Cynthia Ozick on the Story of a Jew Who Becomes a Tormentor of Other Jews

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In the 1850s, when a young Italian Jewish boy named Edgardo Mortara fell ill, his family’s Christian maid had secretly baptized him in hopes that he would be restored to health, or that if he died, his soul would be saved.

This meant that when Edgardo survived and his baptism was revealed, the church saw him as a Christian child, not a Jewish one—and it was forbidden by Canon law for a Christian child to be raised by Jewish parents. So Edgardo, then six years old, was removed from his family against their wishes by the pope, and brought to Rome where he was instructed in the Catholic faith and eventually became a priest.

This is the background to a new work of short fiction, “The Story of My Family,” written by the great American Jewish writer Cynthia Ozick and published in the March 2024 issue of Commentary. In it, Ozick retells the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara as it is remembered by Edgardo’s nephew’s daughter who, by the time of the story, has moved to America. From there, she reflects on the way that Edgardo’s life and priesthood haunted his nephew, that is, her own father.

To discuss her new story, Ozick joins Mosaic’s editor and podcast host Jonathan Silver this week. Together, the two investigate the meaning of a tale about a Jew who becomes a tormentor of the Jews, and how such theological disturbances can rattle future generations.

Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.

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