Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5473
In his first attempt at dramatizing his experiences as a chaplain during the Korean War, Potok had planned a series of flashbacks to the protagonist’s Jewish boyhood that would show the stark contrast between the ingrown world of the ultra-Orthodox Hasidim and the secular, non-Jewish world that he encountered as a chaplain. A crisis of faith would find the chaplain rejecting strict Jewish fundamentalism but adhering to the Commandments with a degree of openness toward the science and literary methodology produced by other cultures.
That original unpublished novel became instead a series of books thematically linked, each exploring some aspect of the nature of a strict orthodox religious community in its confrontation with the world of secular learning and values. Rather than speak from an assimilationist or modernist position, as do the creations of such Jewish American writers as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, Potok’s characters must choose between two versions of the same living faith: the world of the Hasidim, closed yet immensely resilient in the face of suffering, and the world of Jewish Orthodoxy, reverent to the Commandments but open to the insights of modern science, psychology, and literary criticism, and whose adherents are thus tempted to forsake the One True God.
In his published novels, Potok returns again and again to the Bildungsroman, the developmental novel, to show the intellectual and spiritual development of his main characters and to assess how they wrestle with the main questions each book poses. In The Chosen and The Promise, for example, Danny Saunders, genius son of a Hasidic rabbi, must reconcile his strict upbringing in Talmud studies with his growing appreciation of Freudian psychology. In the Beginning traces the intellectual growth of young David Lurie, who decides to confront anti-Semitism and show the relevance of Judaism to the modern world by using tools of textual analysis developed in Germany. Davita’s Harp considers the place of women in Jewish Orthodoxy, and My Name Is Asher Lev and The Gift of Asher Lev view the plight of the artist whose work wounds those dearest to him.
Potok pits good against good. His sympathies for the Hasidic community and the importance of Jewish practice mean that his characters cannot simply abandon their childhood nests without a deep struggle to keep what is of value and to add from the outside world what is also of value. It is a male-dominated society (Potok’s usual first-person narrator is almost always a young man, always a genius), and fathers and sons form the core of most of the novels. Some fathers, such as David Malter in The Chosen, are veritable saints in their compassion and understanding; others, like Asher Lev’s father, Aryeh, cannot understand their son’s preoccupation with the world.
Potok’s stories develop in diary-like fashion, full of everyday experiences revealed in simple diction. It is a conscious style, one patterned after such American writers as Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway, the short, simple declarative sentences achieving a kind of “flattening” effect as incident follows incident. This simple style belies the careful construction of each novel, and Potok has acknowledged the influence of Irish writer James Joyce, especially Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), which is a modernist parallel of the ancient Homeric epic.
In The Promise, Potok has Rachel Gordon write a paper on the “Ithaca” section of the Joyce novel, in which the artistic young Stephen Daedalus is contrasted to the earthbound Leopold Bloom. Potok’s references to Joyce are far from subtle. He drives home the point that Rachel, in love with literature and raised by secular Jewish parents, must come to terms with her love for Danny Saunders, raised by a Hasidic rebbe. Danny’s passion is psychology.
In the Beginning is patterned after the biblical book of Genesis, in which David Lurie’s many illnesses parallel the rise and fall of the Jewish people. Lurie as a child is literally dropped by his mother in an accident that shapes the rest of his life. The Book of Lights, with its references to the mystical Jewish Kabbala, is divided into ten chapters corresponding to the ten emanations of God. Protagonist Gershon Loran’s Kabbala teacher is named Jakob Keter; “keter” is the name for the primary emanation.
Each novel unfolds chronologically against the background of world events. In the Beginning takes the reader from the Great Depression of the 1930’s into the World War II era, Davita’s Harp from the 1930’s through the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and into World War II, and The Chosen and The Promise from 1944 to the mid-1950’s. The Book of Lights takes its story to the late 1950’s, and the two Asher Lev books encompass the 1940’s through the 1980’s.
Throughout the novels, a radio station or newspaper headline reminds readers that the story of the central characters mirrors the struggles in the wider world: anti-Semitism in the United States during the Depression, the attraction of communism to partisans in the Spanish Civil War, the confrontation of Jewish Orthodoxy with alien cultures, the Hasidic and Orthodox conflict over whether Israel should be formed as a political state, and the question of the Holocaust and how the Master of the Universe could have allowed it. In each novel, Potok reworked his own experiences to provide tentative solutions to the problems he has set for himself.
Controlling images shape his works. The baseball game in The Chosen is symbolic of the competition between Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish communities; the funeral of his uncle in The Gift of Asher Lev speaks of the sacrifice Asher must make for the sake of his art and his Hasidic community; the vision of the pups being born in the rundown Brooklyn neighborhood in The Book of Lights represents the fertile, mystical Jewish experience which, Potok believed, can enrich the intellectually sterile study of Jewish law.
Potok found such mysticism useful in crafting his novels. From In the Beginning onward, dreams, visions, and mystical visitations haunt most of Potok’s main characters. The ability of the artistic imagination to fashion some resolution to the novel’s questions reflects Potok’s position that Jewish fundamentalism can be enriched by its painters and writers, once they are permitted the freedom to work out their gift within the community.
In the final years of his life, Potok remained committed to exposing the irrationality and destructive potential of anti-Semitism. Like Simon Weisenthal, he exposed the cancer of racial and religious discrimination wherever he found it.
In I Am the Clay, although he departed from his usual focus on subjects related to Judaism, he offers hope that human hearts can be changed. The old man in this story does not want to help the child he and his wife find lying near death in a drainage ditch, but his wife insists that they save the boy. In time, as the boy matures and shows his mettle, the old man comes to value and respect him.
Potok was convinced that without stories, history would disappear. Throughout his life, he presented the stories that would preserve many elements of history, most notably the history of the Holocaust.
The Chosen and The Promise
First published: The Chosen, 1967; The Promise, 1969
Type of work: Novel; Novel
Jewish cultures conflict in the lives of two brilliant young men who must unite in their efforts to help a young friend.
The Chosen met with popular success upon publication, despite its being concerned with a small and narrow Hasidic Jewish community in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The story of Danny Saunders, son of the imperious and strictly Orthodox Reb Saunders, and Danny’s friend Reuvan Malter, son of a teacher at a Jewish yeshiva (parochial school), has universal implications: Can the culture of one’s early years be transcended without being denied?
Danny has been chosen by his father to be the next leader of the Hasidic sect, but Danny feels trapped. His father, in an effort to impart a compassionate soul to his genius son, has raised him in silence; all the while, however, Danny has been exploring secular psychology at the library under the guidance of David Malter, Reuvan’s father.
After the two boys clash at a baseball game, their friendship gradually develops, though when David Malter becomes active in the project of building a new Jewish homeland in Palestine after the revelations from the German concentration camps, Reb Saunders imposes silence upon Danny’s friendship with Reuvan. The rebbe is saddened by the news of the Holocaust, but he believes that a new state of Israel can be built only by the Messiah, not by human politics.
Following the creation of Israel as a state in 1948, the ban between Danny and Reuvan is lifted; the two must now explain to Reb Saunders that Danny will not wear the rebbe’s mantle but will instead pursue his study of psychology. In a climactic conversation, Reb explains to Danny (through Reuvan) that the silence he had experienced will allow him to hear the cries of the world. The rebbe himself cries and finally speaks directly to his son, this time as a father, not as a teacher. Reb Saunders accepts Danny’s decision; Levi, Danny’s younger brother, will assume the mantle as the leader of the Hasids.
Danny’s own freedom is mirrored in news reports of the Israeli war of liberation. Ironically, Reuvan, raised by his father to be a keeper of the Commandments yet open to the world’s learning, becomes a rabbi after studying, as Potok himself did, at an Orthodox seminary. Danny, who has removed his distinctive Hasidic adornments of earlocks and beard, receives his degree from Columbia University.
The Promise continues the story of the two men, now in their twenties, and intertwines their lives with those of Professor Abraham Gordon and his family. Gordon has earned the disdain of Orthodox Jews for his unorthodox questioning of Jewish verities, such as the literal truth of the Hebrew Bible. When Gordon’s fourteen-year-old son, Michael, explodes in a violent denunciation of Orthodoxy for its excommunication of his father, Michael is taken to a psychological treatment center to be helped by Danny Saunders.
Reuvan’s father, David, has also published a book, one criticizing the reliability of certain texts of the Talmud. This book has earned him the wrath of Reuvan’s teacher Rev Kalman. The Holocaust survivor fears that modernism will make deadly inroads into Orthodoxy. Reuvan can thus understand Michael’s feelings, though David Malter has taught his own son about the value of Hasidic Orthodoxy in preserving Judaism in the midst of terrible suffering.
Michael refuses to talk until Danny isolates him with silence. Broken at last, Michael voices hatred for his father, whose condemnation Michael himself is forced to share. Once having expressed his true feelings, Michael can begin to heal. Meanwhile, Gordon’s daughter Rachel, at first Reuvan’s date, falls in love with Danny, and the two are soon married, a union of the deeply religious psychologist with the cosmopolitan secularist.
The Chosen and The Promise share in their cores a profound love of learning, and if both Reuvan and Danny perhaps seem too perfect, they express well the ideas of silence and its power, the varying forms of love of fathers for sons, and the journey of two young men seeking to reconcile their faiths with the wider world of knowledge. David Malter had told his son Reuvan in The Chosen that a person must create his own meaning: Both Reuvan and Danny chose meaning that encompassed the past as well as the present, though each in his own way. Such choices, the novel suggests, are the stuff of heroism.
My Name Is Asher Lev and The Gift of Asher Lev
First published: My Name Is Asher Lev, 1972; The Gift of Asher Lev, 1990
Type of work: Novel; Novel
A gifted artist faces self-imposed exile in order to pursue his work; in middle age, he finds that the price he must pay for his creativity includes his only son.
A perennial theme in Potok’s work considers the place of the artist (painter or writer) within the Hasidic community. In My Name Is Asher Lev, the controversy is over representational art. Asher is born in Crown Heights in Brooklyn in 1943, and as he grows it is evident that he has a gift for drawing and painting. Asher’s father is frequently away on trips for the rebbe as the Ladover Hasid community (patterned perhaps on Lubavitch Hasidism) seeks to expand throughout Europe. While Aryeh Lev is arranging help for Jewish families emigrating to the United States, Asher and his mother spend long nights in loneliness. (Asher had refused to join his own father in Europe.)
When his mother’s brother is killed on a mission for the rebbe, Rivkeh Lev suffers a breakdown. Later, taking up her brother’s uncompleted work, she surrounds herself with her Russian studies to help her forget her heartache. Images of work completed and uncompleted pervade the novel, and Asher finds as he develops his gift that he must complete his understanding of the world by painting not only what he sees with his eyes but also what his inner vision shows him.
The pictures he paints often depict the reality of evil. At the end of the novel, Asher has revealed two crucifixion paintings to his parents. In both, the face of his mother stares from the cross, looking in abstract fashion at the ever-traveling husband on one side and at Asher the stranger on the other. Asher’s parents are horrified, and the rebbe tells Asher that the artist has passed a boundary beyond which even the rebbe is powerless to be of help.
Earlier, sensing Asher’s talent, the rebbe had turned him over to painter Jacob Kahn, a nonobservant Jew, who introduces Asher to the work of Pablo Picasso, especially Guernica (1937), the painting of the horror of the German bombing of the Basque capital during the Spanish Civil War.
In time, Asher will leave for France to work with Kahn, who tells Asher that the young man’s genius is the only justification for all the hurt his paintings will cause. Yet in his exile Asher will not cease to be a keeper of the Commandments (though the commandment to obey one’s parents must be reinterpreted); Potok is saying that the genuine artist must—perhaps inevitably—leave the Orthodox community but not necessarily Orthodoxy.
Asher frequently dreams of his “mythic ancestor” (a Jew who served a nobleman only to have the nobleman visit evil upon the world) and realizes that just as the ancestor might travel the world to redress the wrongs done by the nobleman, so the artist, as he reshapes the images of a world of suffering, himself can impart a kind of balance to that world as a sort of completion.
The Gift of Asher Lev begins many years later; Asher, now in his forties, is married to Devorah and has a daughter, Rocheleh, eleven, and a son, Avrumel, five. The family has returned from France to the home of Asher’s parents for the funeral of Asher’s uncle Yitzchok. The old rebbe convinces Asher to stay past the week of mourning, and soon it becomes clear that the rebbe, who had once put a blessing on Asher’s talent, is now blessing him for another of his gifts: his son.
Asher’s father will become the new rebbe someday soon, but to ensure continuity to the Ladover community, some successor must be guaranteed. Normally that would be Asher’s position; but, as Danny Saunders did in The Chosen, Asher removes himself from consideration. It falls upon Avrumel, the father’s grandson, to be next in the line of succession.
In the end, visited by visions of the dead (Picasso, Jacob Kahn), Asher returns to France alone to paint, promising a return trip to the United States to see his wife and their children. Death enfolds the story, with the funeral of Uncle Yitzchok and the “loss” of Asher’s son to the Ladover community framing the novel.
Asher is convinced that his painting gift is from the Master of the Universe, yet he cannot understand why that same God would exact such a price for that gift. Avrumel will be raised in the Hasidic tradition, but, though not an artist, he will also know art.
Potok seems to suggest that the child may one day bring a new appreciation of creative talents to the Ladover. As Asher lifts Avrumel over his head and hands him to Aryeh Lev, his father, Asher hears the voice of his mythic ancestor shouting something. In some way the artist has atoned for his gift, the gift that brings both blessings and curses upon the earth.
In the Beginning
First published: 1975
Type of work: Novel
In the Bronx section of New York City, a young boy struggles against anti-Semitism.
In the Beginning, Potok’s fourth published book, marked a stylistic advance in his art. In its extensive use of flashbacks and impressionistic language, Potok moved forward and backward in time creating concrete worlds suffused with the stuff of dreams, preparing the reader for the final vision of the climax. The novel is David Lurie’s story. Now a teacher, Lurie’s reminiscences transport him to his sixth year. At the close of the novel, Lurie has become a graduate student at the University of Chicago.
The Luries, an Orthodox Jewish family, emigrated from Poland and settled in the Bronx. David’s father, Max, founded the Am Kedoshim (Holy Nation) Society to bring fellow Jews to the United States and away from the bloody pogroms that plagued their homeland. Max Lurie is full of rage at the Gentiles who perpetrate such violence. David himself falls victim to anti-Semitism after he accidentally runs over the hand of a neighbor boy with his tricycle.
Eddie Kulansky torments the sickly David, who struggles in his thoughts against the bullies of the world. David dreams of the Golem of Prague, similar to Frankenstein’s monster, and imagines his putting to rest all those who would persecute the Jews.
Though he is frequently ill, David is (as are all Potok’s narrators) a prodigy, making adults uncomfortable with his questions and picking up attitudes of anger against the Gentiles. With the failure of Max Lurie’s real estate business during the Depression and the financial ruin of the Am Kedoshim Society, the family must face Max’s own depression. Max’s wife, Ruth, the widow of Max’s brother David (Max married her according to the Law of Moses) is frail and superstitious. Ruth reads to her son in German, and the young David begins a study of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, with businessman Shmuel Bader.
It is Bader and David’s Hebrew Bible teacher, Ray Sharfman, who encourage the boy to use his intellect to argue against the traditional Jewish commentators. For David, the study of the Bible texts is infused with life. His father’s watch repair business prospers, and the family is able to move to a larger apartment house, but Max Lurie is burdened by his older son’s interest in the new science of textual criticism, developed in Germany. There is still much rage in him, for his brother David had died in a pogrom, and his son’s study seems to be bringing the Jewish tradition into question. Max’s younger son, Alex, has taken up the study of modern novels and Sigmund Freud. David tries to explain that his intention is to use the learning of the secular world as a weapon against that world.
A visionary reconciliation occurs at the end of the novel, during David’s visit, years later, to the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. David is joined by the spirit of his father, now dead, and by Max’s brother David, who tells Max that there has been no betrayal, that Orthodoxy must be enriched by outside knowledge.
Rage will not overcome anti-Semitism; only a deep penetration of pagan culture with the insights of Orthodoxy, tempered by modern science, can ever succeed. In this vision, Potok draws upon the principles of argumentation and consolidation in Orthodoxy itself. Orthodoxy is not one generation’s interpretation but the whole tradition of interpretation, wherein one rabbinical argument is countered with a second, reconciled by a third, and so on down through the centuries. David’s explorations of new knowledge outside the tradition may well return to enrich the tradition itself and enable it better to penetrate the modern consciousness.
As in Potok’s other Bildungsromane, the most fascinating scenes in the novel involve David’s challenge of his instructors, and the ancient rabbinical commentators as well, on points of Scripture. The conflict here is that of good against good; the ultra-Orthodox tradition is drawn with sympathy and care, for these are the people of Potok’s past. Yet, as the author’s break with the Hasidim came, so David Lurie must strike out on his own, the burden of his people still in his heart. David will fight the anti-Semitic words with words of his own, not with guns, as his father had. He will make a new beginning.
First published: 1985
Type of work: Novel
A young girl, spurned by the very Jewish community she hoped to embrace, finds that her time of innocence is over.
Ilana Davita Chandal, Potok’s precocious narrator of Davita’s Harp, is in sharp contrast to David Lurie of In the Beginning. Davita is Potok’s first female protagonist, but she is also the first main character in Potok’s novels to seek to join Orthodoxy from pagan society. She is rebuffed by that Orthodoxy, and in the end expresses the rage that David Lurie hoped to overcome by his mediation of secular learning and Orthodox tradition.
Davita’s mother is a nonbelieving Jew, her father a nonbelieving Christian. Growing up in the New York area before World War II, Davita is accustomed to frequent moves. Her parents are involved in the Communist Party in its attempts to fight fascism in Spain and in the United States.
Davita’s early life is full of stories. Aunt Sara, a devout Episcopalian, tells Davita tales from the Bible. Jakob Daw, an old family friend, aging and infirm after having been gassed in World War I, tells Davita the story of a little bird and its futile efforts to stop the beautiful and deceitful music that lulls the world into accepting the horrors of war.
Davita’s father, a writer for New Masses, is killed in the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. In My Name Is Asher Lev, the artist protagonist was introduced to Picasso’s famous painting; now, in Davita’s Harp, Potok provides a dramatic account of the event that inspired it.
Soon both Davita’s mother and Jakob Daw have rejected the communists because that group had also committed atrocities. Spiritually homeless, Davita begins attending a Jewish high school, where she excels. Her mother marries an Orthodox Jew who had loved her years before, and though Jakob Daw dies in Europe, his last story remains in Davita’s heart.
The little bird ceased its search for the music of the world, Jakob told her, and instead made itself very small to fit inside Davita’s harp to bask in the music of innocence. Hers is a small door harp with little balls that strike piano wires whenever the door is opened. Davita’s time of innocence has ceased as well.
Though the most brilliant student in her yeshiva, in 1942, Davita is passed over for the Akiva Prize because she is a woman; another student, Reuvan Malter (first introduced in The Chosen) refuses to accept the award after he learns the truth. Davita feels betrayed by her adopted community and her lack of opportunity to speak a few parting words on behalf of all those who suffered in the twentieth century.
Potok provides Davita with a vision of a meeting inside the harp, where Jakob Daw, Davita’s father, and Aunt Sara appear. Davita says she does not understand a world that kills its own, its best. The harp sings in memoriam to all the Davitas who would never be able to speak their own few words.
Aunt Sara offers parting advice that Davita be angry with the world but always respectful. Davita would go on to public school, but the betrayal would change her life. The conflict between Orthodoxy and feminism was a new exploration for Potok, but the theme of the artist making a reconciliation with the world through art is reaffirmed.
I Am the Clay
First published: 1992
Type of work: Novel
Unlike most of Potok’s writing, this book departs from his usual focus on Jewish life and, instead, is a product of the years he served as a military chaplain during the Korean War of the 1950’s.
I Am the Clay is a most touching story that should have particular appeal to young readers. This novel chronicles the arduous departure of an old Korean peasant couple who are forced from their village because the Chinese and people they identify as friends from the north are invading their territory and will unquestionably deal harshly with any civilians left behind.
As their precipitate flight continues, they find a boy near death in a drainage ditch. Although the old man wants to abandon the child, his wife will not hear of doing so. She nurses the boy back to health and takes him into her family as one of her own. The boy, as it turns out, is able to reciprocate their care in remarkable ways. First he saves the couple from an attack by a pack of wild dogs. Next he finds fish for them to eat when they are desperately hungry and on the brink of starvation. Eventually, he manages to obtain an ox for them.
Finally the old man is won over by the boy and accepts him as a surrogate member of the family. He is convinced that the boy has brought him and his wife luck. As these three disparate characters move toward evolving into a family, each of the three has to deal with ghosts from their pasts.
The old man has to fight his overwhelming appetite for meat, developed when he was young and strong enough to hunt for his food. His insatiable cravings are difficult for him to control. His wife, on the other hand, has to deal with her sad, lingering memories of having lost her own child in infancy. The boy in many ways becomes a surrogate for the child the old woman has lost.
This boy, however, probably has the most difficult demons to fight in his past as he reflects on how his entire family has been killed and on how his village has been leveled. He has a new life and hope for a future, but his past will always haunt him. Potok once said that without stories we lose the past, and this is a typical example of how stories keep the past alive and serve as cautionary memories of the brutality of human conflict.
Despite the harsh events of the Korean conflict, Potok seems to suggest that there is always hope for the future. Possibly he believes in the perfectibility of humans, although he certainly suggests that they move toward perfection at a snail’s pace and that they experience incredible setbacks along the way.
The Gates of November: Chronicles of the Slepak Family
First published: 1996
Type of work: Nonfiction
Potok had followed the misadventures of the Slepak (also rendered Slaypek) family for several years before he and his wife flew to the Soviet Union in January, 1985, and finally were able to meet Vilotja and Masha in their apartment in Mongolia, where, after their five-year confinement in Siberia, they now lived in exile.
The Gates of November, whose title is derived from a line in a poem by Aleksandr Pushkin, recounts the experiences and ordeals of Solomon Slepak and his son, Volodya. Solomon, born in 1893 in a remote Russian village, was a faithful communist whose loyalty enabled him to rise quickly within the communist bureaucracy that controlled the Soviet Union after 1918. Solomon served in the military before assuming a diplomatic post in the government. Finally, he became a propagandist for the Russian news agency, Tass.
Solomon led a charmed life. When Josef Stalin set about cleansing the communist ruling class of Jews, Solomon was not eliminated. During this time, he maintained his unswerving allegiance to Bolshevism and managed to make his Jewishness inconspicuous. He went so far as to cease to have anything to do with his son when Volodya announced his desire to leave Russia and to relocate in Israel.
Volodya and his wife endured nightmarish reverses because of their decision to leave the Soviet Union. They were not only denied exit visas for eighteen years, but during this period they also were dismissed from their jobs, forced to divorce each other, and exiled to Siberia before being released after serving five years of confinement there and sent to external exile on the Mongolian border. It was in this situation that the Potoks found the couple when they visited them for one memorable evening in 1985.
When the Potoks took their leave of the Slepaks, they thought that they would never see them again, and they were convinced that the couple would never be permitted to leave Russia. Shortly after the Potok’s visit, however, the Slepeks were granted the exit visa they needed for their flight to Israel.
The Gates of November is an important documentary. It demonstrates how a corrupt political system can turn ordinary people into dissidents who can be controlled only by the most punitive measures. Corrupt governments can exist only through reducing the populace into a group of easily controlled conformists, and this state is achieved through constant intimidation.
Old Men at Midnight
First published: 2001
Type of work: Novellas
In Potok’s ninth and final work of fiction, the author pieces together three interconnected novellas that, when taken as a whole, might be viewed as a novel. Published in the year before his death, this book deals with a topic near to Potok’s heart: the horrors of war.
The narrator for all three stories is Iania Davita Dinn, newly graduated from high school in Brooklyn when the first novella, The Ark Builder, unfolds. As interesting as the story is, it is perhaps unfortunate that it is told from the standpoint of the young girl who, as Potok’s mouthpiece, is less than convincing. Potok’s shadow casts itself over her dialogue and action in this story.
Be that as it may, Noah Stremin, a sixteen year old in 1947, to whom Davita gives English lessons, is at first quite reticent and reserved, but as the summer wears on, he eventually tells his tale to Davita. Noah, it turns out, is the only Jew from his Polish village to escape the Holocaust. As he becomes more comfortable with Davita, he tells her of his close friendship with Reb Binyomin, who looks after his village’s synagogue.
Davita next appears as a graduate student, in which role she makes a more convincing narrator than she did in The Ark Builder. In this second novella, The War Doctor, Davita urges a visiting lecturer, Leon Shertov, to record in writing his experiences in Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union. In his youth, when he served in the Russian army during World War I, a Jewish doctor saved his life. Eventually Leon became a KBG interrogator, and as such, he again meets the doctor who saved his life. This time, the doctor is a prisoner, jailed in Stalin’s campaign against physicians and, especially, Jewish physicians.
In the third novella, The Trope Teacher, Davita has matured into an accomplished woman, an author of some repute, who becomes friends with the renowned historian Benjamin Walter, who needs expert help in writing his memoirs. Davita piques him into dredging the memories of events from his adolescence, when Mr. Zapiski, who served in World War I with Benjamin’s father, tutored him. She leads Walter to resurrect long-forgotten memories of his own experiences in World War II, and in so doing, she presents a convincing antiwar argument that borders on pacifism.
The War Doctor is at once the most artistically executed and most disturbing of the stories in this group that, when taken together, present a coherent case for banishing war from the universe. The depths of feeling that Potok brought to his final literary effort is clearly apparent in its execution.
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