Cynthia Ozick was born in New York City, the second of two children. She subsequently moved to the Bronx with her parents, who owned a pharmacy in the Pelham Bay section. Her parents had emigrated to America from the northwest region of Russia.
At the age of five and a half, Ozick entered heder, the Yiddish-Hebrew "room" where, in the America of those years, Jewish pupils were sent for religious instruction. There she was confronted by a rabbi who told Cynthia's bobe [grandmother], who had accompanied her granddaughter to school, in Yiddish, "Take her home; a girl doesn't have to study." Ozick dates her feminism to that time and is especially grateful to her grandmother for bringing her back to school the very next day and insisting that she be accepted.
While Ozick describes the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx as a lovely place, she found it "brutally difficult to be a Jew" there. She remembers having stones thrown at her and being called Christ's killer as she ran past the two churches in her neighborhood. She was particularly uncomfortable at school because she would not, on principle, sing Christian Christmas carols, and was humiliated as a public example for that. While writing The Cannibal Galaxy, a novel set in a Jewish all-day school, she asserts, "I thought of my own suffering, deeply suffering wormlike childhood in grade school; of my mother's endurances in grade school as an immigrant child.... Carelessness in a teacher of small children can burn in impotence for life, like a brand or horrible sign."
School became a serious pursuit for Ozick She attended Hunter College High School in Manhattan and then New York University. She then set out for Columbus, Ohio, where she earned a master's degree from Ohio State University with the thesis "Parable in the Later Novels of Henry James." As she confesses in "The Lesson of the Master," she "became Henry James." In 1952, she married Bernard Hallote. Upon receiving his degree, the couple moved back to New York.
For the next thirteen years Ozick devoted herself exclusively to what she called "High Art," working on a philosophical novel, Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love, which she ultimately abandoned. She then spent another six years (from 1957 to 1963) on Trust, a massive novel published in 1966.
In 1965, the same year her daughter Rachel was born, she published several poems on Jewish themes and produced "The Pagan Rabbi." She also wrote a hilarious short story based loosely on the career of Isaac Bashevis Singer, "Envy; or Yiddish in America," published in Commentary in 1969.
Three of her stories have won first prize in the O. Henry Prize Story competition, and five of her stories were chosen for republication in the yearly anthologies of Best American Short Stories. The editor of the 1984 volume called her one of the three greatest American writers of stories living today.
Ozick has been nominated for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She also received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award. She has received several honorary doctorates and was invited to deliver the Phi Beta Kappa Oration at Harvard University.
The author of novels, essays and plays, her short story collections include The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories  and Levitation . In 1980, Ozick published "The Shawl,"in the New Yorker, considered by many to be her most powerful short story. In 1983, again in The New Yorker, Ozick published a sequel to "The Shawl," "Rosa," a novella whose heft permitted her publisher to issue The Shawl  as a separate volume, consisting of the story and the novella. Ozick told the Paris Review in an interview that she would prefer not to make art out of the Holocaust. "I don't want to tamper or invent or imagine, and yet I have done it. I can't not do it. It comes. It invades."
Cythia Ozick has the unique honor of being the first writer to be given the Rea Award for the Short Story. In making this selection, the first Rea Award jurors, William Abrahams, Shannon Ravenel and Peter Schimdt said:
"A writer of great intelligence, moral energy, and imaginative power, Cynthia Ozick has appreciably widened the range of what the short story is able to be.…Reading "The Shawl" we are moved past the truth of fact to a deeper, different understanding; we bear witness to the truth of art. Only rarely does this happen, and when it does, it must be celebrated."