In “The Pagan Rabbi,” The narrator, an unnamed Jewish man in his mid-thirties, hears that Isaac Kornfeld, a childhood friend, has committed suicide at the age of thirty-six. The narrator’s father, a rabbi, and Isaac’s father, also a rabbi, had been friends as well as professional rivals. The narrator had been in rabbinical school with Isaac but had left while Isaac had gone on to become a renowned rabbi. The narrator had married Jane, a non-Jewish woman, and worked in her father’s fur business. He later divorced, and began his own business as a bookseller. His store is called the Book Cellar. When he quit rabbinical school, the narrator’s father had declared him dead, observed traditional Jewish mourning practices, and never spoken to him again. His father also had a disease of the throat that made speaking difficult and, eventually, impossible.
Upon hearing of Isaac Kornfeld’s suicide, the narrator goes out to see the tree from which Kornfeld hanged himself. Although they were not friends, Isaac had, over the years, ordered all of his books from the narrator’s bookstore, during which time they had exchanged brief notes to one another with each book order. Through this means, the narrator had learned that Isaac had seven daughters.
He then goes to see Sheindal, Isaac’s widow. Having only met Sheindal once, at her wedding, the narrator finds that he ”loved her at once.” Sheindal was born in a concentration camp, where, as an infant she had been thrown against an electric barbed-wire fence by the Nazis, to kill her—but had been saved at the last moment when a liberating army cut off the electric current.
Sheindal begins to question the narrator about the type of books Isaac had ordered from him. She asks if he ordered any books having to do with plants or farming or agronomy. Sheindal, who seems bitter about her deceased husband, tells the narrator of the strange behavior Isaac had been exhibiting before his suicide. He read books only about plant life, briefly joined a hiking group, and taken to bringing the family out to the country on picnics. Isaac began to tell the children bizarre and fantastical bedtime stories. He eventually took to leaving the house early in the morning and staying out late.
Sheindal gives the narrator the small notebook that was found in Isaac’s pocket after his death. The narrator returns to the tree in the park where Isaac had hung himself to read the contents of the note book. What is written in it seems unremarkable— the notes of a scholar regarding passages of literature and philosophy. The narrator feels that Sheindal meant to “punish” him for “asking the unaskable”—why Isaac had committed suicide.
Feeling angry and “cheated,” the narrator returns to Sheindal’s house to give back the notebook. Sheindal asks the narrator to read a “love letter” Isaac left before his death. The letter had been set between the pages of the notebook, but fallen out before the narrator left. The narrator is at first stunned by the idea that Isaac would have been carrying on an affair. He is reluctant to read it, but Sheindal insists upon reading it aloud to him. The letter is addressed to a “Creature,” and contains philosophical and theological musings on Nature and the soul. The letter then describes a mythical Creature, Iripomonoeia, that emerges from Nature in the park by the tree where he eventually hanged himself, and with whom the Rabbi claims that he copulated.
The rabbi’s letter expresses a crisis in faith, documenting the struggle between his rabbinical orientation and his discovery of a ”pagan” worship of Nature. Sheindal expresses disgust that her husband was secretly a “pagan.” The narrator is more sympathetic to the deceased rabbi’s philosophical musings upon his “soul.” He advises her to forgive Isaac, but she is full of spite and bitterness. While the narrator had at first secretly intended to woo and marry Sheindal, her inability to appreciate the rabbi’s crisis in faith leads him to change his mind about her. He leaves, advising her that her “husband’s soul is in that park.” He goes home and flushes his three houseplants down the toilet.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Cynthia Ozick, Published by Gale Group, 2001.