Cynthia Ozick

March 20–21, 2006


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Cynthia Ozick
"Parading her erudition like a peacock, the owner of a self-conscious style, Cynthia Ozick is a writer's writer. Her intellect is conducive to flashes of brilliance. Words are used sparingly, yet they are chosen for everyone to admire."
-- Ilan Stavans, Times Literary Supplement

Regarded as one of the United States' foremost literary luminaries, Cynthia Ozick attracts praise for her morally rigorous essays as well as her witty fiction. Three of Ozick's short stories have won first place in the O. Henry Prize Story competition, and five have been anthologized in yearly editions of Best American Short Stories. Ozick has been nominated for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her collection of essays, Quarrel and Quandary, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 2000. She has also received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award and was invited to deliver the Phi Beta Kappa Oration at Harvard University. Ozick was the first recipient of the Rea Award for the Short Story in 1986.

Always engaged with Jewish tradition, Ozickís work is funny, daring and serious, moving toward answers to some of humanity's biggest questions. "The Shawl" (published in The New Yorker in 1980 and as a novella in 1989) renders an impression of Europe during World War II. But, Ozick has said that she would rather not make art out of the Holocaust. She told the Paris Review, "I don't want to invent or imagine, and yet I have done it. I canít not do it. It comes. It invades." This relentless passion for her writing has made Ozick one of the most eminent figures in contemporary literature.

Yona Silverman's introduction

I have been trying to piece Cynthia Ozick together since I was fourteen years old. At that point, I hadn't read any of her work, but her name was familiar. Like many of my then classmates, she resided in Westchester's New Rochelle. People who I knew had met her! Some had even prayed with her at the High Holidays! But unlike most well known people to whom I felt somehow connected during my childhood, I did not find that her apparent accessibility detracted from her mystique in any way. When an acquaintance bragged to me during gym class that Cynthia Ozick's niece was one of her friend's from camp, I felt shamed and awed: awed because of this girl's proximity to fame, and shamed because in terms of actual Ozick knowledge, I had little. I knew she was an author, and I knew she was a Jew, but more than that, I did not know. I needed to get on that, and so I did.

In the ensuing years I have avidly read my way through much of Ms. Ozick's work, and though her reputation preceded her writing, I have never once felt that it exceeded it. My image of her keeps expanding - from a recent e-mail one of my closest friend's sent, in which she wrote, "I saw Cynthia Ozick read and she has the most girlish, engaging voice (not what I'd imagined), and now I'm dying to read her," to conversations I've had with my mentor and close friend Max Apple about Ms. Ozick, who is in fact a friend of his, to the discussions of her work in the Fellow's seminar over this past semester - discussions which are themselves the most heated and contentious that have occurred in the class under my watch. And as Ms. Ozick is the fifth Writers House Fellow's visit I have been a part of while studying at Penn, this is no small statement.

And all of this is true because Ms. Ozick is not simply an eminent writer, but one of the eminent writers, with all of the emphasis replacing that "an" with a "the" can muster. I was not wrong as a young teen, when I semi-naively placed her in a category that was both of my world and far from it, because Cynthia Ozick's fiction - and her essays too - are transcendent. Like the Golem Xanthippe, made of dirt of the earth but also a life-giving spark of God, Ms. Ozick brings the flesh and blood of well-chosen words and captivating narratives into the realm of the idea. She is so able and adept an author and a thinker that our last class discussing her work ended with Al Filreis, among others, admitting to being, at least for that moment, ideologically conservative. While Cynthia Ozick herself cannot realize the astonishing significance of that, I'm sure there are others in this room who can. As I said, Ms. Ozick is the writer to be reckoned with.

In a passage from Philip Roth's American Pastoral that I particularly liked, one that Ms. Ozick was quoted in an interview as saying she likes as well, Roth wrote, " The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we are alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that-well, lucky you."

So, it is with great honor, excitement and longstanding awe that I introduce to you Cynthia Ozick this evening, because I truly believe - and as some people may attest, I am not wont to giving steadfast opinions often - there is no author I will ever be luckier to be given an opportunity to spend a lifetime getting wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting wrong again. Now please help me give a very warm welcome to . . . Cynthia Ozick.