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That original unpublished novel became instead a series of books thematically linked, each exploring some aspect of the nature of a strict orthodox religious community in its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...
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