Page 96 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 42

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The allusion above to Ozick’s earlier
is not an off­
hand remark. All literary works may be said to be fraugh t with a
background o f their own. Sometimes a writer rewrites events;
sometimes, other people’s texts. In the case o f a writer such as
Ozick, with an
o f her own to mine, it is not strange to find
her rewriting herself. In fact, Joseph Brill’s accommodation o f
the two cultures is but one resolution o f the dilemma o f Isaac
Kornfeld, the Pagan Rabbi.8 “He [Joseph Brill] longed for a no­
ble scholarship — the pleasure-pain o f poetry and the comely o r­
derliness o f numbers and the logical passion o f Gemara, all laced
together in an illustrious tapestry” (p. 75). Tha t there is a poetry
side to Brill is evident in his reaction to the yearly Commence­
ment exercises. Concerning Commencement, when the hymn
Eliayahu Ha-Navi
is chanted alongside the robust singing o f
aliers de la Table Ronde,
Ozick comments, using the indirect free
style o f quotation: “ah, how he fell with these into the poetry side
of life” (p. 118). Brill even goes out o f his way to hire as a teacher
— against his better judgm en t — a version o f the Pagan Rabbi, a
Rabbi Sheskin who turns Scripture into story, who encourages
dream ing and drawing in class, and who admonishes Naphtali,
the child o f Brill’s old age who specializes in making exhaustive
and exhausting lists, to ponder the fourteen lines o f a sonnet, the
brevity o f a phrase in Talmud, the smaller melodies o f Mozart,
and, most significantly for a rabbi, the veins in a leaf.
Rabbi Sheskin represents, therefore, the poetry side o f Joseph
Brill’s life. Brill’s son Naphtali represents the culmination o f
Ozick’s representation o f the serious and problematic side o f his
life. Brill had become convinced th roughou t his long tenu re as
Principal that the children contained the mothers. His initial fear
o f fathering a child, reflecting perhaps a fear that the child will
contain that part o f himself that he sees as a failure, is surpassed
by his desire to see his own latent visionary genius replicated. In
tru th , Naphtali does contain Joseph Brill, the part that loves
categories, divisions, classifications, types, and orderliness, the
part that has grandiose visions.
Mutatis mutandis,
Naphtali has the
same dreams that Joseph had had in his convent cellar:
8 In
The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories.
New York: Schocken, 1976; New York
Dutton/Obelisk, 1983 (paper).