Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Book of Lights grew out of Potok’s experiences as an army chaplain in Korea in the late 1950’s. Though the author originally intended to trace the boyhood of his protagonist in flashbacks, other books intervened to tell the stories: The Chosen (1967), The Promise (1969), and In the Beginning (1975). Earlier themes developed in those novels appear in The Book of Lights, such as anti-Semitism, textual criticism and Jewish tradition, and narrow fundamentalism’s inability to come to grips with the modern world. Yet here Potok goes beyond controversies within various Jewish traditions to confront the death light that has been let loose upon the world. Real world events no longer filter into the story from newscasts in the background; now the players themselves are brought onstage. Albert Einstein and former president Harry S Truman visit Riverside Hebrew Institute. If this device is not entirely successful (the two men appear larger than life in a kind of television walk-on), nevertheless Potok has avoided a simple formula piece. His descriptions of life as a Korean chaplain are sympathetic and detailed, as are his pictures of academic and Asian cultures.

Potok has written a moving story of the way of practical mysticism. It might perhaps be noted that the author’s father was a Polish émigré, and that Potok’s previous novels have dealt with the conflict of Orthodox Hasidic Judaism and modern Jewish scholarship. According to a noted cabala scholar, in eighteenth century Poland one man provided a link between the development of the Hasidic tradition and that of the cabala: one Abraham Gershon. Gershon Loran is perhaps the fruit of that marriage.