The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Book of Lights is the story of two young men and their navigation through an evil and crumbling world. Indeed, when author Chaim Potok brings Albert Einstein onstage to honor the first recipient of the (fictitious) Leiden award, Einstein observes that “loran” has something to do with navigation (it is an acronym for Long Range Navigation) and that in his studies Gershon Loran has set an example for others to follow.

Gershon has long sought the Light that could somehow encompass the death light. At sixteen, he witnesses a dog giving birth on the roof of the family’s old apartment building. Such fecundity triggers an ecstatic vision: Gershon feels for a moment as if he could touch the sky, the very stars. The promise of this moment is fulfilled when he begins to study cabala in seminary; his mystical visions are given legitimacy within the Jewish tradition.

Korea changes him further. His feelings of abandonment, of the randomness of events, are no less strong, but he returns from the service with a new strength. He has learned and suffered much in Korea, but he has survived. His studies in the Zohar, he realizes, provided a curious refuge for gathering the resources within himself needed for facing a demanding chaplaincy. Inwardly, he had done battle with the voices from the other side, the voices that called for him to give up hope and dreams in a broken century.

Gershon finally understands that those voices are...

(The entire section is 567 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Gershon Loran

Gershon Loran, the protagonist, a Jewish chaplain in Korea and a student of Cabala (Jewish mysticism). A shy and melancholy man, unkempt and poorly groomed before his metamorphosis in Korea, he is given to having visions and other mystical experiences. Gershon has a brilliant mind, a fact clear to nearly everyone but himself. His life seems random to him, made up mostly of unlucky chances, and he faces it numbly and without enthusiasm, never really knowing what he wants to do. Keter and Malkuson both want Gershon as a disciple; Keter wins him because Malkuson’s Talmud and Bible hold little mystery for Gershon, and Keter sees life as mostly mysterious, mostly posing unpleasant and unanswerable questions. Gershon’s unexpected common sense and his willingness to face and accept the dark side of life make him a good chaplain in Korea and a good friend to Arthur Leiden, though Gershon typically does not recognize his own goodness. His successes never remove from him the sense he has throughout the story that he is always waiting.

Arthur Leiden

Arthur Leiden, Gershon’s roommate at the Riverside Hebrew Institute and fellow chaplain in Korea, a suave and handsome Bostonian. Arthur’s life is dominated by an obsession with his father’s role (and, by extension, the role of the Jewish people) in the development of the atomic bomb. His sense of guilt and his wish to atone for it drive him to Korea, whence he can visit Japan. In particular, he wants to see Kyoto, which his mother (an art historian) was instrumental in saving from bombing, and Hiroshima, which his father (a physicist) was instrumental in destroying. Formerly a gifted physics student at Harvard, Arthur has turned to religion out of fear; he sees it as safer than science and as less likely to destroy the world. Emotionally very unstable throughout the novel, Arthur...

(The entire section is 772 words.)