Dear Cynthia Ozick,

The Puttermesser Papers

My favorite of your many books is your surreal novel The Puttermesser Papers. I’m dazzled by how you draw on a Jewish legend born of terror and use it to satirize urban politics, politicians, bureaucracies, and bigots. You use this legend to allow a brainy, nebbishy Jewish single woman in her late forties to enjoy a short-lived but fulfilling triumph. Ruth Puttermesser, an overqualified and underappreciated municipal bureaucrat, returns to her dreary apartment to find the potting soil that sustained her houseplants scattered all over the floor. Instead of reaching for the broom and dustpan, your Puttermesser, whose

Woman Molding Clay

name translates from Yiddish as butter knife, is driven to shape this dirt into a large female form that turns out to be a golem, a fantastic animated super heroine. According to legend, a rabbi in medieval Prague once sculpted clay into a huge male figure, a golem, to protect the city’s Jews. It is Puttermesser’s creation that helps her  run for and be elected Mayor of New York and enables her to transform Gomorrah into Gotham, a functioning, litterless metropolis whose citizens enjoy civility and comfort that even Michael Bloomberg can only imagine.

Not content to perk up your protagonist with a few well-chosen adjectives, a leg up the career ladder, or a sortie into genre fiction, you give Puttermesser a girl golem and make her mayor of New York! So thanks to your authorial daring and knowledge of Jewish history, she morphs into both mother and mayor. I’m embarrassed to confess that until I read The Puttermesser Papers in my late forties, I knew nothing about golems. Your insistence on drawing on and explicating this chunk of our long and troubled past reveals its richness while instructing those who, like me, are ignorant of it.

Golem and Woman

I love reading about Puttermesser’s transformation at least partly because it’s funny. Xanthippe, as Puttermesser dubs her new, oversized offspring, is a shopaholic, a glutton, and a sex addict who exhausts all the men in Mayor Puttermesser’s administration with her urgent demands.  The chapter of this five-part novel devoted to Xanthippe is truly comic, even when Puttermesser must destroy the libidinous golem who has run amok as golems are wont to do and threatens the new civic paradise that is Puttermesser’s great achievement.

Like your Puttermesser, in the Eighties I was a midlife single Jewish woman living in the metropolitan area and working in a corrupt Kafakesque bureaucracy. And like you, I was writing a book about a smart midlife single Jewish woman living in the metropolitan area and working in a corrupt Kafkaesque bureaucracy. So I was struck by your depiction of poor Puttermesser as a bit on the schlumpy side and suffering from hyper literacy and loneliness. And I was saddened when she ended up victim of a brutal killer rather than as the one who brings such predators to justice.

Breck Shampoo Poster

I identify with her. I grew up in the Forties and Fifties when rhinoplasty was a routine ritual for Jewish girls whose well-meaning parents wanted us to assimilate. My mother persuaded me to undergo a nose job by insisting that “no one will marry you with that nose. It’s too Jewish.” She also bought hair straightener to tame my brown kinky tresses. Puttermesser and I shared certain features.  She too had “… a Jewish face and a modicum of American distrust of it. She resembled no poster she had ever seen: she hated the Breck shampoo girl, so blond and bland and pale-mouthed; she boycotted Breck because of the golden-haired posters, all crudely idealized, an American wet dream, in the subway.” Puttermesser’s hair, brown like mine, “came in bouncing scallops” like “imbricated roofing tiles . . . .”  Apt references and wry descriptive gems like these gleam throughout your novel. Decades later Puttermesser’s antipathy towards those poster-ready girls born blond with short straight American noses still resonates with me even though I have long since forgiven them and my mother too.

Inspired by you, I’ve turned to Jewish history to write The Bones and the Book. But I have not yet put upon the page a character capable of creating a golem or doing something else that transcends reality so wonderfully. I still aspire to do so and have set the ingredients to boil in my head. All I need now is the guts to stir the pot. Before I begin to write that novel, I’ll revisit yours to find the courage I need. Thank you for your example.


Jane Isenberg



Filed under American classic, feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, Jewish fiction, Surrealist novel, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Dear Cynthia Ozick,

  1. Hi Jane, Wow — what a review. I’m neither blonde, nor the bearer of a small nose — so I can relate to your description of the protagonist’s distaste for “poster women.” I’m not sure where I get my good-sized nose, though I do know the bump in it came from my grandmother. She was both Polish and Russian. And my dad was mostly Italian. No Jewish heritage for me, though my husband’s Jewish family heritage goes back as far as is known. His grandparents were Orthodox, and though very old, I did have the pleasure to know them for some years before they passed.

    My husband doesn’t have a small nose, either. And his nose is actually one of the things I love most about him! So distinguished. So confident. I see beauty in the differences born from the varied heritage of my friends, who hail from Japan, Vietnam, The Netherlands, Germany — we are all different, and to me, that’s what makes us worth looking at. Yet of course I’ve been taunted for my nose, my height (I’m quite tall) and whatever else it is that children can assess in a mean-spirited way. But then, so have we all, right?

    What I’m getting at, is that I think you and this author you’ve cited have, in your specificity, encompassed a larger group than you realize. I believe we all, at some point, feel ostracized for an aspect of our appearance we really cannot control. The size of our nose, the color of our hair, our height, our religious background — the possibilities are endless. And yet the feeling of betrayal, or non-conformity is quite finite.

    It’s a very specific hurt, and I’d be interested to read this book, as you mentioned the protagonist falls victim to a serial killer. Why do you think the author chose that fate? Why not something more hopeful?

    • Hi, Melissa, Glad you related to the quote I used in my letter to Cynthia Ozick. And also glad you are so open minded about differences (and different noses)! As for you question about why Ozick had Puttermesser fall victim to a serial killer, I think there are several reasons. First, when Puttermesser was mayor,she was so effective that crime in New York was practically obliterated. Once she is now longer mayor, crime and poverty are again rampant. Her murderer is a burglar who enters her apartment and kills her in the course of a robbery, a common enough fate and real fear of many New Yorkers in the Eighties. Also, I didn’t mention in my letter that after she dies, Puttermesser goes to paradise and this gives Ozick a chance to dazzle us with her description of Puttermesser’s afterlife. It is hard for me to tell if Ozick is satirizing the idea of an afterlife, but if there is hope in this novel, it’s not to be found in this life. The Golem is just one part of a captivating novel.

      • Hi Jane, thanks for your thoughts on Puttermesser’s fate. I get the idea, to use her as a sacrifice. And to have her death act as entry to the afterlife section of the book. It’s interesting to hear the book didn’t end with the protagonist’s death.

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