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

April 7, 2021 | Dara Horn
About the author: Dara Horn is the author of five novels, most recently Eternal Life.

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.

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