Page 64 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 50

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by the other teachers and ridiculed by the parents. Brill, for
whom classroom discipline is the mark of sound pedagogy, wor­
ries that the rabbi lacks this quality. Brill is further concerned
that the young man “had no obvious personality and appeared
to believe in sacred texts.” Yet, Rabbi Sheskin’s “holy a rdo r”
itself compels the class. In his room, “Old King David was dying.
He was dying in this very room.” This, in fact, is Ozick’s por­
trayal of the numinous in a secular context. Sheskin’s reliance
upon midrash reveals that, while suffering near fatal assault
at the hands of the Nazis, the Jewish idea continues. Ozick’s
centrally Jewish characters are religious. The fact that they have
such a difficult time of things is her way of indicating just how
precious, and precarious, is the state of authentic post-
Auschwitz Judaism.
Ozick, as noted earlier, defines Judaism both by the covenant
and through distancing it from idolatry. Concerning idolatry
she writes: “The single most useful, and possibly the most use­
fully succinct, description of a Jew as defined theologically can
best be rendered negatively: a Jew is someone who shuns idols;
who least of all would wish to become like Terach, the maker
of idols. A Jew — so Jews are taught to think — is like Abraham,
who sees through idols.”36 Ozick’s 1987 novel
The Messiah of
,37 set in Sweden, merges the issues of this essay: Jewish
identity, the Holocaust, and Idolatry. Daringly conceived and
written, the-novel deals with how non-witnesses can authenti­
cally confront the
In the process, Ozick reveals the dif­
ference between historical event and literary invention.
Like the Jacob story of old, there are deceptions, and identity
changes. Plagiarisms and self-inventions compete with the cov­
enantal norm of ethical integrity. Lars Ademening (“spirit
meaning”) orphaned during the Holocaust, is spirited out of
Poland and raised by a reluctant relative. Although a father
himself, the twice divorced Lars is described as having the face
of a fetus. Lars’ name is itself significant. Elsewhere, Ozick writes
that “Spirit — or Imagination, which means Image-making,
37. Cynthia Ozick,
The Messiah o f Stockholm
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987).