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Rosa

Rosa (roses; family Rosaceae) A genus of prickly, often scrambling shrubs that normally have pinnate leaves with stipules. The flowers have usually 5 sepals and petals, and numerous free stamens and free carpels, but the carpels sit in a deep cup formed by the calyx tube which becomes fleshy in the fruit, forming the rose hip, a valuable source of vitamin C. It is probably the most widely cultivated ornamental flowering plant. Many species and complex hybrid forms are cultivated for their showy, often fragrant flowers, which range in colour from white, yellow, and red, to a lilac-blue. The separation of the 7 chromosome sets in the formation of gametes is uniquely complex and may be a factor in producing their taxonomic diversity. There are about 100 species, found in the northern temperate zone, with subtropical outliers, but the genus contains many critical taxa (see TAXON) whose specific status is uncertain.

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roses

roses used to refer to favourable circumstances or ease of success.
roses, roses, all the way very successful or pleasant; quoting the first line of Robert Browning's Patriot (1855), describing the literal throwing of roses at a popular hero as he passed through the streets.

See also a bed of roses, rose.

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Rosa

Rosa (ˈrəʊzə) Computing recognition of open systems achievement

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Rosa

Rosabowser, browser, carouser, dowser, espouser, Mauser, rouser, trouser, wowser •rabble-rouser •composer, discloser, dozer, exposer, Mendoza, mimosa, opposer, ponderosa, poser, proposer, proser, Rosa, Somoza, Spinoza •bulldozer • Tannhäuser •abuser, accuser, boozer, bruiser, chooser, cruiser, diffuser, infuser, lollapalooza, loser, Marcuse, medusa, mezuzah, misuser, peruser, refuser, snoozer, Sousa, user, yakuza •battlecruiser • buzzer

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Rosa

ROSA

Short Story by Cynthia Ozick, 1983

Cynthia Ozick's "Rosa" (1983) picks up the narrative of "The Shawl" approximately 30 years later. Both stories have been published together under the title The Shawl (1989). Stylistically "Rosa" represents a marked divergence from the earlier text. Whereas "The Shawl" is a compact, largely impressionistic description of a single traumatic experience, "Rosa" is a straightforward narrative that gradually builds to its denouement. "Rosa" is also written in the comic mode that recalls much of Ozick's other fiction. This stylistic distinction reinforces the ontological distinction between the stories' environments: the first takes place in a concentration camp, the second in Miami. By choosing an indirect, figurative style for the first story and a more direct, narrative style for the second, Ozick implies that different representational modes are necessary to describe experiences during the Holocaust and after.

"Rosa" centers on the character of Rosa Lublin, a concentration camp survivor who was forced to observe the murder of her infant daughter. Rosa is now a "madwoman and a scavenger" living in a community of retired Jews in Miami, where she has recently moved after smashing up her antique store in New York. Contemptuous of the Yiddish-speaking old socialists and idealists that surround her, she spends her days as a recluse. Her one pastime involves writing letters in "the most excellent literary Polish" to an imaginary correspondent: her daughter Magda, who was killed as an infant by the Nazis. Rosa variously imagines Magda as a professor of Greek history at Columbia, as a successful doctor living in the suburbs, or as an unblemished girl at 16. She also eagerly awaits a package from her niece Stella containing Magda's shawl, a token from the past Rosa has come to worship (according to Stella) like a religious relic. But Rosa's world of fantasy, in which she seems willfully to have enclosed herself, is an insufficient bulwark against all intruders. During a visit to the laundromat, she is approached by Persky, a flirtatious older man who is determined to bring Rosa back to the world of the living.

Rosa and Persky represent radically divergent forms of Jewish identity. She epitomizes the European Jew who worships the symbols of Western high culture while reviling anything that smacks of old-world Jewishness. She proudly recalls that her father did not have "a particle of ghetto left in him, not a grain of rot." As for Persky, he reads a Yiddish newspaper and playfully jabs at Rosa like a Borscht Belt comic. Having imagined herself "a future Marie Curie," Rosa is humiliated to find herself in America where she is routinely associated with unspectacular Jewish immigrants like Persky. When Persky points out that they are both from Warsaw, Rosa is quick to correct him: "My Warsaw is not your Warsaw." Her lofty self-conception leaves no room for his heymish, or old-world Jewishness.

The story develops into a quest narrative. Rosa realizes that a pair of underwear is missing from her laundry bag and, convinced that she has been robbed (perhaps by Persky), she searches for them along Miami's beachfront. Her futile quest for a lost object represents her own existential situation. Accordingly the gates around private beaches appear to her as barbed wire. Stumbling upon gay lovers in the sand and wandering through a palatial hotel, Rosa imagines she is stuck in Sodom. The turning point in the story occurs when she discovers, the next day in her apartment, her missing underwear curled inside a towel. After this discovery her first act is to reconnect her telephone, a gesture that signals a triumph (at least for the time being) over her self-imposed exile from the world. It seems she has glimpsed the folly at the root of her paranoia. Even Magda's shawl, which arrives and prompts one last epistolary outburst, begins to dim in significance. "And Magda! Already she was turning away." When the phone rings announcing a visit from Persky, Rosa decides to welcome him in.

Thus, according to one reading, "Rosa" stages the return to human relations of a woman who has become trapped in her own mourning. But while Persky's generous sociability might seem the antidote to Rosa's despair and cultural elitism, the story resists simply casting Rosa as victim and Persky as savior. Persky, it turns out, has a wife in a mental hospital, which, as he callously relates, "don't cost me peanuts." He also tells Rosa about her own situation that "sometimes a little forgetting is necessary." In her fidelity to the past, Rosa represents a witness, a bearer of historical memory in a world of amnesiacs. Her imaginative re-creation of Magda is a triumph as well as a delusion, and the story's conclusion is tentative enough to imply that Rosa has not completely abandoned her commitment to Magda and the lost world she represents.

—Julian Levinson

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Rosa

Rosa

Cynthia Ozick
1983

Introduction
Author Biography
Plot Summary
Characters
Themes
Style
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Criticism
Sources
Further Reading

Introduction

"Rosa" by Cynthia Ozick was first published in the New Yorker in 1983. However, its protagonist, Rosa Lublin, was introduced three years earlier in "The Shawl," a much shorter story also published in the New Yorker. The two stories were re-released together as a book in 1989 entitled The Shawl. "Rosa" also appeared in the anthology Prize Stories 1984, a collection of O. Henry Prize winners.

While "The Shawl" tells the painful story of how Rosa's infant daughter is brutally killed by a Nazi guard in a concentration camp, "Rosa" revisits the protagonist 30 years later, who is still devastated by her daughter's death. Living a meager, isolated existence in a "hotel" for the elderly, financed by Stella her resentful niece, Rosa is unable to let go of her daughter and the past.

"Rosa" dramatizes the lasting impact of the Holocaust on a unique, complex character who is not entirely sympathetic. While obviously the far-reaching effects of the Holocaust is a major theme in this story, Ozick also deals with themes of alienation and denial and explores how American culture devalues and isolates the elderly.

Author Biography

Cynthia Ozick was born April 17, 1928, in New York City, the second child of Russian immigrants William and Celia Ozick. Her parents owned and operated a drugstore in the Bronx, where Cynthia worked delivering prescriptions. Her father was a Jewish scholar, and her uncle was a well-respected Hebrew poet who first introduced her to the world of literature.

During her early school years in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx, Cynthia endured anti-Semitic attacks and slurs, especially when she refused to sing Christmas carols with the rest of her class. She escaped into reading, getting books from her older brother and from a traveling library that came by her parents' drugstore. Her school life took a more positive turn when she entered Hunter College High School in Manhattan, where Ozick's academic excellence was more appreciated. After high school, she went on to graduate cum laude from New York University in 1949. She then earned a master's degree from Ohio State University, writing her master's thesis on the works of Henry James, a writer who influences her own work.

In 1952 Ozick married lawyer Bernard Hallote and worked briefly for Filene's Department Store as an advertising copywriter. In 1966, the year after Ozick gave birth to her daughter Rachel, Ozick's first novel, Trust, was published to positive reviews. Ozick followed Trust with three collections of short fiction: The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories, Bloodshed and Three Novellas, and Levitation: Five Fictions, which were all critically acclaimed, firmly establishing Ozick as an important voice in contemporary literature.

In 1983 Ozick published both her second novel, The Cannibal Galaxy and a collection of essays entitled Art and Ardor. In that same year, "Rosa" appeared in The New Yorker, winning an O. Henry Prize for short fiction. Subsequently, she published three more novels—The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), The Puttermesser Papers (1997), and Heir to the Glimmering World (2004)—as well as three collections of essays: Metaphor and Memory (1989), Fame and Folly (1996), and Quarrel and Quandary (2000). The Shawl, a book composed of the two short stories "The Shawl" and "Rosa," was released in 1989.

Over her career Cynthia Ozick's work has been awarded numerous honors, including the O. Henry Prize for short fiction (in 1975, 1981, 1984, and 1992), a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship (1968), the American Academy of Arts Award for literature (1973), and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1982). Much of her fiction centers on Jewish culture and issues, and she has received awards from many Jewish literary organizations. In 1972 she was awarded the B'nai Brith Jewish Heritage Award; in 1977, National Jewish Book Award for fiction; in 1984, the Distinguished Service in Jewish Letters Award.

Plot Summary

The story "Rosa" is set in 1977, the same year in which it was written. "Rosa" is written in the third person limited point of view, but the reader is allowed only Rosa's viewpoint on events; letters in the story are, of course, written in first person. Because Rosa's mental state is unstable, her perceptions are not always the most reliable.

Cynthia Ozick begins "Rosa" by describing the current state of Rosa Lublin's meager existence. Having destroyed her own antique shop in New York City ("It was a mad thing to do") Rosa is now living in a shabby "hotel" for the elderly in Miami, Florida. Her resentful and critical niece Stella, still living in New York, supports her. Rosa sees no one, goes out only when absolutely necessary, and barely eats enough to stay alive. She spends most of her time composing letters to her daughter Magda, who was killed as an infant by a Nazi guard in a concentration camp, 35 years ago.

As the story begins, Rosa reluctantly sets off to the laundromat ("After a while, Rosa had no choice"). While watching her clothes swirl about in the washer, she is approached by the flirtatious older man, Simon Persky. Like Rosa, he is from Warsaw, Poland, but Rosa is quick to tell him, "My Warsaw isn't your Warsaw." Undeterred, Persky helps her fold her laundry and insists on taking her to a diner for a hot cup of tea and a Danish. There he tells her that he is a retired businessman who once owned a button factory and that his wife is in a mental institution. Rosa tells him how she destroyed her antique shop, "Part with a big hammer … part with a piece of construction metal I picked up from the gutter." When Perksy encourages her to tell more about her life, she gets up to go. She says she has no life, because "Thieves took it."

When Rosa arrives back at her hotel, a package and two letters are waiting for her. The first letter is from Stella, who writes to tell Rosa that she has sent her Magda's shawl in a separate package. The tattered shawl in which Rosa swaddled baby Magda is all that she has left of her daughter, and now she treats it as a sacred relic. Stella's letter describes with disdain how Rosa worships the shawl: "You'll open the box and take it out and cry, and you'll kiss it like a crazy person." Assuming the package she has received contains the shawl, she begins to tidy up her room in preparation: "Everything had to be nice when the box was opened."

Before reading the second letter, Rosa inventories her laundry and discovers she is missing one pair of underpants. At first, she is ashamed of her own carelessness: "Degrading. Lost bloomers—dropped God knows where." Then she latches onto the idea that Persky picked up the underwear but was too embarrassed to hand them to her. Finally, she decides that Persky has stolen them.

After reaching this questionable conclusion, Rosa opens the second letter, which is from Dr. James Tree, a university researcher who is conducting a study on repressed animation in Holocaust survivors. It is not the first such letter Rosa has received. The impersonal, clinical tone outrages her, so she lights a match and burns the letter.

Next, Rosa writes her own letter, a long letter in Polish to her daughter Magda. Rosa has invented an entire life for her daughter, whom she now imagines to be a professor of Greek philosophy at Columbia University. In the letter she tells Magda that her niece Stella suffers from dementia, and to humor her, Rosa agrees that Magda is dead. Rosa writes that Stella believes Magda's father was a Nazi who forced himself on her, but Rosa insists Magda's father was the son of a family friend, to whom Rosa was engaged. "No lies come out of me to you," she writes.

Rosa finishes the letter to Magda and then prepares herself to open the box containing Magda's shawl. She puts on a nice dress, fixes her hair, even puts on some lipstick, but then when she sits down on the bed to open the box, she is lost in a reverie of concentration camp memories. After hours spent reliving past horrors, she finally leaves her room in search of her lost underpants.

Rosa wanders Miami at night, looking for her underwear in a host of unlikely places: on the street, at a newsstand, and then finally, at the beach. She goes through a gate and onto the private beach of a fancy hotel, where she stumbles upon two men having sex. She tries to leave the beach, but she is locked in, a trespasser. She reacts to the barbed wire fence surrounding the beach. Desperate, she asks the men for help, but they laugh at her. Finally, she escapes by making her way through the hotel kitchen. Once in the lobby, she demands to see the manager, whom she chastises for the barbed wire on the fence. When the manager asks her to leave and not disturb "important guests" who are visiting the hotel, Rosa leaps to the conclusion that Dr. James Tree is staying at the hotel: "I see you got Tree! You got a whole bunch of Trees!"

When Rosa returns to her hotel, she discovers Simon Persky there, waiting for her. He invites himself up to her room for a cup of tea. During their conversation, Persky asks if Rosa lost her family in the Holocaust. Rosa says there are just three left: Rosa herself, Stella, and one more. She offers him the box with Magda's shawl as "evidence." But the box contains not the shawl, but the study on repressed animation sent by the persistent Dr. Tree. Enraged, Rosa hurls the book at the ceiling. Persky leaves, promising to return the next day.

The next day Rosa receives the package containing the shawl and takes it up to her room. When she handles the shawl, a vision of her daughter at sixteen springs to life. Rosa picks up her pen and writes another letter to Magda. But when the phone rings with a call from Simon Persky, the vision vanishes.

Characters

Finkelstein

Finkelstein is the manager of the Hotel Marie Louise. Rosa is trapped on the hotel's private beach when she inadvertently trespasses. After she escapes, she rages at Finkelstein for having barbed wire around the perimeter of the hotel beach.

Rosa Lublin

The title character of the story, Rosa Lublin—who reflexively gives her name as Lublin, Rosa—is a 58-year-old Holocaust survivor now living in Miami, Florida. Rosa lost her only child, a baby daughter named Magda, when a Nazi guard threw the baby against an electrified fence. Rosa's life stopped at this moment; she tells Simon Persky: "Before is a dream. After is a joke. Only during stays." For Rosa, the Holocaust has never really ended.

Rosa is full of contradictions. She is Jewish and yet anti-Semitic; she has contempt for Persky yet fixes her hair and worries about a hole in her dress while she is with him. She finds her lost underpants rolled in a towel but tells her niece Stella, "A man stole my underwear." She seems determined to live as little as possible. Repeatedly, when she is told to get on with her life, she replies, "Thieves took it."

It becomes clear as the story progresses that Rosa is mentally unstable, especially during the nighttime search for her lost underwear. Her musings on their whereabouts progress from questionable to absurd, for example, when she concludes that the underwear "thief" may have buried them on the beach.

Magda

Though Rosa's daughter has been dead for more than 30 years when this story takes place, Magda figures as an important character in the story because to Rosa, she is still very much alive. Rosa writes her long letters telling of her life before the Holocaust and describing life in the Warsaw ghetto. When Rosa embraces the shawl that once held baby Magda, a vision of Magda springs to life before her.

Through Rosa's letters Stella suspects Magda was fathered by a Nazi who forced himself on Rosa. Though Rosa denies this vehemently in her letter to Magda, later when she is gazing upon the vision of Magda, the reader learns, "she was always a little suspicious of Magda, because of that other strain, whatever it was, that ran in her." In "The Shawl," the story that precedes "Rosa," Stella has a different word for it: "Aryan." When writing Magda, Rosa uses endearments such as "my yellow lioness," "yellow blossom," and "yellow flower." The yellow suggests the yellow Star of David, which Nazis forced Jews to wear on their clothing. The name, Magda, suggests Mary Magdalen (the reformed prostitute Jesus healed of evil spirits [Luke 8:2]), and it also suggests magdalen, which is a reformatory for wayward women or prostitutes. In her name, baby Magda may embody Rosa's memory of the traumatic rape by a Nazi.

Simon Persky

Simon Persky is a flirtatious, 71-year-old man who "picks up" Rosa at the laundromat. Though he has had his share of tragedy—his wife now lives in a mental institution—his philosophy of life seems to be the antithesis of Rosa's: he is determined to enjoy the moment and help Rosa do the same. Persky is undeterred by Rosa's strange outbursts—"If there's one thing I know to understand, it's mental episodes," he says—and persistently chips away at her defenses.

Persky is a well-off retired businessman who once owned a factory that manufactured buttons and other notions. Button metaphors recur in the story. For instance, when Persky offers to take Rosa to a library to get some books, Rosa is touched: "He almost understood what she was: no ordinary button."

Stella

Stella is Rosa's niece living in New York, who supports Rosa financially (repeatedly reminding her, "I'm not a millionaire"). Stella was in the concentration camp with Rosa and her baby daughter when the baby was killed. It is obvious that Rosa resents Stella for having survived: "Stella was alive, why not Magda?"

Unlike Rosa, Stella is determined to leave her Holocaust experience in the past. About Stella, Rosa writes in one of her letters to Magda: "Every vestige of former existence is an insult to her." Stella finds Rosa's obsession with Magda and her shawl exasperating and will only let her have the shawl periodically. In her exchanges with Rosa, Stella is not only impatient but cold and unfeeling. Rosa refers to her as the "Angel of Death," to whom she attributes almost every negative experience of her life: "It comes from Stella, everything!"

Despite Stella's attempts to deny the past, there are signs that she is not succeeding. Now 49, Stella is still searching for a husband, taking night classes in hopes of finding a man to marry. As Rosa writes to Magda, "Because [Stella] fears the past, she distrusts the future … as a result she has nothing."

Dr. James Tree

Dr. Tree is a university researcher and Ph.D. who is conducting a study on the metaphysical aspects of "Repressed Animation" in Holocaust survivors. He contacts Rosa requesting that she meet with him at her home as part of his research: "I should like to observe survivor syndroming within the natural setting."

The language Dr. Tree uses in his letters to Rosa is impersonal and clinical. Earnestly oblivious to his own insensitivity, he even sends Rosa a copy of a study on repressed animation, with the recommendation: "Of special interest, perhaps, is Chapter Six, entitled 'Defensive Group Formation: The Way of the Baboons.'" He sees her not as a human being, but as a curiosity to be examined, a specimen, a supposedly lower form of life.

To Rosa Dr. Tree becomes the enemy, the symbolic representative of all the people who cannot—or will not—understand what she has been through, extending her oppression and leaving her alienated and isolated.

Themes

The Holocaust

"Rosa" gives a dramatic example of how the Holocaust not only took the lives of the millions of Jews who died in concentration camps, but also emotionally crippled millions of others who survived. While Rosa and Stella survived the camp physically, both are disabled emotionally, though they deal with it in very different ways. Rosa refuses to move on; Stella refuses to look back. Rosa tells Persky that Stella "wants to wipe out memory."

Conflict in approaches to dealing with the Holocaust has given rise to an important debate in the years since World War II (1939–1945). An extremist movement calling its members "Holocaust revisionists" claims that the annihilation of Jews in Nazi concentration camps either never happened at all or was vastly exaggerated. Denounced by historians, these "revisionists" have nonetheless made themselves heard, attempting, like Stella, to "wipe out memory."

Alienation

Rosa lives in almost complete isolation, partly because of her own efforts. Though she is supremely articulate in her native Polish, her English is still halting and broken, even after more than 30 years in the United States. "Why should I learn English?" she asks Persky. "I didn't ask for it, I got nothing to do with it." Through her own brand of anti-Semitism, she alienates herself from her own people, even those who have suffered the same tragedies. In a letter to Magda, she writes, "imagine confining us with teeming Mockowiczes and Rabinowiczes and Perksys and Finkelsteins, with all their bad-smelling grandfathers and their hordes of feeble children!" Finally, through her own mental illness, living in her fantasy world with visions of Magda, she further distances herself from reality and others.

Rosa's alienation is not entirely her own doing, however. In New York, she attempted to reach out to customers of her antique shop, to tell her story, but no one listened. "Whoever came, they were like deaf people," she says. Also, the impersonal university letters from Dr. Tree epitomize the kind of insensitivity that has convinced Rosa no one will ever understand.

Treatment of the Elderly in America

Like Rosa, the other elderly residents of the Miami hotel are isolated, shut off from their families and their former lives: "Everyone had left behind a real life. Here they had nothing." In letters they read "rumors of their grandchildren," but it all seems unreal. Rosa's visions of Magda are more substantial than the connection many of the residents experience with their living family members. These people are essentially forgotten.

This is all too typical of American attitudes toward the elderly; while other cultures value and revere the elderly, Americans tend to view them as burdens who have outlived their usefulness. One way or another, the younger people featured in the story are all fenced off from the elderly. The Cuban receptionist, for instance, works in a cage; the gay men on the beach are enclosed by a barbed-wire fence.

Idolatry

Idolatry, the worship of something or someone other than God, is a recurrent theme in Cynthia Ozick's work. Though Rosa writes in a letter to Magda, "I don't believe in God," she worships Magda's shawl with all the fervor and ritual of religion, giving it the status of a relic like medieval Christians did objects associated with the life of Jesus. As Stella writes her, "You're like those people in the Middle Ages who worshiped a piece of the True Cross." Rosa makes special preparations for the opening of the box, putting on a nice dress, fixing her hair, tidying her room. Once opened and taken from the box, the shawl has the power to bring the dead back to life, conjuring the vision of Magda at age sixteen. In "The Shawl," the story which precedes "Rosa," baby Magda is somehow sustained by sucking on the shawl, even though Rosa is no longer capable of nursing her.

Sex and Shame

Rosa tells Magda in one of her letters, "I was forced by a German, it's true, and more than once." Though she denies that Magda is the result, late in the story when Magda's vision begins to fade, Rosa implores her, "Magda, my beloved, don't be ashamed! Butterfly, I am not ashamed of your presence."

When Rosa imagines that Persky has picked up her lost underpants, her first thought is one of disproportionate humiliation: "Oh, degrading. The shame. Pain in the loins. Burning." Later she wanders Miami at night in a futile search for the lost underwear, and her lost innocence. When Persky asks her what she lost, what she is looking for, she replies, "My life."

Style

Setting

The setting of Miami, Florida, figures prominently in this story. The incessant heat and humidity add to Rosa's suffering and make her even more reluctant to leave her room. "Where I put myself is in hell," Rosa writes to Stella early in the story. The frequent mentions of the intense, suffocating heat confirm this impression. The heat is described as "cooked honey dumped on their heads," and "burning molasses air"; the sun is "a murdering sunball." When Rosa burns the letter from Dr. Tree, she thinks, "The world is full of fire! Everything, everything is on fire! Florida is burning!"

Topics For Further Study

  • In interviews, Cynthia Ozick has said that in principle, she is against making fiction out of the Holocaust, but felt compelled to write "The Shawl" and "Rosa." What might be the dangers of using the Holocaust or other historical events as a basis for fiction? What positive results might come from this fiction? Write about the pros and cons of creating art from history.
  • The five stages of grief, as identified by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, are denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In which of these stages is Rosa living? Can you find signs of the other stages throughout the story? Does she progress or regress through the process as the story continues?
  • Rosa experiences "mental episodes," as Persky would call them, throughout the story. What events trigger these episodes and why? How does her fragile mental condition affect her ability to cope with her loss? Do some research on post-traumatic shock syndrome and then write an essay in which you explain its relevance to Rosa's mental state and those events that exacerbate it.
  • A recurring theme in Ozick's work is idolatry, the worship of someone or something other than God. Rosa's idol is Magda's shawl. How did Hitler use idolatry to create the Holocaust? Can you find other examples of idols in society in the early 2000s?

In Florida, Rosa is surrounded almost entirely by other elderly people whose productive lives, like hers, are in the past. In the mirrors in the lobby, the elderly hotel guests see themselves as they used to be, not as they are now; they are arrested in time, just as Rosa's life remains centered on the moment of her daughter's death.

Metaphor

Metaphor is a technique which conveys a description of one thing in terms of another. Buttons, for instance, are a recurring metaphor in Ozick's story. Simon Persky tells Rosa he once owned a button factory. Later, Rosa reflects on how trivial Persky's life seems to her, "himself no more significant than a button." Then she extends this metaphor to the city's entire population: "All of Miami Beach, a box for useless buttons!" When Rosa flies into a rage after opening the package from Dr. Tree, she yells at Persky, "I'm not your button, Persky! I'm nobody's button." And finally, when the vision of Magda appears wearing a dress Rosa herself wore as a teenager, the buttons are so beautiful that "Persky could never have been acquainted with buttons like that." Attached to cloth, buttons function as fasteners, creating connection, holding separate parts together; collected in a box, buttons are useless, meaningless. Buttons become a metaphor for these elderly people, collected in Florida, but detached and without function or purpose.

Mirrors constitute another recurring metaphor in "Rosa." Rosa's antique shop, for instance, specialized in old mirrors, perfect for a character who spends her life gazing into the past. The mirrors in the lobby of Rosa's hotel reflect the past as well, showing the elderly guests what they want to see and nothing more.

Point of View

"Rosa" is written in third-person subjective point of view, which means the reader has access to Rosa's internal thoughts and feelings, but not those of others. Because Ozick moves from ordinary narration right into Rosa's thoughts without any distinguishing punctuation, readers get the feeling they are constantly inside Rosa's head. This feeling becomes especially important during Rosa's moments of dementia, blurring the line between what is imagined and what is real.

Though the bulk of the story is told in the third person point of view, much of what we learn about Rosa's background, and also about Stella, we learn from the long letters Rosa writes to Magda, which are of course written in the first person. There is a sharp contrast between the way Rosa writes and the way she speaks, because she writes in her native Polish. Letter-writing Rosa is articulate and well-educated; Rosa's spoken English, however, "ain't no better than what any other refugee talks," as Persky says.

Unlike the usual prose written in the first person, the style of a letter is dictated in part by the recipient. Rosa's letters to Magda are rife with endearments, rhapsodic in their description of Warsaw and her former life, and somewhat arrogant. She expresses her opinions and views openly and lies boldly because she knows there is no real reader to contradict or chastise her. She can ignore reality and paint a picture of life as she wishes it to be.

On the other hand, Stella's two short letters to Rosa are caustic and critical, revealing the resentment she feels towards Rosa. She knows that though Rosa saved her life, Rosa would much prefer it if Stella had been the one to die, rather than Magda. She is jealous of the shawl, as if it were Magda herself. This is implied in her description of Rosa's ritual of worshiping the shawl ("What a scene, disgusting!") and also by her withholding the shawl, only allowing Rosa to have it periodically.

Finally, the letters written by Dr. Tree, in their highly clinical, emotionless language, portray him as unfeeling and arrogant. His repetitive use of the term "survivor," a label that could be attached to any living thing, plant or animal, reveals his attitude towards the recipient of his letter. Rosa notes this immediately when she reads it: "Survivor. Even when your bones get melted into the grains of the earth, still they'll forget human being."

Irony

Irony appears in "Rosa" on many levels; some almost humorous, some tragic. First there is the irony that Rosa has survived the Holocaust and the camps only to be "confined" in Miami with many of the same people for whom she had so much contempt in her earlier life. She is confronted again by barbed wire and by a scientist who wishes her to consent to an "experiment," just as many Holocaust victims were used as experimental subjects.

Dr. Tree's letters ironically speak of "Repressed Animation," written by a man who has clearly repressed any human feeling or compassion towards the people he studies. He writes in the service of science, but he is unable to recognize the way he objectifies the subjects of his research. To further drive home the message that he sees Rosa on the level of any other laboratory animal, he refers her to a study entitled, "Defensive Group Formation: The Way of the Baboons."

Compare & Contrast

  • Early 1940s: Central and eastern Europe is the largest center of the world's Jewish population by the start of World War II (1939–1940), with an estimated 9.5 million of the world's 16.7 million Jews (following historical shifts from Palestine to Babylon in ancient times, then to Spain in the eleventh century until the Inquisition, when the center began shifting to central and eastern Europe).

    Late 1970s: With about two-thirds of Europe's Jewish population wiped out by the Nazis during World War II and the Holocaust, the center of Jewish population has shifted to the United States and Israel. An estimated 5.7 million Jews live in the United States, and 3.2 million in Israel.

    Today: In 2000, the world's Jewish population is estimated at 13.2 million, of which only 1,583,000, or twelve percent, live in Europe. Most Jews live either in the United States or Israel. In most recent years, the worldwide Jewish population has risen slightly but still remains at a statistical zero-population growth.
  • Early 1940s: The legal rights, property, homes, businesses, social freedoms, indeed all aspects of human community life for Jewish citizens is systemically taken away by the Nazi government (in Germany itself and in Nazi-occupied European states from France in the West to occupied Russia in the East) without legal or political opposition. The depth of this political powerlessness is ultimately expressed by the Holocaust, the government-sanctioned and -operated extermination of some 6 million European Jews, along with millions of others, such as Christian sympathizers, political dissenters, homosexuals, and physically or mentally handicapped persons.

    Late 1970s: The state of Israel, in the three decades since its founding as a sovereign nation by Jewish nationalists in 1948, has ascended to become a regional power through factors including the following: its powerful modern economy, its defeat of neighboring Arab countries in armed conflicts in 1967 and 1973, its strong economic and political alliances with the United States government and private constituencies, and its possession of nuclear weapons.

    1990s: The 1990s have seen a resurgence of Nazi ideology. Neo-Nazis uphold such beliefs as anti-Semitism and a hatred of foreigners. Neo-Nazi doctrine tends to draw young people in countries around the world to participate in these hate groups.
  • Early 1940s: From 1943 to 1945 at the Auschwitz death camp, Dr. Josef Mengele performs hundreds of gruesome medical experiments on the camp's inmates. Ostensibly the goal of these experiments is genetic research aimed at creating a super-race of defect-free Aryans for the Reich. In truth, there is no scientific value to Mengele's experiments; using the pretext of science, they are in fact extraordinary instances of individual and group sadistic torture, mutilation, and murder. Operations are routinely performed without anesthesia, including amputations and transplants.

    Late 1970s: In November 1977, in Great Britain, the first successful in vitro fertilization is performed on Lesley Brown, a woman formerly unable to conceive due to blockage of her fallopian tubes. After months of careful monitoring, Brown delivers a healthy baby girl on July 25, 1978. The birth of Louise Brown not only gives hope to thousands of infertile couples, it also raises a host of questions regarding the ethical and moral implications of creating life in the laboratory. Issues such as surrogate mothers, the morality of discarding some embryos in favor of others, the possibility of sex selection and genetic engineering are all hotly debated long before the baby is even born.

    Today: In the early 2000s, in vitro fertilization is a fairly commonplace procedure that helps infertile couples worldwide.

Finally, though Stella clearly resents supporting Rosa and tries to keep all contact with her as brief as possible, she guarantees continued and regular contact by keeping Magda's shawl. She knows that as long as she keeps it, she and Rosa are connected by a bond much greater than the financial support she provides.

Historical Context

Cynthia Ozick's "Rosa" first appeared in the New Yorker in 1983. In 1979, a group calling itself the Institute for Historical Review (IHR) was founded by Willis Carto. Carto had also founded Liberty lobby, an anti-Jewish propaganda organization. Members of the IHR call themselves Holocaust revisionists. They claim that the Holocaust either never happened or has been greatly exaggerated by the Jewish people. The IHR and its claims have been denounced by historians, who cite the vast volume of documentation seized from the Nazis themselves, as well as firsthand accounts from survivors. Indeed, the Holocaust is one of the best documented events in history.

The establishment of the IHR occurred, ironically, just two years after the establishment of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human-rights organization dedicated to apprehending Nazi war criminals and keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive. In 1981 the center produced an Academy Award-winning documentary about the Holocaust entitled Genocide.

"The Shawl" and "Rosa" deal with the pivotal event of Rosa Lublin's life, the death of her infant daughter, who was thrown against an electrified fence by a Nazi guard. This brutal killing was drawn from an actual event Ozick read of in William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Critical Overview

Since she published her first novel in 1966, Cynthia Ozick has garnered substantial critical acclaim for both her fiction and her essays. Many critics acknowledge that she is a gifted writer, and one of the most important voices in contemporary literature. John Sutherland, in the October 8, 2000, New York Times Book Review, calls her "the most accomplished and graceful literary stylist of our time."

Some critics believe, however, that Ozick's penchant for displaying her own prowess with words interferes with her message. Accusing her of "Parading her erudition like a peacock," Ilan Stavans, in the July 16, 1999 issue of Times Literary Supplement, notes that while Ozick's words are meticulously chosen, "their splendour can also get in her way, obstructing the plot, making it morose, dispensable." Bruce Bawer, in the Wall Street Journal, also mentions that Ozick can be "too preoccupied with intellectual matters for [her] own good,—or, to be specific, for the good of [her] fiction."

Whatever negative criticism Ozick has received, very little of it has been attached to the two stories featuring Rosa Lublin, "The Shawl" and "Rosa." Each story won an O. Henry Prize for short fiction when it was first published in the New Yorker (in 1980 and 1983 respectively). In his The Wall Street Journal review of the book The Shawl (which combines both stories in one volume), Bruce Bawer writes, "Ms. Ozick succeeds stunningly in bringing this tragic, demented woman to life." Critics were especially impressed by Ozick's sensitive handling of the difficult subject matter. Irving Halperin, in Commonweal, writes, "In a time when the memory of the Holocaust is being trivialized by slick fiction, talk shows, and TV 'documentaries' … Ms. Ozick's volume is a particularly welcome achievement of the moral imagination." Francine Prose in the September 10, 1989 New York Times Book Review says that Ozick "pulls off the rare trick of making art out of what we would rather not see."

Overall, these two stories featuring Rosa Lublin are considered some of Ozick's finest work. Both are often included as required reading for students studying the Holocaust.

Criticism

Laura Pryor

Pryor has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Michigan and twenty years experience in professional and creative writing with special interest in fiction. In this essay, Pryor examines how the current life of the title character in "Rosa" mirrors her past Holocaust experience and the disparate methods the characters use to cope with that experience.

How does one deal with the Holocaust and its memory? This is the question that "Rosa" brings to mind, but does not necessarily answer. Rosa Lublin's niece Stella theorizes that there are three lives: before the Holocaust, during, and after. Rosa claims: "Before is a dream. After is a joke. Only during stays." Rosa's answer to dealing with the Holocaust is to carry it with her every day, to deny that there is a life after by living only in the past.

In fact, in moving to Miami Beach, Rosa has returned to a confined camp of sorts. Where the Warsaw ghetto segregated and confined Jews, Miami Beach confines the elderly. The few younger people Rosa encounters are segregated from the elderly by fences: the gay men at the beach, the receptionist in her "cage." Even the description of the elderly as "scarecrows, blown about under the murdering sunball with empty rib cages" brings to mind images of emaciated concentration camp prisoners.

The words and images Ozick uses to describe Miami Beach depict a place just this side of hell. The heat and humidity are oppressive, thick, and suffocating; the air is "molasses," the streets are a "furnace," the sun is "an executioner," bringing to mind more images of Holocaust atrocities. The heat serves to further confine Rosa in her dismal, grimy room, which she shares with "squads of dying flies." In coming to Miami, Rosa has moved back into the worst of her past.

As Rosa lives in the past, clinging to her memories of Magda, there are signs that she would actually like to move on but has no idea how to do it. First, there is the simple fact that she continues to live, however marginally. Second, it seems that she realizes her mistake in coming to Miami; she writes her niece, "Where I put myself is in hell," and she later suggests naively to Stella that she could return to New York and re-open her store. Finally, her attempts to get rid of the optimistic Persky seem half-hearted, and when she is with him she worries about her hair, her missing button, the fact that she is not wearing her nice shoes. Though these signs indicate some willingness to move forward, her isolation and misery have become such an ingrained way of life that she is not even fully aware of other options. When Persky comes into her dingy room and sets her table to eat the crullers he has brought, "to Rosa this made the corner of the room look new, as though she had never seen it before."

The incident on the private hotel beach gives Rosa a chance to rewrite her own history in some small way. When she is trapped on the beach behind barbed wire, she is forced to relive the past not just in her mind, but in reality. She pleads with the men on the beach to let her out, but they refuse. They are her persecutors, her jailers. This time, however, she makes her own escape, finding her way through the hotel kitchens and into the Eden-like lobby. After telling off the hotel manager, she marches out of the lobby, "Irradiated, triumphant, cleansed." When she returns to the hotel, Persky is waiting for her; the next morning, she requests that her phone be reconnected. She has taken one tentative step into the future. Even Magda seems to know that something is different: when Rosa opens the box containing Magda's shawl, this time, "For some reason it did not instantly restore Magda." In fact, when Rosa first looks at the shawl, she is "indifferent." For the first time, she is seeing the shawl for what it really is, "a colorless cloth."

The ever-patient Persky seems ideally suited to lead Rosa from the confinement of her own misery. She has a button missing; he is a manufacturer of buttons. She barely eats enough to stay alive; in both of their meetings he buys her food. As Rosa comes to realize, "he almost understood what she was: no ordinary button." Between the extremes of living in the past and denying it, Persky takes the middle road. Unlike Stella, he is sympathetic to Rosa's anguish, though he advises, "Sometimes a little forgetting is necessary."

Cynthia Ozick has made the emotional anguish of Holocaust survivors immediate and real by making Rosa a flawed, not entirely sympathetic character. Rosa is both an intellectual snob and an anti-Semite, despite all that she has suffered at the hands of anti-Semitism. It is exactly because she is not heroic or noble that the reader can relate intimately to her suffering. Her experiences are made even more immediate by Ozick's technique of shifting from narrative to Rosa's thoughts without punctuation. What is actually true and what is the product of Rosa's unstable mind? The lines are blurred.

While Rosa has lived the last 35 years in the past, Stella has spent the last 35 years trying to ignore it. Though Rosa describes her as pretty, Stella has been unable to find "the one thing she wanted more than anything: an American husband." Ozick does not reveal what Stella does for a living, though her constant reminders to Rosa that she is not a millionaire would indicate a lack of success in this area as well. As Rosa asks aloud to Stella's letter, "And you, Stella, you have a life?" It would appear that Stella's methods of dealing with her war-time experience have been as ineffective as Rosa's. In fact, by trying to blend in with other Americans and hide her own past, Stella does not even have her own heritage to rely on and draw strength from.

Like Rosa and Stella, other people have their own difficulties in dealing with the Holocaust. If Rosa is representative of one extreme (remembering to the point of obsession) and Stella represents the other (denying or ignoring the Holocaust entirely), then Ozick seems to advocate memory. Though hardly lovable, Rosa is a far more sympathetic character than the cold and critical Stella. The importance of remembering the Holocaust has been underscored in the late twentieth century and early 2000s by the rise of the Holocaust "revisionist" movement, an extreme group that denies the Holocaust ever really happened or if it did, it has been greatly exaggerated. Ozick's Rosa, stubbornly and proudly clinging to the past despite the urgings of those around her, is a defiant answer to these deniers. Though Persky advocates "a little forgetting," the more problematic question for Rosa, and for society in general, is how much forgetting is too much? At what point does forgetting become carelessness, leaving the door ajar for future persecution, for history to repeat itself? And to what extent does this forgetting devalue the suffering and sacrifice of millions of Jews suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis?

"Rosa" and "The Shawl" not only raise these questions, they are in some small measure part of the answer. If writers and artists can create work that brings the suffering and horror of the Holocaust so sharply into focus, as these stories do while avoiding the temptation to create myth from history, they can help all people remember and understand.

Source: Laura Pryor, Critical Essay on "Rosa," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Joseph Alkana

In the following essay, Alkana explores how the form of "Rosa" and "The Shawl" issues "a challenge to conventional aesthetics, a challenge that also touches upon questions of history and theology."

What Do I Read Next?

  • Ozick's "The Shawl" (1989) tells the harrowing story of Magda's death at the hands of a Nazi guard and will give readers greater insight into the title character of "Rosa."
  • A Cynthia Ozick Reader (1996) gives readers a wider sampling of Ozick's other work, including seven poems, eight essays, and seven fiction pieces.
  • Technically a novel, Elie Wiesel's Night is an autobiographical account of Wiesel's experience at Auschwitz. Published in 1960, it is one of the most famous accounts written of the Holocaust.
  • The novel Washington Square is a good introduction to Henry James. This novel is shorter and easier to read than some of his more famous, later works. The Modern Library Classics edition of this novel also includes an introduction by Cynthia Ozick. James was a major literary influence on Ozick, who wrote her master's thesis on his works while she attended Ohio State University.
  • New Yorker Ruth Puttermesser is probably Ozick's most famous fictional character. A number of short stories featuring Puttermesser were combined to create a novel called The Puttermessser Papers (1997). It is one of Ozick's most highly acclaimed works.

For American Jewish writers, the Holocaust remains a compelling subject for fiction; and their work constitutes an ongoing reply to Theodor Adorno's famous claim "that it is barbaric to continue to write poetry after Auschwitz." The task of telling Holocaust stories has involved a recognition that beyond the fundamental value of presenting witness and survivor accounts, whether in nonfictional or fictional forms, there is value in telling more stories, particularly stories of life after Auschwitz. A work such as Art Spiegelman's Maus features a self-conscious narrative style that addresses this as an imperative while highlighting the sense that conventional literary forms may be inadequate to the task. Such anxiety is evident in the trajectory of American Jewish literary attitudes toward the Holocaust, and the career of Philip Roth exemplifies changing literary responses to the Holocaust.

The characteristic American Jewish response during the years following the Holocaust, when not omission, took the form of allusion in place of direct commentary. This strategy is evident in one of Roth's better known early pieces, "Defender of the Faith." In this story, the problematic status of allegiances and cohesion within a group of American Jewish soldiers is given added dramatic and moral weight by the Holocaust, the one principal event that is cited only obliquely and, at that, by a self-serving Jewish soldier in a manipulative plea for ethnic unity. Roth's work since that time has displayed more explicit and sustained interest in the Holocaust and its consequences. For example, he facilitated the American publication of Bruno Schulz and Jirí Weil, Jewish writers who remained in Europe during the Holocaust. And more recently, in Operation Shylock, Roth centered his reflections on identity around such related things as the Holocaust crimes trial of John Demjanjuk, an interview with Aharon Appelfeld, the Israeli writer of Holocaust novels, and the notion of "Diasporism," a bitterly comic reflection on the possibility of a Jewish to post-Holocaust Europe. Between the silences of "Defenders" and the articulations of Shylock, Roth offered a serious questioning of Holocaust literature in The Ghost Writer, which critiqued the American Jewish reception of Anne Frank's Diary, particularly its adaptation for the stage. The elevation to iconic status of Anne Frank by American Jews during the 1950s led Roth to suggest that through excessive sentimentality and a lack of historical consciousness Jews of that era not only failed to come to terms with the Holocaust—to the extent that such a thing is possible—but too often were relying on successes in the United States to justify their complacency after the Holocaust. Roth emblematically transforms Anne Frank into Anne Franklin as part of his satire on upper-middle-class materialism and a concomitant American exceptionalist ideology that reinforced the sense of the foreignness of the Holocaust.

Roth's satire of sentimentality about victimization and his insistence on the historical specificity of Holocaust suffering are two characteristics of much recent work on the Holocaust. The clearest attempt by an American fiction writer to move beyond these negative, though necessary, steps of rejecting sentimentalism and universalism and toward the development of a more complex post-Holocaust literary aesthetic is offered by Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl.

The Shawl is neither Ozick's first nor her most recent fictional reflection on the Holocaust. Earlier short pieces, such as "Bloodshed" and "The Pagan Rabbi," and her lengthy first novel, Trust, dramatize predicaments posed by the Holocaust and its consequences. Her most recent novels, The Cannibal Galaxy and The Messiah of Stockholm, directly treat the Holocaust as the central event in twentieth-century Jewish consciousness. The Shawl, a pair of related stories that appeared individually in 1980 and 1983 and were published together in 1989, resembles Ozick's other fiction insofar as it deals with a theme Ozick's crtics agree is one of her primary concerns, the tension between Jewish and non-Jewish cultures. But unlike her other writings on the Holocaust, the very form of the two stories that constitute The Shawl issues a challenge to conventional aesthetics, a challenge that also touches upon questions of history and of theology. The two stories of The Shawl, "The Shawl" and "Rosa," are presented in historical sequence: "The Shawl" describes in an elliptical, impressionistic manner the concentration camp captivity of Rosa, her perceptions of her niece, Stella, and the death of her infant daughter, Magda; "Rosa," set approximately four decades later in Miami Beach, tells of how Rosa feels radically isolated and remains preoccupied with her murdered daughter. The historical circumstances these two stories describe, the moments of crisis faced by the protagonist, and the language used to convey Rosa's character in the two stories are deeply interrelated, each feature serving to expand on and to complicate the others.

In the lengthier "Rosa," the reader is furnished with a character portrait that reveals the protagonist to be both alienated and alienating, someone who through bizarre and self-righteous judgments globally repels the sympathies of others. The early action of the story unfolds as a reflection of her character: we are introduced to Rosa Lublin, described in the first sentence as a "madwoman and a scavenger," a woman who for no apparent reason had destroyed her small used-furniture shop and moved from New York to Miami, thus becoming financially dependent on her niece. In a rare venture from her filthy room, which is cluttered with letters written in Polish to her dead daughter, whom she imagines "a professor of Greek philosophy at Columbia University," Rosa goes to a laundromat, where she meets a garrulous retired button manufacturer, Simon Persky. Rebuffing with sarcasm Persky's advances, Rosa indicates her alienation from Jewish culture and from humanity in general. Her wholesale rejection of people, even those who might be inclined to commiserate with her, may well be an understandable result of her Holocaust experiences, but it also marks her as someone with whom most people would prefer to sympathize from a distance.

By sculpting such a sharply edged protagonist, Ozick does more than create the premise for a story; she also takes a stance against a tendency that she along with other Jewish writers have found vexatious—universalism, the tendency to level human suffering under the general heading of an all-inclusive existential or theological quandary. As Ozick herself noted in an essay, when distinguishing between death camp victims,

Those who suffered at Auschwitz suffered with an absolute equality, and the suffering of no one victimized group or individual weighs more in human anguish than that of any other victimized group or individual. But note: Catholic Poland, for instance (language, culture, land), continues, while European Jewish civilization (language, culture, institutions) was wiped out utterly—and that, for Jewish history, is the different and still more central meaning of Auschwitz. (Metaphor 43)

Ozick here takes issue with the approach to Holocaust suffering that focuses on personal experience, an approach that all too readily can feed into a universalist interpretation, by choosing to highlight distinctions based on group histories. Ozick's own focus on group identity is inverted by Rosa, who continues to evade any self-definition that groups her with other Jews. Rosa thus rejects Persky's overtures, attempting to spoil his excitement at discovering that they both came from the same city by insisting, "'My Warsaw isn't your Warsaw.'" And Rosa substantiates this by proudly claiming that she knows no Yiddish, preferring instead the "most excellent literary Polish" with which she composes her letters to Magda. Rosa thereby sets herself apart as one who rejects a Yiddish-speaking Jewish identity in favor of kinship with a secularized Polish-Jewish community which "was wiped out utterly."

The remainder of "Rosa" dramatizes the difficulties created by her rejection of the living in favor of both a dead daughter and an inhospitable pre-Holocaust Polish culture. She spends her time holding off the persistent and pesky Persky, searching through the streets and the beach in a grotesquely comic manner for a pair of underwear she suspects him of stealing from her laundry and, finally, succumbing to his insistent sociality by inviting him up to her room over her newly reconnected telephone. Rosa's obsession with her underwear parallels her obsession with another garment, the shawl in which she had wrapped the infant Magda. Through much of "Rosa," she awaits the arrival of the shawl, promised to her by Stella, who accuses her of acting crazily: "You're like those people in the Middle Ages who worshiped a piece of the True Cross." Rosa's worshipful stance mirrors a fundamental predicament within Ozick's work, a dilemma she believes inevitably confronts the Jewish artist. Janet Handler Burstein summarizes the critical consensus when she observes, "Ozick's conviction that art is idolatrous for Jews announces itself in essay after essay." Ozick's vision of the Jewish artist's conflicted state parallels Rosa's obsession with her past, as indicated by the epithet with which Stella labels Rosa, "parable-maker." It is as a parable maker, one who keeps recalling the past but recalling it in an altered manner, that Rosa undertakes the problematic yet necessary task of Jewish authors who write about the Holocaust.

Although Rosa's rejection of her Jewish contemporaries and her strangely anachronistic assimilationist attitude may be troublesome from Ozick's perspective, Rosa's refusal to forget the past signifies her importance. Unlike the niece whom she ridicules for forgetfulness ("'Stella is self-indulgent. She wants to wipe out memory'") and American exceptionalism ("Stella Columbus! She thinks there's such a thing as the New World"), Rosa continually finds reminders in her surroundings: the stripes of a dress summon forth a camp uniform, and the clinically detached language of a midwestern professor researching Holocaust victims resembles dehumanizing Nazi rhetoric. When the environment fails to trigger associations, she deliberately sets out to remember. In a letter to Magda, she tells of physical privations in the Warsaw Ghetto and the loss of her secularized, urban Polish-Jewish identity, as expressed in the outrage of her family, who had affirmed Enlightenment ideals, at being treated like "these old Jew peasants worn out from their rituals and superstitions." But Rosa also fashions a new past for herself and Magda, one with which she rejects Stella's seemingly more accurate memory: "Your father was not a German. I was forced by a German, it's true, and more than once, but I was too sick to conceive. Stella has a naturally pornographic mind, she can't resist dreaming up a dirty sire for you, an S. S. man!" Rosa recalls being raped in a Nazi brothel, yet she detaches Magda from these memories, instead substituting the image of a Polish Gentile husband and father to Magda, "respectable, gentle, cultivated."

Rosa's invented lineage for Magda coupled with her monologues directed toward a fictive adult daughter denote her madness, yet they also link her to the writer's work. A writer's tendency toward obsession and madness motivates "Envy," and a more general connection between madness and the imagination may be found in "The Pagan Rabbi"; but, unlike these early Ozick stories, The Shawl specifies the Holocaust as the source of a disruptive yet recuperative imagination. Rosa's obstinate inventiveness certainly reflects a Holocaust survivor mentality insofar as it manifests an amalgam of guilt, shame, fear of not being believed, and an inability to accept powerlessness in the face of deadly force. As if to compensate for this powerlessness, Rosa invents, and this outrages Stella and elicits the label "parable-maker." It is the making of parables about the Holocaust, the rules to guide or limit a post-Holocaust aesthetic, that The Shawl dramatizes and questions.

Ozick's critics have offered commentaries and insights on the symbolism and the ethical import of The Shawl, but they generally have displayed only passing interest in the aesthetic implications of juxtaposing its two stylistically dissimilar component pieces. In part this no doubt reflects the tendency in Ozick's own essays to diminish the significance of aesthetic issues in favor of the ethical. Critics have followed Ozick's lead when tracing the progress of her career from the Jamesian convolutions of her first novel, Trust, to her most recent works, which, despite Jamesian overtones (such as the similarly compulsive searches for manuscripts in The Messiah of Stockholm and "The Aspern Papers"), assert the primacy of the ethical. Alone among scholars writing on The Shawl, Joseph Lowin has focused on the relationship between the utterly disparate styles of its two stories, suggesting that the elaboration in "Rosa" on the sparse language of "The Shawl," which fills a mere seven pages, amounts to a midrashic commentary. Lowin's observation, however, would seem to contradict Ozick's own assertion, regarding the need to negotiate between traditional Jewish and Western Enlightenment aesthetic forms, that "Such a project cannot be answered with a proposal to 'compose midrashim,' by which is usually meant a literature of parable" (Metaphor 238). Midrashic parable, though perhaps not constitutive of The Shawl in the straightforward manner that Lowin suggests, does furnish the basis from which Ozick attempts to elaborate a way of telling post-Holocaust stories, of exploring the relationship between dominant Western fictional forms and this traditionally Jewish one.

The inclusion within the past decade of midrash among the arsenal of terms available to literary theorists has brought to the foreground the debate over definitions and descriptions of the methodologies of midrash. This debate, which like midrash itself does not lend itself to summary without loss, nevertheless yields several points useful to a discussion of the aesthetics and argument of The Shawl. Although it primarily concerns itself with the exegesis of sacred texts, midrashic activity frequently takes the form of fiction, especially didactic fiction. These fictions focus on textual gaps, which may be regarded in two ways. Midrash as textual exegesis attempts to render comprehensible fissured or otherwise perplexing biblical passages. A second, related function of midrash is that which brings about interpretations consistent with contemporary religious beliefs and circumstances. Thus the didactic or moralistic aspects of midrash work to cast contemporary intellectual and ethical dilemmas as extensions of tradition. This process of mediating the intellectual distances between sacred scripture and a present largely constituted by relationships with non-Jewish cultures locates for itself space within an otherwise canonically foreclosed past by identifying interpretive problems in sacred texts.

It is with the first sense of midrash in mind, the act of filling textual gaps, that Lowin discovers a midrashic quality in "Rosa," which elaborates and explains much of the earlier story. "The Shawl" provides little more than the most essential information for the construction of a narrative: the names of the three characters, descriptions without explanations of their deprivations, sketchy accounts of their journey on foot to a camp, Rosa's act of hiding the silent Magda in her shawl, and, finally, a depiction of how Magda, deprived of the shawl by Stella, comes out crying into the roll call area where a helmeted guard throws her against an electrified fence. The only dialogue reported is Stella's response to her study of Magda's face ("Aryan") and her explanation of why she took Magda's shawl ("I was cold"). The lack of explanation, the omissions in this brief story, recalls Daniel Boyarin's succinct description of midrashic exegesis: "The biblical narrative is gapped and dialogical. The role of the midrash is to fill in the gaps."

"Rosa" might be considered the equivalent of a supplementary or exegetic commentary on "The Shawl" were it not for the complexity of their relationship: "Rosa" delivers an account of a survivor's life that ultimately refutes the lesson learned from "The Shawl," seeking to displace it rather than merely elaborate on it. From the perspective suggested by the later story, "The Shawl" resembles less a primary and sacred text that needs to be interpreted than it does a potential obstacle to understanding. "The Shawl" describes how Rosa is brutalized, and to these events she reacts with a tangled set of inconsistent beliefs that include the importance of remembering history, the distortions of her own and Magda's histories, and a sense of alienation from others in her community. Rosa's feeling of alienation from other Jews did not begin with the Holocaust—"Her father, like her mother, mocked at Yiddish; there was not a particle of the ghetto left in him, not a grain of rot"—but her experiences would appear to have reinforced it. By the conclusion of the second story, however, a shift in her attitude has appeared, one that induces Rosa to become more social and to diminish the imaginary role of her daughter in her life. The need for this final change in attitude, for this reconfiguration of "The Shawl" by "Rosa," becomes apparent when we observe that "The Shawl" itself appears to be a midrashic commentary on a biblical story, a midrashic commentary of the second type, one that seeks to reconcile the Bible with recent history.

The midrashic dimensions of "The Shawl" emerge upon a comparison with what Jewish commentators typically treat as the preeminent episode in Genesis, Abraham's binding of Isaac, an episode referred to among midrashic writers by the Hebrew word for binding, Akedah. The Akedah features a series of basic plot elements and symbols that are refracted through Ozick's reconfiguration in "The Shawl." The sparsely worded biblical account begins with God calling to Abraham and summoning him to travel to Moriah and, once there, to prepare Isaac for a burnt sacrifice. In contrast to, for example, his extended debate with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham responds without question to the instructions, and, accompanied by Isaac and two others, he travels for three days. He then takes Isaac alone to prepare an altar, and he binds Isaac as for a sacrifice. At this point, an angel intercedes, commanding Abraham to not harm Isaac. After Abraham sacrifices a ram, the story concludes with God's final iteration of the promise to Abraham that his descendants will be plentiful and have strength against their enemies.

The parallels between the two stories are sufficiently striking to make "The Shawl" seem like a female version of the Akedah. Each story features a parent of the same gender as the imperiled child traveling through unnamed territories, the biblical wilderness and the ironically equivalent wilderness of World War II Europe. And the children resemble each other in that both were conceived in unlikely circumstances: Isaac is born to the postmenopausal Sarah, and, as Rosa states in the second story, she thought she was "too sick to conceive." The children are greatly loved by their parents; the prominence of parental love is indicated in the Akedah by God's initial words to Abraham, in which Isaac is identified as the son "whom you love" (Genesis 22:2), coincidentally the first biblical use of the word love. Correspondingly, Rosa makes clear her devotion to Magda throughout both "Rosa," as her ongoing conversation with her daughter suggests, and "The Shawl," in which she hides the fifteen-month old at obvious peril to herself. In their journeys to the places where their children are threatened with death and burning, the protagonists are accompanied by companions of the same gender who are not actually present when the final actions occur. The protagonists' minimal speech is balanced against the surveillance over both sets of actors by largely silent powers with control over life and death. The binding of the two children, of Isaac in preparation for a sacrifice and of Magda with the shawl to keep her hidden and silent, furnishes each story with its name and serves as the single most prominent symbolic point at which the two stories converge.

But why should Ozick have chosen the Akedah as the occasion for a midrash? An answer to this question needs to take into account the attitude of God as it frequently has been explained by Jewish commentators. The Akedah typically has been understood to display God's abhorrence of human sacrifice and preference for spiritual dedication. In a direct commentary on the Akedah, Ozick uses this reading as the grounds for her interpretation of the episode, citing its insistence on "Judaism's first social task, so to speak. The story of Abraham and Isaac announces, in the voice of divinity itself, the end of human sacrifice forever. The binding of Isaac represents and introduces the supreme scriptural valuation of innocent life" (Metaphor 274).

Ozick thus interprets the Akedah as God's unambiguous rejection of human sacrifice, a rejection that reveals not merely some distinction from other deities—Ozick characteristically juxtaposes the Jewish deity against those of the Greeks—but an imperative that helps make the Akedah a defining episode. Her view of the ethical centrality of the Akedah harmonizes with the midrashic understanding that the Akedah refers not merely to Abraham but to the entire nation of Israel as well. In his remarks on the midrashic commentary Genesis Rabbah, Jacob Neusner summarizes the traditional attitude, asserting that "the testing of Abraham stands for the trials of Israel" (269). Abraham thus proves himself worthy of God's blessing, the promise to protect Abraham's descendants: "I will make your seed many, yes, many, like the stars of the heavens and like the sand that is on the shore at the sea; your seed shall inherit the gate of their enemies" (Genesis 22:17).

This final point creates the need for a midrash—not an exegetical midrash that seeks to bridge scriptural gaps but an attempt to resolve the tension between a biblical story and human history. The circumstances of death camp victims test God's promise to Abraham, and the deaths of children pose some of the most intense psychological and theological problems to writers on the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel's Night, itself largely organized around the relationship between a son and his father, presents perhaps the paradigmatic dramatic enactment of this situation when it tells of how three inmates implicated in an act of sabotage were publicly hanged. The two adult victims shouted, "'Long live liberty'" (61), and they quickly died, but the one child among them died slowly and silently. Wiesel recounts that he heard a man behind him repeatedly asking,

"Where is God now?"

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

"Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging there on this gallows…." (62)

The question asked by Wiesel's fellow inmate is one implied by Ozick in "The Shawl." This question is accusatory, as is so much Holocaust writing, and in Ozick's story, which ultimately offers a different response than the one supplied by Wiesel, it takes the form of a midrashic problem because of the dramatic link between her story and that of Abraham and Isaac.

The differences between the Akedah and "The Shawl" signal Ozick's attempt to make salient the tension between sacred scripture and human history. The most consequential difference between the two stories is the nature of supreme power: in the Akedah, the power over life and death ultimately resides in God, while in the camps a human power prevails, and from this all other distinctions devolve. The sites are themselves infused with the characters of each type of power: Rosa marches to a slave labor camp, whereas Genesis identifies Abraham's destination as Mount Moriah, the future location of the Temple. The way by which the protagonists submit themselves to power reflects basic differences: although Rosa has the most limited range of choice, which she exercises in her attempt to preserve Magda, Abraham and, according to midrashic tradition, Isaac voluntarily submit to God's command. Moreover, the vastly differing conclusions characterize the two types of power: Abraham elicits words of blessing and the promise of life, while by contrast Magda dies, and Rosa, to maintain the secret of her motherhood and thus her own life, smothers a scream by stuffing the shawl into her mouth. The words of an angel direct Abraham to spare Isaac's life, but the only sound accompanying Magda's murder by a silent guard is the incomprehensible chatter of the electric wires.

Despite the differing relationships between speech and silences (or incomprehensibility) in the two stories, silences structure the actions in both, the lapses of speech, not surprisingly, also denoting distinctive moral responses and responsibilities. Unlike Rosa's silence and secretive preservation of Magda, an enactment of her maternal devotion, Abraham's wordless acceptance of God's command signals a detachment from both his paternal bond and his relationship with Sarah, who presumably would challenge his intention. Abraham's withdrawal from his family leads Jacques Derrida to speculate that silence and secrecy are essential to our understanding of Abraham's action and in-action: "He doesn't speak, he doesn't tell his secret to his loved ones…. Abraham is a witness of the absolute faith that cannot and must not witness before men. He must keep his secret." Abraham's commitment to secrecy and his silence most tellingly elides the "paradox, scandal and aporia" that Derrida locates between an ethics that would prioritize Abraham's ordinary allegiances to family and his devotion to a transcendent deity. From Derrida's perspective, the eruption of the paradoxical and the scandalous in the Akedah, which calls into question the function of morality and moral judgment, would seemingly highlight by contrast Rosa's silent preservation of Magda; for despite the question of Magda's paternity, Rosa's silence and actions coalesce in an unambiguous devotion to family that on its face comports with normative ethics. Yet when we juxtapose the silences of "The Shawl" against the speech of "Rosa," we may find, if not the aporia of the Akedah, both paradox and scandal; once again we encounter the unseemliness and impropriety of Holocaust fiction, particularly that which attempts to restore speech to the camps, a realm that its creators treated as secret.

The speech of "Rosa" fills many textual gaps left by "The Shawl," but speech also functions in its own right as an obsessional focus for Rosa, one that ultimately and ironically isolates her. Rosa treats her language as essential to her being. When she tells Persky, "My Warsaw isn't your Warsaw" and, again, "Your Warsaw isn't my Warsaw," her point is obviously less geographical or temporal than it is linguistic, cultural, and, in the final instance, constitutive of her identity. She took her cue from her parents, who eschewed Yiddish and instead "enunciated Polish in soft calm voices with the most precise articulation." It is this memory of language that anchors Rosa in a family network, as she rhapsodizes in one of her letters to Magda: "A pleasure, the deepest pleasure, home bliss, to speak in our own language" (emphasis added). Now that her immediate family is gone and she lives in the United States, her Polish language remains as her home.

Rosa's sense of a linguistic home is challenged by the instrumentalist vision of language Persky reveals when conversing with Rosa in her room:

"… this is very nice, cozy. You got a cozy place, Lublin."

"Cramped," Rosa said.

"I work from a different theory. For everything there's a bad way of describing, also a good way. You pick the good way, you get along better."

"I don't like to give myself lies," Rosa said.

"Life is short, we all got to lie."

To Persky's conventional sensibilities, what matters is getting along, and any epistemological or aesthetic orientation in language-use should at most be secondary. Hence, when describing his "loiterer" son, who is what Rosa wishes Magda to be, a philosopher, he bluntly opines, "Too much education makes fools." But Rosa the parable maker labels Persky's use of language "lies," and she resists the notion that one can find a "good way" to describe her experiences, metaphorically speaking to Persky of her three lives, "The life before, the life during, the life after." Persky, with the embarrassment of a Jew who had spent the Holocaust years in the United States, nevertheless echoes the ordinary advice give to one who has experienced loss: "it's over…. You went through it, now you owe yourself something." Persky here professes the wisdom of a button manufacturer, his belief that gaps exist to be spanned and veiled with cloth, an outlook he initially displays when professionally observing a missing button at Rosa's waist: "A shame. That kind's hard to match, as far as I'm concerned we stopped making them around a dozen years ago."

Despite his commonplace advice to the obsessed Rosa, Persky seems attracted to Rosa's display of a loss for which no compensation is available; if Persky cannot answer Rosa's demand for a wisdom or a language commensurate with her loss, then what he offers is relationship. Relationship is paramount to Rosa's idea of a "mother tongue" that connects her to a literary tradition ("For literature you need a mother tongue") and that also, and more significantly, forms the basis of her "home bliss," her bond not only to her parents but to the language that constitutes her own ongoing sense of motherhood and being. Her roomful of letters to Magda in a "lost and kidnapped Polish" would bond her with Stella as well, "but her niece had forgotten Polish." Rosa's fervor for her language isolates her and structures the devotional posture Stella criticizes as idolatrous; yet her fantasy of Magda as a professor at Columbia University, which approximates the epithet "Stella Columbus," brings these two relatives into at least a lexical relationship. The tension between Magda and Stella, a competition that began even before Stella took Magda's shawl in the camp, is suggestive of Rosa's inevitably fractured worldview.

The most basic of Rosa's contradictions is between her private idolatry and her public role as an idol breaker. Rosa's foremost public act, her moment of American fame, was, according to newspaper headlines, as the destroyer of her second-hand furniture store: "WOMAN AXES OWN BIZ." Rosa's bizarre action remains unexplained until late in the narrative when she recalls in a letter to Magda some of the humiliations and privations of everyday ghetto life, experiences she had tried to relate to uncomprehending or unsympathetic customers. As she ruefully remarks, even when she tried to pare down the enormity of her loss to some particular item, "no one understood." The customers "were in a hurry," too great a hurry to hear of her history and, presumably, too averse to the painful stories of an obsessed woman. Her destruction of the items within her shop would serve to enact her criticism of their misplaced attention; more pointedly yet, her destruction of her own store is a mute critique of the American iconization of business.

In her role as a destroyer of American icons, Rosa once more recalls Abraham, specifically the Abraham of midrashic stories who had to depart his homeland after smashing the idols in his father's shop. Rosa's rescue and subsequent emigration to the United States may not quite parallel Abraham's leave-taking from home nor his destination, but her willingness to mark herself as an outcast by wrecking things and images that others prize, but which she considers meaningless diversions, complicates Stella's accusation that Rosa is an idol worshipper. This complication serves to thematize a pair of related problems entailed by the worship of lifeless things (whether physical objects or language itself). First, the silence of idols demands explanatory speech, such as Abraham's provocative story to his father that the idols had destroyed one another or Rosa's own provocations, her making of parables. And second, an isolating engagement with something that cannot reply, like the shawl, may displace dialogue with those who can. The dramatizations and structurings of silences, unanswered speech, and interpretive elaborations in The Shawl link it to another text that considers the Akedah: Erich Auerbach's comparison of Hebraic with Hellenic modes of literary representation in the opening chapter of Mimesis.

The relationship between the need for textual interpretation and the Akedah has been prominent to literary theorists since Auerbach chose the Akedah as his representative biblical text, a choice that seems as deliberate as Ozick's when we recall that he wrote Mimesis between 1942 and 1945 while at the Turkish State University at Istanbul. (In 1935 Auerbach had been forced to leave his professorship at the University of Marburg as a result of Aryanization policies and the Nuremberg laws.) Most relevant to the coincidental choice of biblical texts are questions about interpretation and the Akedah, and the relationship of Ozick's ideas about aesthetics with Auerbach's. In his comparison between the relative clarity of the Homeric and the biblical, which in its textual sparseness relies on a dense background of motivation and history, Auerbach insists that radically differing modes of interpretation, and thus cognition, are both assumed and demanded; and this insistence entails for Auerbach—as for Ozick—extensive ethical and political consequences.

These consequences result from the particular method by which the biblical works to intrude on its readers' lives: it attempts to propel itself, through mediating interpretive processes, into the historical realm. By contrast, the Homeric, characterized by a "procession of phenomena [that] takes place in the foreground," a "legendary" style, and static, unvarying characters, assumes a uniformity of explicative strategies and an ideal of hierarchical social stasis, the latter understood to reflect an immutable underlying order resistant to historical change. When confronted with the Homeric, the job of the critic is to analyze, for Homer presents "no teaching"; and because there is no underlying stratum, "he cannot be interpreted." The danger of the Homeric, with its implied rejection of historical complexity, leads Auerbach to ask his reader to "think of the history which we ourselves are witnessing; anyone who, for example, evaluates the behavior of individual men and groups of men at the time of the rise of National Socialism in Germany" will understand how ahistorical legend defies the complexities of history; Auerbach feels no need to elaborate on the problems that such simplifications entail. Although the more historically oriented Hebrew writings also lend themselves at times to such simplification, for the most part they demand a more complex interpretive mode, one outlined in Auerbach's essay "'Figura.'"

In "'Figura,'" first published in 1944, Auerbach conveys the sense of crisis over National Socialism that pervades Mimesis. "'Figura'" elaborates on the interpretive processes briefly described in the opening of Mimesis, and Auerbach here identifies interpretation as a site where history, ethics, and aesthetics intersect. Figural interpretation, unlike the "symbolic" interpretations be associates with "magic power," "must always be historical" (57). The historical dimension of figural interpretation derives from its method: "Figural interpretation establishes a connection between two events or persons, the first of which signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second encompasses or fulfills the first. The two poles of the figure are separate in time, but both, being real events or figures, are within time, within the stream of historical life" (53). As Geoffrey Green points out, Auerbach's insistence on historically oriented interpretation serves his refutation of Nazi mysticism and aestheticism in both a direct manner and in an indirect one as well. Auerbach painstakingly describes in "'Figura'" the development of the historicized figural method as a foundation for Christian interpretation and theology. Without commenting on the analogies with certain midrashic interpretative methods, he effectively tethers the Christian to the Jewish as he attempts to drive a theoretical wedge between Nazism and Christianity.

When Auerbach affixes Christian to Jewish interpretive traditions, we confront the distance of four decades that separates his from Ozick's work; the crisis of survival facing Auerbach, and thus the need to cultivate potential allies by stressing the cultural affinities of Christians and Jews while casting Nazism as essentially anti-Christian, no longer has relevance. Contemporary American Jewish writers accordingly tend to stress the complicity of Christianity with Nazism rather than seek distinctions. This sort of pointed assessment may be found in one of Ozick's essays, "Of Christian Heroism," which distinguishes between heroic rescuers of Holocaust victims, victimizers, the victims themselves, and the bystanders who, "taken together," she judges to be "culpable" (Fame and Folly, 201). Attention to such distinctions is typical of Ozick as an essayist who prizes clarity and moral judgment, yet Ozick's fiction reveals greater tension and ambiguity, as in her presentation of Rosa as simultaneously an idolater and an iconoclast. This kind of ambiguity, which suggests a continuity between her reasoning and Auerbach's coupling of the Christian with the Jewish, pervades The Shawl from its opening pages.

The Shawl begins with an epigraph taken from Paul Celan's "Todesfuge": "dein goldenes Haar Margarete / dein aschenes Haar Sulamith." Celan's Holocaust poem uses these two phrases as a kind of refrain; he routinely returns to the distinction between the Jews and the Germans with his apostrophic lines, "your golden hair Margarete" and "your ashen hair Shulamith" (Celan 63). The distinction between Margarete and Shulamith, between the golden and the ashen, appears to be an odd one for Ozick to emphasize, for, while both Celan's poem and her story respond to the Holocaust, she blurs Celan's distinction. Blue-eyed Magda, whom Rosa addresses in her letters as "my gold," "my yellow lioness," is the subject of Rosa's and Stella's scrutiny during their forced march in "The Shawl"; and Stella, with an observation that sets Magda apart, calls her "Aryan," adjudicating Magda's status based on her presumptive paternity. Rosa obviously rejects Stella's desire to make the kind of exclusionary racial appraisal that replicates those of the Nazis, and her own steadfastness toward Magda points out a different irony, the fact that Judaic matrilineal law would lead both Jews and Nazis to recognize the golden, blue-eyed Magda as a Jew. Thus Celan's distinction between the golden and the ashen is effaced by Ozick in a move that suggests her valuing of categorical purity or distinctions operates, like Auerbach's, as a secondary element of some larger strategy.

Ozick's stories may offer a greater degree of aesthetic complexity than the stark dichotomy outlined in Celan's brief poem, yet this should not obscure her skepticism toward aestheticist demands, a skepticism as profound as Auerbach's. Auerbach's distrust of aestheticism pervades his historicist, philological methodology, while Ozick's repeatedly emerges in her essays. Her position is apparent, for example, in her 1970 criticism of contemporary fictional trends, as opposed to the tradition of the densely historical nineteenth-century novel whose ethical concerns she more clearly values: "Now it is the novel that has been aestheticized, poeticized, and thereby paganized…. The most flagrant point is this: the nineteenth-century novel has been declared dead" (Art 164). For both Ozick and Auerbach, the turn toward historical understanding is primary, and the story of the binding of Isaac provides the two with an occasion to raise questions about interpretation and to affirm an ethical imperative: a rejection of appeals to higher authorities and causes that diminish the quotidian world of human sociality and history. In a discussion of the Holocaust, Ozick declared "that Nazism was an aesthetic idea…. Let us have a beautiful and harmonious society, said the aesthetics of Nazism; let us get rid of this ugly dark spot, the Jew, the smear on the surface of our glorious dream. Do we not know the meaning of aesthetic gratification?" ("Roundtable" 280). The price of aesthetic consistency that Ozick raises in this question is the issue central to The Shawl and Ozick's Holocaust literary aesthetics.

Ozick's Holocaust literature has thematized invariably unsuccessful attempts at accommodating cultural fissures. Joseph Brill's "dual curriculum" in The Cannibal Galaxy, a juxtaposition of Jewish and European classics, and Lars Andemening's attempt in The Messiah of Stockholm to retrieve a manuscript lost during the Holocaust—gestures aimed at relieving the historical and cultural tensions either deepened or precipitated by the Holocaust—are, in Ozick's fictions, doomed. The midrashic dimensions of The Shawl, by contrast, convey inescapable and irreconcilable tensions. "The Shawl," with its retelling of the Akedah in a world where no angel arrives to save the child, presents a story understood by its protagonist as a model for human relations, a story that overshadows the original biblical promise of rescue and life. Rosa is left with nothing but contempt and anger toward the living, an alienation that by the conclusion of the second story begins to yield. "Rosa" thus attempts a midrashic displacement of "The Shawl," just as "The Shawl" had rewritten the Akedah; and, in so doing, "Rosa" restores the primacy of the Akedah. But this restoration does not blot out the memories of "The Shawl." Rather, as Rosa's mental image of Magda recedes yet does not disappear when she accepts Persky's visit at the conclusion, the memories of Holocaust deaths do not disappear, nor can they simply be assimilated into life afterwards.

This failure to assimilate Holocaust experiences into the everyday serves as a defense against Adorno's challenge to a post-Holocaust literary aesthetic. If fiction may properly operate in a kind of productive tension with history, then the central fantasy of "Rosa," her ongoing relationship with her dead daughter, may be understood to preserve the memory and experience that history or the well-meaning, therapeutic sociality of a Simon Persky could well occlude. The ending of The Shawl sees Rosa reunited with the magical shawl that brings with it the memory of Magda, allowing Magda briefly to live again within Rosa's altered memory. Rosa's defiance of her own history is hardly unique to Holocaust literature. In Jirí Weil's Life With a Star, the narrator routinely addresses his lover, a woman whose death was truimphantly announced over loudspeakers in Prague. And still more similar to The Shawl is Sandra Brand's account of survival that concludes, after her arrival in the United States, "For me, my child has remained alive. He is with me whenever I want him…. 'Bruno, you are the only child I have ever had,' I murmur fiercely to a little boy that only I can see. 'Nothing can come between us any more!'" The line of demarcation between the living and the dead appears in such accounts to soften momentarily, but the limits of language and literature to compensate for loss remain intact. In Primo Levi's words, "the injury cannot be healed."

If the promise of healing is compromised by the almost inevitable accompaniment of sentimentality—"to give myself lies," as Rosa might put it—nevertheless as a nonremedial intervention may plausibly constitute a central feature of a post-Holocaust aesthetic. In The Shawl, the preservation of invention and parable is maintained despite a wariness toward universalizing myth and the dangers of emotional appeals. Notwithstanding the ways that personal experience might be sacrificed by attention to common history, the most efficacious gesture remains the return to the historical and social realm advised by Auerbach and enacted with difficulty by Rosa. The return to the social and historical as well as the desire to preserve personal experience may furnish the clearest intellectual response to the Holocaust, but it is Rosa's posture of wariness that may prove most telling. Derrida's discussion of the Akedah, a discussion that more than once slides into the topic of the Holocaust, begins by referring to Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling; Derrida observes that the trembling associated with the Akedah "suggests that violence is going to break out again" (54). The unpredictability of the Akedah is its salient feature here: the fantastic and unprecedented directive to Abraham with its implied threat comes against all rational expectation and without warning (as does the timely angelic intercession and appearance of the ram); similarly, it is not unreasonable to adduce from experience that the more general threat of political, possibly genocidal, violence may apparently diminish but persists in the world. For the traumatized Rosa, who, when faced with an uncooperative hotel manager, summons forth the accusation, "Finkelstein, you S. S., admit it!," the Holocaust remains a paradigmatic experience. Yet the excesses of her interpretations and responses to the world, her avoidances and distortions of reality, call into question the uses of rather than the need for her Holocaust. remembrances.

The issue facing Rosa is one that, in a somewhat attenuated form, faces those in the United States who attempt to memorialize the Holocaust: how does one build museums, commemorative structures, or archives without turning away from the present moment? In the case of narrative structures, a turning away from the present generally devolves into the kind of sentimentality and universalist interpretations that have accompanied Anne Frank's story. Obverse to these evasions are such moments as the confrontation in Operation Shylock between Roth's ghostly cousin Apter, a Holocaust survivor, with an extraordinarily difficult person: "Cousin Philip, I understood what I was up against. I said to her, 'Madam, which camp?' 'All of them!' she cried, and then she spat in my face." The fury she broadcasts, like Rosa's, may be understandable, but her unsocial behavior renders her less than the ideal victim, one who should be ennobled by suffering. The "useless violence" of the Holocaust analyzed by Primo Levi or what Emmanuel Levinas has termed "the paradigm of gratuitous suffering" (162) may not generate sympathetic victims receptive to Persky's prescription of conventionality; yet it is interesting to note how Persky's intercession dramatizes the interpersonal focus of Levinas, for whom the interpersonal in ethics has a philosophical and metaphysical priority.

The measured advocacy of the interpersonal realm offered in The Shawl comports with Ozick's characterization elsewhere of the Jewish "Lord of History" (Metaphor 253), yet it presents less a developed ethical or theological position than it does the grounds for an aesthetic tension. While Ozick the essayist is quite ready to argue forcefully in favor of or against artistic and social agendas, her fiction, particularly The Shawl, maintains greater equanimity. Such balance is, of course, not suggested by Rosa's definitions of her life in terms of dichotomies: either Magda or Stella, either the assimilationist view of her parents or the separation of Yiddish speaking or Zionist Jews, either full speech in her language or a partial, circumscribed, inadequate English. Like the logic of God's initial directive in the Akedah, which presents Abraham with a stark choice of allegiances, Rosa's logic has remained exclusionary, reminiscent of those times the Holocaust has been sentimentalized or memorialized in opposition to a present historical moment. But Rosa's uneasy acquiescence to sociality, as suggested by her concluding decisions to restore her telephone and to invite Persky to her room in which the ghostly presence of Magda remains, reveals a departure from her either/or mentality, a departure for which fidelity to Holocaust experience does not necessarily overwhelm sociality. Like the angelic intercession of the Akedah, which preserves Abraham's metaphysical and familial allegiances. The Shawl maintains the two basic categories as defined by the moments of the two constituent stories. Yet the irreconcilable tensions of The Shawl reinforce Primo Levi's insistence that there are wounds without the promise of healing, experiences without the offer of positive significance. Those who seek such a positive significance reveal their own desire for a happy ending more than anything else, for unlike acts of martyrdom or victimizing, either of which reveals moral choice, there is no moral stance implicit in being a victim.

Source: Joseph Alkana, "'Do We Not Know the Meaning of Aesthethic Gratification?': Cynthia Ozick's 'The Shawl,' the Akedah, and the Ethics of Holocaust Literary Aesthetics," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 43, No. 4, 1997, pp. 963-90.

Rachel Hadas

In the following review, Hadas praises how Ozick "sets before us a world of eloquent excursions and crisp choices."

Randall Jarrell once commented that the poems of the anthologist (and poet) Oscar Williams had the air of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter. Update the technology, and you get a fair description of the ambience of Umberto Eco's large new book, Foucault's Pendulum. Described on the jacket as a novel, Foucault's Pendulum, which is really closer to a catalogue, compendium, or anatomy than it is to any form of fiction, often seems to have been written on a computer by a computer. Oscar Williams was presumably wounded by the comparison of his sensibility to a typewriter. Eco's response, I suspect, would be a knowing wink or a weary shrug, to the effect of "Yes—so?" Even if the book's slickly mechanical surface isn't the whole point, I seem to hear Eco saying, this text's texture is at least its point d'appui—certainly it's nothing to reproach me with.

Indeed. If intentionality still holds—if any effect, however disheartening, is laudable so long as it's what the author was aiming for—then presumably there's nothing wrong with the almost remorselessly contrived, anticlimactic air of the whole enterprise. Almost but not quite remorselessly; moving moments do occur in this colossal jeu d'esprit, but they are simply outweighed by the not very buoyant mass of Eco's encyclopedic erudition.

Schematically cluttered and chaotically schematic, Foucault's Pendulum is an exhausting, exhaustive, and vastly knowing book. A magpie's nest of arcana, a beaver-dam of bricolage, a Rosetta Stone of the conspiratorial and the occult—these and many other comparisons suggest themselves in lieu of plot summary. In fact there is no need to come up with evocations, for the book teems with self-description. Few novels are so packed with phrases each of which could serve as an epigraph to the whole. Here are three among many more:

Whenever a poet or preacher, chief or wizard spouts gibberish, the human race spends centuries deciphering the message.

I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.

There is no image that, combined with others, does not embody a mystery of the world.

But there's little fun to be had in unravelling work that is so unashamedly self-conscious to start with that it seems to have provided the reader with a figure at once explanatory and admonitory for connecting the dots. Merely follow through the connections, according to Foucault's Pendulum, and the resulting spiderweb of lines will inevitably mean something, will get you somewhere. The one heroic gesture in the novel is of the gran rifiuto variety: the dangerous admission that there is no meaning:

I have understood. And the certainty that there is nothing to understand should be my peace, my triumph. But I am here, and They are looking for me, thinking I possess the revelation They sordidly desire.

The sinister They of the above passage could be construed as the fat collective spider in the web of meanings in which Eco's hapless heroes get caught. Alison Lurie has noted that deconstructionist critics often give the impression that their authors "are flies struggling in the sticky verbal strands of theoretical discourse."

Dubious or dangerous as they may be, the pleasures of knowing (and of being knowing), of laying bare preexisting but hitherto undeciphered connections, of wandering in a web of signs, are what Foucault's Pendulum is all about. These actions are performed by its heroes, the editors Casaubon (one recalls the scholar of that name, and his unfinished Key to All Mythologies, in Middle-march), Diotallevi, and Belbo; they are also mimetically performed by Eco's reader. As the editors become engulfed in their project, tracing a web whose filaments extend in time and space from Templars through Rosicrucians to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, from the pyramids to the Eiffel Tower, and so on ad nauseam, so too the reader is drawn—ought one to write "strung"?—along.

When Eco bothers to write like a novelist, the narrative has its memorable moments, spiced with suspense or even feeling. Almost all these moments occur either very early or very late in the novel, at the point of entry into the maze or at the cul de sac of the labyrinth. The bulk of the book, detailing the serpentine meanderings of data, has a harsh, disembodiedly donnish humor but is disastrously deficient in human feeling. Eco only sporadically remembers to animate his characters at all in terms of any sentiment other than their consuming obsession with The Plan. Whether, then, we are looking for feeling between one character and another, between author and characters, or between author/characters and ourselves, most of Foucault's Pendulum will frustrate our naive request.

The Name of the Rose, Eco's 1983 novel, tempered its arcane excesses with memorable characters, a good suspenseful plot, and an overall thematic appropriateness of mode to matter. If Eco was liable to divagate into lengthy lectures, descriptions, and speculations, well, it seemed natural for William to instruct Adso in politics, or for Ubertino to discourse on theology. As well as continually educating the reader, all these voices (and there are many more in The Name of the Rose than I mention here) throw a varied novelistic light on their own speakers, giving characters richness and depth. The Name of the Rose is Tolstoyan in its many-sidedness and humanity compared to Foucault's Pendulum, a book even longer, more packed with words, but where human talk is severely subordinated to reading, or deciphering, what has been encoded, word-processed, erased, hidden. This is a book not about voices but about writing; it might have been written to order as an illustration of the kind of poststructuralist emphasis on the scriptible discussed by Terry Eagleton in his Literary Theory: An Introduction. Eagleton writes:

the 'living voice' is in fact quite as material as print … since spoken signs, like written ones, work only by a process of difference and division, speaking could be just as much said to be a form of writing as writing is a second-hand form of speaking.

Just as Western philosophy has been 'phonocentric,' centered on the 'living voice' and deeply suspicious of script, so also it has been in a broader sense 'logocentric,' committed to a belief in some ultimate 'word,' presence, essence, truth or reality which will act as the foundation of all our thought, language and experience. It has yearned for the sign which will give meaning to all others—the 'transcendental signifier'—and for the anchoring, unquestionable meaning to which all our signs can be seen to point …

That any such transcendent meaning is a fiction—though perhaps a necessary fiction—is one consequence of the theory of language I have outlined.

Perhaps Foucault's Pendulum, whether or not it is necessary, is itself a fictional consequence of deconstructionism: a curious, rebarbative, talky specimen of the Novel of Ideas.

In the absence of any transcendent sign, meaning refuses to stand still and be understood; restlessness prevails. I found I could bear to read Foucault's Pendulum only in short snatches, and preferably if I was in motion—pedaling away on the stationary bike at the health club, for example. People on either side of me were plugged into their Walkmans, but I, on a high cultural plateau, could read about Casaubon searching Belbo's computer files, or the secret role of the Rosicrucians in the writing of Shakespeare's plays. The passages that inspired me to dog-ear pages (pedaling all the while) never had anything to do with action; they were clever, paradoxical comments on the irresistible, frantic, doomed search for meaning.

In the midst of all this self-consciousness, an element of shoulder-shrugging, of not quite concealed indifference, came to predominate. Perhaps it was all those hours on the bike (though for the figure to be really apt the bike would have to be a treadmill) that prompted the image of a squirrel rapidly shuffling through a pile of leaves in search of a buried nut. I was the squirrel; so was any reader of Foucault's Pendulum; so were Casaubon and Belbo. The squirrel is well fed and glossy, if not positively overweight; its search is sheerly reflexive, instinctive on the one hand and increasingly halfhearted on the other. In the midst of its scrabbling, it slows down, pauses, and seems to forget what all the hustle and bustle was about. No real appetite impelled it anyway. No real hunger kept me reading this novel—habit, or reflex, had to take the place of appetite, and habit soon flagged. The nuggets I found were dwarfed by the enormous amount of verbal baggage the book carries around—baggage which began by being predictable and soon became something more aggressive, a series of insistent pokes from an incorrigible monologuer who knows perfectly well that his listeners long to escape. For deconstructionists, says Eagleton, literature "testifies to the impossibility of language's ever doing more than talk about its own failure, like some barroom bore." The innumerable decodings, rewritings, and revisions in Foucault's Pendulum come to have something of this deadly inevitability, as does the plot. If I had the courage of my postmodern impulses, if I could really give rein to discontinuity instead of merely pedalling at it, then I could read Eco's book every which way, back to front, upside down, and find designs everywhere. My expectations were too staid, and they were frustrated.

Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl, on the other hand, is a work (really a single work, though strictly speaking it consists of a story and a novella) that not only can but must be read at a sitting. I read it sitting still in an armchair at home, with tears running down my face. I didn't feel irked or overburdened by learned clutter; I felt pity, grief, and gratitude. Is Aristotle suddenly hovering in the vicinity? Ozick isn't precisely writing tragedy; for one thing, there are very funny moments in The Shawl. (Eco's shaggy-dog sarcasm is cut off from extremes of laughter and tears; it provokes a snicker.) What is classical is the elegant shape of this little novel, in which Ozick sets before us a world of eloquent excursions and crisp choices. Both "The Shawl" and its longer sequel, "Rosa," could be said to be located in hell, but it is a hell ordered by the writer's art. Ozick is everywhere sparing of detail—to luminous effect. As Rosa sees her child tossed at the barbed wire in the camp, the scene is rendered with meticulous cubism: urgent, inevitable, fragmented, and rapid at once.

Far off, very far, Magda leaned across her air-fed belly, reaching out with the rods of her arms. She was high up, elevated, riding someone's shoulder. But the shoulder that carried Magda was not coming toward Rosa and the shawl, it was drifting away, the speck of Magda moving more and more into the smoky distance. Above the shoulder, a helmet glinted. The light below tapped the helmet and sparkled it into a goblet. Below the helmet a black body like a domino and a pair of black boots hurled themselves in the direction of the electrified fence.

In these two stories there is only this one death, a death not even quite seen or described. There is one shawl, first the starving baby's pacifier, then, for the surviving mother, a talisman. Eco wold weave a dozen shawls into a shroud of Turin which he would then painstakingly and predictably expose as a fake. Nothing in the world of The Shawl is breathlessly catalogued, only to be tossed onto the scrapheap of history. The baby Magda has been tossed against the fence, but even this life and death are not lost on or for the hoarding survivor Rosa, who writes Magda, now a full-grown and beautiful ghost, long letters in Polish.

Letters are to The Shawl as The Plan is to Foucault's Pendulum; both works concern written records rather than lived lives, or texts rather than voices. Rosa's past suffering has almost destroyed her, whereas Casaubon and his friends can be said to have sought out their own suffering; but in both works a single character seems to embody the life force, urging the preoccupied philosopher out of his or her obsession with the irrecoverable past. Nubile and warmhearted Lia, Casaubon's girlfriend and the mother of his child, disappears from Eco's novel for a long stretch; Cordelia-like, she seems to signify by her eclipse that the forces of evil are triumphing. Lia's odd analogue in The Shawl is Simon Persky, the kind old man who befriends Rosa in the laundromat, offers her tea, advises her not to live in the past. In Ozick's bright tragedy or dark comedy, it is Persky who may prevail; the ghost of Magda shyly flees this presence of the present. In Eco's compendium, Lia and the baby would appear to be the losers: Casaubon is, or thinks he is, doomed by The Plan.

In its miniature manner, The Shawl is as much a museum as Eco's hypertrophied catalogue. Ozick's central icon is the shawl itself, but surrounding this fetish are various kinds of writing: letters from the inimitable James W. Tree, Ph.D., of the Department of Clinical-Social Pathology, University of Kansas-Iowa; and finally Rosa's letters to Magda. Writing to her dead daughter is a daily ceremony for Rosa; it can be no accident that some of Ozick's most beautiful and penetrating prose is devoted to the uncanny power of writing.

What a curiosity it was to hold a pen—nothing but a small pointed stick, after all, oozing its hieroglyphic puddles: a pen that speaks, miraculously, Polish. A lock removed from the tongue. Otherwise the tongue is chained to the teeth and the palate. An immersion into the living language: all at once this cleanliness, this capacity, this power to make a history, to tell, to explain. To retrieve, to reprieve! To lie.

Eco too is eloquent on the mysterious luminosity of "the secret cipher [where] everything was the hieroglyph of something else." But because in Foucault's Pendulum he lacks or spurns the novelist's gift for grounding ideas in a human context, his weary aperçus remain disembodied and detachable as aphorisms. Ozick's tributes to the power of the word are etched by the force of her own artistry. Even so, we may pay for the distilled poetic force of The Shawl in the coin of human sympathy. Except for Persky, all the characters are tinged with a glow of hell-fire: the "sodomists" on the night beach, the red-wigged hotel manager, "the black Cuban receptionist" who sits "maneuvering clayey sweat balls up from the naked place between her breasts with two fingers." Rosa, herself grotesque, sees grotesquerie everywhere, and nowhere more than in the ineffable epistles of James W. Tree, Ph.D., of the Department of Clinical-Social Pathology, University of Kansas-Iowa. Studying survivors, Dr. Tree hopes

… that you would not object to joining our study by means of an in-depth interview to be conducted by me at, if it is not inconvenient, your home. I should like to observe survivor syndroming within the natural setting.

One wants to cheer Rosa's ritual response.

With these university letters Rosa had a routine: she carried the scissors over to the toilet bowl and snipped little bits of paper and flushed. In the bowl going down, the paper squares whirled like wedding rice.

This particular letter, however, is singled out for special treatment; Rosa burns it, and then turns to what is in a way a corresponding ritual, writing

the first letter of the day to her daughter, her healthy daughter … her daughter who was a professor of Greek philosophy at Columbia University …

This letter, which occasions Rosa's meditation on the power of the pen, also has a telling reference to Rosa's own mother's Polish, which was "very dense. You had to open it like a fan to get at all the meanings." The Shawl does in fact rather resemble a furled fan, all contained pattern, condensed suggestion, graceful potential. Eco, representing a different tradition of modernist fiction, gustily flaps his bulging catalogues. The opposing narrative strategies of these two works make their powers to move us, even to amuse us, vastly incommensurate: in sheer affective force, the light shawl outweighs the massy pendulum. There is, nevertheless, a way in which both works feel belated, nostalgic, post-modern, if one sense of postmodernism is that meaning is something that belongs to the past, something to which, in the absence of the original owner, we have only confused and disputed squatter's rights. Both Ozick and Eco show how fiercely possessive, how idolatrous we can become, clasping tatters to our chests like precious heirlooms, like maps of buried treasure, like shawls.

Source: Rachel Hadas, "Text and Stories," in Partisan Review, Summer 1991, pp. 579-85.

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Sources

Bawer, Bruce, "Bookshelf: Change of Pace for a Pair of Heavyweights," in Wall Street Journal, September 29, 1989.

Halperin, Irving, Review of The Shawl, in Commonweal, December 15, 1989, pp. 711-12.

Ozick, Cynthia, "Rosa," in The Shawl, in Vintage International, 1990, pp. 14-70.

Prose, Francine, Review of The Shawl, in New York Times Book Review, September 10, 1989.

Stavans, Ilan, Review of The Puttermesser Papers, in Times Literary Supplement, July 16, 1999.

Sutherland, John, Review of Quarrel and Quandary, in New York Times Book Review, October 8, 2000.

Further Reading

Frankl, Viktor E., Man's Search for Meaning, Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Frankl took nine days in 1945 to write this little book, assuming it would be published anonymously. Instead, the book brought its author worldwide fame. Using his own experience in a Nazi labor camp, Frankl demonstrates his extraordinary theory that human experience holds meaning, even in its most miserable state, and that humans are capable at all times of finding beauty in their circumstances.

Grove, Andrew S., Swimming Across: A Memoir, Warner Books, 2001.

Andris Grof (later Andrew Grove), born in Budapest, Hungary, survived in hiding during the Nazi occupation and escaped to the United States shortly before the Communist take over in 1956. The author subsequently became one of the founders of Intel and held the position of chairman in that U.S. company.

Levi, Primo, Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Levi pronounced himself lucky to be arrested and sent to Auschwitz in 1944. His late arrival made his survival until liberation more likely. This memoir by the Italian chemist includes the difficulties that confronted survivors immediately after liberation and the challenges they faced then in finding their way back home.

Shermer, Michael, Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It, University of California Press, 2002.

An in-depth study of the Holocaust deniers, their motivations and their claims. Each claim is carefully examined and refuted.

Spiegelman, Art, Maus—A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History, Pantheon, 1986.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel (essentially a long comic book for mature readers) telling the story of Spiegelman's father and his persecution by the Nazis in World War II. In this tale, the Jews are mice, the Nazis cats, and the Americans are dogs.

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