Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4416
In his novels, Chaim Potok returns again and again to the story of a young protagonist coming of age in a culture (usually Jewish) at once mysterious, beautiful, sad, and somehow inadequate. Usually told in the first person, Potok’s stories surround the reader with forebodings of the larger, evil world (news of pogroms in Europe, the Holocaust, the first atom bomb) into which his characters are plunged. Potok creates a microcosm of feeling and reaction to events that shake the world. His sentences are simple and reportorial, at times almost a parody of the staccato style of Ernest Hemingway. The stories develop chronologically, though they are frequently invaded by dreams, visions, or voices from the “Other Side.”
In each of his stories, Potok sets for himself a question to be answered and reworks his own experiences until he is satisfied with at least a provisional resolution. Controlling metaphors help shape the questions. In The Chosen, the baseball game symbolizes the competition between two Jewish cultures, the very strict Hasidic and the more openly assimilationist. What happens to those caught in between those two traditions? The vision of pups being born in The Book of Lights represents the entrance of fertile Kabbala mysticism into a world of strict Jewish law. How can Jewish mysticism enrich Orthodoxy? Asher Lev’s dreams of his mythical ancestor foreshadow the young artist’s confrontation with his own culture. What happens when art brings great hurt? The sound of a little door harp symbolizes the transforming power of the imagination for Ilana Davita Chandal (Potok’s first female protagonist) of Davita’s Harp. What is the place of the imagination in Jewish Orthodoxy? What is the place of women?
The Chosen recounts the story of Danny Saunders, brilliant son of a Hasidic rabbi, chosen by tradition to one day succeed his father as leader of the fundamentalist community in Brooklyn, New York. Yet Danny is less interested in studying the Talmud (Jewish law) than in probing the works of Sigmund Freud and other secular psychologists. The story closes with the inevitable confrontation between Danny and his father, which is mediated by Danny’s friend Reuvan Malter. In the climactic scene in Reb Saunders’s office, the old rabbi turns to his son and addresses him as a father for the first time. (For years, Danny had been reared in silence, except for times of Talmud study.) With fatherly tears, Reb Saunders explains that the years of silence created a soul of compassion within his brilliant son. Though he may well leave the Hasidic community for secular studies, Danny will always carry with him the legacy of Jewish suffering. That legacy will provide the moral force to change the world.
Reuvan, son of a Talmud scholar of the new school of textual criticism, chooses to become a rabbi. The choices, for Reuvan and for Danny, do not, however, come easily. Reuvan faces ostracism by the Hasidic community for suggesting that some Talmudic texts were of inferior quality and subject to misinterpretation. Danny must seemingly turn against his father if he is to pursue secular studies and abandon his leadership obligations.
The novel is structured almost as a diary, with pages of detailed descriptions of schoolwork in the Jewish high school, visits to the local synagogue, and the ebb and flow of Reuvan’s life. Though at times tedious, the very innocence of the language contributes to a certain dramatic intensity. The conflict in the novel is mirrored in the frequent news reports of World War II and in the ensuing controversy over the creation of a Jewish state, Israel, in 1949. The Hasidic community is content to wait for the Messiah to create such a state; Reuvan’s father calls for an immediate political settlement. Political questions are present in each of Potok’s novels and are of central interest in Davita’s Harp.
Silence is again present in Potok’s second novel, The Promise, which continues the story of Danny Saunders and Reuvan Malter as they enter their professional lives. The novel begins with shouts of rage from young Michael Gordon, the son of Professor Abraham Gordon, a controversial Jewish philosopher. Michael has been cheated at a carnival booth by an old Jewish man, and both Reuvan and his date, Rachel Gordon, Michael’s cousin, stare in horror as Michael angrily denounces Orthodoxy. Michael’s father had questioned the supernatural accounts in the Hebrew Bible and, as a result, was excommunicated from the Orthodox community; now Michael is releasing his hate on those who persecuted Professor Gordon. Subsequently, Michael is taken to Danny Saunders, now a psychologist at a residential treatment center. When the boy refuses to speak, Danny isolates him. The agonizing silence breaks Michael’s will and he reveals the hate he feels for his father and his writings, writings that have brought condemnation to them both. Eventually, Michael is finally able to accept his own feelings and reconcile with his parents, and Danny and Rachel are married, the powerful coupling of the brilliant Hasid with the cosmopolitan daughter of a secularist philosopher.
The Promise continues the exploration of Reuvan’s choice to receive his rabbinate from an Orthodox seminary and his refusal to become a secular Jew, as Professor Gordon has done. Yet Reuvan is uneasy with the traditional method of Talmud study advanced by Rav Kalman, one of his teachers. If the Talmud is the sacred oral tradition of the Jews in written form, contradictory commentaries from rabbis down through the centuries must always be reconciled by newer interpretations, so as not to call God’s Word into question. For Reuvan, there is another possibility; a corrupt text could be the source of confusion. Any correction, however, would mean violence to sacred scripture. Reuvan will become a rabbi so that he might debate Rav Kalman and the others from within a common tradition.
Reuvan’s father, David Malter, is the voice of quiet wisdom throughout both books. Though a proponent of the new Talmud studies, he is sympathetic toward those whose tightly knit culture is being threatened. As he tells Reuvan in The Promise, “We cannot ignore the truth. At the same time, we cannot quite sing and dance as they do.That is the dilemma of our time, Reuvan. I do not know what the answer is.” Earlier, Reuvan’s father had challenged his son to make his own meaning in the world. Those who had committed themselves to the Hasidic traditions had kept the faith alive through incomprehensible persecution. Now, Reuvan must also choose with the greatest seriousness and fervency, for he, too, must make a mark on the world and endure hardship of his own.
My Name Is Asher Lev
Potok picks up this theme in his third novel, My Name Is Asher Lev. Covering the period of the late 1940’s through the late 1960’s, the book is an apologia for the artist. The Orthodox Jewish surroundings are familiar, but this time the controversy is not over textual criticism but rather representational art. Painting is not strictly forbidden to the Orthodox Jew, but it is regarded as useless, as foolishness, as a waste of time better devoted to the study of the Torah, the five books of Moses. Moreover, certain pictures could come close to violating the commandment forbidding graven images. Asher Lev is a born painter, however, and throughout the novel, as he develops his talent, he is increasingly isolated from his family and culture.
Asher is born in Crown Heights in Brooklyn in 1943. His father travels extensively for the local Rebbe in an effort to establish Ladover Hasid communities throughout Europe and to aid families immigrating to the United States. Asher’s mother must stay with her son in New York because Asher refuses to leave his familiar streets to join his father in Europe. There are long nights of loneliness, waiting for Asher’s father to return from some mission or other. Asher’s mother suffers a breakdown when her brother, also on a mission for the Rebbe, is killed. She begins to find herself again by plunging into her Russian studies, picking up the work her brother left unfinished. Metaphors of things unfinished and things completed permeate the novel. Asher’s father is continually on the move because of the great unfinished work of the Ladover. Asher himself finds that he must bring some kind of completeness to the world by painting not only what he sees with his eyes but also what his inner vision reveals to him. Those visions are not always beautiful; his paintings can be like knives, plunging the reality of evil into the soul of the onlooker. The wise Rebbe, sensing Asher’s vast talent, entrusts him to Jacob Kahn, himself an artistic genius and a nonobservant Jew. Kahn forces Asher to absorb the work of Pablo Picasso, especially Guernica (1937), a painting inspired by the German bombing of the Basque capital during the Spanish Civil War. In time, Asher begins to surpass his teacher.
Asher becomes virtually a stranger to his father. At the end of the novel, Asher’s parents stare with mixed rage and amazement at the two crucifixions he has painted. Both are of his mother, looking in abstract fashion at Asher the stranger on one side and at the always-traveling husband on the other. The image of the cross for Asher has become the supreme symbol of suffering, devoid of any Christian preoccupation. The image is too much, however, for his parents, Orthodox Jews. As the Rebbe tells him, “You have crossed a boundary. I cannot help you. You are alone now. I give you my blessings.”
There is a marked contrast between Asher’s sensitive paintings (an effort to say what must be said about the evil in the world) and his selfish behavior toward his parents. He is one of the least sympathetic of Potok’s protagonists because he struggles less with his own anguish than with his need to express his artistic gift at whatever cost. Jacob Kahn’s advice, “Be a great painter, Asher Lev.That will be the only justification for all the pain your art will cause,” seems too facile. Asher is determined to remain an observant Jew, but he will do so on his own terms. The commandment about honoring one’s parents must be radically reinterpreted. The book suffers from the technical difficulty that Asher Lev must be identified as a genius early in the story in order for Potok to create the kind of tension he needs to interest a reader. A mediocre artist who causes pain is merely self-indulgent.
Yet the book reveals something of Potok’s larger purpose. Art must be true to itself even if that means surprise or hurt. The artist, painter, or writer must speak from the heart; anything else is mere propaganda. Potok sought to provide a rationale for his novelistic critiques of fundamentalist communities.
Potok introduces something else into Asher’s story: Asher often dreams of his “mythic ancestor,” a Jew who served a nobleman only to have the nobleman unleash evil upon the world. Just as Asher envisioned that ancient Jew traveling the world, seeking to redress the wrong he had a part in, so must the artist reshape evil into art and so bring a kind of balance to the world. Asher’s visions are forerunners of Potok’s use of mysticism or imaginative visions themselves as ways of coming to terms with a world gone crazy.
In the Beginning
In the Beginning is the story of young David Lurie and his childhood in an Orthodox family in the Bronx in the 1920’s. The novel is patterned on the biblical book of Genesis: David falls from his mother’s arms, develops a keen interest in the accounts of the Flood, and learns through the study of the Torah the power of words to shape a world. Potok’s fourth novel was his most complex to date, departing from the forthrightexposition found in The Chosen in favor of a more subtle panoply of impressions of growing up.
Like all Potok’s protagonists, David is precocious, constantly questioning the world around him, trying to have it make sense. He is sickly, bullied by other boys, and plagued with recurring nightmares. David functions in the novel as an idealized figure to focus the reader’s attention on how Orthodoxy confronts anti-Semitism and growing secularization. David imagines the Golem of Prague crushing those who would harm the Jews like some powerful living robot; as David grows, though, he learns that words can be more powerful than the Golem. Eventually, helped by those who practice textual critique of the Torah, David heads for graduate study at the University of Chicago. Yet, as in Potok’s other works, there must also be some kind of reconciliation of the demands of Jewish Orthodoxy with those of secular learning. It is achieved through a vision David has years later as he tours the site of the Bergen-Belsen death camp. David’s vision of his dead father, and of his father’s brother, David’s namesake, is a moving conclusion to the book. David’s father despairs that he has lost his son to the evil world, to the very world that took the lives of millions of Jews. He is reassured by David’s uncle, however, that the son must journey into that world in order to bring something back to enrich Orthodoxy, which has become moribund. The son must venture out but must never forget his own roots. No anger of humanity can strike evil from the world. Only the patient use of words, with faith in their power to transform creation, can accomplish the task. That will be a new beginning for the world, and for Orthodoxy.
Potok’s earlier novels tell the story of those in conflict with their Orthodox heritage. For the first time, In the Beginning pictures a reconciliation as a vision or story within the context of the novel. It is a kind of blessing from the beyond; here is the artist at work, crafting the resolution to the story.
The Book of Lights
The Book of Lights, narrated in the third person, uses the technique of mystical reconciliation for a more universal purpose. If the Master of the Universe truly exists, how is a believer to accept the death light of the twentieth century, the atomic bomb?Potok’s answer is that through the imaginative use of Jewish mysticism, the spark of God can be found in an evil world.
The story departs from Potok’s previous novels, which traced the childhood of the protagonist. Only a few pages are devoted to Gershon Loran’s early life before his seminary days and subsequent chaplaincy in Korea. Those first pages, however, are significant. Gershon witnesses the birth of some pups on a rooftop in the midst of his rundown neighborhood; he is awed by the presence of life even amid wreckage.
In seminary, Gershon is introduced to the study of the Kabbala and its Zohar, a Jewish mystical work from the thirteenth century. The Zohar is the book of lights of the novel’s title, describing the creation of the world through the emanations of God. There are places where God has withdrawn His light; that has enabled humankind to come on the scene but it has also ushered in great evil. Now the mystic is called to ascend through those emanations to find God.
Such mystical tradition is complex and even contradictory. For Gershon, however, it is the pounding heart of a living faith. Gershon’s quiet moments of reverie serve him well during his chaplaincy. Though Potok paints a detailed picture of Gershon’s activities in Korea, the crucial story is elsewhere. Gershon’s seminary friend, Arthur Leiden, travels with him to Kyto and Hiroshima. At the Hiroshima monument, Arthur reads from the Psalms and pleads to God in vain for some kind of atonement. Arthur’s father had worked with other scientists in developing the atom bomb, and Arthur is haunted by the memory. Later, Arthur is killed in a plane crash; Gershon, visiting Arthur’s parents, hears a portion of one of Arthur’s letters: “All the world, it seems, is a grayish sea of ambiguity, and we must learn to navigate in it or be drowned.” That is Potok’s message in the novel; “Loran” is itself a navigational acronym. If Judaism were merely the law, the faith would break on the shoals of the gritty world. Its mystical tradition infuses the faith with the ambiguity of real life. It does not explain but rather affirms the nature of God’s creation. The Zohar is an imaginative understanding of the nature of God; in it, God enfolds both good and evil. It is a light by which to view a decaying civilization, a light that will survive the death light. In his final mystical vision of his old Kabbala teacher, Gershon learns that the mystical light will help mend the world so that it can be broken again in yet new acts of creation.
It is the “mending power” of imagination that is at the heart of Davita’s Harp. The harp referred to is a small instrument that fits on a door, with little balls that strike piano wires when the door is opened or closed. Here Potok returns to the first-person narrative, tracing the childhood of Ilana Davita Chandal, his first female lead character. She is the daughter of a nonbelieving Jewish mother and a nonbelieving Christian father. Spanning the years from the mid-1930’s to 1942, the novel speaks with a new voice yet recapitulates some familiar themes.
Davita grows up in the New York area; she remembers frequent moves, strange people coming and going, and the constant singing of the door harp. Her parents are involved in the Communist Party, attempting to fight fascism in Spain and in the United States. Davita is precocious and inquisitive and her mother intelligent and cool, forever supplying Davita with the meaning of new words: proletariat, strike, idea, magic, war. Davita is spurred in her imaginative development by Aunt Sarah, a devout Episcopalian nurse, who tells her Bible stories, and by Jakob Daw, an Austrian writer, now suffering from having been gassed in World War I, who had loved Davita’s mother when they were both in Vienna. Daw is sheltered for a time by Davita’s parents and spins odd stories for her. There is the story of the little bird, flying to find the source of a beautiful music that soothes the world from the horrors of war. Only if the bird could stop the deceitful music would the world wake to its pain.
Davita’s father, Michael Chandal, a journalist with New Masses, is killed during the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Soon after, both Jakob Daw and Davita’s mother, Channah, become disillusioned with the Stalinists because the Communists, too, have committed atrocities. Davita has taken to attending a Jewish high school and becomes an outstanding student. Jakob Daw returns to Europe, where he dies, though his stories live in Davita’s heart. Not long afterward, Ezra Dinn, an Orthodox Jew who had loved Davita’s mother years before, marries Channah. Slowly, Davita’s mother regains her sense of place.
Davita’s time of innocence is over. Before Jakob Daw left for Europe, he finished his strange story of the bird. The bird, he said, gave up searching for the music of the world and became very small to fit inside the door harp. There, said Daw, the music was not deceitful but full of innocence. Now, however, Davita encounters something sinister in her adopted tradition. She is the most brilliant student at her yeshiva but she is passed over for the Akiva Award because, she is told, she is a woman. It is 1942. Another student is selected for the award but learns the truth and refuses it. He is Reuvan Malter, first introduced in The Chosen.
Ilana Davita had wanted the prize because it would have given her the opportunity to tell her Jewish community a few words of farewell. “I had made this community my home, and now I felt betrayed by it.I felt suddenly alone. And for the first time I began to understand how a single event could change a person’s life.” Later, in a vision, Jakob Daw and Davita’s father appear, as well as Aunt Sarah. They want to hear her words, and so Davita speaks. She does not understand a world that kills its very best. She had wanted to speak public words of good-bye to her father and Jakob Daw the storyteller. The harp appears in her vision as well, singing in memorial to all the Davitas who would never have an opportunity to “speak their few words to this century.”
In the end, Davita will go on to public school, angry with “sacred discontent.” In an interview, Potok explained that Davita’s experience was based on that of his wife, who was passed over as valedictory speaker because of her gender. Davita’s Harp is a new exploration for Potok, that of Orthodoxy and feminism. Yet the novel also draws from Gershon Loran, David Lurie, and Asher Lev in recognizing the power of the artist’s imagination to transform pain and ambiguity into some kind of meaning. A writer is a kind of harp, playing new music that mends the world.
The Gift of Asher Lev
The Gift of Asher Lev is framed by death. It begins with the funeral of Yitzchok Lev, Asher’s uncle, and the ending of Asher’s exile in France to attend the services in Brooklyn. Asher Lev is forty-five; he is joined by his wife, Devorah; their daughter, Rocheleh, eleven; and five-year-old son, Avrumel. Though his family adapts well to the life of the Brooklyn Hasidim, Asher is haunted by the memory of a strange telephone call he received eighteen years earlier, the last time he had visited his parents in New York. It was a voice from the “Other Side,” threatening death.
Asher is unable to paint (though he is given to sketching) and he seems to wander aimlessly through the local shops and galleries, as if waiting for a renewal of his gift. In the last year, critics had detected Asher’s repetition of old themes, and he feels in danger of losing his gift should he become acclimated to his parents’ community. Morose and determined to flee to France again, Asher is asked by the Rebbe to stay, at least for a while. Eventually it becomes clear to Asher that he and the aging Rebbe are woven inextricably together, as darkness and light. The Rebbe has no heir, and it is apparent that the leadership of the Ladover must pass soon to Asher’s father; but there can be stability in the community only if there is assurance of the line of succession. If not Asher, then the next heir must be Avrumel, Asher’s only son.
By the end of the novel, which takes Asher’s story to the late 1980’s, the artist has exiled himself again to France, but not without sacrifice. He has left his wife and children in New York, promising to return to them several months hence; yet in his isolation he has begun to paint again. “What kind of God creates such situations?” Asher asks himself as he walks with Devorah. “He gives me a gift and a son, and forces me to choose between them.” Later, in France, Asher is visited by the image of the far-away Rebbe: “Slowly you begin to unravel the riddle,” the vision says, Your answer may save us and return you to your work.It is sometimes possible for a man to acquire all of the world to come by means of a single act in this world.You will redeem all that you have done and all that you are yet to do.
Paradoxically, the sacrifice of Avrumel for the good of the community is a kind of death that redeems that artist himself; a gift on behalf of the world to come in exchange for the gift of the world as it is, in all its ambiguity and horror, and the ability to capture it on canvas.
I Am the Clay
Like The Book of Lights, I Am the Clay is a third-person narrative that grew in part from Potok’s experiences in Korea. As they flee the North Korean and Chinese armies, a nameless old man and a woman named Gyu find a boy, Kim Sin, who is terribly wounded. The man wants to leave the boy, but the woman insists on taking him with them and heals him of his wounds. Eventually, they return to the village of the old couple to discover that it has not been destroyed. The boy then travels to his village, discovers that it has been razed, and returns to the village of the man and woman. Nearby is an American military installation where the boy gets a job, eventually working for a Jewish chaplain. After the boy reluctantly gets involved with a thief, the chaplain helps him escape by finding him a job in Seoul. By this time, the woman is dead, and the man has learned to love the boy.
The book treats the conflicts between the old, rural way of life and the new, technological way of life as well as between the old religious ideas and the reality of war. When the old man and woman return to their village, they think things will be the same because it has been spared, but they are wrong.
Like the biblical Job, to whom the novel’s title alludes, the man, woman, and boy do not understand why they suffer. The woman has learned the words “I am the clay” from a missionary, from whom she has also learned to make the sign of the cross. Blending the sign of the cross into her own ideas about magic, she illustrates Potok’s idea of the unity of all people. Although the novel has little to do with Jews, I Am the Clay treats one of Potok’s central problems: testing one’s beliefs in the face of an ambiguous, often harsh, and rapidly changing reality.
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