Death and Mourning
This story focuses on the theme of death and mourning. It begins with the death by suicide of Rabbi Isaac Kornfeld. In visiting Sheindal, the rabbi’s widow, the narrator implicitly “asks the unaskable”—what is the meaning of the rabbi’s suicide? The narrator’s own father, also a rabbi, had declared him dead when he decided to leave rabbinical school and, following traditional Jewish mourning practices, he “rent his clothes and sat on a stool for eight days.” The narrator’s father never spoke to him again, eventually dying without another word to his own son. The narrator declares that “it is easy to honor a father from afar, but bitter to honor one who is dead.” In discussing Isaac’s suicide with Sheindal, the narrator blurts out, ”What do you want from the dead?” Isaac’s philosophical and theological musings, left in his letter and notebook, also address themes of death, in relation to the soul: “There is nothing that is Dead. There is no Non-life. Holy life subsists even in the stone, even in the bones of dead dogs and dead men.” In recording his discussion with the Nature goddess, the rabbi reports that she told him, that, in men’s praise of Nature, “It is not Nature they love so much as Death they fear.”
Marriage and Family
The narrator’s quest for the meaning of the rabbi’s suicide is in part an attempt to make sense of his own experiences of marriage and family. His father having declared him dead, the narrator married a non-Jewish woman, clearly out of rebellion. At the Orthodox wedding between Isaac and Sheindal, the narrator becomes aware of his nonJewish wife’s negative attitude about Jews and Judaism, and compares their secular wedding in a courthouse to the religious ritual of the Orthodox wedding. The narrator’s initial plan to woo and marry Sheindal, after Isaac’s suicide, is a swing in the opposite direction, a desire to reconnect with an Orthodox Jewish life after the failure of his marriage to a non-Jewish woman. In the end, however, the narrator’s desire to reconcile his failed relationship with his dead father, a rabbi, by marrying the widow of a rabbi, is negated when he finds that, much as his own father refused to forgive him for leaving rabbinical school, so Sheindal refuses to forgive her dead husband for leaving his Jewish faith in the pursuit of paganism.
Crisis in Faith
This is the story of an Orthodox rabbi’s secret crisis in faith, as revealed posthumously through the note and letter he left upon his suicide. The world renowned rabbi develops a secret life in which he addresses theological and philosophical questions concerning the pagan worship of Nature. The rabbi’s extreme crisis in faith, which results in his suicide, parallels the crisis in faith of the narrator, who chose not to pursue his father’s rabbinical career. Ozick’s writing often addresses crises in faith of Jewish people in secular America. The seduction of the Orthodox rabbi by a pagan goddess of Nature represents the seductiveness of secular, non-Jewish society to many modern Jews.
The “pagan rabbi” is seduced away from his Jewish faith by a goddess of Nature. He becomes preoccupied with Nature in the form of the plant world, and with literary and philosophical references to Nature. His notebook contains quotes from the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century, whose poetry focuses on Nature as a source of inspiration. Nature is posed in opposition to Jewish theology. Having been exposed to such musing on the part of the rabbi, at the end of the story, the narrator finds himself flushing his three houseplants down the toilet. This is a highly enigmatic ending. Is the narrator negating any evidence in his own home of the worship of Nature? Is he, in effect, liberating the houseplants, by sending them back into nature, via the public sewer system, through which they will end up in the river of sewage by the park where the rabbi hung himself? Is this story a condemnation of paganism? These questions are left for the reader to interpret, without clear guidance from the narrator.
Forgiveness is an important theme of this story, in terms of the relationships between characters in the context of their Jewish identity. The narrator’s father is unable to forgive him for choosing not to become a rabbi. The father’s inability to forgive is so extreme that he declares his son dead and never speaks to him again. The narrator’s psychology is deeply rooted in the bitterness of being cast out by his own father. When, in the end of the story, the narrator sees that Sheindal is unwilling to forgive her dead husband for his “paganism,” he is reminded of his own father’s obstinacy, and loses any desire to marry her.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Cynthia Ozick, Published by Gale Group, 2001.