Cynthia Ozick is a Jewish-American writer, best known for her short story “The Shawl” and the longer novella of the same title that includes that short story and a longer piece. Times Literary Supplement writer Ilan Stevens said of Ozick, “Parading her erudition like a peacock, the owner of a self-conscious style, Cynthia Ozick is a writer's writer."
Ozick was born in New York City on April 17, 1928 to parents who had come to America from the northwest region of Russia. They were from the Lithuanian/Litvak Jewish tradition, which the Jewish Women’s Archive explains gave her “a tradition of skepticism, rationalism, and antimysticism, opposed to the exuberant emotionalism of the Hasidic community that flourished in the Galitzianer [Galician] portion of Eastern Europe.” Ozick worked in her parents’ Bronx drugstore as a delivery girl of prescriptions. Growing up in the Pelham Bay area of the Bronx was often hard for a Jewish person, and Ozick remembered being bullied. She did well at P.S. 71 in the arts and letters, though, and delighted in the world of books. She loved fairy tales and admired her uncle, Abraham Regelson, a Hebrew poet. She attended Hunter College High School and then Ohio State University, where she earned a master’s degree in literature; her thesis was on the novels of Henry James. She married Bernard Hallote at age twenty-four.
Ozick began an ambitious project—a philosophical novel called Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love, but eventually abandoned it. She did publish another large work, Trust, in 1966, and it was reviewed positively but she was referred to as a “lady writer” by the reviewer to her disgust. It was during the early to mid-sixties that she immersed herself in the Jewish textual tradition, though she struggled with the term “Jewish writer.” She published a few poems in Judaism and a short story on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s career entitled “Envy; or Yiddish in America” (1969).
Ozick wrote consistently, publishing The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971), Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976), and Levitation: Five Fictions (1982), The Cannibal Galaxy (1983), The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), The Puttermesser Papers (1997), and Heir of the Glimmering World (2004). Besides fiction she also published numerous volumes of essays, including Art and Ardor (1983), Metaphor and Memory (1989), Fame and Folly, (1996), and Quarrel and Quandary (2001).
Her short stories of the 1970s and 1980s attracted positive critical attention, and she won first prize in the O. Henry competition three times. The JWA lists her various other accomplishments: “She was nominated for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award and won half a dozen coveted awards and grants, including both a Guggenheim and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She was also given the precious commodity of time in the form of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award for five years to pursue her craft. She has received several honorary doctorates and was invited to deliver the Phi Beta Kappa Oration at Harvard University. In 1986, she was the first recipient of the Michael Rea Award for career contributions to the short story. In 2000 she received the Lannan Foundation’s Literary Award for Fiction.”