Potok, Chaim (Vol. 7)

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Potok, Chaim 1929–

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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 popularity lies perhaps in the fortuitous coinciding of timing and a talent, howsoever meager, that is capable of rising to an occasion it has suddenly come upon. That occasion is the rediscovery, in the culture at large and among Jews in particular, of "ethnic consciousness," and Potok has put this rising awareness to profitable use, spinning out tales of unassimilated "people of the book" to the delight of the many assimilated Jews who read him.

It is understandable enough: after Portnoy and his alarming fantasies, who would not be ready to gather Potok's resuscitated ghetto Jews, with their delicate feelings and righteous habits, into his arms? In each successive novel, Potok has imparted freshness to an image of Jews as otherworldly wraiths, innocent, devoutly principled, without so much as a touch of the cosmopolitan angst that afflicts so many of their fictional (and real-life) brothers…. [Laden] as his works are with the colorful details of Orthodox ritual and with gobbets of Jewish history and folklore, they perform a pedagogical function in a relatively painless way, informing Jews about their heritage and making them feel nostalgically good about it at the same time.

That Potok's books are badly written seems to bother no one…. Potok's work is not accorded the normal critical reception, but is handled in the way matters of faith are handled by the non-religious in a carefully tolerant age, with kid gloves…. Potok writes more as a rabbi (which in fact he is) than as a novelist…. Potok seems to conceive of his novels as instruction or even initiation into such perplexing issues as the conditions for religious belief in a faithless time—issues rarely if ever dealt with in contemporary fiction. Unlike more consequential Jewish writers whose heritage colors but does not dictate to their material, Potok writes both as a Jew and because he is a Jew: one aspect validates the other. So Potok feels himself duty bound to present Orthodox Judaism in the best possible light: not as a mere moral code or a set of historical imperatives tacked on to the everyday business of life, which goes on elsewhere, but as a magically powered and all-pervasive essence that somehow affects the very character of that life at its core.

As a novelist, then, Potok has consciously forgone the attempt to write about situations or characters that might stand in for the situation of humanity in general, and has concentrated instead on the particular, writing from an insularly Jewish perspective that denies broader implications. Yet by keeping to his own side of town, to the restricted but fertile Jewish territory of high-toned wrestlings with God and self, he has hit upon both a formula for success and a comfortable frame in which the only limits to artistic achievement are the limits of his own imagination. Unfortunately, as In the Beginning demonstrates once again, those limits are rather quickly reached. (pp. 73-4)

In the Beginning's peculiar achievement is to render its figures so monochromatically—once someone "murmurs" in this novel he is condemned to murmuring as a permanent style—and to present its tensions so glaringly—"Being born a Jew is the biggest accident of all"—that one can easily skip several pages without loss. In this sense the book is a set-up; it fulfills expectations by setting up types … and then proceeds to have them do exactly what we would expect such types to do…. In the Beginning is thoroughly predictable, and as consoling as a glass of tea.

Potok's strength, here as in his earlier books, is his storytelling skill. His panoramic plots feature something for everyone, and the narrative thread weaves in and out of locales and periods with enviable effortlessness. There is no denying that In the Beginning, in its own plodding way, is a good read, and this in itself goes far toward excusing the black-and-white moral scheme, the pseudo-profundities, and the spurious bits of homely wisdom in which it abounds.

It does not, however, excuse Potok's misleading and sentimentalized version of Orthodox Judaism, which functions in all of Potok's novels less as a reality than as a symbol. For all its intricately wrought scenes and its wealth of detail, In the Beginning does not succeed in capturing the quixotic spirit of observant Judaism; its conception is at once too hallowed and too facile. Thus, emotions in the novel all take place on a spiritual level; no one experiences any primitive appetitive urges. To take one obvious example: Jews are notorious "noshers," yet though the Luries are forever sitting down to Sabbath meals, they eat oddly little—David abstains completely and the others subsist on cups of coffee and left-over boiled chicken…. Judaism in Potok's world is never simply lived; it is, rather, an intellectual curiosity that is always being examined, questioned, held up to the light, displayed….

Potok's rendition of Orthodox life is entertaining and informative, but his work does not expand to the dimensions it reaches for, and he has so far not exhibited enough confidence in the viability of his own materials to accord them the rounded and unapologetic treatment they are still waiting to receive. (p. 75)

Daphne Merkin, "Why Potok Is Popular" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1976 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, February, 1976, pp. 73-5.

In the Beginning is Potok's richest book. In the earlier novels, he seemed to be learning his craft; situations were oversimplified and characters were insufficiently developed. In this book, David and his parents emerge as complex, well-drawn characters. Language and images are carefully chosen: moving vans stand with "their backs open like black mouths"; an evicted woman places "her hands beneath her armpits for warmth." The Bronx setting is closely observed.

Potok is most skillful in handling David's childhood terrors which reflect the actualities of the "real" world—the Depression, the Holocaust, the anxieties of David's parents. We would be less concerned about David's eventual decision to break away from his world—or rather, to reshape it—if the early fears and tensions were not so convincingly evoked. (p. 22)

Enid Dame, in Congress Monthly, April, 1976.

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Potok, Chaim (Vol. 26)

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