Chaim Potok Essay - Potok, Chaim (Vol. 2)

Potok, Chaim (Vol. 2)

Potok, Chaim 1929–

Potok, a Conservative rabbi, gained considerable recognition with his first novel, The Chosen. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)

On the deepest level, "The Promise" is about Jewish identity. Each character tries to define himself in relation to Jewish tradition. This is never a parochial concern because of Potok's heightened awareness that this is the greatest gamble of all: a people who have wagered their existence throughout history on the promise made by God to Abraham that they will be self-conscious agents of universal redemption. Nor does it make any difference, Potok implies, whether the assumption is true or not. The wager has been made. The Jews have long since embarked.

There is some discrepancy between Potok's intention and the realization of his theme. The fault lies with Potok's craftsmanship, in his frequent reluctance to dramatize. Often the narrator summarizes scenes rather than presenting them directly; even sentences in the middle of a dialogue are suddenly transposed into the third person. The impact of the book is vitiated. There is no question that Potok is a capable writer. When he chooses to dramatize something, he does so vividly….

"The Chosen" established Chaim Potok's reputation as a significant writer. "The Promise" re-affirms it. It is a better book. Despite an occasional technical lapse, Potok has demonstrated his ability to deal with a more complex conception and to suffuse it with pertinence and vitality. His promise is fulfilled.

Hugh Nissenson, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 14, 1969, pp. 5, 21.

Unlike many so-called American-Jewish writers, however, Chaim Potok is the real thing. That is to say, he has a genuine commitment to traditional Judaism as it exists today in this country …; Judaism and the Jewish way of life are at the center of all his works, molding and motivating his characters and providing the basis for their way of looking at themselves, each other, and the world. Put more simply, in Potok's writing Judaism is a living, complex force, not merely a subject of garbled nostalgic recall or an anachronistic source of exoticism and background color….

My Name Is Asher Lev, Potok's new novel, is far superior to his other books. And one of the main reasons for its being so is that its Jewish concerns, though just as pronounced as in the previous novels, are not defined by a superior auctorial voice but progressively define themselves in the course of the ongoing revelation provided by action and character.

Heartfelt and straightforward in style, My Name Is Asher Lev is narrated with a fluent simplicity that belies its intellectual depth and the technical skill of its construction.

Robert J. Milch, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, April 15, 1972; used with permission), April 15, 1972, pp. 65-6.

[Chaim] Potok's novels are deceptively plain. He uses no rhetoric, no ostentation of style, neither of which he needs. One feels that his subject was inevitable and that he is writing with deepest and total understanding. As in all good fiction, Mr. Potok makes us believe that his stories are true, that they could only have been as he has told them. His voice is honest and guileless, but most of all it is compassionate. With [My Name Is Asher Lev] Mr. Potok is clearly ending his apprenticeship as a novelist. Each novel has been a step toward mastery. He has now written a novel that is little short of a work of genius, and in his next novel we can hope that he will feel free to relinquish the careful restraint he exercises in his craftsmanship, and create with the full force that is obviously at his command.

Guy Davenport, "Collision With the Outside World," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 16, 1972, pp. 5, 18.

The protagonists of Chaim Potok's novels—The Chosen, The Promise, and now My Name is Asher Lev—follow a common career; in the course of the narrative they are seen moving slowly and with agonizing reluctance out of, and away from, the religious community in which they were born and brought up (a highly sentimentalized version of Brooklyn's Williamsburgh or Crown Heights section twenty years ago) and into secular society. Yet for all the suffering they undergo in this process, and despite the relentless psychological motion through which Potok pushes and pulls them, his characters display no real understanding of the dilemma which they have been chosen to exemplify, which is nothing short of the dilemma of modern religious Judaism itself….

Potok's heroes … move from the religious to the secular under the spell of an aimless, even a gratuitous, inevitability. In fact his novels assume the impossibility of existing in both the religious and the secular spheres—an assumption whose net effect amounts in the end to a kind of apology for assimilationism. The schizophrenic trap of living a double life and of speaking in two, often exclusive languages—the subject of all of Potok's novels—is precisely what he has been most unsuccessful either in depicting or in attempting to resolve….

As a portrait of the artist and a study of his growth and maturing, Asher Lev is without distinction. We are constantly told of Asher Lev's prodigious talent, and of the extent to which he suffers for his art, but from Potok's banal and sentimental descriptions of his painting, Asher Lev sounds dreadfully untalented. Moreover, his conflict with his father, which provides the impetus to his creative energies and is the dramatic focus of the novel, is treated in a heavy-handed and even careless way….

The artist committed to remaining within Judaism in a more than peripheral way, who makes his concern the creation of a work that will stand firmly within Jewish tradition, faces the necessity of working in genres whose origins and structures are all secular. The paradox implicit here may itself begin to suggest an aesthetics rooted in the same "schizophrenia" characteristic of Jewish existence within secular society. Chaim Potok no doubt would wish to be understood as working in the direction of such an aesthetic, but he has yet to write a novel whose imaginative richness and narrative strength would begin to approach the standard to which he aspires.

David Stern, "Two Worlds" (reprinted by permission from Commentary; © 1972 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, October, 1972, pp. 102, 104.