With the death of Philip Roth in May, there was much revived discussion of his place in American literature, and in American Jewish literature especially. Yet for all Roth’s talents, writes Ari Hoffman, it will be Cynthia Ozick—arguably the greatest living American Jewish literary figure—who has created work that will withstand the test of time:
It is long past time not just to celebrate Ozick, but to read her. Perhaps the best reason to do so is that, far more than Roth, her work has anticipated the current weather of Jewish life. . . . The audiences that Roth wrote for, antagonized, and played a part in defining are demographically exiting the stage. Jewish fiction, like Jews, will either become more overtly Jewish, or cease to be Jewish at all.
Ozick is the kind of altneu writer whose style will outlast the vagaries of literary fashion. At a time when Jewish writers were enraptured by what Roth called the “American berserk,” Ozick worried and wondered about the content of Jewishness; its books, theology, and art. Most of all, she puzzled over how to be Jewish, and write Jewishly, in English. These concerns once seemed remote, her own ideological cul-de-sac. The fullness of time, however, has revealed her centrality.
Ozick has always been a different, and to some degree difficult, kind of writer. Mostly that’s because she takes religion seriously. For her, art is not a way to flee the synagogue, but to burrow more deeply into its nooks and crannies. While Ozick can write realist prose that rivals the greatest practitioners’, her writing comes alive most when it meets ideas and magic. Her work is filled with golems and druids, rabbis and magicians. Her sentences are well acquainted with the spiritual. . . .
The first thing she offers is a robust roster of female characters: the conjuring would-be-mayor Ruth Puttermesser, the haunting Rosa from The Shawl, and perhaps most indelibly of all Ozick herself; the character who speaks her way into being in [her] essays—slashing, anxious, heretically pious.