“Aloud she uttered it”— —Hashem
PRONOUNCING THE SACRED: CYNTHIA OZICK
There is one God, and the Muses are not Jewish but Greek.
Since the coming forth from Egypt five millennia ago, mine
is the first generation to think and speak and write wholly
—Cynthia Ozick, “Preface,” Bloodshed and Other Novellas (1976)
AS WE HAVE SEEN, Bellow's work preserves traces of both Yiddish and Hebrew as markers of ethnicity and collective memory, the former a sociohistorical marker of the world of his grandparents, eastern European Jewish culture, and the latter as a transhistorical marker of Jewish civilization embedded in ancient texts and in ritual. What Cynthia Ozick shares with Bellow is the experience of being a native-born American from an immigrant household with Yiddish as the language of home. Like Bellow, she has also translated Yiddish literature into English. But Ozick has sustained an intense interest in the process of translation, so much so that she has devoted several essays to the subject as well as one of her most well-known stories, “Envy, or, Yiddish in America.” For Ozick, the question of translation is intertwined with ethical questions about art and religion, about the act of creating fictional worlds in a Jewish civilization that prohibits idol worship. Writing out of the fierce opposition of Hebraism and Hellenism, as articulated both in Jewish writings and in the English literary tradition through Matthew Arnold, Ozick has portrayed many manifestations of idolatry, from worship of nature (in “The Pagan Rabbi”) to sanctification of Holocaust remembrance (in The Shawl). “There is one God, and the Muses are not Jewish but Greek,” writes Ozick on the relationship between Judaism and literature. What does that mean for the Jewish writer steeped in her Anglo-American equivalent of Greek?
More than half a century after Mary Antin's public declaration of her love for the English language—“in any other language, happiness is not so sweet, logic is not so clear”—Cynthia Ozick also composed a paean to the English language. Hers is an equivocal and somewhat resigned embrace, passionate but skeptical.