Bill Moyers speaks with Abba Eban, scholar, orator and tireless defender of Israel, as well as writer Cynthia Ozick, about the Jewish experience and the birth of Israel.
BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers, and in this hour I’ll talk with a noted Israeli diplomat and a celebrated American writer, who ‘offer their personal views on the meaning of the Jewish story today.
It was nearly 40 years ago that the world saw the birth of a new nation -the state of Israel. In 1948, after 2,000 years of exile, the Jewish people finally had a homeland. One witness to this momentous occasion was Abba Eban. A scholar, orator and tireless defender of his land and people, Eban has served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, minister of education, deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. He is currently a member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, but Americans know him most recently as the host and narrator of the Public Television series, “Heritage: Civilization and the Jews.” Abba Eban visited the United States recently and I talked with him about Israel today.
[interviewing] How important is Israel today to this ancient story of Israel?
ABBA EBAN: Well, in two respects, it’s a revolutionary development. First of all, it gives a new aspect to the struggle for survival. The survival of a Jewish identity no longer depends upon the tolerance of a majority for a minority. There is an area, however small, in which Jews can take decisions. They can move armies, they can levy taxes, they can create a culture, they can admit their own kinsmen. In other words, Jewish history enters into a period of autonomy and not of dependence. Jewish history is not simply a reflection of the will of others, but there’s an aspect of Jewish will able to express itself in life and in institutions.
And the other aspect is the challenge, because Jews are now called upon to exercise temporal power, including military power, administrative power; and of course, that puts their ethical tradition to a test that it never had to undergo before.
BILL MOYERS: But I take from what you say that you do not believe Israel is the final answer to the question of Jewish identity.
ABBA EBAN: There’s no final or total answer. It is certainly one of the answers. I think it’s the most determinant answer, the most significant answer, because there’s much more prospect for the survival of Israel as a state than there is for the survival of Jewish communities in a voluntary allegiance to Judaism.
And Israel is now, after all, the central source of Jewish identity. But the fact is that Jews have an opportunity of reaching Israel and most of them relinquish that opportunity -not only Jews who are attracted by the freedom and prosperity of countries in which there is a liberal regime. The disappointing thing from the Zionist point of view is that even Jews who are on the move, are insecure, who live in volcanic environments, uproot themselves and seek other diasporas, other exiles. Soviet Jews, you’ll find in America and Canada. The Jews from Iran, you’ll find in Lausanne and in Geneva; the Egyptian Jews in Paris; Jews from Latin America, Cuba, in Miami. So that one cannot honestly say, however much I would like to say it as an Israeli and a Zionist, that the pull to Israel is the only impulse at work in Jewish minds.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain this, because one would have thought, given this history, that immediately almost all Jews would have headed towards Israel?
ABBA EBAN: Because most Jews are Jews with hyphens. They’re not just Jews, but they are Soviet-Jews, they are American-Jews, they are British-Jews, they are French-Jews. And in spite of the tragic experiences, some of these attributes are very attractive to them. Why shouldn’t a Jew be proud of being part of the American saga? Why shouldn’t he look with satisfaction on his position in Britain and in other places in Western Europe? So that apart from the fact that physical conditions are congenial, people don’t usually uproot themselves except under some incentive of hunger or persecution. There’s a kind of inertia which operates against a universal pilgrimage to Israel. But against that basis, one must really appreciate the fact that millions have gone to Israel when they did have other choices. The world today is an open world, and Israel is not the only option. Other civilizations are attractive for reasons of their greater prosperity, their greater sense of physical security. And the great drama of course is the greatest Jewish community ever to have existed in history, where an American Jew can seek fulfillment in Israel; but many of them feel they can achieve it in the United States as well.
BILL MOYERS: There is a deep affinity in the American experience with the Israeli Jewish experience, is there not?
ABBA EBAN: There’s an extraordinary parallel. In each case you had a people of immigrants and pioneers converging from all pans of the world and creating a new civilization. That’s the American story and that’s the Israeli story, and therefore when you see in Europe that Jews are despised for being immigrants, Americans say, “Well, we were all immigrants as well, and the fact that Israel has built a new culture, well, isn’t that the American experience?” Tom Paine: “Every day we witness the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.” The only thing that defines our experience is of course the scale on which the American drama is enacted and smaller canvas on which the Israeli story is painted, but there are more parallelisms here than between Israel and any other nation.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain the growth and resurgence of, well, what I would call fundamentalist Judaism? There has been this same tendency in Islam and, as you know, in this country among fundamentalist Christians. Do you think these are linked somehow?
ABBA EBAN: It seems that since religions have to defend themselves against secularity, they tend to defend themselves defiantly, sometimes exaggeratedly in their intensity; and if you’re a Christian, a Moslem or a Jew, you tend to be very Christian, very Moslem and very Jewish. And then there’s the political experience that, in Israel itself, since religious Zionism is after all the minority, somewhat embattled, it tends to emphasize itself very strongly and also to bring to expression an exclusiveness.
There is no such thing as a tolerant religion, because every religion wants to communicate its truth to others. And although Judaism does not have a proselytizing element, it does have the element of a special vocation, the sense that Jews are chosen by divine providence for a special role in the human experience. And therefore one is taught that we have been chosen amongst the nations. And it’s very easy, if that’s falsely interpreted, to mean that we are chosen in the sense of privilege, that we are better than others; but that’s the problem of education everywhere.
And it’s very grave for us that there should be a party in the Knesset, the central sanctuary of Israeli democracy, a party even of one member, which asserts the concept of exclusiveness and of racial discrimination, and which has even adopted the Nuremberg laws, simply crossing out the word “Jews” and putting in the word” Arabs.” It’s a reproach and a threat. And it has political implications, because if we are condemned to a lack of peace, then we find ourselves governing another nation with its particularity -the million and a quarter Palestine Arabs, who are not joined to us by any voluntary process of union.
BILL MOYERS: No fidelity to the flag or the history.
ABBA EBAN: For whom our flag is not theirs, and our tongue, and our language, and our faith, and our experience, and our Jewish solidarity are not theirs. And the paradox therefore is that we are now dominating another nation, because we are forced by the absence of alternatives to maintain our security in that way.
BILL MOYERS: One of your citizens, you may have known him. Yigal Allon
ABBA EBAN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: He wrote this. He said. “If we give the Arabs citizenship. we shall cease to be a Jewish state, because the balance of decision in parliament will be taken by Arab members who have no real allegiance or devotion to our Zionist purposes and are Israelis against their will. However, if we do not give them the vote, we shall cease to be a democratic state and we shall be infected with the colonial image.” Right now that’s up for grabs, isn’t it?
ABBA EBAN: That’s a very important statement, because it comes from the center of our political spectrum and it’s a terrible dilemma. If we integrate them into our international system, they’ll be rather like the Irish members of the British parliament, who made life so difficult for the British that they had to give Ireland its independence. But far worse, if we deny them that equality, we’ll be the only democratic state in the world in which there is a duality of jurisdictional authority, and that’s almost an insupportable paradox. Therefore, there has to be disengagement. Either by-
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
ABBA EBAN: We have to disengage from their population either by reaching a boundary compromise in which most of them would be, as Allon suggested, under an Arab sovereignty, or at least have some kind of an autonomy in which we would be liberated from administration and restrict ourselves to a security role. But the present situation, in my opinion, although it has an outward tranquility, is volcanic, and it attacks not only the security of our people in the long run, but it denies us the possibility of realizing our vision of a free, open and equal society. And I put much more emphasis on the difficulties of this for Israel than on the problems that it causes for the United Nations or the United States. It’s not chiefly a foreign policy question; it’s an intensely Jewish question.
BILL MOYERS: What a supreme irony that a people whose whole existence has taught others about the rights of minority, how to treat the rights of minority, suddenly arrives at the fulfillment of this ancient hope and dream and vision, only to find itself troubled by how it treats a minority.
ABBA EBAN: That fact is that, at the moment, the Arabs in Judea, Samaria and Gaza do not have an equality of rights with us. Now, so long as that’s a temporary situation, to be remedied by peace -and peace, after all, to which the major obstacle is not Israeli but Arab -then it is endurable. But if this were to become permanent, we would arrive at the terrible paradox to which my late friend Yigal Allon referred; and therefore we should discuss this problem much less in the international context and much more in the internal Jewish context. What kind of state do we want to build, and is that kind of state compatible with a coercive jurisdiction? And if it is not compatible, then we should seek what I’ve called disengagement, either by territorial compromise or by a form of autonomy in which we would no longer control their lives.
BILL MOYERS: When you were a young man, almost a boy, when you joined the Middle East Center of Arabic Studies in Jerusalem, you said you believed you could contribute over time to building a bridge between Jews and Arabs. Do you still think that’s true?
ABBA EBAN: It’s possible, although this is not a prosperous time for that vision. I recently introduced into the Knesset a proposal to make the study of Arabic by young Israelis more popular than it is, because here we are in the middle of a world in which the Arabic language and the Moslem faith predominate, and there’s very little curiosity amongst Israelis about what goes on across the fence. Israelis don’t want to know anything about Arabic; they’re not interested in knowing what the shop signs say, what the transistors are saying, what the newspapers are saying. We ought to try to create not only our individual national allegiance; we should create a sense of regional patriotism as well.
BILL MOYERS: Do you still speak Arabic?
ABBA EBAN: Yes, I make speeches in Arabic, and I think it’s important. It’s impossible that we should be all bilingual, but there should be a larger number of Israelis who have a direct and sympathetic access to the culture and language of the neighboring world.
BILL MOYERS: So Israel, the fulfillment of so much in Jewish history, exists today, but troubled by rising religious zealot, by this unresolved question of the Arabs in the midst of Israel, and also by the fact that it remains a society at war; and something happens to a society, does it not, when military force becomes the prevailing principle?
ABBA EBAN: Yes, the dilemmas of the use of power are very acute. It’s much more easy to win a military victory than to know what to do with a victory once it has been achieved. And that’s why this precedent with the largest Arab Slate, with Egypt, is vitally important. If that succeeds, then Israelis will believe in a general possibility of Arab-Israeli peace, and Arabs will believe that peace with Israel has its advantages and benefits. But if that were, heaven forbid, to fail, there would be created cosmic despair about the basic idea of the reconcilability between Israel and the Arab world, and therefore we must follow the fortunes of that relationship with very great vigilance and tension.
BILL MOYERS: There’s one other question that interests me. As younger generations move further and further away from experience with and memory of the Holocaust and that inspirited war for independence in 1948, what happened to their own sense of Israel and their own commitment to Judaism?
ABBA EBAN: I differentiate; in Israel, after all, even without those memories, the land is our land, the landscapes are our landscapes, it’s a great love of Israelis for their land, their landscapes, their sense of nationhood. These symbols and emblems of nation are very moving, because most Israelis, however young, know that this was not always the case, and people cherish that which they once lacked. But for Jews outside Israel, without the traumatic experience of the Holocaust and the exalting experience of Israel’s resurgence, the task of maintaining fidelity to our heritage will become more and more difficult, and the tendency to be lax and negligent about that heritage will grow. And therefore whatever can be done in America and other countries to conserve a sense of heritage, legacy, and to give it vividness and value is more vitally important than ever before.
BILL MOYERS: Both the vitality and value of the Jewish legacy can be found in the short stories, novels and essays of Cynthia Ozick. Ms. Ozick was born in the Bronx, New York, to Russian immigrant parents, and she has written on subjects ranging from literature to politics to the experience of Jewish women. At the core of her stories is the idea of a primal Jewish nature that generates conflict, celebration and even redemption in the lives of her characters. The stories are at once magical and deeply rooted in the circumstances and problems of contemporary life. I talked with Cynthia Ozick in New York.
[interviewing] You once wrote, “That when the Torah penetrated the soul of the Jewish people, they said, we will no longer be buffeted, we will no longer be the instruments of the policies of others.” Do you remember that?
BILL MOYERS: And you went on to say, “And now it is the turn of Jewish women–”
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: “-to do the same.” Explain that to me. What did you mean?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Well, the great intellectual and philosophical heritage of the Jews is truly the work of half the Jewish people, namely, the men. And I think women, in being deprived of this, have been buffeted, they have been given a sense of being outsiders to their own tradition. There is a sense, if you haven’t created it, of course it’s yours, you have been given it; but at the same time, if you have the intellect, and you have the love for the Jewish people, and you have all the other concerns and insights, you want also to be among the creators who make the tradition and its evolution.
BILL MOYERS: Is it true that when you were a child just starting to Hebrew school, that on the first day the rabbi dismissed you and said, “Girls were not supposed to learn, take her home”?
CYNTHIA OZICK: That’s exactly what he said. And my grandmother, who had taken me by the hand to the cheder, or Hebrew school, obeyed him and took me home. And I don’t know what happened in her mind, or in the mind of the household, overnight, but I do recall that the next day I was back there, to stay. .
BILL MOYERS: I wonder what that rabbi would think if he knew that you were Phi Beta Kappa, had been honored by the Guggenheim Fellowship, by the National Endowment for the Arts, by the Academy of Arts and Letters, and won three prizes for your short stories. What do you think he would think?
CYNTHIA OZICK: I think it’s easy for me to imagine what he would think. He would regard it as chaff and wind. He would regard it as part of the secular world, which has no weight or meaning. It would not be part of his religious and metaphysical civilization, and he would regard it as insignificant and without worth.
BILL MOYERS: Were you aware of this as you were growing up, a young girl, a lady, a woman? Were you aware of this backdrop of expectations?
CYNTHIA OZICK: I was, I suppose, a literary eccentric. I was, from my earliest moment, impassioned by, well, at first fairy tales and by literature. And I fell so deeply into the world of the imagination that it wasn’t until I became older that I began to orchestrate in my mind
the meaning of those distinctions that were made between men and women. I didn’t notice it as I was growing up.
BILL MOYERS: You weren’t made to feel inferior?
CYNTHIA OZICK: No. No, I was not. I did have in my family-my mother’s brother was a poet, he was a Hebrew poet. So I did have a kind of representative who pioneered for me in this, and so it seemed quite natural to belong to the secular world of literature. And in fact, something that I regret very much now, I have a strange remorse, is answering one of those applications for-one of those books like-contemporary authors, where they say “What is your religion?” And I wrote “literature” at one point, and that was about, perhaps, 25 years ago. I wouldn’t do that now.
BILL MOYERS: You wouldn’t put down “woman writer,” would you?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Never.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think when you hear that term, woman-
CYNTHIA OZICK: I think that it’s antifeminist. I think that this new movement in the women’s movement toward segregation, and toward the idea of the separate psychology and a separate experience, with all the emphasis on separate experience, is going to lead to a situation where we’re going to have writers and then we’re going to have women writers, instead of everybody being subsumed under that glorious rubric of writer.
BILL MOYERS: What led you to write down “literature” when you were asked religion?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Because. I suppose, that was my self-definition. I suppose I had not completed a long road I took, as a Jewish autodidact.
BILL MOYERS: Jewish autodidact meaning a self-taught person.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes. And being a self-taught person always leaves you with gargantuan gaps. And I’m not trained, and I’m not a Hebraist, and I’m not a scholar. I’m a simple scribbler, who became first impassioned by the world of literature and then by Jewish history and philosophy. But the order was first, literature and then philosophy and history.
BILL MOYERS: On a practical level, isn’t it still true in some synagogues that in class boys, because they are boys, are called to read the Torah, and girls, because they are not boys, must sit there like a bump on a log?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes. Well, I think there would be a great argument about a bump on a log, because of the fact-in my synagogue, which has the division between men and women called a mehitzah, this is quite true. Men and boys over the age of 13 are called to read from scripture, and women are not. This has a kind of advantage of the hidden life. You can read in great confidence that you’re not going to be called to perform, and there is a kind of sheltering wing of anonymity which gives you great access to the text. Nevertheless, I’m not apologizing for the situation, but I’m telling–I think I’m expressing pragmatically how it’s possible intellectually to live with it.
BILL MOYERS: Was there a time when you realized you couldn’t, as an individual, live with it? Did you feel rebellion?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes. I still feel rebellion. Watching my daughter grow up with a boy in our synagogue who sat next to her in school, a day school, a bicultural school, and they learned side by side. They studied side by side, and in the synagogue, on the Sabbath, he was called to perform, and to exhibit-not to exhibit, but rather to utilize his schooling, and she not.
And of course this did-this did hurt me.
BILL MOYERS: Did she talk to you about it?
CYNTHIA OZICK: We’ve often discussed it, yes.
BILL MOYERS: What did you tell her? How did you tell her to cope?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Well, I don’t know how to answer that exactly. I think it’s something she must work out for herself. In our synagogue, where we have a very beautiful-souled rabbi, there will not-and it is an Orthodox synagogue -there will not be change within anybody’s foreseeable lifetime. But I do believe in the long run that there will be. I think that there are mechanisms within orthodox Jewish law which will make this possible. And it’s not that these mechanisms are obstacles, it’s rather that they’re not being utilized. And I think a day will come -whether it will be my daughter or her daughter remains to be seen -but I do believe a day will come when there will be justice for women.
BILL MOYERS: Well, you’ve written quite powerfully about the theological basis for your understanding of yourself as a woman. You said the creator has no likeness in any terms that human beings can see or know or imagine.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: For you, what is the essence of God?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Well, as a Jew, it’s not for me to say that. For me to say that, I think, would be–would border on idolatry, and would be a non-Jewish statement. Deuteronomy gives it to us -I believe it’s Deuteronomy 29:29 -and the gist of that is, you go about your business, you humankind, and leave the mystery to Me. Capital M-E, Me. That’s the voice of the creator. And so it seems to me our human business is not to be like Gnostics, which means the knowers, who believe that they could envision and even seize the nature of God, but Deuteronomy 29:29 is that it’s very hard agnostic. It says one cannot know the nature of God, and to posit the nature of God is to posit a human image, and once you’ve done that, you’ve already made an idol. And so it seems to me that the essence, as you put it, is by definition unknowable, or you cannot be a monotheist.
BILL MOYERS: You said the creator, God, is an imagining of the unimaginable.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes. Yes. To imagine and to give a name to the imagining would be to create a human image, which would be then setting up in competition to the unknowable. And in Jewish tradition, God is often referred to as hashem, the name.
BILL MOYERS: The name.
CYNTHIA OZICK: And to say the name is in a way to say that which cannot be named.
BILL MOYERS: So you reject being called a woman writer.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: But you do describe yourself as a Jewish writer.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes. I’m often asked that question, and it’s often put to me as a contradiction.
Were you about to suggest that it tonight be?
BILL MOYERS: No, I was about to say that even when somebody asked me yesterday about you, I said, “Well, she’s a Jewish writer,” and then I stopped, If you had not been a Jewish writer, I would not have said, “She’s a Gentile writer.”
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Do you see what’s at work here?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes, certainly do.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Well, it is–it’s an interesting question. Well, first, let me examine just for a moment why I don’t think there’s a contradiction working here, because to be a woman is to be a part of a large civilization, and to be a Jew is to inherit a civilization, so I don’t think there’s a contradiction between wanting the qualification of Jewish and denying the qualification of woman. One is simply biological and the other is culture -and anatomy is not culture. As for the other, yes, I think it is an interesting question. One doesn’t say of John Updike, a Christian writer. Verily, one could.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah. Or a Christian journalist.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes, but one doesn’t.
BILL MOYERS: But Amos Oz, when he was in this country, was often referred to in the press as a Jewish journalist.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes. And I think that is one of the products of our plural society, and our sense of sociological minorities. Jews are, I think the figure is 2.7 %, and are often referred to as ethnics, a label which I would repudiate with my whole soul; I don’t-
BILL MOYERS: Why?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Well. I know I’m not an ethnic. I’m sure that no member of any group wants to be so labeled. And I do understand why the sociologists want to use this rather, for them, convenient term. But it seems to me that if you are a member of a heritage, which is the fundamental bedrock of what we call Western civilization, then the whole idea of the American democracy is subsumed under the Jewish heritage. And, well, through the hyphen of Judeo-
BILL MOYERS: Right.
CYNTHIA OZICK: -Christian, of course. And in that sense, I can’t be a little splinter like an ethnic. Sociologically, I live here in my country as a minority; metaphysically, I’m not a minority.
BILL MOYERS: When you published Trust, your novel
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: You acknowledged that you had begun writing as an American writer, and ended as a Jewish writer.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: What did you mean by that? What happened?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Well, that’s when I began my education, so to speak, my adult education, and I began to read very deeply, basically in Jewish history. And I took it in, in great quantities. I read every day for many, many hours, for a long, long time, and 1-I began to find literature not enough. Literature implies history, and implies philosophy, but I found that it was not rich enough, and that I wanted to live in this world with these ideas. It’s often been put to me, well, this is because it’s your heritage. I have such a sense-I agree, of course, I can’t deny that, but I have such a sense of interest in this history and these ideas that it seems to me, had I been born outside of this tradition, I would have gravitated toward it anyway.
BILL MOYERS: But when you said literature was not enough, where did you specifically tum? What path diverged?
CYNTHIA OZICK: I remembered having visited somebody’s house once and seen on the shelf an old, red-bound series of books, and it was called The History of the Jews, and it was by Heinrich Gretz. And I began reading these old, old histories, which are now out of print, and they’re beautifully translated. And they really are stories; it’s history as narration,-history as pageant, almost. And I fell first into these famous old books by Gretz, and then it simply exfoliated from the reading of Gretz. Then I began to read everything. I read Franz Rosenzweig, I read Buber; I was immensely influenced by an essay called “Romantic Religion,” which I read at the age of 25, by Leo Baeck, which seemed .to decode the universe for me -or at least decode our planet in the universe. And that particular essay altered my life forever, I believe. It helped me understand all societies.
BILL MOYERS: An American writer becomes a Jewish writer, and then when The Pagan Rabbi was published, you were praised not as a Jewish writer but as a Jewish visionary. Remember that?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: What did you think when you read that -a Jewish visionary?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Well, I don’t at all feel like a visionary. I do feel very much like a rationalist. You know, there is a split in Jewish tradition, as there is in all others, between the mystical and the rational; and both in temperament, and also in terms of family heritage, I am on the side of the rationalist. It’s called the mitnagdim, which means Protestants or opponents of the mystical movement, the Hasidic movement, which grew up in the 18th century. And my heart and soul-though that may be a contradiction in terms if I’m pushing for rationalism -my heart and soul is with the rational, except in the making of stories, because stories seem to me the arena for the magical and the mystical. They are make-believe. And those were the fields, in a sense, of idolatry insofar as idolatry is image-making, and that belongs to fiction and literature. And in that sense, I’m a split person.
BILL MOYERS: You recognize the-what used to be the enchanted world.
CYNTHIA OZICK: In fiction I do, yes.
BILL MOYERS: And you’re saying that is an utterly separate part of my consciousness and my existence? Like a basement is from an attic?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes. There’s a membrane, there’s a membrane between myself as a writer of fiction and myself as a Jew. I’ve written only that the phrase “Jewish writer” is an oxymoron, that one side of it is battling with the other side, because a writer is an image-maker, and a Jew may not be an image-maker. But one definition that one can find of what is
a Jew, somebody who is anti-idolatry.
BILL MOYERS: Because you cannot have an object that represents God.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Right, yes.
BILL MOYERS: God is not something one can see, feel, touch.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Right. And if you have such an object, then it is an image. And of course that’s what a short story is. A short story-a writer, in a way, is a competitor-creator. To be a writer is an act of great, great hubris, or to use the Hebrew-Yiddish word, chutzpah, because you really are creating a separate world. You’re the creator, you make it up, you make up the people, you make up what happens to them. You make up the disasters, you make up the floods and the droughts, and you are the god of your story. And this is a great act of-I haven’t got the word for it, I suppose.
BILL MOYERS: Hubris? Pride?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Hubris, pride-
BILL MOYERS: Presumption.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Presumption.
BILL MOYERS: Creativity.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Rivalry. That’s the word. It’s a great act of rivalry with the creator of the universe to think that you are going to put yourself in the role of the creator of the universe, and create your little universe. So I feel that to write fiction is really, yes, a great act of
hubris, pride and rivalry.
BILL MOYERS: There is a character in your novel, Enoch Vand
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: -who in the beginning is a very worldly man, a master of assimilation, almost a chameleon; who at the end renounces his worldly political success and devotes himself to the study of the Talmud.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: To redeem himself. He has, as you would say, Judaized himself.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Enoch Vand is a character who is extremely worldly. He’s deep in the world of politics, he’s conniving to be an ambassador. The state that he wants to be the ambassador of has a revolution, so he never quite makes it. And he represents worldly corruption in every way, including the fact that he enters Europe immediately after the Nazis have destroyed one-third of the Jewish people. And, though I never say so explicitly, I’m sure that this is one of the reasons that he returns to study texts, because’ he wants to understand and decode the world. And if religion has any power at all, if it means anything, it means a way of understanding the world -and I do think the word “decode” is very important, because the world is very cryptic to us. And I think Enoch Vand in that book, having been deep in great worldliness, was looking to break the code.
BILL MOYERS: But the point of raising Enoch Vand is the-there are not many like him, are there, who were withdrawing for the sake of redemption and Judaizing themselves? I mean, isn’t it fair to say that American culture in particular is swallowing up the Jewish identity?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes, I think that that has a truth to it. It’s the reason that a writer would let-will be called Jewish writer, because Judaism is seen as something parochial. And this is the fault not only of non-Jews; I think it’s very much the fault of Jews, who see their tradition as separate and apart and who will not see their-and who accept themselves by the sociological definition of an ethnic group that I mentioned earlier. And if Jews will see that to be a Jew is quite the opposite of the parochial, is-to be a Jew is the expression of universalism. I mean, how could it not be otherwise, when the emphasis is on the unity of God, and that the essential Jewish I:redo has to do with the oneness of the divine nature, which is the only statement of attribute that’s ever made to the creator of the universe -the oneness, the monotheistic oneness, the wholeness.
Now, if you are attached to an idea of oneness, which means a1Iness, then how can you think of yourself as parochial? And it seems to me when Jews, whether as writers or intellectuals or in any other manifestation, begin to see that to be a Jew is not parochial, but is the most acute expression of the universally-of universalism, then I think we will have a kind of change here. To be a Jew is to be in a particular history, attached to a particular land, with a particular set of circumstances at every moment, and the meaning of that particularity is universal.
BILL MOYERS: Is it to be chosen, is that the essence of it, too? To be chosen for this peculiar journey and peculiar existence?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Well, you know, we moderns -all of us have a problem with that word, because it seems elitist, it seems again parochial, it seems to shut out. Well-
BILL MOYERS: Exclusive.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Exclusiveness, indeed. I want not to be afraid of the word, if I’m allowed to define it.
BILL MOYERS: The word “chosen”?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes. I want not to be afraid of the word chosenness, if I am allowed to define it Jewishly; and the definition would be to live through your particularity, so that it will in its nature lead you to a sense of what a human being should be and how a human being should behave. Because the Ten Commandments did-are a universal possession, and they came in one particular spot, Sinai.
You know, there’s a rabbinic legend about why Sinai, and not Jerusalem; and the idea was it must be outside of the Jewish land, so that it would be accessible to all people. And yet it was given at Sinai to the Jewish people, so again, there is this strange interplay between the particular and the universal.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think it’s harder to maintain your particular Jewish identity in America in 1986?
CYNTHIA OZICK: No, no, I don’t find it difficult. I did, Mr. Moyers, when I was a child, I found it brutally, brutally difficult to be a Jew in the Pelham Bay neighborhood of the Bronx, New York, where I grew up. It was deeply difficult for me.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Well, I was stoned, I was called a Christ-killer. I had to run very fast past the two churches in our neighborhood. I was afraid of them. I was afraid of-I was afraid of abuse. I felt often deeply uncomfortable in school. I was made an example of, and was asked to stand on the platform during assembly before Christmas, because I would not sing the carols. I sang-at Thanksgiving I sang “We Gather Together,” and of course I sang “Jingle Bells,” but I didn’t sing the particularly Christian carols, and was made a humiliated public example for that. My mother was called to school when we-at the back of the speller there were poems in those days, and there was a-Joyce Kilmer’s–well, I don’t mean “Trees,” -which is the one about-oh, “In Flanders Field.”
BILL MOYERS: “Flanders Field,” yes.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Right, My mother was called to school and asked whether she would permit me to recite that, because, if you recall, the line is–little white crosses all in a row. And I had very great difficulty in my childhood, and even when I was in graduate school, attempting to get a room in Columbus, Ohio, so I felt all this very acutely. I had to solve it for myself, and I think I have already told you the solution. Whether I’m going to live in the sociology of life, or whether I’m going to live in the metaphysics of life. What happened to me as a child happened in my sociology. But if I live in the, what I regard as the true beingness of my Jewish identity, then all of that is simply the world’s misinterpretation and the world’s mistake, and it can’t hurt me.
BILL MOYERS: A stone thrown against a little girl is sociology?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes. Well, you see, it’s nothing to do with my culture or my civilization. It seems to me that when you have oppression, the oppression, of course, it’s inevitably, concretely a pan of the history of the oppressed people; but oppression, culturally speaking, is the culture of the oppressor. So the stone-thrower is the inheritor of a tradition which enables him, as a child, to pick up a stone and throw a stone at another child and yell, “Christ-killer,” but-and my part in that is to run as fast as I can. But it’s not a definition of me; it’s a definition of the one who picked up the stone.
BILL MOYERS: Do you remember your essay on “Toward a New Yiddish”? There’s a-I’ve taken an excerpt from it.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Oh?
BILL MOYERS: If you don’t mind reading it, and I’d like to ask if you still believe it. When was this written?
CYNTHIA OZICK: 1970, that’s a long time ago.
BILL MOYERS: Well, 16 years ago. I wonder if you still feel this way.
CYNTHIA OZICK: All right.
BILL MOYERS: Would you read it?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Surely. “I will tell you about my street and how I live in it, or do not live in it. Far from being a universalist, with a capacity to peer over boundaries and shrink ocean between Cambridge and Cambridge, I spend an unvisionary life in a house among houses. On my street, mine is the Jewish house. There is an Italian house, a Lithuanian house, a German house, a Scotch-Irish house; Lugiaro, Pozsa. Kushlan, Cochran. The names make music, but the harmony is superficial. The blacks are seven streets away in a separate enclave, invisible and shut off. When on occasion a black child roams by on a bicycle, stares of anxiety follow him. Still, there is peace, but it is not the trusting peace of universalism, or even of pluralism; it is the universal peace of truce.”
“I happen not to own a flag. In silence my neighbor notices my omission on Flag Day. In silence, I observe his silence. All this -my neighborly silence, I mean — is the ugly accommodation of cowardice. And the reason I am cowardly, I tell myself, is not because I am at bottom cowardly, but because I want to save my powers for the real thing, the life of what I once called art. Read, read, read, and read quickly. Write, and write, and write urgently, before the coming of the American pogrom. How much time is there left? The rest of my life, one generation, two?”
No, I don’t subscribe to that.
BILL MOYERS: That was a pessimistic assessment of-
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: -of the future of American society.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And you’ve changed?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Well, I think the person who was writing there was that little girl who ran very fast away from her local persecutors. I think since then I’ve grown stronger. I seem to grow stronger all the time, and I must say that the idea of America is what helps me grow stronger. When I think of the miracle and the genius of the founding fathers, how did this happen so far away from the center of then civilization? And of course, they didn’t know it and they didn’t have it in their mind, but they were doing something for a people who lived so far from their consciousness, and also so far from them geographically, the Jews of Eastern Europe who made up the great immigration in the 1880s and onward. They were preparing the way. And as I read more into the 18th century Enlightenment foundation of this country, I feel stronger as a Jew all the time.
BILL MOYERS: Because you feel embraced by those ideas?
CYNTHIA OZICK: I feel that they are expressions of my own tradition.
BILL MOYERS: You speak very movingly of America, but the forces of assimilation in this society are very powerful. Do you think there will be Jews in America 100 years from now?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Well, I think if our democracy holds there will be Jews in America 100 years from now. And I think that as–if I may call it this, as a diaspora community, this will become a stronger community than ever, in the sense of its knowledge of itself as a Jewish community. I do see that, because I think that as–as Jews don’t have childhoods like mine, that as Jews become more and more at home with fellow citizens, and most particularly their fellow citizens at home with them, I think then the task of adjustment with your elbows into your environment will have been finished, and then Jews will have the task of looking at Judaism.
BILL MOYERS: Do you see notable differences between Jews in Israel and Jews in America today?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes, they are, in terms of what speaking a different language does to you. in terms of gesture and personality. Now, Israel, I think the youth of Israel is very different from American Jewish youth. They’re far more serious, they are required to go in the army, they live in a beleaguered state. They have a consciousness of daily tragedy in their community; and we are namby-pamby, by just natural difference, because of our good fortune of not being under daily pressure.
BILL MOYERS: Do Jews in Israel bear a greater moral burden than Jews in America? .
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes. To use a trite phrase, which is truth -a truism which is truth -their lives are on the line, and insofar as they protect the Jewish nation in its manifestation as a state, they are protecting other Jews everywhere. I think Israel is much more than a haven, and to reduce it simply to being a haven is to misunderstand it.
BILL MOYERS: The old term that I heard when I was a young man was a safe harbor.
CYNTHIA OZICK: A safe harbor. But it is a safe harbor in addition, and as long as there is Israel, you loan never again have a world which doses all its doors -well, you can again have that world -but there will be the safe harbor. So Israel stands as a haven, but to define it simply as a haven I think is a mistake, because at this moment, American Jews who came to this country as a haven, have a safer harbor than Israel. So the point and purpose of Israel is not only haven, though it’s surely that. I think I can best explain Israel through an understanding of what is the Sabbath, if you wouldn’t mind-
BILL MOYERS: No.
CYNTHIA OZICK: -my doing that. Well, nature doesn’t have a Sabbath, and to the birds and the animals one day is not different from any other day. So what is the Sabbath? Why do you take what you call the seventh day and impose on it a holy obligation of rest, and use the creation of the world as a model-on the seventh day, he, namely the creator, rested? Well, that is a moral imposition on nature. You take the ordinary dailiness of nature, which is the rising of the sun and the setting of the sun and has no further meaning, and on it you impose a meaning, a moral meaning, an ethical meaning, that you set aside one day to think how to be a human being, to cleanse yourself, to renew yourself for the moral life.
And it seems to me that the idea of Israel as a sacral land is exactly that. It’s a territory, it’s a piece of land, it’s got a desert in it like any desert. It’s on the lip of the Mediterranean, it’s got water on its edge. It’s an ordinary piece of land, it’s a hunk of soil, and yet the Jewish Idea is to impose on this ordinariness an extraordinary moral idea, namely, this is the land where the expression of conscience has to have its concrete life -and this again brings us back to the meaning of particularity.
BILL MOYERS: I still have a letter you wrote to The New York Times several years ago -I forget the exact date. You had a cousin.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: A young boy, 14?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes, 14.
BILL MOYERS: Imri?
CYNTHIA OZICK: Imri.
BILL MOYERS: Imri, who had been killed in a terrorist attack in Israel.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And his father-
CYNTHIA OZICK: His father, Hanoch, was deeply injured, and he was-is a flute player.
BILL MOYERS: The father was a flute player.
CYNTHIA OZICK: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And the boy was a-
CYNTHIA OZICK: A clarinet player. And the father’s life has been shattered. He no longer plays in the orchestra.
BILL MOYERS: And you wrote a letter to the Times. Do you mind reading it?
CYNTHIA OZICK: No.
BILL MOYERS: Because this, I think, gets to the heart of what I hear you saying.
CYNTHIA OZICK: “On our battered planet, there are always, after all, two armies-the army of guns and the army of clarinets. Death flies out of one and beauty from the other. Imri is a fallen soldier in the army of clarinets; and in the end, your intractable stumbling block, your deepest contest, will have to be not politics, or your Soviet arms suppliers, or land, or your hatred of Jews, or your vow to dismantle Israel. No. You will have to grapple with what you know to be your chosen enemies-” this was addressed to the military commanders of the PLO “-rank after rank of the singing clarinets in the army of civilization. Civilization is more tenacious than the death you bring. Paper bag trees, and Keats in a garden near the airport, and the long, long voice of the flute and the singing clarinets, these are the soldiers you will have to defeat. If you can. ”
BILL MOYERS: SO you remain a believer in this civilization?
CYNTHIA OZICK: I remain a believer in the idea of civilization, yes. What else have we got, if not a civilization that commands us to be human beings? If we had another kind of civilization, and there are other such civilizations, we would live in a wilderness -and some parts of our world are wilderness. But it seems to me the Jewish idea is to stand against wilderness and for civilization. And that really is the long and the short of it, and that’s what Sinai was about. And that, it seems to me, is the quite universal Jewish message.
BILL MOYERS: For Heritage Conversations, I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 16, 2015.