Academic journal article MELUS

Triangles of History and the Slippery Slope of Jewish American Identity in Two Stories by Cynthia Ozick

Academic journal article MELUS

Triangles of History and the Slippery Slope of Jewish American Identity in Two Stories by Cynthia Ozick

Article excerpt

Cynthia Ozick's fiction is filled with characters in a state of identity crisis: "pagan rabbis," Holocaust survivors, and frustrated artists who are struggling against the continual pressure of being Jewish in a hostile Christian environment. Not only do these characters stumble through America like "inevitable exiles" (Kielsky 23), but they are extremely conscious of their struggle and think a great deal about who they are in relation to those around them (Walden 2). Therefore, it is virtually impossible to read one of Ozick's texts without thinking a great deal about Jewish American identity.

Ozick's message, however, often is not clear; her texts are tightly condensed and often difficult, especially for the non-Jewish reader. Rather than mitigating the complexity of her fiction, Ozick's impressive volumes of essays further complicate the reader's understanding of her message. If one believes that Ozick's characters suffer from crises of identity because they are Jewish, it seems logical to browse Ozick's essays in search of what she believes to be the key elements of Jewishness, but one will again find the consummate artist challenging her readers. At various points, Ozick defines Jewishness as originating in the covenant (Art and Ardor 123), history, the avoidance of idolatry, the ability to make distinctions, and study (Metaphor and Memory 224). This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it demonstrates that Ozick avoids essentializing Jewish identity and posits the meaning of such an identity outside of one concrete, stable definition.

One of Ozick's most straightforward, yet most profound statements regarding Jewish identity indicates where a fruitful examination of this identity lies. "To be a Jew," she asserts, "is to be old in history" (Metaphor and Memory 224). According to Paul Mendes Flohr in Contemporary Jewish Thought, a historical consciousness transmits traditions, rituals, and legends through generations (378) so that they may inform the present and the future. Such a definition of history indicates both the collective memory and the common ancestry of Jewish people, such as traditions passed down through centuries of Judaism and experiences of diaspora and exile due to persecution. On a familial, communal, or national level, this concept of history may also include memories of immigrating to America and growing up Jewish in an unfamiliar or hostile Christian environment. This lens of history encompasses the divergence of experiences that Jewish people have had in America, and yet calls into simultaneous play many elements that Ozick and literary scholars such as Leon Yudkin and Victor Strandberg have pinpointed as the foundation of Jewishness.

Identity, or a sense of self constructed through forces, institutions, and structures, however, is not created by a simple integration of the stories or collective and familial histories passed down by others. "To own a future is not only to redeem the past," states Elaine Kauvar, "[but] to judge its meaning" (xii). One creates himself or herself when he or she makes sense of the past and then, according to Peter Kerry Powers, brings that past into a living relationship with the present (90) in order to inform the present and the future. I would extend Kauvar's and Powers' arguments to assert that history is not only judged by each individual, but reinvented and reconstructed by each individual as he or she selectively attends to details and carefully revises the historical narratives of others from his or her particular viewpoint. Each person then accommodates this invented history into his or her own consciousness or identity. A fruitful examination of the identities of Ozick's characters lies in their struggle to reinvent history and not in any consistent or unchanging definition of Jewishness.

Two excellent examples of texts by Ozick in which the main characters struggle to achieve self-knowledge through a reinvention of history are "The Pagan Rabbi" and "Envy; or, Yiddish in America. …

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