carries with him, just as you and the narrative put it, remnants of something deeply, profoundly significant. And that is the heart of the book. Education, the education of a boy. It’s an incomplete education, but he has really had some new insights that he will be carrying with him.
Now, this antiquity Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie is aging before our eyes in his memoir and he’s losing hope in many ways of reality, via memory loss and other symptoms. And so he, at the very end, identifies himself, as an old man, still with this boy who burns in his past and burns in his memory. I guess, you call it, in a sense, a Bildungsroman because it is a story of incomplete education, but also at the same time of bygone revelation. And he finally, finally, in his incapacity of his agedness, identifies himself totally with Ben-Zion Elefantin.
We could perhaps explain some of the other answers to mortality in which Petrie wishes he could find repose. So that, for example, if that school had continued, it might have endowed his future with some purpose. If his family’s firm, to which we’ve already alluded, had continued, it might have endowed his final years with some hope and purpose. If his relationship with his son, yet another generation about which we learn some in the book, had been healthier that might have endowed his final years with some purpose. But in the failure of these other things, he’s drawn back somehow to this boy that he’d met so long ago.
You speak of purpose. There is a tremendous sense of absence of purpose in Petrie’s son. He has no interest in the law. He has no interest in this renowned historic firm founded by his great-grandfather. What he wants is to be a scriptwriter in Hollywood, utterly distant from anything that Lloyd has experienced, a complete departure from the purpose that Lloyd was reared with. The purpose being, you are a civic figure. You do your duty in the world. You are who you are. You are proud of who you are. You treasure your position in the society. His son has thrown it all away.
Now, there are too many byways here, but one of the other Jewish boys, Ned Greenhill, happens to have the same name as the headmaster, Reverend Greenhill. How can that be? It’s because he’s totally assimilated. This doesn’t free him from prejudice, from the rowdies in school or from other instructors. He’s still this Jewish boy, but so very different. Well, he and Petrie grow up together and Ned also enters the law in a very distinguished way. As a matter of fact, he ends up as a judge. And now and then these two grown-ups, the Jewish civil-aid boy and Lloyd meet for lunch at Grand Central Station, a very public place, at the Oyster Bar. And there’s an assertion in the book that they become rather close at that point because they have in common memories of the school and they go over them and go over them. But Ned is successful in the way that counts most. His son is distinguished. He’s become a big New York City developer. He’s been to Harvard. The other son, Lloyd’s son, is a nothing, a dilettante. His reports to his father about his reading are peculiarly dilettantish. He’s interested in Tao. He’s interested in Martin Buber. He’s not really interested in anything. He’s searching. He’s of the generation that is trying to find itself and never will. So the humiliation of the important WASP blueblood Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie is profound.
Cynthia, can I ask you to read a favorite passage for us and explain to us the context?
One particularly intimate night when Lloyd and Ben-Zion are thrown together, they do certain things that are common to both, particularly play chess. One night, a kind of trance overcomes Ben-Zion. He begins to explain to Lloyd in a sense where he comes from, and again, ancestrally. I should give the atmosphere. They’re lying on the floor. It’s quiet all around, except for voices from the football field, and each of them despises the football field, something they have in common. So they’re lying side-by-side in the afternoon as it proceeds to being twilight. And Ben-Zion begins to speak in a kind of hallucinatory manner.
My family name reveals our origins, which for reasons of rivalry and obfuscation have been omitted from the books of the Jews where it ought to be by historic rights, to have been set within the chronicles of the Israelites. Never mind that there are in our own language missives attesting to our presence—we Elefantins remain outcasts from the history of our people.
Here, I will break in to say that the missives attesting to his existence are, in fact, papyri that are today actually in the Brooklyn museum in New York. And these are letters that passed between the existing simultaneous Jerusalem temple and the temple on the island.
Never mind that there are in our own language, missives attesting to our presence—we Elefantins remain outcasts from the history of our people. They say of us that because of our far-flung island home, we were without knowledge of the breadth of the imperatives of Moshe our Teacher, whom we revered, and followed into the wilderness. As if we are not ourselves Israelites. As if we too did not stand at Sinai among the multitudes of the Exodus!
If it is true that we have been erased from Torah, it is because we are victims of falsifying scholars, betrayers who have become our interpreters. They have written of us as servile mercenaries, willing sentries for the haughty Persians who overran Egypt and commanded a fort to fend off yet other invaders—but are they not themselves mercenaries in the pay of the lies of the scholars? We, the Elefantins, hold our own truths. Our traditions and practices are far weightier than the speculations of those ignorant excavators, those papyrologists, who pollute our ruined haven with their inventions and prevarications. Of our truth they make legends. Hirelings on behalf of the Persian conquerors of Egypt we never were! With our generations of loam-red hair, Nubians and Egyptians we are not. Rather we are what our memories tell us, lost stragglers, dissenters who became separated in the wilderness from that mixed throng of snivelers after the fleshpots of our persecutors. We alone are unyieldingly faithful to Moshe, our teacher, we alone never succumb to their foolish obeisance to a gilded bovine of the barnyard. Willingly, we parted from them and blundered our way we knew not where, and in the scalding winds of the desert, hardly discerned north from south, or east from west. In the innocent blindness of our flight we turned back to an Egypt ruled now not by Pharaohs but by foreign overlords, a green island inhabited by idolaters, who there had built a temple to Khnum, a fantastical god of the Nile in the ludicrous shape of a ram, and yet another god with the limbs of a man and the head of a stork, and still other gods of the river, red-legged storks that they mummified to preserve their divinity.
And for their rites and libations they fashioned slender vessels made in the image of storks. All the gods of the nations are ludicrous, and all are fantastical, all but the Creator of All who created all the suns and their planets and all the rivers and seas of the Earth. And because we had no fear of their imaginings they call their gods, who for lack of existence could not have ordered the fullness and withdrawal of the Nile, we built, very near to their fraudulent shrine, our Temple to the Creator of All. It was in this way that we came as true Israelites to Elephantine.
In this powerful passage, stated in a kind of trance from Ben-Zion Elefantin, we see a kind of polemic against what becomes rabbinic Judaism. But it seems to me that the picture of Judaism that he presents as authentic bears a relation to rabbinic Judaism, that Judaism as a whole bears itself to Christianity and Islam and the traditions of the West that follow upon it.
Well, they are not Karaites because they traced their origin before the rise even of Karaites. I think they’re also pre-rabbinic. Actually I would put it in a worse light, in the sense that they missed out on parts of Deuteronomy, the parts that say you shall not have another temple, another shrine. That isn’t their fault and is actually a virtue because they claim that they repudiated all this wild dancing around the bovine in the desert. So they left and they didn’t have the chance to hear the end of the story and the coming again of the second tablets. So they are innocent of being Karaites and they are unable even to finish the Torah on their own, so they are also certainly cut off from the rabbinic.
What they are not cut off from is the central core, the radiant meaning of Torah, which is monotheism. And I would stress that it’s Jewish monotheism, which is different from trinitarian monotheism, different from Islamic monotheism in that it’s very, very much dominated by fatalism and determinism—anything that happens, it was already predicted and forced on us by God. That is not quite ethical monotheism. So that’s who they are. Are they we, are they us? Yes, they are us in so far as we have in common with them rootedness in the central core of the Jewish idea.
So we should make much of the second half of what you read, in which Ben-Zion polemicizes against idolatry and the foolish making of other gods that are subservient or as nothing in comparison to the Creator of All, as he calls it.
It is also, I guess, underneath, dare I say it, intended as a blow against supersessionism and triumphalism on the part both of Christianity and Islam. It is a blow against it. And I think, even though we are extremely careful to be ecumenical and we ought to be out of brotherly moderation, that blow today still stands.
May I read to you one of my favorite passages, this coming from the very end of the text and ask you to comment on it? The book, as we have said is structured as a series of entries into a book of memory that Lloyd Petrie is composing. This last one is undated. And in it, he writes:
I think I know the significant thing. Ben-Zion Elefantin too knows the significant thing.
Only the two of us know.
Not in the heavens, not in the sea, not a god made of stone buried in the earth. A temple in the lost kingdom of storks on the Nile, is that what it is?
Only the two of us know.
We two kings.
Cynthia in your evocation of the significant thing somehow not being in the heavens nor in the sea, you echo a passage, a famous passage from the very book of Deuteronomy that the Elephantine Jews would not have had access to. The passage is from Deuteronomy, Chapter 30, verses 11-14, which read like this: “For this command which I charge you today is not too wondrous for you nor is it distant. It is not in the heavens, to say, ‘Who will go up for us to the heavens and take it for us and let us hear it, that we may do it?’ And it is not be on the sea, to say, ‘Who will cross over for us beyond the sea and take it for us and let us hear it, that we may do it?’ But the word is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.”
I should ask how you think the resolution of the narrative of this book relates to that passage from the Torah.
Totally, not nearly the resolution, but the beginning, the middle, the end—this is what this story is about. This is why I was drawn to think about it and to read it. It’s many- layered. There are clues and this of course is the biggest clue of all. And it relies on recognition of what is after all, maybe the most famous passage in Hebrew scripture, which is also Christian scripture.
And I would think that at a time when Bible literacy was more pervasive than it is now, when it hardly exists, this could be understood more easily. I have to testify that as far as I know, not a single reader has seen it, and the book has other things in it. You know, the passage of time and social issues and the Hollywood stuff and so on. But that is not the point. And I knew it was not the point, but it’s there because it’s life, it’s reality. And I think that Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie is an extremely sympathetic character, despite his flaws. I think he has learned something. And at the very end, he is, I cannot say absorbed by an idea, but he is absorbed into an idea, by his being entranced, embraced by Ben-Zion Elefantin.
More about: American Jews, Arts & Culture, Egyptian archaeology, Elephantine island, Jewish literature, papyrus