Chaim Potok Potok, Chaim (Vol. 7)

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Potok, Chaim (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Potok, Chaim 1929–

Potok's reputation as an American Jewish novelist was established with his first novel, The Chosen. In this as in all his fiction, the central motivating force is traditional Judaism. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Chaim Potok is, above all, an intelligent writer. He has the ability to dramatize ideas. He makes us experience them directly, passionately, as though they were actions rather than ideational constructs. His primary concern is the spiritual and intellectual growth of his characters—how and what they come to believe.

Like all of Potok's novels, "In the Beginning" is a Bildungsroman. As in the others, the narrator here is a brilliantly gifted Orthodox Jewish boy who eventually accommodates himself to modern life. The setting, too, is familiar; this time it is the Bronx. Potok has a talent for evoking the physical details of this world: the tree-lined streets, the apartment filled with books, the cold radiators, the steaming glasses of coffee.

It is not a paucity of imagination, but rather an obsession that brings Potok back, again and again, to these kinds of characters, this milieu. However, he chooses a different theme for every book. And in each one he probes a little deeper in an attempt to get at some essential truth about the human condition which is hidden among the Biblical scholars, the explications of Rashi, the yeshivas and the nearsighted kids that haunt him.

"In the Beginning," as its title suggests, is a recapitulation of the book of Genesis from the Creation to the Flood…. The style is occasionally awkward…. But the book's structure is a technical accomplishment. (pp. 36, 38)

The … mythic elements are superbly manipulated…. Potok has, at last, come to grips with the theme implicit in all of his previous work: the problem of sustaining religious faith in a meaningless world. He offers no easy resolution. Lurie [the narrator], at the end of the novel, is still searching for the truth. That is what makes "In the Beginning" so powerful. It successfully re-creates a time and a place and the journey of a soul. Its ultimate ambiguity is a perfect reflection of the response of an intelligent religious sensibility to life. (p. 38)

Hugh Nissenson, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 19, 1975.

David Lurie [the protagonist of In the Beginning] is a gentle, sickly, abnormally intelligent child of the '30s, the natural prey of every strep germ and street bully in The Bronx. He is also a born survivor, protected by a warm and lively Orthodox Jewish family, and his narrative's interest turns not so much on whether David will escape his perils as on what he perceives with his wonderfully penetrating gaze…. At the novel's end the … reader is at once unsurprised and informed, wholly aware of what it must have been like to belong to such a family and such a religion at such a time. Conveying vividly the exact feel of unfamiliar territory is a job almost exclusively performed by journalists. But as Chaim Potok (The Chosen) reminds us, the fact that novels can accomplish that task superlatively is one of the reasons why they are still written—and read. (p. 94)

Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), November 3, 1975.

Potok's latest exploration of the world of Orthodox Judaism is In the Beginning; his fourth novel and an all-but-negligible variation on the theme of his first three (The Chosen, The Promise, and My Name is Asher Lev), it is also his fourth best-seller, and it, too, like the first three, has been treated with respect, if not acclaim, by the critics.

What Potok's main theme consists of exactly is difficult to say. All his books center on the conflict between the religious life and the life of the imagination, but it is certain that his books are not bought—much less remembered—for the quality of their author's metaphysical speculations. A better clue to his...

(The entire section is 1,681 words.)