One or two of [the gentiles] were groomed—curried, fed sugar, led out
by the muzzle—for partnership: were called out to lunch with thin and
easeful clients, spent an afternoon in the dining room of one of the big
sleek banks, and in short, developed the creamy cheeks and bland habits of the always comfortable.
The Jews, by contrast, grew more anxious, hissed together meanly
among the urinals (Puttermesser, in the ladies’ room next door, could
hear malcontent rumblings in the connecting plumbings), became perfectionist and uncasual, quibbled bitterly, with stabbing forefingers,
over principles, and all in all began to look and act less like superannuated college athletes and more like Jews. Then they left. They left of their
own choice; no one shut them out.
This passage appears only a few pages into The Puttermesser Papers,
when Ozick is still recounting Puttermesser’s work history and helps
establish the voice that makes the novel pulse with so much electricity.
Puttermesser’s commitment to her work continues at the Department
of Receipts and Disbursements of the City of New York. She is troubled
by the mayor’s nepotistic hiring practices, which leave her, despite her
demonstrated prowess, at the mercy of incompetent and unqualified bureaucrats. Bothered constantly by her bad situation, Puttermesser turns
where many fictional (and real, depending on whom you believe) Jews
have turned: to the golem.
The golem is a figure of Jewish folklore comprised of inanimate material that is made animate by ritual and prayer. Throughout Jewish history golems have been called upon to defend the Jews when nobody else
would, the most famous example being the golem created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel. In the sixteenth century, fearing expulsion from
Prague or extermination at the hands of Roman Emperor Rudolf II, the
rabbi took clay from the banks of the river. The golem, Josef, did indeed
protect the Jews but was deactivated because he either went on a murderous rampage or desecrated the Sabbath, depending on who is telling
Puttermesser, having just made her own golem, attempts to better
understand it via a further reckoning with the history.
What interested Puttermesser was something else: it was the plain fact
that the golem-makers were neither visionaries nor magicians nor sorcerers. They were neither fantasists nor fabulists nor poets. They were,