Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The Book of Lights is divided into three sections. The first details the seminary days of Gershon Loran and Arthur Leiden at Riverside Hebrew Institute in Manhattan. The second section follows Gershon in his year of chaplaincy duty in Korea right after the war. The third is a moving account of the visit to Kyoto and Hiroshima by Gershon and Arthur who are now reunited.
After his parents were killed in terrorist cross fire in Palestine in 1937, Gershon was taken in by his aunt and uncle. His aging uncle, afflicted with emphysema, attempts to run the decaying apartment house in which they live. The surrounding Brooklyn neighborhood is itself decaying, and there are frequent fires. Gershon is reared in pious Judaism but chooses to attend the nonorthodox Riverside Hebrew Institute. There he is introduced to the academic study of Jewish mysticism by one of his professors, Jacob Keter. Gershon’s plodding, unorganized ways as a student give way to a fervency in his exploration of what Keter called the feeling side of Judaism.
Arthur Leiden becomes Gershon’s roommate at the institute. Arthur, a Harvard graduate, had fled his studies in physics for the rabbinate. He is disorganized, taciturn, with something strange inside waiting to explode. Arthur comes to depend on “dear Gershon” for help in his studies.
Gershon comes to the institute at the outbreak of the Korean war; even after the war has ended, there remains a great need for chaplains for American military personnel stationed in Korea and elsewhere. Indeed, as a condition of graduation, those in the institute are required to make themselves available to the chaplaincy corps. Gershon, without understanding why, volunteers to serve in the army. Nevertheless, his entrance into the service is delayed a year because the institute awards him the first Leiden prize.
The award is named after Arthur’s brother, who was killed during World War II. Gershon learns that Arthur’s father, Charles Leiden, had worked closely with...
(The entire section is 829 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Hock, Zarina Manawwar. “Authority and Multiculturalism: Reflections by Chaim Potok.” Language Arts 72 (April, 1995): 4. Hock discusses Potok’s use of multicultural themes to expose attitudes toward current social issues. She demonstrates how his fiction reflects the battle between traditional and new sources of conduct.
Potok, Chaim. “The Invisible Map of Meaning: A Writer’s Confrontations.” TriQuarterly 84 (Spring, 1992): 17-45. Potok discusses the major theme that runs throughout his works, that of cultural conflict and the influence this conflict has on the direction of an individual life. Potok describes his first encounter with mainstream Western literature and shows how this experience shaped his subsequent writing.
Potok, Chaim. Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews. New York: Fawcett Books, 1990. Potok’s compelling history of the Jews re-creates historical events and explores the many facets of Jewish life through the ages. Although this work does not address Potok’s fiction, it does provide insight into Potok’s ethnic heritage, which has a direct bearing on his writing.
Walden, Daniel, ed. The World of Chaim Potok. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985. This rich resource on the writing of Chaim Potok features critical essays, as well as reviews and a bibliographic essay. It provides valuable insight into Potok’s fiction that can be extended to the entire body of his work. Includes an essay on The Book of Lights.