Page 93 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 42

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LOWIN / CYNTH IA OZICK'S MIMESIS
85
him one o f Rabbi Pult’s
seforim,
a book o f rabbinic law and lore.
Once in the convent cellar, he is provided with the library of a
recently deceased, very liberal, priest. Randomly riffling the
pages of two o f his books, he has an illumination: the texts o f the
two cultures — Jewish and Western — can be accommodated.
Rav and Proust . . . both measured the world, one by
passion for the ideal, the other by passion for the sardonic
detail. How different they were!
And neither told a lie.
This
was a marvel, that two souls, two such separated tonalities,
so to speak, could between them describe the true map of
life. (p. 28)
On confronting these texts, Joseph Brill decides that he will de­
vote his future life to a symbiosis o f the two cultures. He will es­
tablish a Jewish Day School with a Dual Curriculum and will turn
out Jewish geniuses. (This obsession with genius is only latent in
his background, a general given o f French culture.) The only
trouble is, he learns when he has established himself in a middle-
class Jewish community in America, geniuses do not reveal them­
selves as such in an elementary school setting. Further, America
is not Europe. Both Judaism and Europe are “in history.”
America is not, and, in America, Jews have abandoned the very
memory of their own past. After thirty years o f uninteresting
foreground (which Ozick does not bother with), Joseph Brill set­
tles into a comfortable mediocrity. Until, that is, Hester Lilt
comes to register her child.
Here, at last, is the genius Joseph Brill has been looking for.
Alas for him, as brilliant as the mother is, the child, during eight
years o f schooling, reveals herse lf to be despairingly dull.
Curiously, the despair is all Joseph Brill’s, not the mother’s. She
seems confident that her daughter will turn out to be a duplicate
of herself, a genius of originality.
Ozick’s representation of Hester Lilt’s background is at oppo­
site poles with that o f Joseph Brill. While his background re­
quires interpretation, it is nevertheless given. Hester Lilt’s back­
ground (like, later, her daugh ter’s) remains completely hidden.
It is no accident that the writer’s name is Hester; the Hebrew ex­
pression describing the hiding o f the face of God is
hester panim.
Twice during the novel Joseph Brill tries to get Hester Lilt to re­
veal her background. “She gave him little; she had left the middle
of Europe long ago, decades back, on one of those Children’s