Cynthia Ozick: 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award

On Wednesday, March 9th, 2011, the Jewish Book Council was pleased to present Cynthia Ozick, "the grande dame of Jewish literature," with the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award. JBC Board member, Francine Klagsbrun, an author of several acclaimed books and a regular columnist for the New York Jewish Week, presented Ozick with the award. Both remarks follow: 

Francine Klagsbrun--

I call her Shoshana, She calls me Aliza. We have used these Hebrew names since we first became friends almost forty years ago. So how do you speak, in two minutes, about a friend whom you love, admire, and recognize as one of the great writers of our time—of all time? You speak first, I believe, about her majestic language. Is there another writer who can make you feel a heat wave as Cynthia Ozick does in Foreign Bodies, her new novel, when she tells, among other things, how “Hot steam hissed from the wet rings left by wine glasses on the steel tables of outdoor cafes”? Is there another writer who can make you see, as Cynthia does, “a delicate young oak, with burly roots like the toes of a gryphon exposed in the wet ground”? That, the tree on which the “Pagan Rabbi” hanged himself. 

To speak of Cynthia Ozick is to speak also of magical storytelling and indelible characters. Is there another—will there ever be—another character like Ruth Puttermesser, that funny, bookish, Jewish lawyer with the wild imagination, who creates a female golem, becomes mayor of New York, and is brutally murdered only to go to Paradise and discover that “the secret meaning of Paradise is that it too is hell.” Ruth Puttermesser, whom, I suspect, has a little of Cynthia Ozick in her. 

And to speak of Cynthia Ozick, is, of course, to speak of the Jewish soul and sensibility that seep into all her works. Tonight we pay tribute especially to the pride, wisdom, learning—and fearlessness—with which she has written Jewishly and shown the way for younger writers to do so. Foreign Bodies, her novel, is not a “Jewish book,” as such. Its themes are broad and wide. Yet this book gives us an unforgettable image of Europe seven years after the Holocaust as a place that one character calls Nineveh, the sinful land in the book of Jonah. 

Cynthia Ozick will never put aside her rage at the Holocaust, but she has not limited herself to it in illumining the Jewish landscape. Along with fiction, she has written essays on Sholem Aleichem and Gershom Scholem, on Franz Kafka and Anne Frank, to name a very few. Her Jewish soul and Jewish sensibility have touched and taught the entire world. For us, in the Jewish world, she has been a beracha, a gift, a blessing, an unending source of joy and wonder. 

Dearest Shoshana, it is an enormous honor for me to give you the Jewish Book Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Cynthia Ozick--

Thank you for this unexpected and beautiful honor. Thank you, distinguished eminences of the Jewish Book Council! Thank you, Carolyn Hessel! And from the bottom of my soul, thank you, Francine Klagsbrun, for your friendship and its million extravagant kindnesses, of which your words just now are the most electrifyingly generous. Nevertheless I hope, in the face of so much to be grateful for, that you will not be disconcerted if I dare to rename this moving and inspiriting award, if only for this one occasion. The reason is this: “Lifetime Achievement” doesn’t quite fit the case. Call it, instead, the “Lifetime Starting-Out” award — since a writer, no matter how long she has worn her white hairs, is always starting out, is always beginning again, is always in doubt of how to begin, and is always in need of shoring-up. So it is with your magnanimous encouragement tonight that I offer a handful of reflections on what it is to write as a Jew in America. You will see that these are starting-out thoughts. I started out with them long, long ago, and I am still at the beginning of trying to figure out what they might portend. 

Lionel Trilling, one of the most influential literary critics of the century we have so recently left behind, and the first Jew to have been officially appointed professor of English at Columbia University, is remembered in particular for two Jewishly oriented statements, one more shocking than the other. “Being a Jew,” he wrote, “is like walking in the wind or swimming; you are touched at all points and conscious everywhere.” Now what is notable about this comment, uttered by a man of grandly capacious intellect, is that it is all sensation, even physical sensation: it suggests a kind of watchful trembling. There is nothing in it of Jewish civilization or culture or history or heritage or even bookishness. But the second statement, by contrast, is nothing but literary in intention; and its intention is wrapped in fear. “I know of no writer in English,” Trilling insisted, “who has added a micromillimeter to his stature by ‘realizing his Jewishness,’ although I know of some who have curtailed their stature by trying to heighten their Jewish consciousness.” The phrase “realizing his Jewishness,” by the way, appears in quotes, to let us know it is meant to be spoken in derision. This deeply vulnerable remark — we might even call it cowardly — is not especially surprising from a man who had to fight to be admitted to a university English department at a time when Jews were told they would not “fit in.” 

But set against this self-suppression a declaration by a Jewish writer who was Trilling’s contemporary, and who, unlike Trilling, was fearless, and whose stature, precisely because of this fearlessness, is assured and lasting. Saul Bellow, speaking of his early immersion in American literary classics, proclaimed “no barriers to the freest and fullest American choices. . . . It was admiration, it was love that drew us to the dazzling company of the great masters, all of them belonging to the Protestant Majority — some of them explicitly anti-Semitic. But one could not submit to control by such prejudices. My own view,” he went on, “was that in religion the Christians had lived with us, had lived in the Bible of the Jews, but when the Jews wished to live in Western history with them, they were refused. As if that history was not, by now, also ours.” 

Trilling meekly accepted that the Jewish mind and its gifts were outside history’s mainstream. But Bellow refused to be refused, and in announcing that the legacy of Western history was also the Jewish legacy, he aspired to the acme of literary power, and himself joined that dazzling company of the great masters. By now, of course, English departments everywhere have a full roster of Jewish professors, and there are numerous Jewish presidents of distinguished universities. As for Jewish writers, their freedom of self-expression can no longer be disputed anywhere. Wherever literature flourishes, Jewish books proliferate, and the younger writers in their ambitious and energetic battalions startle us with unexpected societal perspectives or fresh interpretations of inherited themes. In Israel: the ancient landscape and the ancient language, each made new. In America: a fourth, or even a fifth, native-born generation for whom the mythos of immigration is a remote and faint echo; and at the same time an influx of brilliant young immigrants catapulted from Soviet suffocation into the American language. And into the free streaming of Jewish wit, Jewish memory, Jewish laughter and Jewish hurts. 

Of both America and Israel, it can be said that Kafka, or rather the tormented Kafkan sensibility, is finally overcome. Kafka’s forlorn perception of a Jew writing in German — of himself writing in German — was that of a helplessly struggling beast without a secure hold on the language that is his singular birthright. He described such Jews as having their hind legs “still stuck in parental Judaism while their forelegs found no purchase on new ground.” He called this quandary — or quagmire — “the impossibility of writing German,” even as he recognized the more painful “impossibility of not writing” at all. Every born writer in every language will feel the impossibility of not writing, but who can imagine a native Israeli writer contemplating the impossibility of writing Hebrew, or a Jewish writer in America despairing of the possibility of writing English? The parental Judaism, as Kafka terms it, finds easy purchase in both environments. Kafka’s dilemma in the linguistically threatening confusions of Prague, where he lived through anti-Semitic street rioting, is hardly ours. American Jewish writers are, incontrovertibly, the confident and sovereign owners of the American language. 

But what of Hebrew, the indispensable classical and contemporary carrier of the parental Judaism? Only recall that legendary debate, in Jerusalem in the 1950s, between two renowned Jewish Nobel laureates, Saul Bellow and Shmuel Yosef Agnon. Agnon asked Bellow whether his novels had been published in Hebrew. Not yet, Bellow replied. Too bad, Agnon said, because the work of Jewish writers in Diaspora languages is bound to be ephemeral; it will never last. Bellow countered with the example of Heinrich Heine, whose poetry had entered German folk memory to such an extent that even Hitler’s most zealous book burners could not suppress it. Of course, by offering Heine, Bellow was implicitly defending his own status as a Jew writing in the American language. “Heine?” retorted Agnon, meaning to needle his visitor. “Oh, but we have him beautifully translated into Hebrew. He is safe.” Yet neither Bellow nor Agnon appeared to notice the still deeper irony of this impassioned conversation. Bellow’s Hebrew was imperfect. Agnon’s English was imperfect. So there they were, the champion of the American language and the champion of the Hebrew language, each championing his cause in . . . Yiddish! Yiddish too, it should not be forgotten, is an indispensable carrier of the Jewish literary mind.

Owners of the American language though we are, there is sometimes a certain veil of separation. It is rarely felt, but I remember a time, not so long ago, when I felt it with a kind of anguish. It came during several hours of joy, it came simultaneously with that joy: a contradiction of emotions. I had found myself in the company of three renowned writers, as celebrated by their readers as they were sublime in their prose. We four sat together at a little tea table, and I was swept away: the wit flew, the literary gossip danced along, the ideas intensified, the braininess was thrillingly rampant, all without cynicism or sarcasm or spite, good talk flowing freely in waves of sympathy and friendship. Ingrained in these superior minds, I saw, was a noble genuineness and a heartfelt honesty. And at the end of that intoxicating evening, when it was all over and I was back home again, I fell instantly into an abyss of shame and despair, a sadness so unstoppable as to be close to grieving. It was the year before the Twin Towers atrocities; America was still cocooned in its innocence of terrorism. But as we sat there, all of us charmed by the talk, the second intifada, so-called, was at that very moment decimating the cities of Israel — day after day buses were being blown up, cafés, groceries, baby carriages, torn bodies strewn bloodily in the streets, murderousness heaped on murderousness. Yet for my companions at that exhilarating little table it was all remote. They were untouched. It was not that they would have been incapable of being touched if it had come into their thoughts — but it did not live in their thoughts, it was not an element of their lives. Whereas for me it was the sorrowing center of every breath. 

It goes without saying that as a writer I was in possession of the whole of my companions’ world: culturally speaking, there was nothing that they possessed that I did not equally possess. In a literary sense we had everything in common. But my grief was absent from their ken. A membrane of separation hung between us, and left me orphaned and alone. And this membrane, this frequently opaque veil, is part of what it is to be a Jewish writer in America. It may not, it will not, define our common subject matter; but it defines our subjectivity: the historic frailty of Jewish lives, the perilous contingency of the ordinary. And it can lead to a sort of credo of choosing. Trilling or Bellow? Vulnerability or fearlessness? Cowardice or courage? To own the American language is a glory in itself; but even more significant is the power to pierce the veil. At that jubilant little table I was abysmally at fault. It was I who had orphaned myself. I did not speak of what I felt, of what I dreaded, I did not tell my sorrowing. I let it lie sequestered and apart, like a secret. Perhaps I was reluctant, in so harmonious an atmosphere, to introduce the depravity of terror — though in a very few months it would introduce itself, horribly, in New York, not far from our little table. Participating wholly in American writerliness, I failed to reciprocate: I did not summon American writerliness into my Jewish subjectivity. That night, I chose Trilling’s way over Bellow’s, and I have regretted it ever since. 

Every language carries history in its sinews and bones. If you look hard at the inmost structure of the word “beauty,” you will see the Norman Conquest. It may be the same with writers. The inmost structure of a Jewish writer will carry the history of a long, long procession of Jewish ideas and experiences — and this will hold whether the writer wishes to abandon or cultivate those ideas and experiences. In either case, they must be grappled with. Here Trilling’s images of wind and water turn out to be apt. Realizing one’s Jewish consciousness, as he put it while putting it down, is finally not to curtail; instead, it unfurls a sail. And when the sail is in place, the voyage can begin. 

Please know the depth of my gratitude for this signal recognition. Since I am just starting out, I hope I may some day be worthy of it.