Cynthia Ozick, the most illustrious American fiction novelist of today and a Jew of piercing and daring insight, turned 95 this week. Her courageous voice should be celebrated.
Ozick’s witty fiction is trademarked by myth, memory, and illusion wrapped in soaring language, and includes classics like The Messiah of Stockholm, The Shawl, The Puttermesser Papers, and Critics, Monsters, Fanatics and Other Literary Essays.
Her genius across 25 books and many short stories is well attested to by experts far and wide. She has been described as “the Athena of America’s literary pantheon,” the “Emily Dickinson of the Bronx,” a “smasher of idols,” and “one of the most accomplished and graceful literary stylists of her time.”
Cynthia Ozick: Critic of society and attitudes on Jews, Israel
Here, however, I want to celebrate Cynthia Ozick as a penetrating critic of contemporary society and its attitudes to Jews and Israel. In more than 60 years of writing, she has decried the way in which the intelligentsia of the political Left channels antisemitism and nearly exonerates Islamic terrorism under the gentle rubric of “understanding.” She deconstructs vanity, political correctness, and bottomless currents of antisemitism that run through contemporary literature and politics.
Her most recent book, Antiquities and Other Stories, is a window into the subtle antisemitism of New England just a generation or two ago. Her most recent short story, “The Conversion of the Jews” (published this month in Harper’s Magazine), is a parable about contemporary Pablo Christianis, i.e., apostate Jews. (Jewish apostasy and treason are themes that she has returned to several times. More on this below.)
I met Ozick in 2001 when she visited Israel to receive the Guardian of Zion Award from Bar-Ilan University, and had the enormous honor of accompanying this modest and unassuming giant for three days on campus. We have been friends and pen pals ever since. I also have enjoyed the pleasure of long conversations in her home in New Rochelle, New York, where she insists on being called Shoshana instead of Cynthia.
In over 50 letters focused on Jewish and Israel affairs that Shoshana has penned to me over the past 20 years, her despair about fundamental, pervasive anti-Jewish prejudice in Western civilization is painfully clear. Ozick is even more despondent about the state of American Jewry, as it has become ever-more assimilationist and shy about defending Israel.
After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, she visited Israel and wrote a powerful, urgent 7,000-word essay in Esquire magazine called “All the world wants the Jews dead: An overwrought view from the peak at the bottom.” (This was long before Dara Horn and Bari Weiss’s recent riffs on this theme.) Ozick called out the refusal of intellectuals, academics and journalists to take seriously the precariousness of Jewish survival; and mocked their would-be love for a deceased Jewish people.
“How – if there were no more Jews – the world would be enraptured! The people that stood at Sinai to receive a desert vision of purity, the people of scholarly shepherds, humane prophetic geniuses, dreamers of justice and mercy, the mother-people of Jesus, the sister-people of Muhammed! A lost civilization: barbarism closed over it and we have only these fragments, these bits of scriptural rags faintly traced with the strong black letters of their forgotten alphabet. Christian ladies study ‘The priceless culture of the Jews’ at Chautauqua in the summertime, where there is also a workshop on tallit making.
“How melancholy-sweet: the dear dead slain heroic Jews of long ago, that lost humanitarian people whose liberator Moses made it obligatory to free slaves, defend the widow and the orphan, carry on ordinary affairs in decency and equity, hate idolatry of stone or spirit; and who put all that down into a treasured law in order to ensure a life of commandment and deed. Oh, the genius that was Israel!”
TO MY MIND, Ozick’s most agonizing essay on Jewish/Israel matters is “The modern Hep! Hep! Hep!” published in 2004 in The New York Observer. (The title refers to the 11th-century antisemitic yelp of Crusader murderers, meaning “Jerusalem is destroyed.”)
“We thought it was finished,” Ozick wrote. “The ovens are long cooled, the anti-vermin gas dissipated into purifying clouds, cleansed air, nightmarish fable. The cries of the naked, decades gone, are mute; the bullets splitting throats and breasts and skulls, the human waterfall of bodies tipping over into the wooded ravine at Babi Yar, are no more than tedious footnotes on aging paper...
“We thought it was finished. In the middle of the 20th century, and surely by the end of it, we thought it was finished, genuinely finished, the bloodlust finally slaked. We thought it was finished, that heads were hanging – the heads of the leaders and schemers on gallows, the heads of the bystanders and onlookers in shame... Shame is salubrious: it acknowledges inhumanity, it admits to complicity, it induces remorse.
“Naively, foolishly, stupidly, hopefully, a-historically, we thought that shame and remorse-world-wide shame, world-wide remorse-would endure. Naively, foolishly, stupidly, hopefully, a-historically, we thought that the cannibal hatred, once quenched, would not soon wake again.
“It has awakened. Today, the modern Hep! appears in the form of Zionism, Israel, Sharon. And the connection between vilification and the will to undermine and endanger Jewish lives is as vigorous as when the howl of Hep! was new. European and British scholars and academicians, their Latin gone dry, will never cry Hep! Instead, they call for the boycott of Israeli scholars and academicians.
“Current antisemitism, accelerating throughout advanced and sophisticated Europe – albeit under the rubric of anti-Zionism, and masked by the deceptive lingo of human rights – purports to eschew the primitivism of ‘old’ antisemitism. [But] antisemitism wears its chic disguises. It breeds on the tongues of liars.
“The lies may be noisy and primitive and preposterous, like the widespread Islamist charge that a Jewish conspiracy leveled the Twin Towers. Or the lies may take the form of skilled patter in a respectable timbre, while retailing sleight-of-hand trickeries – such as the hallucinatory notion that the defensive measures of a perennially beleaguered people constitute colonization and victimization; or that the Jewish state is to blame for the aggressions committed against it.
“Lies shoot up from the rioters in Gaza and Ramallah. Insinuations ripple out of the high tables of Oxbridge. And steadily, whether from the street or the salon, one hears the enduring old cry: Hep! Hep! Hep!”
In an essay on “Understanding Terror” published in 2015 in The Weekly Standard, Ozick decried the need of journalists and intellectuals to understand the “humanity” of terrorists: “Notions of... impoverishment, grievance, impotence at the hands of powerful faraway forces, humiliation, spiritual misery (a fresh coinage particularly worthy of the novelist’s art)... have become unassailably commonplace to the point of vacuous triteness. And more: terror can now be counted among matters urgently spiritual.
“What comes of these divinings… of the open-hearted willingness to understand everyone, is an appalling distraction from the intrinsic depravity of the act of premeditated murder. The evil deed speaks for itself; to search out the evildoer’s ‘backstory,’ to look for some exculpating raison d’etre, is no more useful or edifying or moral than an attraction to pornography.”
Particularly galling to Ozick has been the “network of Jewish spiritual progressives,” Rabbi Michael Lerner and his ilk, “a growing band of vocal and ambitious self-touting Jews whose hostility to the State of Israel more and more takes on the character of the spite that kills.” They spin “a gossamer vapid winged thing, composed of vaporous rainbows and spun sugar, called spirituality” to bash Israel.
She calls this “newfangled modern apostasy, whereby the apostates declare how profoundly Jewish they are,” again in order to distance themselves from Israel and win the plaudits of today’s genteel antisemites.
Ozick sought to publish a penetrating essay on the antisemitism of American intellectuals in The New York Times in 2020 but, surprise-surprise, the newspaper rejected her submission. The Wall Street Journal published it instead.
Ozick boldly wrote that: “Antisemitism is thought of as brutish, the mentality of mobs, the work of the ignorant, the poorly schooled, the gutter roughnecks, the torch carriers. But these are only the servants, not the savants, of antisemitism. Mobs execute, intellectuals promulgate. Thugs have furies, intellectuals have causes.
“Stupid mobs are spurred by clever goaders: The book burners were inspired by the temperamentally bookish – who else could know which books to burn?... [Today,] the medieval cutthroats are out again, brandishing their updated social media.
“Antisemitism dressed in the sheep’s clothing of social justice is the province of elevated pitchmen – cultivated elites, learned professors, scholarly theorists. Intersectionality, a muddled and half-mystical credo that turns disparities into parities and distinctions into connections, is the coinage of Kimberlé Crenshaw, a leading professor of law at UCLA and Columbia [University].
“Its faithful adherents populate academic organizations such as the American Studies Association, the National Women’s Studies Association, and the Critical Ethnic Studies Association. By surrendering to the doctrine of identity politics – the birth mother of intersectionality – these groups have allowed themselves to become venues of antisemitic incitement.
“On the lowest rung of this hierarchy of ethnic worthiness, Jews are designated as white oppressors of marginal peoples. They are accused of complicity in a colonialist plot against Palestinians and as accomplices in the training of police brutality. If they profess to be liberals, or radicals of the Left, they are shunted aside as persecutors of the weak. Even as they are scorned as unfairly privileged, they are treated as campus pariahs.
“Marxism is a movement of the deluded; antisemitism is a movement of the cleverest. When students become inquisitors and administrations are feeble, when the elect succumb to the political haters, so will a nation’s conscience. A vengeful mob is a fearsome thing, but the true monsters are its teachers.”
Please join me in wishing Cynthia (Shoshana) Ozick good health and yet-much-longer life so that her clarion-clear voice of conscience continues to serve America and the Jewish people.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy. The views expressed here are his own. His diplomatic, defense, political, and Jewish world columns over the past 26 years are archived at davidmweinberg.com.