Idolatrous first love.
I had been haunted since childhood by the possibility of stories as a kind of gash in the fabric of the universe, a rip in the veil that hung between the mundane and the real, through which one could glimpse the purpose that animated the world. I had gotten this idea from reading the Torah, whose angry and evil and utterly normal characters loved and lashed out at God as though they were teenagers confronting a disappointed parent. These characters felt the presence of this purpose as though no veil had ever existed. This puzzled and pained me. What caused that veil to fall between the creator and the created? And might it be possible to brush that veil aside?
When I tried to find modern literature with the power to tear through the veil, I came up empty. I was directed to books by Philip Roth--in which it appeared, to my teenage mind, that the most compelling purpose in life had something to do with hating one's mother. This got old fast. Someone else directed me to Chaim Potok, but the world in his books was so distant from mine that I might as well have been reading about the patriarchs: people to whom the ineffable was available in a way it would never be for me.
And then I discovered The Pagan Rabbi, a book of stories, set in modern times, about idolatry. Yes, idolatry: that most irrelevant of biblical sins that preoccupies so much of the Torah and would appear to be no more meaningful to contemporary life than the sacrifice of goats. In Ozick's work, idolatry is not only an animating force in the contemporary world, but the weight and fabric of the veil itself. Yet Ozick is no preacher. She is an artist deeply involved in the practice of idol-worship that is contemporary literature. Her work is entwined with the sins and suffering that idolatry spawns: the seduction of status, "originality," youth, quests for immortality, what Ecclesiastes called hevel--vanity, vacuity, breath.
The title story is almost too explicit in its enactment of the lure of the temporal. It concerns a brilliant rabbi's suicide after his descent into a love of nature, to the neglect of his moral obligations. Yet I was astounded to find a real writer who cited the Mishnah--the Mishnah!--and cited it as though it mattered. Even the most seemingly casual description was infused with a subtle moral alertness so alien to American letters that it seemed like it ought not be allowed. Felled trees in a city park, in Ozick's language, did not merely evoke neglect, but became an evocation of an alien natural world whose ephemeral quality rendered it strangely worthless: "Their moist inner wheels breathed out a fragrance of barns, countryside, decay."
This was a mere prelude to what are the shining stars of this astounding book: two novella-length stories, "Envy, or Yiddish in America" and "Virility." The former is the story of two American Yiddish writers. One feeds the crowd "subversive" stories of a dead Jewish life that they yearn for; his work is adulated and translated into every language. The second writer, from whose perspective the story emerges, is a real poet, untranslated and forgotten and crippled by envy of the other writer's success. (Ozick has denied that this story is a roman a clef, though no reader aware of Yiddish literature can avoid thinking of the rivalry between Isaac Bashevis Singer and the brilliant and never-translated Polishborn American poet Yankev Glatshteyn.) A lesser artist might have made this into a sob story, but in Ozick's hands, this setup is the stage for a story about idolatry: the debilitating quest for fame, how irresistible the seduction of adulation is for the person who doesn't have it, and, by the story's end, how weird and painfully difficult Judaism has always been for setting itself against it--for insisting that we are but dust and ashes even if the world was created for us, that our creativity is limited, that nothing we can do as artists can ever come close to creating or redeeming the world. It is the story of the existential impossibility of being a Jewish writer. "Virility" is about a famous poet whose renown comes from a source that makes the whole idea of fame, of art, of transcendence itself into a kind of cosmic pun. By the time the reader reaches this story at the collection's end, it's impossible not to get the joke.
These stories could not pull away that veil that hangs before our eyes today, and now that I have become a writer myself, its presence continues to haunt me. But Ozick's stories showed me what that veil was made of--and taught me how to see beyond it.
Recently I spoke with a religious man, a Jewish writer who has nobly won his own struggles against the seductions of fame. He called Cynthia Ozick holy. Ozick herself would surely reject this description as idolatrous. Perhaps it is the pagan urge within me, but I agreed with him. One cannot help but feel that way about one's first love.