Cynthia Ozick’s New Novel Explores the Jewish Opposition to Idolatry Through (Very) Non-Jewish Eyes

April 7 2021

Cynthia Ozick, one of those rare figures who has talent both as a literary critic and a creator of literary fiction, has recently published her 24th book, Antiquities, at the age of ninety-two. Set in the Temple Academy, a tony Westchester boarding school that has been transformed into a retirement home for its aging trustees, the novel has as its narrator one of those alumni/trustees—the pedigreed and WASPy Lloyd Petrie. To Dara Horn, the book shows Ozick “at the height of her powers.”

As Petrie tells us in his deliberately arch style, “Most unfortunate was the too common suspicion that ‘Temple’ signified something unpleasantly synagogical, so that on many a Sunday morning the chapel’s windows . . . were discovered to have been smashed overnight. The youngest forms were regularly enlisted to sweep up the shards and stones.” Petrie’s unexamined anti-Semitism here is structural to the plot as well as to the world we live in; we readers are enlisted to sweep up such shards and stones from Petrie’s narrative, the necessary archaeological sifting work for the gradual revelation of what this vast edifice of elitism conceals.

The mystery at the center of the novel involves a Jewish student, who, ostracized even by his fellow ostracized Jewish students, had developed an unlikely friendship with Petrie:

That answer, which Petrie only comes to understand decades later, is deeply related to the rejection of idolatry, whether in antiquity or now. This idolatry, the novel implies, does not merely mean worship of false gods, but also the worship of more modern idols like fame (Petrie’s estranged and untalented son aspires to Hollywood success), elitism (the Temple trustees keep their defunct school’s commemorative volumes in a bank vault, preserving them for . . . what?), social conventions (Petrie only gradually reveals his lifelong love affair with his secretary, and he is publicly shamed for visiting her grave), class barriers (the trustees’ house servants, who spend their days fulfilling the whims of entitled old men, turn out to be highly educated Holocaust refugees), and even “antiquities” themselves (Petrie’s relationship with his father’s Egyptian items comes close to worship), with their promise of a meaningful connection to an inert past to which we owe nothing in the present.

Ozick’s work is deeply Jewish, which means that knowledge is required to recognize its depth. It is a profoundly acquired taste, acquired through years of communal thought about the meaning of worshiping an eternal God during an ephemeral life. Petrie himself would never get it, although [his Jewish classmate] would.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Moment

More about: American Jewish literature, Anti-Semitism, Cynthia Ozick, Idolatry

 

Reengaging the Syrian Government Has Brought Jordan an Influx of Narcotics, but Little Stability

As Syria’s civil war drags on, and it seems increasingly unlikely that Bashar al-Assad will be overthrown, Arab states that had anathematized his regime for its brutal treatment of its own people have gradually begun to rebuild economic and diplomatic relations. There are also those who believe the West should do the same. The case of Jordan, argues Charles Lister, shows the folly of such a course of action:

Despite having been a longtime and pivotally important backer of Syria’s armed anti-Assad opposition since 2012, Jordan flipped in 2017 and 2018, eventually stepping forward to greenlight a brutal, Russian-coordinated Syrian-regime campaign against southern Syria in the summer of 2018. Amman’s reasoning for turning against Syria’s opposition was its desire for stability along its border, to create conditions amenable to refugee returns, and to rid southern Syria of Islamic State cells as well as an extensive Iranian and Hizballah presence.

As hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians were swiftly besieged and indiscriminately bombed from the ground and air, Jordan forced its yearslong Free Syrian Army partners to surrender, according to interviews I conducted with commanders at the time. In exchange, they were promised by Jordan a Russian-guaranteed reconciliation process.

Beyond the negligible benefit of resuming trade, Russia’s promise of “reconciliation” has resolutely failed. Syria’s southern province of Daraa is now arguably the most unstable region in the country, riddled with daily insurgent attacks, inter-factional strife, targeted assassinations, and more. Within that chaos, which Russia has consistently failed to resolve, not only does Iran remain in place alongside Hizballah and a network of local proxy militias but Iran and its proxies have expanded their reach and influence, commanding some 150 military facilities across southern Syria. Islamic State, too, continues to conduct sporadic attacks in the area.

Although limited drug smuggling has always existed across the Syria-Jordan border, the scale of the Syrian drug trade has exploded in the last two years. The most acute spike occurred (and has since continued) immediately after the Jordanian king Abdullah II’s decision to speak with Assad on the phone in October 2021. Since then, dozens of people have been killed in border clashes associated with the Syrian drug trade, and although Jordan had previously been a transit point toward the prime market in the Persian Gulf, it has since become a key market itself, with Captagon use in the country now described as an “epidemic,” particularly among young people and amid a 30-percent unemployment rate.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Drugs, Jordan, Middle East, Syrian civil war