Page 90 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 42

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The mystical enterprise is where the stories come from, to be
sure. But that is not the only place they come from. Sometimes, as
in “The Laughter o f Akiva,” they originate in the reality o f the
American Jewish community, in a community which is living its
life as Jews, as Jews immersed in American culture. A detailed
comparison o f the 1980 novella and the 1983 novel — analyzing
what has been changed, what has been added, what has been
omitted, and what has tenaciously been kept — would certainly
yield enormous insight into the creative processes o f Cynthia
Ozick’s artistry. For the purposes o f this essay, which seeks to gain
an insight into Ozick’s mimesis, an in-depth comparsion is not
strictly necessary. In both works, from the very story told, from
the plot itself, it is clear that Ozick has tu rned to literal rep resen ­
tation and imitation of American Jewish reality.
The story “comes from” a particularly American institution in
Jewish life, the day school. The day school is the latest, the most
modern , the most up-to-date avatar o f Jewish education in
America. First there was the
then there was the “a fter­
noon Hebrew school” and the “Sunday school.” Now there is the
day school, which combines a secular curriculum with a Jewish
one, in one prolonged day under one roof and central adminis­
Ozick, in both the novella and the novel, inserts her rationalist,
skepticist scalpel into the flesh o f one o f these schools — on the
shores of Long Island Sound in a suburb o f New York or on the
shores of some Great Lake in America’s heartland — and, after
making a perfect incision, she probes around from the inside like
a medical researcher. The result is an anatomy lesson about an
important “community” in American Jewish life. Readers will
recognize the day school principal, the children, the teachers, the
parents, and the elaborate graduation ceremonies. One thing is
certain, Ozick does not give a romanticized picture o f the work­
ings of this complicated body. Her portrayal is candidly clinical —
until, that is, the emotions o f her characters intervene. It is then
that we realize that for Cynthia Ozick “accurate portrayal” o f real­
ity is not an end but a means. Ozick’s mimesis is not Greek, or
even in the tradition o f the great 19th-century realists. Her
mimesis, in Auerbach’s terms, is Jewish; in the spirit o f the bibli­
cal author, its goal is not mere representation, but interpretation.