The New York writer and essayist Cynthia Ozick, who has become best known for her cerebral and singular insights into Jewish American life, doesn't like to do anything by halves. This collection of 19 short stories is best sampled in knish-sized bites.
The book's opening story, "The Pagan Rabbi" , a heterodox tale describing a rabbi's love affair with a pagan dryad, is a good indication of what is to come. When Rabbi Isaac Kornfeld, "a man of piety and brains", is found hanging from a tree in a public park, his old friend and classmate is left baffled. On a visit to his widow, he learns that before his death, Kornfeld had exchanged Hebraism for Pantheism and become infatuated with the glories of the natural world. The story, rich in surreal detail, captures what it is like to bed down with the deities of a more ancient faith.
Identity crises also lie at the heart of many ensuing stories in the collection. In "Virility" a newly arrived immigrant to America reinvents himself as distinguished poet, not by becoming a writer but by plagiarising an elderly relative's verse; while in the story "Envy; or Yiddish in America", two poets find themselves united in their hatred of a fellow writer who is far more successful than themselves. In Ozick's world, the art of writing fiction is viewed both as a curse and a blessing.