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SOURCE: "Good Fathers and Good Sons," in Saturday Review, April 29, 1967, pp. 25-6.
[In the following review, Hicks offers praise for The Chosen, which he describes as "a fine, moving, gratifying book."]
The impression one gets from most contemporary fiction is that youth today is both disturbed and disturbing. Everyone knows about J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, who, with the best of intentions, gets into one mess after another. But Holden's troubles are nothing compared to the difficulties of other young people we read about. Wright Morris's Jubal Gainer whirls away on his (stolen) motorcycle from crime to crime. John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom runs and runs. The college students in John Nichols's The Sterile Cuckoo major in alcohol and sex, but they are tame in comparison with the undergraduates in the late Richard Farina's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. John Hersey, in Too Far to Walk, presents the newest lost generation, complete with LSD. And we are reminded of the hoodlums in the lower depths by such books as Hubert Sclby's Last Exit to Brooklyn.
We are likely to be startled, therefore, when we are introduced to two brilliant, studious, serious boys, as we are in Chaim Potok's The Chosen. Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter are fifteen when we encounter them and they encounter one another, and we leave them after they have been graduated from college, both summa cum laude. They have their problems, of course, but these arc not the problems that we are used to reading about.
It is a critical commonplace that good boys, like good men and good women, are likely to seem pretty dull in fiction, but Potok succeeds in making his boys interesting as well as credible right from the start. He begins with a Softball game, which is essential to the plot and at the same time seizes the reader by his lapel. The scene is Williamsburg, and the time is June of 1944. As a result of the war-time spirit, some of the teachers in the Jewish parochial schools have organized a kind of little league "to show the gentile world that yeshiva students were as physically fit, despite their long hours of study, as any other American student." Reuven Malter, who tells the story, sometimes plays second base and sometimes pitches for the yeshiva he attends. He describes the outlandish appearance of the rival team:
There were fifteen of them, and they were dressed alike in white shirts, dark pants, white sweaters, and small black skullcaps. In the fashion of the very Orthodox, their hair was closely cropped, except for the area near their ears from which mushroomed the untouched hair that tumbled down into the long sidecurls. Some of them had the beginnings of beards, straggly tufts of hair that stood in isolated clumps on their chins, jawbones, and upper lips. They all wore the traditional undergarment beneath their shirts, and the tzitzis, the long fringes appended to the four corners of the garment, came out above their belts and swung against their pants as they walked. These were the very Orthodox….
The almost demoniacally belligerent leader of the very Orthodox is Danny Saunders, son of the rabbi of a Hasidic synagogue. After a dramatic accident he and Reuven become close friends, and the novel focuses on this friendship and on the relationship between the two sons and their fathers. Reuven's father, a teacher at his yeshiva, is Orthodox but no fanatic, a man of wide knowledge and true tolerance. Reb Saunders, on the other hand, is a zealot, consecrated to the purity of the small sect to which he belongs and held in the utmost reverence by his followers. Both fathers believe in the most rigorous sort of intellectual discipline, and it is no wonder that their sons, one led on by love and the other driven by unsparing severity, excel in school and college.
Because of Reb Saunders's fanaticism his relationship with Danny becomes more and more difficult, and it complicates Danny's relationship with Reuven. It takes time for the situation to develop to a satisfying conclusion, and Potok handles the passage of the years with marked skill. After the revelation of Hitler's slaughter of the Jews—one million, three million, six million—Reuven's father becomes a staunch and eloquent supporter of Jewish nationalism, and almost wears himself out for the cause. Reb Saunders, however, is an anti-Zionist, arguing that there can be no true Jewish state until the coming of the Messiah. Reuven grows bitter at this, but his father tells him: "The fanaticism of men like Reb Saunders kept us alive for two thousand years of exile. If the Jews of Palestine have an ounce of that same fanaticism and use it wisely, we will soon have a Jewish stale." There are times, he has himself learned, when it is not enough to be broad-minded.
Whatever happens, the center of the novel is always the conflict between Danny and his father. It has been taken for granted from his birth that Danny will become a tzaddik, a great leader of his people, like his father and grandfather. But, though Danny is a brilliant Talmudist when he is fifteen, he becomes interested in psychology, and before he is graduated from college he has resolved to become a psychologist. The climax towards which the novel builds is the decisive confrontation between Reb Saunders and Danny, which is as surprising as it is moving.
One of the important literary phenomena of the past twenty years is the number of novels written by and about Jews, some of them in the highest rank of contemporary fiction. As has often been pointed out, the persecution and near-extermination of the Jews of Germany and its neighbors had the effect of making Jews in this country acutely aware of themselves as Jews. It has also been said, and I think accurately, that the Jewish writers, in exploring their own predicament, have expressed the sense of alienation that is felt by many men of our times.
The Chosen points to an even more significant conclusion, for it suggests that almost any situation, no matter how unfamiliar to the population in general, may have meaning for the multitude if the author goes deep enough. Who cares about the Hasidim? Not many people, I suppose. But we all know about fanaticism and can recognize that it may have power for good as well as evil. And many of us are either fathers or sons or both. As I began by saying, it is hard to make good boys credible and interesting; it must have been even harder for Chaim Potok to bring to life a pair of good fathers, good in such different ways. But he succeeded, and the result is a fine, moving, gratifying book.
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Chaim Potok 1929–
American novelist, nonfiction writer, children's writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Potok's career through 1996. See also, Chaim Potok Criticism and volumes 7, 14, and 26.
Potok is a Judaic scholar and ordained rabbi whose fiction consistently addresses important issues concerning Jewish religion and culture in contemporary American society. His best-selling novel, The Chosen (1967), and its sequel, The Promise (1969), won critical praise and a large popular audience. While most of his novels are steeped in Jewish theology, philosophy, and politics, his perceptive treatment of adolescent initiation, community dynamics, and intergenerational conflict transcend their settings to offer striking insight into the modern individual's search for spiritual meaning. Along with My Name Is Asher Lev (1972), the sequel The Gift of Asher Lev (1990), and In the Beginning (1975), Potok explores profound moral and social issues stemming from the Holocaust and the encroachment of secular influences upon traditional Jewish customs and values. A compassionate moralist and faithful observer of human nature, Potok is viewed as a foremost commentator on the postwar Jewish-American experience.
Born Herman Harold Potok, the eldest of four children, Potok was raised in the Bronx, New York, by Polish-Jewish immigrant parents. His traditional Jewish upbringing included an orthodox religious education at a yeshiva, a parochial school for boys, and a rigorous daily schedule of prayer and study. At age fourteen he read Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, an important early experience that inspired him to write. Against the wishes of his parents and teachers, Potok took up painting and, in his limited spare time, studied the fiction of Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner. Potok attended Yeshiva University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English with summa cum laude honors in 1950. He then studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he was awarded the Hebrew Literature Prize, Homiletics Prize, Bible Prize, the M.H.L. degree, and rabbinic ordination in 1954. After serving as a U.S. Army chaplain during the Korean War, Potok married Adena Sarah Mosevitzky in 1958 and taught at the University of Juda-ism in Los Angeles and the Jewish Theological Seminary Teachers' Institute. Potok resumed his studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a doctoral degree in philosophy in 1965. He also worked as managing editor of Conservative Judaism and, in 1965, began a nine-year term as editor-in-chief for the Jewish Publications Society in Philadelphia. Potok was also a visiting professor at Bryn Mawr College and the University of Pennsylvania during the 1980s. In 1967, Potok published The Chosen, his first and most popular novel, which received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award and was nominated for a National Book Award. The sequel, The Promise, won the Athenaem Award. Potok produced additional best-selling novels with My Name Is Asher Lev, The Gift of Asher Lev. In the Beginning, The Book of Lights (1981), Davita's Harp (1985), I Am the day (1992), and The Gates of November (1996). Combining his narrative skill and scholarly erudition, Potok also published Wanderings (1978), a substantial but highly readable historical account of Jewish cultural encounters with other civilizations over many centuries.
Potok's central thematic concerns and narrative style are established in The Chosen, a novel featuring two scholarly males who grapple with questions of religious commitment, cultural heritage, and the crisis of postwar Jewish identity. Set in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn against the backdrop of the Second World War and the Holocaust, the story focuses on the rivalry between Hasidic and Orthodox Jews through the relationship of two boys from opposing sects—Danny Saunders, the brilliant son of Hasidic spiritual leader Reb Saunders, and Reuven Malter, the son of progressive Orthodox scholar David Malter. While Danny is raised in strict silence and groomed to succeed his father as head of the insular Hasidic community, Reuven is encouraged to supplement his Talmudic studies with readings in secular philosophy and the humanities. Though both parents learn mutual respect for each other, they remain at odds over their views on the formation of the Israeli state. Much of the narrative revolves around serious theological debate among the yeshiva students and their fathers. After years of painful inner conflict, Danny eventually forsakes his father's expectations by studying to become a Freudian psychologist. The Promise follows the development of the two friends as Danny completes his studies in psychology at Columbia University and Reuven prepares for rabbinical ordination at an Orthodox seminary. The conflict in this novel centers largely around Reuven's controversial application of modern textual criticism to Talmudic exegesis. Bearing resemblance to a medieval morality play, Reuven's dispute with his fundamentalist instructors invokes charges of sacrilege and reveals the enduring influence of the unorthodox critical methods learned from his father. My Name Is Asher Lev is an adolescent initiation novel that follows the psychological struggle of a young Hasidic boy who takes up painting against the wishes of his parents and conservative community. Told as a first-person retrospective narrative, the story relates Asher's artistic and spiritual maturation under the tutelage of the rebbe and a sympathetic mentor who encourages his talent and introduces him to Western secular and Christian art. However, when Asher outrages the Hasidic community with his painting "Brooklyn Crucifixion," which depicts his mother as a symbolic martyr, he is finally ostracized. Reminiscent of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Potok explores the alienation and exile necessary for the aspiring artist to achieve self-actualization. In the sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev, Asher reappears in midlife as an internationally acclaimed painter in France. Returning to Brooklyn for his uncle's funeral, Asher is reimmersed in the politics of the Hasidic community and, in atonement for his defection and in recognizing the importance of continuity, agrees to offer his own son to the rebbe as a successor to the dynastic line. In the Beginning is an autobiographical novel that relates the historical continuation of Jewish persecution in twentieth-century America. A departure from earlier novels that depict events within the Jewish community, here Potok explores strained relations between Jews and Gentiles in the Bronx during the 1930s and 1940s. The story is told through the perspective of David Lurie, the young son of European Jewish immigrants who is harassed by a violently anti-Semitic neighborhood bully. Potok underscores the seriousness of this local conflict by drawing parallels between David's escalating torment and the international atrocities of the Russian pogroms and Nazi genocide. The Book of Lights traces the spiritual quest of two rabbis, Gershon Loran and Arthur Leiden, through their seminary studies and separate paths in the secular world. Potok juxtaposes the creative power of Jewish mysticism with the role of Jewish physicists in the development of atomic weapons through Loran's mystical interest in Cabala and Leiden's extreme guilt over his father's occupation as an atomic researcher. Unlike previous novels that feature male intellectuals, Davita's Harp examines the diminutive status of women within Orthodox Jewish custom and education. The female protagonist, Ilana Davita Chandal, is a brilliant student who challenges liturgical prohibitions against Jewish women and, after she is denied an academic award because of her gender, leaves the yeshiva for a secular high school. Potok further expanded his narrative vision in I Am the Clay, a novel set in Korea during the Korean War. Evincing Potok's characteristic moral and humanitarian convictions, the story relates the travails of an elderly Korean couple who endure dislocation and chaos by adopting a badly wounded orphan with whom they traverse the countryside and dodge the ravages of war. In The Gates of November, Potok follows the family history of Russian Jews who suffer privation and oppression under totalitarian rule in the Soviet Union.
Potok is highly esteemed for his vivid portrayal of Jewish family life and yeshiva education. His impressive knowledge of Jewish theology and history is also evident in the engaging intellectual debates that often serve as the locus of dramatic tension in his novels. However, some critics view Potok's preoccupation with esoteric religious scholarship as a liability. Though praised for breathing life into such academic matters in The Chosen and The Promise, Potok has been criticized for relying on stilted dialogue, flat characterizations, predictable plots, and didacticism to expound his philosophical and ethical musings in subsequent novels. His grim depiction of Hasidic life in The Chosen also drew condemnation from fundamentalist Jews. Nevertheless, The Chosen, The Promise, My Name Is Asher Lev, In the Beginning, and The Book of Lights are generally considered his most successful books. The wide appeal of Potok's fiction may be traced to the author's direct narrative style, uncompromising reverence for human life, and ability to paint poignant descriptions of Jewish tradition, communal existence, and parent-child relationships. Potok is also credited for his willingness to tackle serious social and religious issues, particularly those surrounding the dilemma of personal spirituality and Jewish consciousness in the post-Holocaust world.
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SOURCE: "The Chosen, Rare, Reverent Novel," in The Wall Street Journal, May 15, 1967, p. 18.
[In the following review, Fuller offers high praise for The Chosen.]
We are happy to report on a novel of exceptional beauty and freshness. For many readers its combination of theme place and time will be astonishing; elements that seem old, remote, exotic, are shown to be contemporary, close to familiar scenes and rich in meaning for other sorts of lives.
The book is The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. At a time when hedonism, vulgarity, brutality, cynicism and corruption are commonplace themes, those of this book are reverence, responsibility, holiness, learning, tradition and the pain of defending these things against the world.
The place is the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The time runs from the closing years of the second World War to about 1950. The action is altogether inside a Jewish community that has distinct divisions within itself.
The story begins amusingly on a baseball field with a group of boys about 15 years old. One team is from a school of Orthodox Jews, the other from a school of Hasidic Jews, whose beliefs arc so intense and whose ways so rigorous that they regard the merely Orthodox with scorn.
Reuven Malter, who is the narrator, is the son of a respected Orthodox scholar and teacher of the Talmud, the body of Jewish religious law and tradition. Danny Saunders is the son of Reb Saunders, a tzaddik, a holy man, austere and learned, who is the chief rabbi of the local Hasids. Their teams compete with unusual ferocity, like a holy war. Danny hits a ball so hard that it strikes Reuven, the pitcher, in the eye. He is taken to the hospital for eye surgery. From this hostile first encounter, a devoted friendship evolves between Reuven and Danny.
These boys are still part of a closed community—almost closed. Its divisions are from within more than without. They are not yet touched by modes of rebellion so conspicuous today (of course neither were youth in general so affected until some years later). But change, and in a sense, rebellion, are present.
The rule of Reb Saunders, the tzaddik, over the Hasids is virtually absolute, though benevolent. His person is so venerated that the faithful try to touch him as he passes. By tradition, the role of tzaddik is dynastic. Already Danny is the recognized young tzaddik whose whole training is for the succession to this shepherdhood.
Danny, a brilliant scholar, does not simply read books; with his photographic mind he memorizes them. Inevitably in the public library he explores beyond the range of the approved studies of his training. In this, Reuven's father observes that Danny is like the great Spanish Jew of the 12th century, Maimonides, rabbi and physician, who burst the bounds of the pietism of his early training and enlarged the application of Jewish philosophy and theology in his time.
Danny does not want to succeed his father. Reuven, son of the Orthodox teacher, whose father would like him to be a mathematician, wishes to become a rabbi. The development of these extraordinary boys, the relationships that each has with the father of the other, are drawn with tenderness and tension, humor and reverence. Reuven finds disconcertingly that he is a mediator through whom the austere rabbi can communicate with Danny, otherwise sealed from his father by a puzzling silence on the elder's part.
Do not mistake this for a book of interest to Jews only. Its themes are profound and universal, its appeal is to any thoughtful reader, as the musical folk play, Fiddler on the Roof, utterly Jewish, has charmed the world. Christendom knows such enclosed groups, clinging to traditions of dress and appearance (the Amish, for instance).
Bitter sectarianism among the devout is also a Christian experience. The struggle to hold fast that which is good is known everywhere. The book touches other universals, too, as a drama of fathers and sons, with the sons' necessary assertion of independence, even in bonds of love.
Chaim Potok (the jacket reveals a strong, fine face) handles superbly the delicate balance of elements, keeping this enclave related to the outer world, from the baseball game to international events, including the establishment of Israel, which occasions some surprising and fascinating reactions. He writes with wisdom, compassion, humor and again, reverence.
Hear Reuven's father, after two heart attacks: "A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one's life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here."
The portrayal of Reb Saunders is a triumph. In Talmudic exposition before the congregation he deliberately introduces mistakes to test Danny—and Reuven on one occasion. We feel the weight of his personality and his quality of holiness, but also a chilling remoteness, as in the seemingly cruel silence he has always maintained with his son except in Talmudic study. We are led to understand the reason even for this, at last, by the wise interpretation of Reuven's father.
When the Hasid realizes that Danny will go from the religious seminary into the world to study psychology at Columbia, he weeps, but blesses him: "All his life he will be a tzaddik. He will be a tzaddik for the world. And the world needs a tzaddik." His ultimate question: "You will remain an observer of the Commandments?" receives Danny's solemn assurance. This is not a change of faith, but of vocation.
This is a rare book of a sort all too easily buried from sight under slam-bang promotions of books in the hour's vogue. Anyone who finds it is finding a jewel. We are much moved by The Chosen. It will stay on our bookshelves and be read again.
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The Chosen (novel) 1967
The Promise (novel) 1969
My Name Is Asher Lev (novel) 1972
In the Beginning (novel) 1975
The Jew Confronts Himself in American Literature (criticism) 1975
Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews (history) 1978
The Book of Lights (novel) 1981
Davita's Harp (novel) 1985
Ethical Living for a Modern World: Jewish Insights (essays) 1985
The Gift of Asher Lev (novel) 1990
I Am the Clay (novel) 1992
The Tree of Here (for children) 1993
The Sky of Now (for children) 1995
The Gates of November (novel) 1996
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SOURCE: "Sight Becomes Insight," in The Christian Science Monitor, July 20, 1967, p. 5.
[In the following review, Schmidt offers high praise for The Chosen.]
The Chosen is a very special book. It deals with a special era—the middle 1940's when war and the end of war was changing the shade of the world—in a special place, the quiet, vivid streets of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, where the heavily Jewish population created an enclave and an atmosphere of special religious and intellectual urgency. The book is a chronicle of intense adolescent friendship between two rather extraordinary boys, and of the unusual relationship in which each stood with his father.
The book is also about a certain kind of passage to manhood. The rites are obscure, not the clear Bar Mitzvah that admits the Jewish boy to the community of responsible adults at age 13, but the far more difficult ceremonies that celebrate integrity, compassion, and humanity in the development of the mature man. Danny Saunders is the Hasid, son of the rabbi, the hereditary leader and ruler of a tight ultra-traditional Hasidic community. Destined to follow his father, his phenomenal mind honed by the relentless, precise, and driving study of the Torah which his father demands, he is haunted by a desire for wider, forbidden knowledge—Darwin, Kant, and Freud, and for vistas of life beyond Williamsburg. Reuven Malter, his friend, the "I" of the book, is the son of an Orthodox scholar, raised in a tradition almost as strict but with a mind, merely brilliant, trained to question and explore.
Images of sight and silence frame the episodes of the boys' friendship. A baseball hurled by Danny in a demonically competitive game shatters Reuven's glasses and nearly costs him the sight of one eye—and in the hospital, newly aware of the possibility of darkness, Reuven puts the light of his childhood behind him. Sight becomes insight and as he begins for the first time to see, Reuven begins also to perceive.
Sounding in silence
Reuven was raised in dialogue with his father. Danny's image is silence. His father has not spoken to him, except over interpretations of the Torah, since he was a little boy. It is in listening to this concentrated silence that Danny comes to hear humanity, a sound to which he must respond.
In reviewing The Chosen it is impossible not to attempt to explain it. Yet one of the most special qualities of the book is Potok's creation of an intense life that strongly resists explanation. He writes cleanly, with a minimum of detail, and his characters have a spare, introspective honesty that carries conviction. He is also a fine storyteller. Of the many books about Jewish life written in recent years, this is one of the few that does not rely on the automatic connotations, the schmaltz, the Yiddish slang, the Jewish gestalt, to convey its flavor—yet it makes much American Jewish life far more real than, say, Herzog. It is a simple, almost meager story about people who are far from typical—yet the warmth and pathos of the dealings between fathers and sons, the understated odyssey from boyhood to manhood, give the book a range that makes it worth anybody's reading.
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Dembo, L. S. "Asher Lev: The Mariolatry of a Hasid." In The Monoiogical Jew: A Literary Study, pp. 112-6. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.
Examines Asher Lev's sacrilegious interest in Christian and pagan art in My Name Is Asher Lev.
Kauvar, Elaine M. "An Interview with Chaim Potok." Contemporary Literature XXVII, No. 3 (Fall 1986): 291-317.
Potok discusses his literary influences, artistic concerns, Judaism, and major themes in his novels.
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SOURCE: "Trying to Be Jewish," in Times Literary Supplement, August 31, 1967, p. 777.
[In the following excerpt, the critic gives a favorable assessment of The Chosen.]
Three more novels [Potok's The Chosen, Martin Yoseloff's A Time to be Young, and Charles Elliott's The Minority Man] to add in one way or another to the growing literature of Jewish self-exploration and self-definition, personal and national….
By far the most distinguished of the three, and that in a totally unexpected and unfashionable way, is The Chosen. We are back in New York, this time during and just after the last war. But instead of the search for a new identity amid the slipping faith and lax observance of Murray Ziegler's suburbia there is the fanaticism of the far-out Hasidic sect, which has survived almost unchanged since its establishment in eighteenth-century Poland. It is the story of a friendship between two boys: Reuven, the son of a kindly Orthodox Zionist teacher, and the brilliant Danny, whose father is a fiercely fanatical Hasidic rabbi, whose only verbal contact with his son (according to a traditional Hasidic method of upbringing) is during their Talmudic discussions. The differing claims of their backgrounds upon the boys, the difficulties of a friendship between two orthodoxies, and Danny's fight for release from his inherited role as his father's successor is told within the tight context of total religious belief; the author is himself a rabbi.
Both boys are serious scholars, brilliant and devout, devoted to their basic faith and to their families in a way which makes any rebellion hideously painful. Nothing could be farther from the freedom of Greenwich Village than Danny's anguished struggle to escape from choking orthodoxy without breaking his father's heart. The immediate concerns of the book are totally unfashionable: but the boys' intellectual voracity for symbolic logic, Freud and Talmud are made to seem far more relevant and exciting than anything in Charles Elliott's Libya. The climax of the book, Rabbi Saunders's emotional agony for his son's soul, has a tragic poignancy and exhilaration.
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SOURCE: "A Warm Glow in a Cruel, Cold World," in Washington Post Book World, September 14, 1969, p. 3.
[In the following review, Freedman commends Potok's "vivid" characterizations and narrative presentation of The Promise, but finds shortcomings in his excessive exposition of Jewish theology.]
One of the few remaining pleasures we get from reading popular contemporary novels is that they are filled with well-researched information about a particular place, occupation or way of life. This helps salve the consciences of the swelling horde of readers who feel that fiction is a waste of time.
Thus, from Hawaii we learn the detailed history of that exotic state, and Airport tells us why we are right to prefer trains. This massive accumulation of facts, with a banal story line and styrofoam characters, is not the loftiest goal of fiction, but it is a time-honored one. As Mary McCarthy once observed, you can get some really workable recipes out of Anna Karenina, and you learn a lot about whaling from Moby Dick. From the novels of Dr. Chaim Potok, a graduate of Yeshiva University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, you learn all about Judaism.
His first novel, The Chosen, contained a long expository chapter about the history and traditions of the Hasidic sect in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn during World War II.
It was deservedly successful, however, not because it made clear the doctrinal differences between the Hasidim and other Orthodox Jews, but because its wealth of arcane lore was successfully dramatized in the story of two friends growing up amid the conflicts created by warring religious denominations. Its heroes, Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders, were believable boys, not too distantly removed, really, from Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Potok's new novel, The Promise, suffers from a slight case of sequelitis. The boys are older now. Reuven is studying for the rabbinate; Danny has managed to break away from his Old Testament patriarch of a father to do graduate work in psychology at Columbia.
Reuven struggles against the fanatical fundamentalism of one of his teachers; Danny struggles to wrest the mind and soul of his fiancée's cousin from the grip of schizophrenia, ingeniously using equal parts of Freud and the Talmud. As in The Chosen, the characterizations are vivid, the incidents dramatic, the narrative fluid.
Both novels are leagues above the facile, haimish Yiddishkeit of a Fiddler on the Roof or a Wednesday Afternoon the Rabbi Ate Blintzes. There isn't even an overbearing, chicken-soup-wielding mother in the cast.
Yet it is the very intellectual dignity, the gift for austere but fascinating exposition of problems in Jewish scholarship which so distinguish Potok, which also tend to clog The Promise and make it a bit disappointing.
What we get, essentially, is layers of Talmudic lore of the highest interest (but irrelevant to fiction) sandwiched between rather ordinary insights into human situations. Shy boys hate their successful fathers, and Potok serves this up as his denouement. Rabbis who escaped Hitler's ovens can be nasty and vindictive, and Potok seems surprised that outrageous suffering doesn't always make us mellow.
In both novels, for instance, he is concerned with bigotry: not between Jew and Gentile, but between Jew and Jew. Reuven has been brought up by his father to be a modern historical critic of the Talmud, employing the kind of scientific exegesis of ancient texts which stunned the Christian world a century ago when it was applied to the Gospels.
The wrath this arouses among the diehard Hasidim nearly costs him his ordination. Potok understands that modern scholarship is necessary, but he also understands the motives underlying old-guard resistance to it. What he doesn't seem to comprehend is that religion by its very nature is a fecund producer of bigotry—with or without reason—and anyone who gets involved in it should be prepared for the consequences.
Over all there is a glow of humane erudition and compassion which suggests that Potok would be an ideal rabbi. But the world of art is a cruel, capricious one, and sometimes an out-and-out monster like Dostoyevsky can render more of the real quality of religious experience than an obviously nice, reasonable man like Chaim Potok.
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SOURCE: "Sequels," in Commentary, Vol. 49, May, 1970, pp. 104, 106, 108.
[In the following excerpt, Rabinowitz offers a mixed assessment of The Promise, faulting it for intrusive or overly academic psychologizing among the characters.]
… [Chaim Potok's] The Promise is no disappointment as its fore-runner, The Chosen, is no masterpiece. The Chosen stayed at the top of the best-seller list for reasons which are easy enough to imagine. The story of Danny and Reuven and the Brooklyn Hasidic world begins, in The Chosen, with a now-famous baseball game in which Reuven's eye is fairly torn out of his head by Danny, batting fiercely for the Yeshiva team out to beat the apikorsim. Indeed, the first sixty pages of that novel gave fair promise of an interesting storyteller at work. Very soon thereafter in The Chosen, one sees that nothing of that promise will be sustained. After a first fine start, Mr. Potok declines into tract-like psychology with. I suppose, endearing spiritual qualities.
Mr. Potok's problem in The Promise, which is exactly worthy of its predecessor, is not with his subject matter. Indeed, the world he apostrophizes in both novels is a rich one. The Promise continues with Reuven—his father's son—struggling to stand somewhere between zealots and mere lovers of the Torah, and with Danny, Hasid turned psychologist, doing graduate work at Columbia. Mr. Potok's problem is not lack of a story. He is a yarn spinner, and he knows what a plot is. Mr. Potok's problem is his sensibility—a fatal deficiency, considering his craft. In Mr. Potok's case, the sensibility which is father to language is Jewish-American genteel, and academic to the bone. A standard Potok rendering flows effortless:
Danny went into a lengthy psychological analysis of Willy Loman's delusions and talked about how crucial it was to be able to distinguish between reality and fantasy.
Danny and Reuven talk. This is a novel of many conversations. Typically:
"Yes," he said, "I can understand violence if a person makes a rational decision that his world is utterly evil…."
"Not many people can make a decision like that rationally."
"They ought to read some good books."
"Marx read a lot of good books."
"Marx was full of rage. Books don't do much good when you're that full of rage."
"We're all full of rage. That's something I've begun to think about these days. Who isn't full of rage?"
"Yes. But most people manage one way or another to handle it."
"Why are people so full of rage? How would your friend Freud answer that?"
Such dialogue, sustained as it is with Mr. Potok throughout—for that is the language the sensibility naturally assumes—can only be anti-affect in its proprieties. Perhaps Mr. Potok is one of those novelists who will profit by translation into another language. Many are the moving scenes Mr. Potok is about to have, many he conceives. All are muffled in speeches. In addition, a special form of genteel educational psychologizing intrudes, along with a heavily explicit rendering of every thought of every character who has one. (Danny tugs at nonexistent side-locks all through, in an endless motif of allegiance.) It ought to be noted for fans of Mr. Potok and fans of parallelism in general, that there is a spirited volleyball game in the sequel.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 271
SOURCE: "Diaspora," in Washington Post Book World, December 3, 1978, p. E5.
[In the following review, the critic finds shortcomings in Wanderings but marks the presence of "occasionally brilliant" passages.]
Babylonian chroniclers wrote, in two columns, the histories of Assyria and Babylonia side by side; during their captivity in Babylonia, Jewish scribes adopted the practice as they synchronized the histories of Judah and Israel. In a way, Chaim Potok now has done the same thing, matching the reigns of Abraham and Saul and David to the advancing civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and tracing the movements of the Hebrew peoples eventually through the development of Islam and Christianity. It is an intriguing concept, and one which lends a more solid basis to the ambiguous history related in the Bible. Unfortunately, Potok, who has formerly stuck to fiction for his explorations of Judaic culture, cannot prevent these massive civilizations from overshadowing the Hebrew tribes. As a matter of organization, he has left the Hebrews for last in each section, so that they seem tacked on. Potok has little control over his style, which staggers from prose to parchment to homily. And, he slips into pseudo-Biblical language ("Now these are the achievements of Solomon son of David, king of Judah and Israel"). With its clumsy and sometimes even ungrammatical style, and its excessive punctuation, reading this book is like traversing the Rocky Mountains one hill at a time. And just to make it more difficult, the publishers have chosen a stark and exhausting typeface. However, the saving graces are the occasionally brilliant interpretations of prophetic passages from the Bible, and the beautifully chosen illustrations.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689
SOURCE: "Illuminations," in Time, October 19, 1981, p. 102.
[In the following review, Reed offers a favorable assessment of The Book of Lights.]
Albert Einstein ponders the young rabbi's last name: "Loran. That is, I believe, also the name of a navigational instrument, is it not?" As usual, the physicist is correct: the acronym for long-range navigation also describes the hero of Chaim Potok's fifth and most ambitious novel. Although the author has retained a strong narrative drive, he has abandoned the matzo-barrel homilies that marked such early works as The Chosen and The Promise. Once again his themes are ethnic, but his concerns are universal.
Orphaned in the late '30s, when his parents were killed in a now forgotten Arab-Israeli battle, Gershon Loran is raised by an uncle in a Brooklyn ghetto. Surrounded by squalor, the teen-ager refuses to succumb to despair. One summer night, he watches a mongrel bitch give birth to a litter of puppies. In a sudden rush of insight, resting on the roof of a tenement, he is seized by the miraculous: "He felt all caught up in the life of Heaven and earth, in the mystery of creation, in the pain and inexhaustible glory of this single moment." The Book of Lights charts Loran's search to recreate that epiphany.
In college and later the seminary, Loran retreats from humanity, abandoning the generous philosophy of the Talmud for the magical pronouncements of the Kabbalah. A fellow student wonders: "Do you transform yourself in the night? Do you become a Rabbi Hyde?" No; Loran remains Rabbi Jekyll, a self-described Zwischenmensch, a between-man, traversing the border between reality and self-delusion. His girlfriend acutely observes, "Your eyes go somewhere else."
Certainly they are not focused on her, or on his roommate Arthur Leiden, one of Potok's most complex and compelling characters. Leiden's father was a parent of the atomic bomb. The son's heritage is a lifelong nightmare of incinerated birds in his Los Alamos backyard. But if Leiden Jr. is damned at night, he distributes blessings by day: he induces his family to aid Gershon with a scholarship; later Leiden prevails upon "Uncle Albert" Einstein to make the journey from Princeton to the graduation. The favors are not returned; Loran is too busy probing his own psyche. He has plenty of company. In '50s America, the Holocaust is not yet an obsession. Instead, Topic A in synagogues and cafeterias is the sins committed by Jews. The elder Leiden reflects, "We tinker with light and atomic bombs … No one is on more familiar terms with the heart of the insanity in the universe than is the Jew, and no one is more frenetic and untidy in the search for an answer … We offer apocalypses in a pushcart."
And in starched khaki. Still searching for transcendence, Loran enlists in the Army to become the only rabbi in post-truce Korea. As the young chaplain ministers to occupation troops, he wrestles less with the Kabbalah than with morale reports and charts of the VD rate for enlisted men. On leave, he wanders around Japan ill at ease in the crowded cities and out of place in the temples of Kyoto. In Hiroshima, where "all the darkness and light of the species" lurks in the ruins, he is joined by Leiden, now a fellow chaplain. Before the monument to the dead, Leiden recites Kaddish, the prayer for mourners. As a polite but stunned Japanese couple watch in the cold wind of the peace park, Loran sounds an amen that is wrenched from his soul. At last he has found a moral location, an identity outside of selfhood.
The novelist's prose may be excessively plain, but neither his text nor his cast is simple. Potok knows that personal illuminations, like those of physics, are transitory: the glow of a Brooklyn coal furnace, the sunshine on Mount Fuji, the ambiguous light of the atom and the consolations of philosophy do not stay. They must be discovered again and again, generation after generation. Ironically, it is that sense of impermanence that grants the novel its sense of durability and makes it, literally, a book of lights.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3141
SOURCE: "A Way of Seeing: Chaim Potok and Tradition," in The Christian Century, May 16, 1984, pp. 515-18.
[In the following essay, Timmerman examines the tension among individuality, personal growth, and the force of tradition in Potok's fiction.]
During the past decade Chaim Potok has emerged not only as a pre-eminent American author, but also as one whose books are avidly and widely read. Why has this Jewish author whose books are openly religious in theme and tenor achieved such uncommon public success? Why does he appeal to this age, saturated as it is with the expressive realism that oozes from books, films and television? In a sense Potok addresses those very questions, for the central theme of all of his books has been the enduring and changing religious tradition of a people, and how that tradition shapes the present moment and is shaped by it. As a result, Potok's books leap beyond narrow categories and become universally appealing. His protagonists, always young men of pronounced individual convictions, carry on a warfare with their tradition and, to varying degrees, find their own place and nature in relation to it. Thus, these are the stories of all humankind living in the ongoing matrix of religious, ethnic and cultural beliefs.
In public lectures Potok has often directly addressed people's conflicts with their traditions. These conflicts, the central issue of his fiction, are formulated by the author as providing three possibilities for interaction. A person can totally reject his or her tradition, but this, in Potok's estimation, is reprehensible. Second, he or she may wholly capitulate to tradition and be subsumed by it, an alternative perhaps worse than the first, since it both locks the rest of life out and locks the life of the tradition in. Untouched by any fresh idea, unruffled by any change, such a life constitutes a prison of unmitigated spiritual and artistic sterility. The third alternative, and the healthiest one in Potok's estimation, is the presence of some tension between the individual and tradition, a willingness to question and be questioned. Such spiritual flexibility allows both to grow. At the conclusion of his history of the Jewish people, Wanderings, Potok states:
In some future time, eyes will gaze upon us as we have gazed in his book upon worlds of the past. They will say of us either that we used our new freedom … to vanish as a people, or that we took advantage of the secret opportunity concealed within the persistent but hidden trauma we are now experiencing—a Jewry and Judaism decisively changed by its confrontation with modern paganism—to reeducate ourselves, rebuild our core from the treasure of our past, fuse it with the best in secularism, and create a new philosophy, a new literature, a new world of Jewish art, a new community, and take seriously the meaning of the word emancipation—a release from the authority of the father in order to become adults in our own right.
The question that the young protagonists of his novels begin to ask of their fathers is, "Can we trust our tradition sufficiently to grow with it, or must we only guard it jealously as a precious memory?"
This issue, which David Stern suggests is "the dilemma of modern Judaism itself" ("Two Worlds," Commentary [October 1972]), focuses squarely on how the law for living is conceived within the tradition. If the law is an end in itself, as Reb Saunders of The Chosen believes, then clearly there is no room for individual vision. It also then necessarily follows that the law is a static codification of rules, perhaps empty of spiritual vigor. Locked in place at one time, it makes all future time conform to itself. Individual actions must bend backward to achieve this conformity. But the law does not have to be conceived in this manner—and should not be.
Torah is an untranslatable word; as such, it means many things. Isaac C. Rottenberg points out that
Torah means 'teaching,' 'instruction,' and 'guidance,' but none of these words alone nor all of them together exhaust its meaning, because in the last analysis 'Torah' refers to God's own gracious and righteous presence. Laws, statutes, and precepts are part of Torah, but they are not its essence. Torah must be primarily understood in dynamic terms, not as a set of legal rules ["Law and Sin in Judaism and Christianity," the Reformed Journal (November 1979)].
The last sentence particularly is of striking importance. Torah is a means for ordering life, not for dictating life. Halacha, precepts leading to the way of a sanctified life, is not a set of rules, but a dynamic, living guide for life. The precepts are not carved in stone, but etched on the spirit—which may respond to, be stimulated by, and receive guidance from them. Because the law is not an end in itself, but a teleological guide to right action, people must be allowed considerable freedom in their exercise of it. The temptation is to use the law to circumscribe life. Rottenberg points out that "Judaism is deeply aware of the vetzer hara, the evil urge which operates within the human heart and makes our lives the scene of a continual moral struggle." Precisely because they clearly recognize the problem of evil, people may try to use the law as a means to avoid moral struggle, rather than to engage in that struggle, with its attendant risks. In My Name Is Asher Lev, Potok depicts such a situation in the parents' fear that Asher Lev's artistic vision may come from the sitra achra—the Other Side.
We might put the situation a bit differently. People who are aware of the very real presence of the sitra achra, which threatens to destroy the tradition, might believe that they must shut their eyes to such a threat. They might feel compelled to shun even the conception of such a threat, lest a chink be found in tradition's armor that, once admitting a corrosive freedom, would eat away at its very supports, eventually bringing about the collapse of the entire structure. A person may try to save a house that seems in danger of falling by shielding it in an armor of steel. But one may also feel the strength of the tradition so powerfully that one opens wide one's vision to life. By freely engaging life, this alternative suggests, tradition grows stronger, gaining muscle through hard experience.
Such is the clear option in two of Potok's best-known novels, The Chosen and My Name Is Asher Lev, both stories about young Jews coming to a point of decision about their tradition and their individual lives.
Potok has structured both books around the central metaphor of the human eye, or human seeing. Those who use tradition as a means of seclusion from the world are repeatedly described as having narrowing eyes, blank eyes or shut eyes. But those who use it as a base from which to engage the world hold their eyes wide open.
In The Chosen, the metaphor rises out of the initial action of the book, a lively and competitive baseball game in which Danny Saunders raps a line drive that strikes Reuven Malter in the eye. Temporarily blinded by the blow—and waking up for the first time to a recognition of himself and his tradition—Reuven recovers in a hospital ward peopled with tragic representatives of life: the nearly blind ex-boxer who has been pummeled brutally and chatters incessantly, and the small boy who stares ceaselessly with blind eyes. This ward of readjusted vision is also the threshold for Reuven's refocusing vision of life: "I lay there a long time, thinking about my eyes." The image of the eye is developed steadily throughout the book, and eventually becomes clearly associated with the conflict between the individual and the tradition. "What's inside us is the greatest mystery of all," says Danny at one point. That exploration of oneself is perhaps life's ultimate adventure. The novel suggests two ways to go about it, one quick and superficial, the other hard and deep. Reuven's reflection on the two ways to study Torah strikes a forceful analogy:
Rabbinic literature can be studied in two different ways, in two directions, one might say. It can be studied quantitatively or qualitatively—or, as my father once put it, horizontally or vertically. The former involves covering as much material as possible, without attempting to wrest from it all its implications and intricacies; the latter involves confining oneself to one single area until it is exhaustively covered, and then going on to new material…. The ideal, of course, was to be able to do both.
For Potok, a person needs to be deeply rooted in tradition, while also attempting the broad view of life. Always the individual person is the vital link between the bedrock of tradition and the flow of life. "'I learned a long time ago, Reuven,'"says Mr. Maker, "'that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something.'"
Finally, it is people who fulfill the law, not the law that fulfills people. People forge and effect a tradition as much as they are forged by it. The argument of Potok's fiction is for that freedom within the tradition that allows people to hold their eyes open.
In Asher Lev, this tension becomes more stark in the compelling drama of a young artist exploring both his gift and his relation to his tradition. The book is even more deliberately structured by the eye metaphor than is The Chosen. Many of the novel's characters almost seem to be acting on a stage, in full dramatic posture, with the author providing calculated stage directions. As on the stage, much of what is left unsaid is conveyed by mannerism—here particularly, eye mannerisms. Asher Lev's mother fears her son's gift, recognizing its potential for endangering their tradition. Her eyes are consequently detailed in alternating images of great fear and abject resignation. Early in the book Asher notes that "I saw a flicker of light in her eyes," but when the subject of painting is brought up "the dead look returned to her eyes." When she becomes ill and Asher promises to draw a pretty picture for her, "Her eyes fluttered faintly but remained closed."
The father, whose occupation and preoccupation are to bring others into the tradition, to cement the body of believers, reacts with vitriolic anger to Asher's flirting with the sitra achra (he readily identifies Asher's painting as such). Repeatedly his eyes are described as "dark," "tired," "narrowing" and "squinting."
In contrast, as an artist Asher Lev discovers his vision always opening. It is important to note that he considers himself "an orthodox Jew." He stands not in open rebellion against, but as a troubled seeker of, his place within a tradition. He manifests most clearly and dramatically what we also find in Potok's other young heroes, Reuven Malter and David Lurie.
In the novel's early scenes, Asher Lev frequently stands by the window of his parents' apartment, looking toward the street below. This prison symbolism is embellished in Lev's controversial painting "Brooklyn Crucifixion." In the picture, Lev's mother is tied to the venetian blinds of the apartment window, her arms outstretched in an anguished crucifix. The window functions metaphorically as the threshold between tradition and the larger world. While Asher persists in looking outward, his mother and father are careful to keep the Venetian blinds drawn. These blinds are frequently askew, often awkwardly knotted up so that the outside world and inner tradition persist in tortured meeting. Finally, the mother is a slave to the blinds, tied there by the father's austere legalism. In the painting (he father looks at the crucified mother, but he does not release her. The three, mother, father and son, portray varying degrees of dealing with tradition as it is metaphorically represented by the window: the father solidly within, the mother caught by the mesh of blinds and the son persistently peering outward.
Lev's outward-looking vision is not simply an impudent rebellion. He cannot help the way he sees. His artistic drive and vision persist in breaking through, as he comes, with terror, to understand:
That was the night I began to realize something was happening to my eyes. I looked at my father and saw lines and planes I had never seen before. I could feel with my eyes…. I felt myself flooded with the shapes and textures of the world around me. I closed my eyes. But I could still see that way inside my head. I was seeing with another pair of eyes that had suddenly come awake.
To try to kill that vision, he realizes, would be to kill himself. In an anguished scene of self-analysis he takes his stand within, but against, a tradition of static law. Compelled finally to complete the crucifixion painting, Lev recognizes that
it would have made me a whore to leave it incomplete. It would have made it easier to leave a future work incomplete. It would have made it more and more difficult to draw upon that additional aching surge of effort that is always the difference between integrity and deceit in a created work. I would not be the whore to my own existence. Can you understand that? I would not be the whore to my own existence.
But even in so saying, he remains within the tradition. He is "an observant Jew." Thus, while standing against the static, legalistic elements of his tradition, he seeks to find his place within its dynamic impulses.
Figuring significantly in that process is the crusty old painter, Jacob Kahn, who tutors Lev in the realities of the larger world. At once tender and harsh, arrogant and loving, of keen vision and tormented spirit, Kahn is a strange guide to the spiritually wandering youth. It is important to note, however, that Kahn has been appointed to his heuristic task by the rabbi and has, therefore, received the blessing of the spiritual leader of the faith. The sum of Kahn's teaching may be encapsulated in a quotation from a book, The Art of the Spirit, which, ironically, is given to Lev by his mother after she hears that he is being tutored by Kahn:
Every great artist is a man who has freed himself from his family, his nation, his race. Every man who has shown the world the way to beauty, to true culture, has been a rebel, a "universal" without patriotism, without home, who has found his people everywhere.
Jacob Kahn succeeds where other characters fail: he points out clearly the risks involved in this other world that lies beyond the window of Lev's tradition—and the risks are genuine. The strength of tradition resides in the security it provides. Indeed, to refocus for a moment on the concept of halacha, the reason for any codification of law is to attempt a structured certitude within that law. To live halacha properly in the dynamic flux of existence is an act of risk and of considerable daring. As Asher Lev discovers, and as Jacob Kahn well knows, it can be a life of anguish. So it is that he immediately counsels Lev to return to his tradition
"Jacob," the woman said softly. "You are frightening the boy."
"It is my intention to frighten him out of his wits. I want him to go back to Brooklyn and remain a nice Jewish boy. What does he need this for, Anna?"
"What did you need it for, Jacob?"
"I know what I went through," he said.
Kahn would spare the boy the pain of the exposed life, of the questioning spirit assaulted by the world's answers. If one persists in asking the right questions, however, and if one possesses the steely courage to sort through the world's answers, this crucible of tension refines and strengthens. Moreover, as a pilgrim in the outside world, the seeker may learn better the place that is his last refuge, his art.
Not all the torment arises from the world outside tradition. In fact, this world is so large that it offers a different kind of security: anonymity, a kind of rootlessness in the face less crowd. It offers security, moreover, from those within the tradition who would gladly reject the troubled seeker. A note is slipped into Asher Lev's Gemara one day:
Won't go to Heav;
To hell he'll go
Far down below.
This is perhaps the greater pain: not rejecting one's tradition, but being rejected by it. Where does the seeker go then? If tradition is sometimes a bed of misunderstanding and hatred, and the world a maze of ready but insufficient answers, is he or she left to walk a precarious tightrope buffeted by forces beyond his or her control?
In a sense, Potok's answer is Yes. But one can learn, through experience and effort, to walk that tightrope with confidence. The tormented young protagonists of Potok's novels will never be at ease. The discovery of their individuality is their important task, however—their life-consuming task. After Lev's first summer in Provincetown with Jacob Kahn, he tells his father: "That's what art is, Papa. It's a person's private vision expressed in aesthetic forms." It is a language that few understand, and its vocabulary is ill suited to neat answers which will still the ire of tradition or lay straight the world's maze. It is a private vision that rises from and through the individual, to be expressed in forms constituting the only real language a person can know. For Potok, the solution to the problem of our relationship to tradition seems to lie in precisely this kind of willful person who does not attempt to destroy his or her tradition or to embrace the world wholly, but who builds some bridge, however flimsy, between the two. If this reconciler's language is imperfect and imprecise at first, perhaps we can grow to understand it as we study its vocabulary. Lev discovers his place in the dynamic flux of his heritage, and learns that he is called to work his own unique mitzvot—deeds that fulfill God's will. The tension with tradition is not thereby erased, but it is, perhaps, resolved.
People, Lev learns, must by themselves resolve the tension between tradition and the outside world. Compelled, after the exhibit of the crucifixion paintings, to live outside his tradition by his rabbi's orders, Lev seeks solace in the realization that "we must give a balance to the universe." As he leaves home, his parents watch from the living room window. One imagines the hand raised to the cord of the venetian blinds.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 311
SOURCE: A review of Davita's Harp, in Time, March 25, 1985, pp. 80-1.
[In the following review, the critic gives a mixed evaluation of Davita's Harp.]
The earnest radicalism of the 1930s has become familiar terrain for fiction. Chaim Potok, a chronicler of the factions within American Jewish culture (The Chosen, My Name Is Asher Lev), assiduously attempts to freshen the milieu: his title character and narrator is a thoughtful, believable preadolescent girl; her father is a celebrated radical journalist from an old-line, plutocratic Wasp family, her mother a Jewish émigré.
The narrative deftly captures Davita's particular sense of placelessness and evokes a child's view of events. But in explaining the parents' political fervor and in analyzing their times, Davita's Harp too often limits itself to predictable externalities. Potok relies heavily on the imagination of other artists: the explanation for Davita's father's alienation from his timber-tycoon forebears, for example, is that he witnessed a real-life scene of antiunion violence that is vividly evoked in John Dos Passos' 1919, and Davita comes to understand him by reading the book. He also introduces a surrogate uncle to Davita, a refugee writer whose fables are full of images that heavy-handedly foreshadow Picasso's Guernica. Then Davita's father dies as a hero during the bombing at Guernica. Soon after, the child intuitively envisions the battle in Picasso-like terms. Later she sees the work of art and recoils in recognition and insight beyond her years. As the story evolves, the focus shifts from Davita's dogmatic, unhappy parents to her own quiet revolution: yearning for a sense of identity and excluded from the adult world of politics, she becomes a fervent Jew and eventually challenges the patriarchal presumptions of her religion. During the conflict between Davita's reverence for Hebraic tradition and her determination to make a place for herself, the narrative becomes far livelier and suggests possibilities for a worthier sequel.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1240
SOURCE: "The Faiths of Her Childhood." in The New York Times Book Review, March 31, 1985, pp. 12-13.
[In the following review, Cowan offers a favorable assessment of Davita's Harp, which he describes as "Mr. Potok's bravest book, though it is not his best."]
Chaim Potok is a writer who defies easy categorization. Though he does not have the instinct for the fast-paced plots and sleek characters that usually make novels popular and though he has not attracted the intellectual following of a Saul Bellow, still, four of his five novels and his one nonfiction book have been best sellers. By exploring the themes that fascinate him, Mr. Potok has opened a new clearing in the forest of American literature.
Davita's Harp is Mr. Potok's bravest book, though it is not his best. It will almost certainly be one of his most popular. Set in New York during the 1930's, it portrays the lives of Communist Party members and religious Jews. Until Mr. Potok's novel The Chosen, almost all popular American Jewish fiction—like most ethnic American fiction—focused on protagonists intent on escaping their childhood environments. The characters who were born in Saul Bellow's Chicago and Philip Roth's Newark may remember the neighborhoods they grew up in with affection or rage; their adult speech may retain traces of immigrant English; they may feel tangled emotions toward a parent they have left behind. But they set out to create themselves anew.
Most of Mr. Potok's characters leave their childhood environments too, at considerable pain to the people who love them. In The Chosen, Danny Saunders, who was expected to inherit his father's role as a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn, decided to study psychiatry. Conversely, in The Book of Lights, Arthur Leiden, primed to follow in his father's footsteps and become one of the great physicists of his age, left the genteel scientific community his parents inhabited—paradoxically, the community that created the atomic bomb—to become a rabbi. But the worlds in which Mr. Potok's characters grew up retain a tight hold on their loyalties. Danny Saunders, Arthur Leiden and now Davita Chandal in Davita's Harp are all haunted by memories of the past that echo in their present.
Davita is the daughter of Michael Chandal, a gentile from Maine, a left-wing journalist whose father, a lumber magnate, has disinherited him, and Channah Chandal, a Jewish woman from Poland, a Marxist intellectual whose dreadful memories of her stern Hasidic father have left her disillusioned with religion. For the first quarter of the novel, the Chandals' political work sustains them emotionally as they live like urban gypsies, evicted by one landlord after another. They are protected materially by Ezra Dinn, an Orthodox Jew and Channah's friend since childhood.
These are some of Mr. Potok's most disappointing pages. Though Michael is a robust, loving father, Channah—like so many mothers in Mr. Potok's novels—is a somewhat sickly, withdrawn woman. The Chandals talk about the political horrors of the 30's—the Spanish Civil War, Italy's invasion of Ethiopia, lynchings in the South—without ever explaining them to their baffled, terrified daughter. Since Davita, a child when the novel begins, is the novel's sole voice—and since she is so often bewildered—she (and Mr. Potok) fails to furnish much insight into her troubled parents. But Mr. Potok's prose style is so rich that even these pages have an enchanting quality. Soon Channah Chandal's Orthodox landsmen find the family an apartment in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. That is the urban soil Mr. Potok always describes with a master's certainty. While living in Crown Heights and in the summertime community of Sea Gate, Davita meets a young girl who is a refugee from the Spanish Civil War. She also comes to love a surrogate uncle, a left-wing writer her mother knew as a young woman. Presently the United States Government sends her uncle back to Hitler's Europe. History begins to shape the child's consciousness.
At the same time, Davita ricochets between the religions her parents have rejected. Michael's sister Sarah, a Christian missionary, often stays with the family. One summer she invites Davita to spend time with her in Maine. She teaches the child to pray on her knees and encourages her to believe in Jesus. Davita loves Aunt Sarah but not her creed. Though Davita's parents don't observe any religious ceremonies, the girl is delighted by the way her Orthodox neighbors greet the Sabbath. Their Judaism appeals to her more than Aunt Sarah's Christianity.
As Davita comes to life, so does the book. She can't bear her beloved father's compulsive need to cover the civil war in Spain. He seems to be choosing politics over her. The Sabbaths she experiences intrigue her so much she begins to attend the neighborhood synagogue despite the fact that her mother rejects religion, despite the fact that almost all the yeshiva boys make derisive remarks to the ignorant girl whose father is a gentile. When her father is killed in Spain, Davita insists on saying the mourner's kaddish in the woman's section of the synagogue. In the 1930's this was so rare as to seem almost heretical. But as Davita becomes an increasingly observant Jew—and soon a brilliant student in a Brooklyn yeshiva—she continues to insist on her rights as a woman within the limits of Orthodox law.
At the very end of the novel, after Davita, now in her early teens, has been denied a prize in the study of the Talmud because she is a girl, she imagines the speech she would have delivered if she had won the award. It reflects the faiths of her childhood—Judaism and radicalism: "I wanted to say that my mother was once badly hurt in Poland because she was a Jewish woman, and my father was killed while trying to save a nun in Guernica, and my uncle died in part because of his politics and in part because he wrote strange stories. I wanted to say that I'm very frightened to be living in this world and I don't understand most of the things I see and hear and I don't know what will happen to me and to the family I love. I wanted to say that I would try to find and join with the side of America that wouldn't hurt people who [fight for justice], and that I would also try not to let this century defeat me."
As the imagined speech suggests, Davita's Harp is full of the horrors of the 20th century. As in all of Chaim Potok's novels, those horrors don't simply exist in the minds of intellectuals. They are not symbols. Hitler's death camps, Franco's troops, the atomic bomb kill people the reader has come to love and alter the survivors' lives completely.
Yet they don't defeat Mr. Potok's characters. For there is a sweet, loving bond that links their lives, a bond symbolized by the gentle tones of the small harp that has been fixed to a door wherever Davita has lived. A frail glory infuses the world these people see when they open their doors and windows each morning. Those qualities are unusual in modern fiction. They draw the reader into Chaim Potok's world. The people he depicts live in a community held together by ancient laws. Those people nourish each other in the worst of times. In doing so, they nourish Mr. Potok's readers too.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 879
SOURCE: "In Search of a Spiritual Pacifier," in The Wall Street Journal, April 29, 1985, p. 22.
[In the following review, Grenier praises the "genuine seriousness and moral complexity" of Davita's Harp, but finds shortcomings in Potok's "stiff dialogue and stilted characters."]
Chaim Potok owes much of his popularity as a writer to his handling of Judaic scenes in contemporary American life (The Chosen, The Promise, etc.).
This time, in Davita's Harp, Mr. Potok heads into new, highly topical territory—woman's role in the Jewish faith—set in the context of American communism in the 1930s. In what may have been a rash venture, he has chosen as his narrative voice that of his pre-pubescent heroine, who recounts her life from birth to menstruation.
Davita is the daughter of two deeply committed Communist Party members—he's the radical son of an old New England family, she's a Russian-Jewish victim of a pogrom. Party meetings are held in their New York apartment, where the harp of the book's title hangs on the door, symbolizing a security that neither religion nor politics can give our heroine. "Again and again I heard the names Roosevelt, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco," says Davita. "I heard strange words. Republic, militia, rebellion, coup d'etat, garrison…. And names with menacing sounds. Anarchist, Falangist, Fascist."
Soon Davita is piping up in the first grade to tell her classmates that "Stalin is a Communist. He is not afraid to use his power for good purposes." Caution is rapidly instilled when a fellow first grader from an Italian family takes threatening exception to her description of Mussolini as a fascist.
During these early years the family is poor but happy. They know they are working toward the building of what they confidently expect to be a better world.
But then Davita's father, off in Spain for an unidentified "progressive" newspaper, is blown up while trying to rescue a nun in Guernica. Her anguished mother bravely soldiers on for the party and is about to enter into a second marriage with a fellow Communist when Hitler and Stalin sign their 1939 nonaggression pact. Davita remembers the news announcement:
"My mother turned off the radio. 'Capitalist lies,' she said. 'What they go through to slander us!'
'What does it mean?' I asked.
'What does nonagression pact mean?'
'Finish your supper, Davita.'"
Utterly destroyed morally and psychologically after she is expelled from the party for questioning Stalin's wisdom, Davita's mother is eventually saved by the love of her widowed cousin, an Orthodox Jew and successful lawyer. Remarried, she returns quite easily to the observant Judaism of her Odessa girlhood, although she still reads the New Masses—"for the fine writers it published." As for those years of Stalinist communism, she speaks with a voice that "shook with anger and bitterness, with her sense of having been used and duped and betrayed."
As Davita tells us, "during her years with my father she had thought often about her religious past; now she reflected upon her Communist past. She seemed unable to bring together those two parts of herself. And that haunted her."
All this seems rich material for a novelist. Alas, Mr. Potok is telling Davita's story, not her mother's. And Davita's story is not so much a quest for a moral absolute as for a spiritual pacifier.
Although her parents are both resolute atheists, as befits good party members, Davita at a young age finds comfort in attending synagogue with a neighbor. At her father's death, finding no release in the impersonal party funeral service, Davita says kaddish—the prayer for the dead—at her synagogue, only to discover women don't say kaddish; only men do. The balance of the novel borders on a feminist approach to Judaism, with the heroine discovering that Orthodox Judaism is not an equal-opportunity religion.
As a novelist Mr. Potok seems drawn to ideas of genuine seriousness and moral complexity, ideas that one would like to see contemporary writers handle. One regrets all the more, therefore, the stiff dialogue and stilted characters. Mr. Potok appears most at ease when he sets his scenes in the synagogue or the yeshiva. In fact, a tiny flame of life flickers valiantly in all the Jewish characters. But the goyim come off as very strange creations indeed. For example, Aunt Sarah, the New England spinster who goes as a nurse to Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War talking about "sweet Jesus," sounds more like a Southern Baptist than a Maine Yankee.
There are hints in this book that we have not seen the last of Davita. She imagines herself addressing not just the departed spirits of her father, aunt and family friend, but "the world and … this century…. I wanted to say that I would try to find and join with the side of America that wouldn't hurt people like Wesley Everest [the Wobbly lynched in Centralia, Wash.], and I would also try not to let this century defeat me." In this passage, she seems not to have learned anything from her mother's experience. But knowing Mr. Potok's passionate concern with things religious, one suspects that Davita, like her mother, will ultimately come back full circle to the faith. Even if it takes two sequels to do it.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 987
SOURCE: "The Melody of Davita's Harp May Be New, but Author Chaim Potok's Judaic Themes Are Familiar," in People Weekly, May 6, 1985, pp. 81-3.
[In the following review, Reed discusses Davita's Harp, Potok's early literary career, and reception of his fiction in the Jewish community.]
Chaim Potok and his wife, Adena, chanced upon the pear-shaped butternut wood instrument during the summer of 1983, while browsing in a Vermont country store. The proprietor explained that it was a door harp, commonly found in the entryways of local houses. Captivated by the sounds the four maplewood balls made as they struck the piano strings, the Potoks bought it and hung in their kitchen.
Two years later the harp has emerged as the prominent and resonant symbol in Potok's sixth and latest novel, Davita's Harp. This time the bearded, best-selling chronicler of life among the Hasidim (The Chosen, The Promise, My Name Is Asher Lev) turns to the political turbulence of New York in the 1930s. Ilana Davita Chandal is the daughter of Michael Chandal, a WASP newspaperman, and his Polish-Jewish wife, Channah. Both are fervent communists and atheists. A baffled observer of the meetings her parents hold at home, Davita, as she grows older, searches out security in the rituals of Judaism. In spite of her parents' disapproval, Davita becomes interested in religion and later enrolls in the local yeshiva. There she wins top marks, entitling her to the Akiva Award, given to the best student. Instead, the prize is given to a boy. "What would all the other yeshivas think of us?" a Hebrew teacher asks the devastated youngster. "What would the world think about our boys?"
"That actually happened to my wife when she was a young girl in Brooklyn," Potok, 56, says, seated in the library of the Tudor house outside Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife and three children. "I've known about it since we were married. Those things sit like a seed in the core of your being. Finally I decided it was time to haul it out and take another look at it. The harp got mixed in along the way and became the central metaphor."
Potok's surroundings mirror the many sides of a writer who has by turns dazzled, disappointed and baffled critics. In the bookcase are the religious texts of Potok the ordained rabbi. Alongside are the numerous bound novels of Potok the best-selling author. There are also copies of Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews, on which he spent four years of painstaking research in Jerusalem. Above the bookcases are some Munch-like Expressionist paintings. Potok is also an accomplished painter.
In fact, though Potok's novels are set in the narrow world of Orthodox Jews, more than half of his readers are non-Jews. "I write about Jews because it's what I know best," he says. "The human problems that affect them affect any particular group—Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons. My characters are comfortable inside the framework of their tradition but they keep bumping into and up against ideas from the civilization around them. Davita follows the pattern. She doesn't break away in terms of deeds. She breaks away in her mind."
Much the same could be said of Potok, whose father, Benjamin, emigrated to the U.S. from Poland in 1921. As a boy in the East Bronx, Chaim wanted to be a painter. His father, a jeweler, wanted him to be a teacher, at a Talmud academy. At 16, after reading Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, he turned to writing. "I'll never forget thinking what power there was in words," he says. Though his father considered both painting and writing to be worthless, gentile enterprises, writing seemed more acceptable. "At 17 I sent a story to the Atlantic Monthly, and an editor wrote back an encouraging letter," he recalls. "My father was furious, but it carried me a long way." Majoring in English literature, he graduated from Yeshiva University in 1950 summa cum laude and promptly enrolled in the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was ordained as a Conservative rabbi in 1954. "I never wanted to be a pulpit rabbi," he says. "But I went to the seminary in order to study what it was I wanted to write about."
Suddenly Potok was ordered to Korea as an Army chaplain, like his character Gershon Loran in The Book of Lights. The experience transformed him. "I saw suffering the likes of which I never envisaged in my wildest nightmares. And I saw exquisite, forbidden, pagan beauty. And a culture perfectly at ease without Jews or Judaism."
Potok returned home and enrolled in a doctoral program in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. Adena, now 52, supported the family as a psychiatric social worker. "We lived dollar to dollar in those days," he says. "We didn't have a penny in the bank. One day I got an offer of three separate pulpits. Each one paid $20,000, which in 1963 was a lot of money. I was working on The Chosen, and I remember telling my wife, 'I've been offered this but I don't want to do it. I want to write.' She said, 'Go ahead.'" When the book was published to critical success four years later, financial pressure eased. Potok worked as editor of the Jewish Publication society in Philadelphia and began to turn out a novel about every three years.
Ironically, for a novelist in the mainstream of Jewish writing, Potok has proved most provocative to Jews themselves. Shortly after its publication, The Chosen was banned from Orthodox yeshivas. Potok himself was declared persona non grata at several synagogues. "My book upset the Orthodox for a couple of reasons," he explains. "First, the characters end up just a little more secular than they started out. Second, the Orthodox just don't like being written about. The important thing is the study of sacred texts. Writing is a horrible waste of precious Jewish time." Potok smiles knowingly. "Still, they read me."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9059
SOURCE: "The Chosen," in Chaim Potok, Twayne Publishers, 1986, pp. 7-36.
[In the following excerpt, Abramson provides an overview of the major themes, characters, and narrative presentation in The Chosen.]
Jewish and Non-Jewish Worlds
The Chosen is set largely within a Jewish world, the characters approaching and having to cope with their problems within almost self-contained Jewish communities. The novel opens with a dramatic baseball game between a fanatical Hasidic sect of Ultra-Orthodox Jews and a group of Orthodox Jews who follow the commandments but not the particular idiosyncracies of the Hasids. It is here that we meet Danny Saunders, the son of the leader of the Hasidic sect and heir apparent to his father's post. Because of what we later learn to be pressure from his father not to engage in secular pursuits at all, Danny feels that his team must win, thus proving that they can beat "lesser" Jews at their own game, as it were. He turns the game into a holy war and, in batting a line drive at Reuven, almost blinds him in one eye.
Reuven is the son of the more liberal David Malter, who has been helping choose library books for Danny unbeknown to his father. Danny is a genius and is chafing at the highly restricted Hasidic world that prevents him from expanding his mind with secular reading, particularly psychology. Danny's father, Reb Saunders, has been raising him in silence in order to try to develop his soul since he will be inheriting his father's role as leader of the community. Reb Saunders wants to speak to Danny through Reuven, a process that David Malter understands and encourages. Unfortunately, a hiatus occurs between the two fathers on account of differing views toward the rebuilding of the State of Israel by secular Jews, and Reb Saunders refuses to allow Danny to speak to Reuven.
When Israel is proclaimed a Jewish state and Jewish boys begin dying to defend it, Reb Saunder's resistance begins to break down; he allows his son to speak to Reuven again, and the central plot concern of whether Danny will leave the community to become a psychologist reemerges. Danny does leave the community to study psychology and does not take on his inherited role; this passes to his younger brother. Reuven, perhaps ironically, becomes a rabbi. The story is a highly Jewish one but, as we shall see, the non-Jewish world and Jewish elements from outside the tightly knit communities within which the novel is set impinge upon the central characters with increasing force.
The only non-Jewish characters who appear in the novel are patients or relatives in the Jewish hospital to which Reuven goes for treatment of his injured eye. The most thoroughly presented is Tony Savo, who occupies the bed next to Reuven. Potok presents him as a decent man who has no anti-Jewish prejudice and who illustrates in a minor way the importance of faith. He has been a boxer, and will lose his eye because of punches received in the ring. He sees Reuven eating while wearing a skullcap and comments on the importance of religion. Then he says, "Could've been on top if that guy hadn't clopped me with that right the way he did. Flattened me for a month. Manager lost faith. Lousy manager." A page later he repeats the point about his manager losing faith. While this remark may be interpreted as the manager "losing faith" in Tony Savo, we learn that Tony wanted to be a priest once but chose the ring instead, a "Lousy choice," he now feels. As these points are made against the background of the radio's reports of the fighting toward the end of World War II, one feels the contrast between the violence in Europe and simple faith. It is a somewhat simplistic comparison but does highlight Potok's feeling that violence implies a lack of faith both in mankind and in something greater than man.
Danny arrives and tries to apologize to Reuven, who will not listen to him. Mr. Savo comments:
"He one of these real religious Jews?" Mr. Savo asked.
"I've seen them around. My manager has an uncle like that. Real religious guy. Fanatic. Never had anything to do with my manager though. Small loss. Some lousy manager."
There is a dual implication here in that his manager's loss of faith is seen as being in some way responsible for Tony Savo's plight and the fact that his manager's religious uncle would have nothing to do with him is yet another sign of the manager's faithlessness. However, Danny and the uncle, religious though they are, are "cloppers": "You're a good kid. So I'm telling you, watch out for those fanatics. They're the worst cloppers around." Religion is a good thing, but not the fanatical type of religion followed by the Hasidim; that is destructive. Thus, Potok uses a non-Jew to present the argument at the center of the religious confrontation which pervades the novel. Indeed, much later on when Reuven decides to become a rabbi, he remembers Tony Savo:
"America needs rabbis," my father said.
"Well, it's better than being a boxer," I told him.
My father looked puzzled.
"A bad joke," I said.
The only other non-Jews who appear in the novel are Billy Merrit and, very briefly, his father. Billy's eye operation is unsuccessful, and he remains blind; Mr. Savo has to have one eye removed. Only Reuven completely heals. Indeed, good fortune will follow him throughout the novel, everything he puts his hand to reaching a satisfactory conclusion. It is one of the criticisms which has been leveled at the novel: everything works out well for the protagonists, Potok being at base highly optimistic, at least as far as his main characters are concerned. This issue will be pursued further later in this chapter.
The world outside the Hasidic community has a crucial effect upon Danny Saunders, the central figure in the plot. He tells Reuven that he feels "trapped" by the assumption that he will carry on the generations-old tradition that his family provides the rebbe for the community. He finds study of the Talmud extremely limiting and must sneak off to the public library and seclude himself behind the shelves in order to read books from the secular world. It is noteworthy that "misbehavior" in The Chosen consists of a genius reading the writings of some of the best minds of the last two centuries; one is not dealing here with Danny's reading pornography or popular culture. The nature of his reading highlights the repressiveness of the Hasidic world that his father rules.
Danny points out that once he is rebbe he can read whatever he likes since so far as his people are concerned he can do no wrong. Interestingly, he would then also become a type of psychologist, albeit with an all-pervading religiosity. His people would come to him with their personal problems as well as with those relating directly to religious law. It would, however, be fatuous to see the role of rebbe as simply one of religious psychologist. He would have to be seen to be taking their suffering upon himself; hence Reb Saunder's attempts to develop in him a soul as well as a mind.
In Europe, in another century, the possibilities open to Danny in the secular world would have been far more limited than they are in America. He might have done what Solomon Maimon did in the eighteenth century in Poland; that is, go to Germany and immerse himself in studying the great philosophers and in writing philosophical texts. It is noteworthy here that the subject of Potok's doctoral dissertation was "The Rationalism and Skepticism of Solomon Maimon." Indeed, David Malter cites Maimon as a parallel to Danny. He says: "Reuven, Reb Saunder's son has a mind like Solomon Maimon's, perhaps even a greater mind. And Reb Saunders' son does not live in Poland. America is free. There are no walls here to hold back Jews. Is it so strange, then, that he is breaking his father's rules and reading forbidden books? he cannot help himself."
Danny's attraction to psychology is an attraction to what has become almost a secular religion, with people like Sigmund Freud constituting members of a priestly caste. Not only does Danny discover that he can use the methods of Talmudic study in deciphering Freud's writings, but Reb Saunders finds that he can partially justify his son's choice of vocation in that Danny "will be a tzaddik for the world. And the world needs a tzaddik." This explains Hugh Nissenson's remark that "Danny's conflict between the secular and the spiritual life has been daringly, and brilliantly resolved." One might also add, given Reb Saunders's perhaps somewhat too easy acceptance of his son's choice, that the conflict has been a bit too comfortably resolved.
Part of the reason for Danny's being drawn to the secular world lies in the comparative weakness of his Hasidic beliefs. Louis Jacobs states that while it is difficult to find a set of Hasidic doctrines that are acceptable to all Hasidic sects, there are "certain basic themes and a certain mood, founded on the pantheistic beliefs that are fairly constant. Among the ideas stressed in every variety of Hasidic thought are: the love and fear of God; devekut, 'cleaving' to God at all times; simhah, 'joy' in God's presence; hitlabavut, 'burning enthusiasm' in God's worship; and shiflut, 'lowliness,' 'humility,' construed as a complete lack of awareness of the self." It is noteworthy that Danny does not illustrate in his life any of these beliefs or actions. Indeed, his concerns are almost entirely with how he can achieve self-fulfillment and pursue the secular studies for which he has a growing passion. One critic has stated that "Danny, for want of a better word—the word has been overly used and abused, though it applies here—has been alienated—from his father, from Hasidism, and finally from the Hasidic community itself."
Historical events thrust themselves with great force upon the characters. I have already discussed the reactions of Reb Saunders and David Malter to the Holocaust and the rebirth of Israel, events that Potok uses to show basic theological differences between the two men and the two religious groups. Potok also mentions the death of President Roosevelt and devotes most space to the Malters' reaction, with Reuven weeping and his father deeply grieved. They are placed within the context of the typical American reaction to the tragic event, as seen by descriptions of people stunned or crying in the street. Danny feels that the death is a "terrible thing," but we are not given Reb Saunder's reaction. This lack of information heightens the reader's sense of the Hasidic leader's apartness from secular, non-Jewish events. It may show some of Potok's bias in favor of David Malter, who has earlier told Reuven that he "should not forget there is a world outside."
The "world outside" includes those American myths that surround the Jewish communities in the novel, in particular that of the American Dream. Although the Hasidic community tries to insulate itself from American influences, this proves impossible. Danny Saunder's interest in secular subjects and his eventual decision to become a psychologist implies something about the openness of American society to new possibilities; however, the fact that Danny must relinquish his Hasidic identity in order to take advantage of these possibilities also tells us something of the demands that America makes on those who would achieve their dreams there. Sheldon Grebstein observes that despite its strong Jewish content, The Chosen is a highly American novel:
Accordingly, the American cultural myth or fable at the heart of The Chosen is essentially that of both the Horatio Alger stories and The Great Gatsby—the dream of success. In this version the story is played out by an improbable but possible "only in America" cast of Hasidic and orthodox Jews, who demonstrate that people can still make good through hard work, and that severe difficulties can be overcome by pluck, integrity, and dedication. At the story's end the novel's two young heroes are about to realize the reward they have earned: a limitless future. In sum, The Chosen can be interpreted from this standpoint as an assertion of peculiarly American optimism and social idealism. Very simply, it says Yes.
Indeed, The Chosen does say "Yes" for the two adolescent Jewish boys. Reuven is elected president of his class, receives virtually all A grades, and graduates summa cum laude. He also has the choice of becoming either a mathematician or a rabbi. Danny also graduates summa cum laude; is accepted to do graduate work at Harvard, Berkeley, and Columbia; will become a psychologist; and finds that his father accepts his decision not to inherit the tzaddikate but pass it on to his sickly brother instead. This optimism underlies the novel, even at those points where negative elements enter into it. One always has an ultimate belief that the two boys are so basically decent, and are perceived by the author as being so worthy, that in the end their actions will lead to success, and problems which seem very thorny indeed, like Danny's inevitable confrontation with his father over the leadership of the community, will be resolved.
Potok manages to permit the boys to remain strongly Jewish while taking advantage of the opportunities offered by American society. In this he differs from most other Jewish-American authors whose Jewish characters frequently must sacrifice important aspects of their Jewishness in order to take advantage of American opportunity. Indeed, the majority of the characters in twentieth-century Jewish-American writing do not view the relinquishment of their Jewishness as a major sacrifice. Describing a symposium held by the Contemporary Jewish Record (Commentary's predecessor) in 1944 entitled "American Literature and the Younger Generation of American Jews," David Daiches observes that "Many of the contributors to the symposium seemed to think that their Americanism had subsumed their Judaism. One writer went so far as to equate the 'Declaration of Independence' with certain Jewish prayers, and Lincoln with Hillel."
The enormous effect of the American Dream or, in Danny's case in particular, American opportunity as an inherent aspect of the Dream, is stated in part by Loren Baritz when he writes that the Jew had almost always "managed to resist the particular physical locale of his Galut by remembering his participation both in history and in the Jewish community. But because when we moved to America we responded to a psychological reversal promised by the American Dream—a promise of the end of Galut—we became more susceptible to the incursions of American utopianism, of America's rejection of the past, of age, and of continuity with Europe." While Danny does not take his attraction to American opportunity so far as to reject the past, to reject Judaism, one can see in his rejection of his father's Hasidism an awareness that American society will permit both a secular profession and a Jewish life. However, even America makes demands of those who wish to use its gifts: Danny Saunders cannot retain his Hasidic way of life and his Hasidic appearance and still become a successful psychologist in America. As Baritz also writes: "Because of America's rejection of the past, of the fierce commitment to the notion that this land will start anew, the American Jew is pulled apart. To be a Jew is to remember. An American must forget." Danny must "forget" some of his Hasidic ways.
Reuven Malter has less intense choices to make than Danny since his type of Judaism does not prevent him from entering the secular world while retaining his Jewish identification. Ironically, he decides to become a rabbi and remain totally in a Jewish environment. Reuven, however, is aware of the necessity that some Jews feel to prove their Americanism. As narrator he points out that some of the teachers of non-Jewish subjects ("English teachers") in the Jewish parochial schools felt it necessary to organize competitive baseball leagues "to show the gentile world that yeshiva students were as physically fit, despite their long hours of study, as any other American student." This feeling arises as a result of America's entry into World War II and the desire on the part of most Jews that they should be seen as able to do their part in the war effort. Indeed, because baseball is the quintessential American game, "to the students of most of the parochial schools, an inter-league baseball victory had come to take on only a shade less significance than a top grade in Talmud, for it was an unquestioned mark of one's Americanism, and to be counted a loyal American had become increasingly important to us during these last years of the war." Thus optimism about America does not totally remove the Jews' awareness of their differences from the majority culture or the need to temper the more extreme external manifestations of their faith on the part of those who wish to become more a part of mainstream American society.
Potok has reservations concerning the importance of the American Dream and American optimism in The Chosen. He asserts that "A covering hypothesis regarding the popularity of my work should take into account the many Jewish and non-Jewish readers of Potok … in France, Germany, England, Holland, Japan, Australia, the Philippines, and elsewhere, including the Soviet Union. What do all those people know about Horatio Alger,… American optimism and social idealism, and the American reverence for the pioneer?" This comment appears in an essay in which Potok addresses himself to remarks made by Sheldon Grebstein a year earlier. While one can sympathize with Potok's point to a degree, it remains true that with its American setting, the nature of Danny Saunders's belief in what is possible, Reuven Malter's basic faith that his future lies in his own hands, and the ultimate success of these characters and, indeed, of David Malter in achieving his goals, the novel exudes a type of optimism that is strongly associated with America. That this optimism and level of success can exist elsewhere is not in doubt; that it underlies, indeed pervades, The Chosen is what gives the book its American ethos. Non-Americans can appreciate and understand this ethos because of general cultural dissemination of American ideals and, not inconsiderably, because of the attitudes that Potok describes in the novel.
The Value of Education
The Chosen could be viewed as a paean to education. All the central characters are intensely and joyfully engaged in learning, and Potok imbues the quest for knowledge with great excitement. Jews have long placed great value upon learning, with communities in Europe supporting, if at a meager level, Talmud students so that they could pursue their studies. It was felt that a valuable and holy gift for a wealthy man to present to a son-in-law was an extended period of financial support after the marriage so that the young man could engage in study. Supporting a religious scholar was a mitzvab (good deed), as his study of the holy books reflected upon the religiosity of the family.
The positive attitude toward education can be seen in the verve with which the protagonists engage in complex discussions of difficult texts. Reuven describes a discussion between Reb Saunders, Danny, and himself thus: "It was a pitched battle. With no congregants around, and with me an accepted member of the family, Danny and his father fought through their points with loud voices and wild gestures of their hands almost to where I thought they might come to blows." They do not come to blows, however, as Reuven realizes that "Reb Saunders was far happier when he lost to Danny than when he won. His face glowed with fierce pride…. The battle went on for a long time, and I slowly became aware of the fact that both Danny and his father, during a point they might be making or listening to, would cast inquisitive glances at me, as if to ask what I was doing just sitting there while all this excitement was going on: Why in the world wasn't I joining in the battle?" Reuven does join in and finds that he is "enjoying it all immensely…."
One rarely comes across an author who can convincingly present learning as the most exciting aspect of the lives of adolescents. One does wonder at times whether Potok does not overdo this total commitment to books. Where, for instance, is the boys' awareness of sports, popular music, girls. Have they no hobbies? Neither Reuven nor Danny is particularly interested in baseball despite the opening of the novel, and after Danny tells Reuven that his sister had been "promised" at the age of two to the son of one of his father's followers any interest in girls disappears from the story. Reuven attends her wedding, finds her beautiful, but his concern in this novel for female companionship is over. As one might expect, in the film version of the novel a good deal more is made of Reuven's feelings for Danny's sister. She even seems somewhat attracted to him. As in the novel, however, nothing comes of this attraction.
Although Reuven is not Hasidic, Potok seems to have burdened him with many "Hasidic" restrictions: "'Youth' does not have high status in the Hasidic community, since it is regarded as only a preliminary to adulthood…. Boys and girls do not meet ambiguities and uncertainties concerning their expected behavior, since the role of youth is to obey their elders and behave in a way that is appropriate for Hasidic people." Reuven is certainly freer than Danny in his opportunities to interact with the secular world and in the fact that he does not feel "trapped" as does Danny. However, because Potok makes Danny a genius and Reuven a near-genius neither boy can be viewed as a representative adolescent.
Both fathers are committed to intellectual pursuits, and the home life of both boys at times resembles a classroom. Indeed, Potok uses the different methods of teaching employed by the fathers to illustrate different approaches to Judaism that are of great importance in the novel. He writes of "the lecture on Hasidism by David Malter to his fifteen year old son (the scientific Western-oriented method of teaching) and the synagogue-set exhortations of Reb Saunders (the traditional Eastern-European method of teaching)." Reb Saunders also engages in Talmudic discussions with his son which, as we have seen, permit disagreement over possible interpretations. These discussions, however, are carried on in private, but, even privately, Reb Saunders would never permit David Malter's method of textual emendation to be used in his presence. In an interview in which Potok was asked what kind of teacher should "teach truths," he replied: "I would say that the teacher should be somebody like Reuven Malter's father. In many ways he exemplifies the Jewish adventure." Education is an inherent part of that adventure in Potok's work.
David Malter is Potok's ideal teacher because despite his Orthodoxy he does not eschew the twentieth century and what it can offer to his understanding of Judaism. This attitude extends to his method of teaching his son and to his expectations of the breadth of his son's interests. Reuven can discuss any topic with his father, although all those discussed are important and worthy ones. David Malter has a respect for secular knowledge that is lacking in Reb Saunders, and a regard for analysis of all issues. Reb Saunders's narrowness, on the other hand, reflects Hasidic views: "If one is educated in Jewish matters, he will rank high only if his education is used to intensify his Hasidic behavior. Education in itself, without Hasidic observances, has little status value. Occupation, income, and residence, too, carry status value only if they supplement Hasidic behavior."
The result of these differing attitudes toward education is that Danny's attempt to pursue secular studies becomes a source for conflict in the novel whereas Reuven's father is proud of his son's ability in mathematics. Indeed, although David Malter is proud that Reuven has decided to become a rabbi, he tells him that he would have been very pleased if he had decided to become a university professor of mathematics. He knows that Reuven will not give up his Judaism, and he considers a profession in the secular world to be honorable and worthwhile.
Reb Saunders's way of educating his son has apparently failed to give him the "heart" necessary to find the role of tzaddik attractive despite his desire to study psychology and his seeming interest in the more "human" Freudian approach as opposed to the clinical orientation of Dr. Applemen, his psychology professor. One critic observes:
The Saunderses seem to have an excess of head in their (paradoxical streak of zealousness and emotional) makeup; but the Malters have heart and head: they are in balance….
Reuven's studies are "brain" disciplines—logic, mathematics, philosophy—yet it is he who finally turns out to have more "heart" than the brilliant son of a Hasid. Danny, on the other hand, having been raised in the tradition of the Ba'al Shem, should have been a "heart-and-joy specialist." Yet it is he who is all brain. And this produces a keen irony, since Hasidism, a movement that was originally a revolt against arid scholasticism became (as portrayed in The Chosen) transformed into its opposite. Piety, joy, even learning, (a late-comer to Hasidism) becomes pietism, rote learning, memorization.
The results of their educations may have produced quite different people, but Reuven and Danny do share an important set of ideals. Like their fathers they are committed to learning and to its best attributes: thoughtfulness, a desire for self-improvement, and a respect for those whose knowledge is greater than their own. In addition, the sort of learning upon which they devote most of their time is religious in nature. This has given both of them a belief in the importance of morality and of the spiritual aspect of man. In short, their belief in the importance of learning has made both of them decent, caring people who are oriented toward higher things.
It is interesting to note that The Chosen appears to appeal to adolescent boys and girls when, as has been pointed out, it is not concerned with what might be thought to be the "normal" interests of this age group. An English teacher in a high school in Midland, Texas (not noted for its high Jewish population), has written that "Although there are some difficult aspects in studying this book in high school, after some preliminary research into the practices of the Jewish religion the students on the junior level read the book and rated it highest in interest of all the major works that we studied this year." The other books studied included The Red Badge of Courage, Huckleberry Finn, and The Old Man and the Sea.
One can speculate that the appeal of the novel lies in its tapping of the honorable and more "spiritual" side of the adolescent personality. Both Reuven and Danny exhibit a wide range of very admirable traits, and the issues they confront are clearly of importance and have a moral dimension. Also, there is the appeal of the exotic, the sense that information about a secret world is being imparted. Indeed, education of non-Jews and of Jews who are not Hasids provides one of the important appeals of the novel. There are long historical passages, virtually lectures, which David Malter delivers to his son concerning the history of Hasidism and of the Jews. There are exciting Talmudic discussions that culminate in six pages describing a class recitation in which Reuven tackles a very difficult passage in the Talmud using different critical methods. Potok manages to make this recitation gripping in its presentation (it continues over four days of class time) on account of both the subject matter and the understanding that the teacher, Rav Gershenson, is believed not to like the method of textual emendation that Reuven's father uses in his articles and which, finally, Reuven is forced to use himself. Since this teacher will be instrumental in deciding whether or not Reuven is permitted to enter the rabbinate, there is an added tension.
Danny lectures Reuven on the intricacies of Freudian psychology and finds that it is necessary to learn German in order to read Freud in the original. While it might be very difficult for even bright high school pupils to identify with either boy on an academic level because of his brilliance, it is not unreasonable to think that admiration of them would be a common feeling. In regard to Danny's reading of Freud, Potok does create difficulties for him in that even with a knowledge of German he cannot grasp the nuances of the case descriptions. A neat relationship between the Talmud and Freud seems to point the way forward: "He had been going at it all wrong, he said, his eyes bright with excitement. He had wanted to read Freud. That had been his mistake. Freud had to be studied, not read. He had to be studied like a page of Talmud. And he had to be studied with a commentary."
One critic states that even using this method it is unlikely that Danny could fully understand Freud since "such a boy at his age could not confront the works of Freud in any meaningful way. The problem is not one of intelligence—he might grasp the dictionary meaning of the words—but lack of life experience…." The pupils in Midland, Texas might well have more experience of "life" than does Danny with his cloistered upbringing.
The Chosen is an "education" novel, a bildungsroman. The teenage characters develop in mind and character as time passes, their experiences heightening their understanding of themselves and of their place in the world. This form is a very common one in Jewish-American literature:
The education novel exactly reproduces the central experience of American Jewry: the movement from the enclosed shtetl (Eastern European village) environment, with its highly ordered and pervasive moral system (diffused by peasant lore and a necessarily realistic view of humanity), to the exacting demands of an industrial society…. America, coming with such suddenness to so many, intensified the cleavage between the domestic religious culture of the Jews and their external lives in a country which regarded them as an anomaly. The novel repeats the pattern of this process by describing a youth out-growing the protection of the home and encountering the beckoning life without.
The world of the Hasids described in The Chosen is very similar to that of "the enclosed shtetl" in its imposition upon its members of a rigid moral and behavior code that attempts to ignore that of the majority culture. As we have seen, both Danny and Reuven are greatly influenced by American society, this causing in Danny's case the cleavage of which Sherman writes. The Jewish writer's version of the education or "initiation" novel tends to place more stress upon family relations than does that produced by his non-Jewish counterpart. This, also, can be clearly seen in The Chosen as the relations between the Saunderses and the Matters, and between the respective fathers and sons, occupy the center stage.
Fathers and Sons
Book 1 of The Chosen begins with the following quotation from "Proverbs": "I was a son to my father … / And he taught me and said to me, / 'Let your heart hold fast my words….'" This epigraph sets the tone not only for the first section of the novel but for the novel as a whole in that father-son relationships are central to the development of the plot and to an understanding of the various conflicts that occur. The virtual absence of women heightens the centrality of the male relations but, of course, it eliminates any consideration of the complexities of family life, a theme that is very common and important in Jewish-American writing. This somewhat artificial situation (unlike Reuven, Danny has a mother and a sister, but they are almost invisible) parallels the somewhat artificial adolescences of the two boys. A feminine element in the plot would have provided a more balanced family life to offset the male-dominated, religious and educational intensity of the novel.
The stress upon fathers parallels a similar stress in Judaism, where God is King, Judge, and Father. When "authority is involved, God the King or Judge; when He offers love and mercy, even to the wicked, He is Father. Symbolic Hebrew religion deceives some into thinking Deity is really fatherhood." Thus, the father can be viewed as a fount of wisdom, one who takes upon himself some of the aura of the Godhead. This can be clearly seen in Danny's reaction to Reb Saunders and, in terms of respecting his knowledge, ethics, and religiosity, in Reuven's reaction to his father.
One of the saying of the Baal Shem Tov illustrates the close links between learning, the Godhead, and fatherhood which exists both in Hasidic and non-Hasidic Judaism: "'The Lord does not object even if one misunderstands what a man learns, provided he only strives to understand out of love of learning. It is like a father whose beloved child petitions him in stumbling words, yet he takes delight in hearing him.' There is honor between father and son. The father is the benevolent teacher; the son is the obedient student." As Malin observes here, the father-son relationship is one of honor and respect, in the words of the Baal Shem Tov. Despite any differences that occur between the fathers and sons in The Chosen, a high level of respect remains in force between the father-teacher and his son.
The strength of the two father-son relationships provides a central focus of the novel in that even when rebellion against the father takes place, as it does in Danny's case, the father is not presented in a totally negative light. Potok shows that Reb Saunders's reasons for acting the way he does are not selfish ones but are in the service of higher things: he is seen as a tzaddik who suffers for his flock and for the Jewish people and not merely as a tyrannical father. Danny may resent the pressures put upon him by his father, but he still respects and loves him; Reuven has no reason not to love and respect his father, as he is presented as the most admirable character in the novel.
The ways in which the two boys are raised can be seen as reflecting the fanaticism or tolerance of their fathers. Reb Saunders's raises Danny in silence in order to try to give him a suffering soul that will enable him to feel the pain of his people. Danny's brilliant mind is not sufficient in itself for a tzaddik, and his father is appalled that as a child Danny seems to lack the human compassion to match his intellectual brilliance. While Reb Saunders is undoubtedly a fanatic, he does suffer greatly because of this method of raising his son. As we have seen he is willing to make the sacrifice in order that a higher cause be served: that of creating the right sort of leader for his people. A Time for Silence was the tentative manuscript title of the novel. This shows the importance Potok placed upon silence and its implications for all of the characters, although it has its greatest effect upon Danny and his father.
Reb Saunder's method largely fails in that its primary effect is to drive Danny out of the community and into the secular world. We must wait for The Promise to see the positive effects of this method. While a fascination with secular literature explains much of Danny's lack of interest in Hasidism, it seems probable that the harshness of his father's method of raising him contributes to his distaste for both Hasidism and the role of tzaddik. One critic feels that Reb Saunders manages virtually to nullify Danny's personality in that "Danny becomes an object, manipulated by his father, rather than a person one relates to." Danny's personality is somewhat flat rather than round, his conflict with his father and Hasidism being more interesting than he is. His ultimate choice of Freudian as opposed to clinical psychology is presented more in scientific than in humanistic terms, in spite of his comments concerning the more "human" appeal to him of the Freudian approach. In his rebellion, Danny reacts to the intolerance of his father.
By contrast, Reuven Malter is raised in an atmosphere of tolerance and love that is exhibited daily rather than assumed to exist without outward signs. However, David Malter is not a tzaddik and does not have the responsibilities toward a group of people and the preservation of a dynasty which Reb Saunders does. Because he is not a Hasid, David Malter is not enclosed in a world which makes the sort of extreme demands that Reb Saunders must face daily. Nonetheless, Malter is committed to the preservation of the Jewish people and fights tirelessly for the creation of a Jewish state. His illness and recovery reflect the condition of the Jews as they move from Auschwitz to Israel. He is also an observer of the commandments, which requires a great deal of discipline in his life. His outgoing love for his son and his respect and tolerance for his needs must be seen in relation to his attitude toward Judaism and toward the secular world, attitudes which we have seen to be far different from those of Reb Saunders.
David Malter teaches his son respect for tolerance. He tells him that "Honest differences of opinion should never be permitted to destroy a friendship…." He illustrates this attitude in his reaction to Reb Saunders, who has bitterly attacked him because of his stance concerning the creation of the State of Israel. Reb Saunders is a fanatic, he feels, in his anti-Zionist stance and the extent to which he is willing to heap scorn upon those who disagree with him. Yet, when Reuven finds that his hatred of Danny's father is growing daily, David Malter defends Reb Saunders on account of his faith and the way in which faith such as his has preserved the Jewish people through two thousand years of persecution. He prefers a rational approach: "He disagreed with Reb Saunders, yes, but he would countenance no slander against his name or his position. Ideas should be fought with ideas, my father said, not with blind passion. If Reb Saunders was fighting him with passion, that did not mean that my father had to fight Reb Saunders with passion." The difference between the two fathers cannot be more clearly seen than in this disparate approach toward the treatment of those with whom one disagrees.
One critic views the two approaches in terms of rationality and mysticism: "In the crisis of generations and cultures, the son of the rationalist, who has come to love the tradition because he has been reared in love, chooses to sustain it; the son of the mystic, reared in silence and seeming hatred, turns toward secular science." While the observation is basically sound, one must question whether Reb Saunders is a mystic, since he places so much stress upon intellectual analysis of the Talmud and does not exhibit a particularly Kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) leaning toward religious texts or experience. As noted earlier, Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, was much concerned with nonintellectual, mystical experiences as a means of understanding God. Reb Saunders, as indeed Hasidism in general, has deviated from this total stress upon "simple," mystical experience and has established practices that the Baal Shem would not have wholeheartedly supported. While most Hasidic groups still place some emphasis upon religious ecstasy achieved through dance and certain repetitive tunes (the Hasidic nign), particularly for the mass of Hasidim, they would nor differ very much in their regard for the types of intellectual analysis of Talmudic texts for the more able among them, as illustrated in the religious discussions between Danny and his father.
In their concern to pass on the Jewish heritage to their sons, both fathers use what could be described as "rational" methods. At the end of the day it is not so much the method used (silence is used by Reb Saunders as a "rational" method to produce a particular result) as the underlying feeling of love each boy either sees or does not in his father which produces the results of which Hochman writes. The son's awareness of his father's love becomes related to the son's feeling for the type of Judaism for which the father stands. To Reuven, Judaism is as much what his father is as it is a tradition and a body of laws and commandments. In choosing to become a rabbi, Reuven reflects both his love of Judaism and the love which his father, as the primary symbol of Judaism in his life, gave to him; in rejecting the tzaddikate, Danny reflects both his distaste of the narrow Hasidic world and the lack of love that his father, as the primary symbol of Hasidism in his life, forced him to endure.
Form and Content
Potok's style in The Chosen has been criticized for the flatness of the dialogue, the subservience of characterization to thematic considerations, and a degree of contrivance to create a symmetrical plot structure in which various plot developments end in a neat balance. Sheldon Grebstein writes: "Its style ranges from undistinguished to banal. Its tone is subdued and utterly humorless. Its pace is moderate. Its overall color is gray. With all these handicaps that The Chosen—this really Jewish book—should have attained best-sellerdom seems more than a phenomenon; it is truly a miracle. But miracle or not, its 38 weeks on the list is an obdurate fact demanding explanation." Before exploring the possible explanations for the novel's popularity, some analysis of these adverse criticisms is necessary.
The dialogue in the novel is uninspiring and very slow-paced; however, the subjects being discussed are often highly intellectual in content. They are historical, religious, moral, or related to the intricacies of personality as exhibited by high-minded and complex individuals. In short, the dialogue is suitable for the subjects and themes that are central to the novel. Where it does fall short is in its lack of differentiation between different characters, there being little subtlety of nuance in the speech patterns of one character as compared to another. Because the tone of the conversations is almost always highly serious, there is a marked lack of the lighter side of the characters' personalities.
This one-sidedness can also be seen in character descriptions. There is a mechanical quality about most of them. To show suppressed emotion, certain characters' eyes frequently become "misty"; others gesticulate wildly when they talk, or "nod vaguely" to show their preoccupation with other matters than the ones being discussed. Moreover, these physical traits are repeated throughout the novel to the point of becoming too predictable.
As Potok himself points out in an article I will discuss shortly, the characters speak Yiddish almost all of the time. Yet, there is no attempt in the novel at mimesis through setting apart the non-English phraseology by syntactical methods or through presenting it in, say, perfect English as does Henry Roth in Call It Sleep, another novel in which many of the characters (the Shearl family and most of their neighbors) speak Yiddish almost all of the time.
One aspect of The Chosen which could have created difficulties through interference with the narrative line is the educative aspect. There are a number of "lecturettes" concerning Hasidic and Jewish history which, like the cetology chapters of Moby-Dick, intrude into the plot. Indeed, one critic has referred to the novel as "documentary fictionalized." She goes on to write that "Claustrophobic reading, and really, description of 'customs and traditions' however well done, are not basically what a novel should concern itself with." Perhaps, but the depiction of "customs and traditions" is both relevant and suitable for The Chosen. Indeed, the intrusions into the novel of this material can be regarded as essential to an appreciation of the plot. Not only is reference made to it during other portions of the text, but Potok uses this educative material in part to explain the various actions and beliefs of the characters. It therefore takes on more importance than mere extraneous material would normally have. While it is not dramatized, neither is it just "dead" exposition.
By no means have all critics found The Chosen wanting in all respects; many have had positive reactions and at least one discovered that having liked the novel "somewhat" in April, liked it "quite a lot" in June. He goes on to say that "The Chosen has stayed in memory and, staying, has grown." Most reviewers have praised the sincerity, warmth, and humanity of the novel and have responded to the decency and believability of characters presented in such a sympathetic manner. As Granville Hicks observes: "it is hard to make good boys interesting; it must have been even harder for Chaim Potok to bring to life a pair of good fathers, good in different ways. But he succeeded, and the result is a fine, moving, gratifying book." Indeed, one of the strongest aspects of the novel is the characters, despite the weakness of the dialogue. They remain interesting as people because of what they represent and the skillful manner in which Potok shows their struggles to reach admirable but difficult goals while remaining ethical individuals. There was a danger that these characters would become allegorical, mere symbols or types, thus losing their individuality and humanness. Potok has avoided this pitfall through the creation of a story so interesting in the moral issues raised, in the conflicts presented, and in the exoticism of its setting and themes that we are caught up in the flow from the narrative which, in turn, lends the characters weight and depth.
Daphne Merkin states that Potok has consciously eschewed the "attempt to write about situations or characters that might stand in for humanity in general, and has concentrated instead on the particular, writing from an insularly Jewish perspective that denies broader implications." Unquestionably, Potok's world in The Chosen is firmly rooted in a particular place and culture, the characters illustrating the beliefs and practices of a distinct minority. One can think of many novels about which the same observations could be made. This does not mean that "broader implications" are denied. Isaac Bashevis Singer speaks of the importance of literature having an "address": "I would say that literature must have an address, that it just cannot be in a vacuum. This is very important. Many modern writers would like to get rid of this and write about humanity—general humanity, just abstract human beings. This cannot be done…. In other words, literature cannot operate in a void above humanity. It is strongly connected with a group, with a clan…."
If within their particular situations the emotions and reactions of the characters are "true to life," they can be said to exhibit realistic human traits, and Potok is certainly writing within a realistic convention. Indeed, as Sheldon Grebstein points out, "Perhaps its greatest achievement stylistically is its verisimilitude, the solidly detailed portrayal of place, time, weather, scene, object, gesture."
The novel is related through the first-person point of view of Reuven Malter, a reliable narrator who, despite his central position in the tale, does not exude infallibility but takes the audience with him in his difficulties in coping with a Hasidic world that is as strange to him as it is to the reader. Reuven mirrors the reader's emotions as he tries to figure out how to cope with Reb Saunders and remain the ethical person whom his father has tried to create. Reuven and David Malter illustrate the plight of any tolerant individual come face to face with intolerance, the doubts and hesitations of the narrator and the advice of his father providing paradigms of a struggle for decency which has universal implications. Reb Saunders illustrates the plight of a man intimately concerned with ethics whose goals, honorable though they may be, cause him to feel justified in using highly dubious means in their attainment. Not an evil man, he exemplifies the complexities involved in moral decisions. His ghettolike world and sense of absolute sureness render him almost impervious to the force of contrary argument. This is his tragedy and that of his son who must attempt self-fulfillment within the narrow world of absolutes that his father hands down or who must leave that world for another.
In an essay entitled "A Reply to a Semi-Sympathetic Critic," Potok attempted to answer the criticisms of his work stated by a number of critics but, in particular, those of Sheldon Grebstein. He states that in a novel he prefers "simplicity to complexity" and compares his problem with dialogue to that faced by Ernest Hemingway. Just as he had to decide how to present the Yiddish which his characters speak almost all of the time, Hemingway had to decide how to communicate in English the Italian and Spanish of, respectively, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, as well as these languages in various short stories. Potok writes that "He solved it in his way (and it has been said of him too that all his characters sound alike), and I solved it in mine. Style is the right word in the right place, as Jonathan Swift pointed out."
While Potok's dialogue is not as evocative as Hemingway's spare, stripped syntax, Hemingway's influence is clear and frequently results in our being aware of wider implications in the understated phraseology that fills The Chosen. Unfortunately, this awareness often fails to occur. When Potok has a character say nothing in response to a statement about which we know he has strong feelings, the effect can be that we fill in the gaps, as Potok probably intends, or that we feel something important has been omitted, the author having taken the easy way out. The problem arises when we do not feel that there is enough information for the gaps to be filled or that the technique is too transparent. Indeed, this problem occurs, at times, in Hemingway's writing as well; however, he manages to make the style work far more frequently than does Potok in this novel.
Potok points out how painstakingly his novels are written, with numerous revisions and rewritings. He says that he uses "a kind of talked style … and one would do well to remember who the 'talkers' are in each of the novels and the extent to which their style of talking varies within the limitations of simplicity I have set for them." He is correct, when he says that one must remember who the "talkers" are. One tends to change the word stresses in one's own mind according to how one understands the personality of the character who is speaking. While he does provide verbal clues to some speech patterns (Reb Saunders and Rav Gershenson, in The Promise both use "Nu," meaning "Well?" or "What?" when they speak), Potok does not make syntactical changes to imitate Yiddish speech patterns as does Bernard Malamud or, as I have mentioned, use flawless English as does Henry Roth. It may well be that reliance upon characterization, without appropriate changes in the diction and syntax of the various speakers, in order to distinguish speech differences is inadequate—too much reliance being placed upon the subjectivity of the reader. Although Potok's style does work to an extent, "simplicity" can be taken too far.
The popularity of The Chosen is due to a number of factors, not least of which is the exoticism of its setting. Both Jews and non-Jews found the descriptions of the Hasidic world in particular to be fascinating. This closed world had not been presented before in such an accessible manner or with such interesting characters as Reb Saunders and Danny. The educative aspect of the novel aided its popularity in that readers were not only being told a story with an interesting plot but were learning something at the same time. I have already discussed the optimism and American social idealism that fills the book and supports the American pre-delection for believing that hard work and decency are rewarded in the end. One must not forget, either, the quality of the presentation of the conflicts in the novel or the appeal of the moral tone with which these conflicts are presented. The Chosen achieved best-sellerdom through a stress upon morality, learning, and sincerity presented by unusual characters who inhabit a strange world and in whom the author obviously believes. Far from being a shortcoming, the lack of violence, sexuality, and deceit in the novel proved to be a strong recommendation.
It is interesting to note what changes to the novel the filmmakers thought necessary in order to widen its appeal even further. In addition to the increased romantic interest between Reuven and Danny's sister referred to earlier, the Hasidim are made less objectionable. The notion of Danny's trying to kill Reuven in a baseball game that the Hasidim have turned into a Holy War is absent from the film. Religiosity is toned down. Although Reuven attends a seminary and says that he wants to become a rabbi, we never see either he or his father praying. Reuven occasionally wears a skullcap; his father never does. The stress is upon the contrast between the Americanized Makers and utterly un-Americanized Saunders and Hasidim.
Reb Saunders is portrayed somewhat harsh, particularly in relation to Zionism, but his sympathetic aspects are stressed in Rod Steiger's performance. As a result of omission of the information that Danny's brother is permitted to take on the tzaddikate, the crisis created by Danny's refusal is not satisfactorily resolved.
The strongest aspect of the film is its atmosphere and verisimilitude. The setting and characters inspire believability (Potok himself appears briefly as a Talmud teacher). It is not as effective as the novel in the creation of the religious conflict but does nonetheless remain remarkably close to the book in its depiction of intra-Jewish and Jewish-American tensions.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9467
SOURCE: "Eternal Light: The Holocaust and the Revival of Judaism and Jewish Civilization in the Fiction of Chaim Potok," in Witness through Imagination: Jewish American Holocaust Literature, Wayne State University Press, 1989, pp. 300-23.
[In the following essay, Kremer explores themes and issues surrounding anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in Potok's fiction. According to Kremer, rather than "focus on the atrocities of the Holocaust period and burden of Holocaust survival, Potok generally concentrates on the possibilities of Holocaust restoration."]
Chaim Potok is a rabbi, scholar, and novelist whose philosophic and ethical views are derived from Torah and Talmud and whose aesthetic theory is derived from Western philosophy, literature, and art. With Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick, Arthur Cohen, and I. B. Singer, Potok rejects alienation in favor of the affirmative position of Jewish idealism in the face of evil and suffering. Jewish history, including repeated outbreaks of anti-Semitism and its 1939–1945 genocidal manifestation, resonates throughout Potok's fiction. Because the author believes that "the Jew sees all his contemporary history refracted through the ocean of blood that is the Holocaust," the Shoah is always in the background of his fictional universe. Rather than treating the Holocaust directly, Potok generally introduces the topic indirectly and focuses instead on Holocaust restoration through renewal of Judaism and Jewry in America and Israel. Potok's characters are generally devout Jews, conversant in Jewish theology, liturgy, Talmudic studies, and rabbinic commentary and frequently presented in the context of synagogue, yeshiva, and observant Jewish homes. Their pre-Holocaust mission—dedication to the religious life and adoption from and contribution to secular civilization—is enhanced by their post-Holocaust mission—renewal of Judaism and Jewry in the Diaspora and creation and sustenance of a Jewish homeland in Israel. Potok's fictional heroes thus aspire, as the novelist does in Wanderings, "to rebuild … [Judaism's] core from the treasures of our past, fuse it with the best in secularism, and create a new philosophy, a new literature, a new world of Jewish art, a new community, and take seriously the meaning of the word emancipation."
The year Potok's popular first novel, The Chosen (1967), was published, his short story, "The Dark Place Inside," appeared. "The Dark Place Inside" portrays an Israeli Holocaust survivor suffering the trauma of his losses sixteen years after their occurrence. On the joyous occasion of the birth of his fifth son, he mourns the loss of four sons who "had walked the narrow corridor and tasted the smoky waters of poison gas in the shower house, together with their mother." We learn that Levi Abramovich escaped death in a mass shooting when he fell into heavy brush a moment before the bullets met their mark; he survived as a fugitive in the barn of a Polish peasant. He had been hunted like an animal by the Nazis: "They had smashed his face in the hunting and bayoneted him in the killing so that his blood had run in dark pools…. But the killing had been poorly accomplished; the peasant's herbs had sealed the wounds." Holocaust memories become a dark force in Levi's being, generally suppressed, but occasionally emerging and overpowering his capacity for regeneration. Unlike the survivors in Potok's novels, who appear in brief cameos and largely in the restorative mode of commitment to Judaism and the Jewish community, Levi has not made peace with the God of the Holocaust. Like I. B. Singer's protestors, he voices his anger against the impotent or uncaring God: "I believe in God. I believe He is the paradigm for all the fools in the universe." Receipt of his murdered wife's watch is the catalyst for Levi's transformation from a matter-of-fact dismisser of the ineffectual divine—"God is stupidity. God is comic. God is a fool"—to the despairing protester. He is alienated from God and man: "There is no one to talk to now…. There is not even God to talk to he thought, trying to make it a calm thinking and failing miserably." Tormented by the memory of four dead sons, he thinks the appearance of his dead wife's watch is an absurd cruelty and charges God accordingly: "Master of the Universe,… if You are truly real, then You are powerless and cruel. If You are able to prevent evil but are unwilling, You are cruel. If You are willing to prevent evil but are not able, then You are without power. And if You are able and willing, why then is there evil?" Because Levi regards the sudden appearance of the watch as an extraordinary burden, he dismisses the possibility of its potential to make the present meaningful by evoking the past. Now he hates God, hates Him with a cold passionless contempt. He expresses the utter despair of the believer, "I believe in perfect faith that You are unworthy of my perfect faith. You no longer merit consideration." No bleaker moment exists in Potok's fiction.
Much more typical of Potok's treatment of the Holocaust is The Chosen. The novel, set in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, is the story of two sets of fathers and sons and their practice and study of Judaism, set against the backdrop of the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. These historic forces remain in the novel's background while the religious issues dividing Jewish orthodoxy claim the novelist's central interest. Nevertheless, the Shoah remains a leitmotif and an important influence on the lives of the characters. David Malter, a yeshiva teacher, and his son Reuven are Orthodox Jews open to the influences of Western philosophy and scholarship. Reb Saunders, the dynastic Hasidic tzaddik, resists non-Hasidic thought and expects his son Danny to follow the prescriptions of the Hasidim and assume the religious leadership of his father's congregation. The novel's dramatic tension results from opposing interpretations of Jewish religious writing, worship, and practices by the groups. A measure of difference between the Orthodox and Hasidic fathers is the manner of their response to the Holocaust and the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel. Similarly, antithetical reactions to these two dimensions of twentieth-century Jewish history divide the sons.
In a rare instance of American fictional treatment of the Allies' abandonment of the Jews, David Malter addresses Anthony Eden's 1942 House of Commons speech detailing the Nazi genocide plan and Eden's failure to move beyond rhetorical denunciation of the Final Solution. Malter is outraged by British moral failure:
the whole machinery of democratic expression had been set in motion to impress upon the British Government the need for action—and not a thing was done. Everyone was sympathetic, but no one was sympathetic enough. The British let some few Jews in, and then closed their doors. America hadn't cared enough, either. No one had cared enough. The world closed its doors and six million Jews were slaughtered.
Although the Holocaust is not in the forefront of Potok's young protagonists' discussions, they are deeply concerned about Jewish losses and refer to Hitler's war against Jewry in the context of general war news. With the end of war and release of news of the concentration camps, Reuven expresses bewilderment at the immensity of the Nazi crimes against Jewry:
The numbers of the Jews slaughtered had gone from one million to three million to four million, and almost every article we read said that the last count was still incomplete, the final number would probably reach six million. I couldn't … imagine six million of my people murdered…. It didn't make any sense at all. My mind couldn't hold on to it, to the death of six million people.
Reb Saunders spoke "of the Jewish world in Europe, of the people he had known who were now probably dead, of the brutality of the world," interpreting this catastrophe historically, "the world drinks our blood." He laments the slaughter of the six million in the context of an extraordinary history of persecution. Although Saunders reluctantly accepts the Holocaust as "the will of God," a Divine mystery of inaction, he expresses his bewilderment and petitions the Almighty, "Master of the Universe, how do You permit such a thing to happen?" Departing from his characteristic tendency to explain Jewish beliefs and attitudes, Potok allows the statement to stand without pursuing its theological implications.
In contrast to many writers' focus on the atrocities of the Holocaust period and burdens of Holocaust survival, Potok generally concentrates on the possibilities of Holocaust restoration. David Malter rejects Reb Saunders' acceptance of the Holocaust as God's will, arguing instead "We cannot wait for God. If there is an answer, we must make it ourselves." Instead, he works for "the education of American Jewry and a Jewish state in Palestine." Reb Saunders, bound by the belief in a religious and holy state ushered in by the Messiah, rejects Zionism because it is a secular movement. For some Hasidim, the establishment of a secular state in Israel was regarded as a Torahic violation. For Malter, the way to derive meaning from the slaughter of six million Jews is for American Jews to replace the lost treasures of Judaism, to train teachers and rabbis to lead the people and to generate a religious renaissance among American Jews. He is heartened by a return to the synagogues, even by the Jewishly uneducated, believing that the mission of the religious is to educate the assimilated and return them to Judaism and to the Jewish people. In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust and before the establishment of the State of Israel, Malter is convinced that Judaism must be rebuilt in America or perish. When Zionism is resuscitated, David Malter responds enthusiastically and works assiduously to realize Zionist goals. At a massive rally in Madison Square Garden, Malter argues the need to arouse the world to the desperate requirement for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, particularly as a haven for those "that had escaped Hitler's ovens." Furthermore, he counters that
the slaughter of six million Jews would have meaning only on the day a Jewish state was established. Only then would their sacrifice begin to make some sense; only then would the songs of faith they had sung on their way to the gas chambers take on meaning; only then would Jewry again become a light to the world.
When the United Nations voted for the Partition Plan, Malter reacts with an exuberance common in the American Jewish community:
The death of the six million Jews had finally been given meaning…. After two thousand years, it had finally happened. We were a people again, with our own land. We were a blessed generation. We had been given the opportunity to see the creation of the Jewish state.
Sharing his father's dreams, Reuven endangers his own safety to load smuggled arms for the Jewish Army, which must meet the Arab threat to destroy the new nation as soon as it is established.
In deference to his father, Danny refrains from supporting the Zionist movement. As Arab anti-Jewish violence mounts and the toll of Jewish dead increases daily, Reb Saunders' league becomes silent in its opposition to the secular state. Moved by the similarity of Nazi and Arab anti-Semitism, Hasidic opponents lament Jewish blood being spilled again: "Hitler wasn't enough. Now more Jewish blood, more slaughter. What does the world want from us? Six million isn't enough? More Jews have to die?" Their pain over the new outbreak of violence against the Jews of Israel outweighs Hasidic opposition to the secular state, and they end their vocal campaign against the establishment and recognition of Israel.
The sequel to The Chosen, The Promise, continues to trace the lives of Reuven Malter preparing for rabbinic ordination and Danny Saunders pursuing a career in clinical psychology. Reuven is at the center of a theological conflict between fundamentalist-traditionalists and religious scholars who bring the tools of scientific textual criticism to the analysis of religious sources. The religious dichotomy dramatized between Hasidic and Mitnagdic orthodoxies in The Chosen is extended in The Promise to a philosophic conflict between Orthodox and Conservative approaches to Talmud study. The Conservative faction is represented by a new character, Abraham Gordon, and the traditionalist faction by several Holocaust survivors who teach at David Malter's yeshiva, and by Rav Kalman who teaches at Reuven's seminary. Gordon is an American scholar who suffered none of the European hardships that Kalman experienced. Yet the Holocaust changed the direction of his life. After experiencing a crisis of faith, Gordon went to Europe for two years of postdoctoral work in logic with the Vienna Circle positivists. He had been in Germany and reported that he "could smell the smoke of the crematoria even before anyone knew what a crematorium was." Realizing that not many Jews would survive Hitler's Europe, Gordon rejected an invitation from Harvard University to teach logic and entered a seminary to aid in rebuilding American Judaism, a Judaism free of fundamentalist dogma that would appeal to progressive thinkers. Although David Malter remains in the Orthodox community, his scholarly techniques of comparative textual analysis and emendation, like Abraham Gordon's, are often discredited by fundamentalists and associated with progressive thinkers. Maker's major antagonist is his son's teacher, a rigorous European Talmudist who has dedicated his life to traditional Talmudic explication.
Unlike Bellow, Wallant, and Elman who focus on physical and psychological traumas of survivorship, Potok, like Singer, examines the religious and theological implications of the concentrationary experience. The reader perceives the survivors through Reuven's impressions of their responses to the unorthodox scholarship of Abraham Gordon and David Malter. Reuven attributes religious zeal of the neighborhood to the influence of the concentration camp traditionalists: "everything traditional was being drawn toward … zealousness. They had changed everything merely by surviving and crossing an ocean. They had brought that spark to the broken streets of Williamsburg, and men like Rav Kalman who were not Hasidim felt swayed by their presence and believed themselves to be equally zealous guardians of the spark.
The survivors of the "sulfurous chaos of the concentration camps … eyes brooding, like balls of black flame turned inward upon private visions of the demonic," remain steadfast traditionalists, staunchly opposed to modern tampering with orthodox worship, practice, and scholarship. Undefeated by the physical enemy in Europe, they are prepared to do battle with those they perceive to be Judaism's spiritual enemies in America. Representative of the survivors' intolerance for other expressions of Jewish learning and worship are the "newcomers" at David Malter's yeshiva, who denounce his publications as a threat to scripture and support Abraham Gordon's excommunication. Reuven's teacher, Rav Kalman, also rejects other methods in fealty to his teachers and students who died martyrs' deaths. The survivor-purists perceive American Jewish schools, where students do not wear skullcaps and teachers do not believe that the To-rah was given to Moses by God, as being ritually "unclean." Such a school in their opinion is "a desecration of the name of God." Potok's survivors bear witness to the Holocaust through their determination to live religiously pure lives, to live according to the commandments, to defend the Torah, and to revitalize the Yiddishkeit (Jewishness) that the Nazis sought to destroy. Against the Nazi program of death and destruction, these Jews defiantly stand for the sanctity of life. Potok's survivors are engaged in the restorative process, regenerating Judaism and the Jewish people.
Here, [in] Williamsburg, they set about rebuilding their burned-out world. Families had been destroyed; they remarried and created new families. Dynasties had been shattered; elders met and formed new dynasties. Children had been killed; their women now seemed forever pregnant.
Unlike the survivors in Singer's fiction who rant against an unjust God, the characters in Potok's novels neither protest God's Holocaust silence nor question their faith in God and dedication to Torah Judaism. As zealous "guardians of the spark," they may be disruptive to progressive American Jewry but even those Americans who have the most to lose from their irresoluteness, understand the zealots' determination to guard the Torah their comrades died for. Despite Hitler's racial ideology, Potok's characters never speak of Jews dying in Hitler's racial war. Their perception is religious, and the victims died kiddish ha-Shem, religious martyrs sanctifying God's holy name.
Rav Kalman, the only survivor individually developed by Potok, fiercely protects his scholarly approach to the sacred texts in order to honor God's word and the memory of those Jews who lived their lives and lost their lives in devotion to Torah and God. Through student speculation about his past, we learn that he had been a teacher in a highly reputed yeshiva in Vilna, a city famed for the superiority of its Jewish institutions of learning. It is known that he spent two years in a German concentration camp in northern Poland, the rest is rumor. Some think storm troopers shot his wife and three daughters before his eyes in the woods outside Warsaw. Other speculations focus on his escape and capture:
he had escaped from a concentration camp, been caught, and escaped again; he had crossed the Polish frontier into Russia and fought with Russian partisans for a year. One rumor had it that he had organized a group of Orthodox Jewish partisans that specialized in blowing up the tracks of German trains carrying Jews to the concentration camps. Another rumor had it that he had been concealed in a bunker for more than a year by a Polish farm family, had been discovered, had been forced to watch the execution of the family, and had somehow escaped again. He was said to have made his way across northern Russia into Siberia and from there to Shanghai, where he had waited out the war under the eyes of the Japanese, who were not possessed of Hitler's feelings toward Jews and who left the few Jews under their rule alone. According to this version of the life of Rav Kalman, he was brought to America by the administration of Hirsch University and was promptly invited to teach in the rabbinical department.
In marked contrast to the fictional characters of Wallant, Malamud, and Singer who either speak directly of their Holocaust experiences or think about them, in Potok's fiction nonsurvivors speculate about the Holocaust suffering of survivors. It is unclear why Potok includes these student speculations rather than incorporating direct survivor commentary. Perhaps they offer the writer a means of briefly referring to multiple holocaustal experiences and avoiding the need to create other characters with full biographies and dramatic roles in the manner of Singer, Bellow, and Cohen. Rather than dwell on past atrocities, Potok's survivors concentrate on living. Reuven's father verifies the Shanghai episode. The elder Maker comments on the excellence of Rav Kalman's Talmudic reputation and cites Kalman's establishment of a yeshiva in Shanghai as the cause of delay in bringing him to America where his services were coveted as "a great Talmud scholar" and "one of the great men in Orthodoxy."
David Malter, who served as Potok's voice of reason in The Chosen, continues in that fashion in the sequel, and it is his observation that Kalman is to be respected as a champion of the Torah. Malter draws an analogy between Kalman's resistance to Nazism and his resistance to weakened religious observance: "He was not of those who believed in going willingly to the crematoria. He was with the partisans and killed German soldiers for Torah. Now he defends it with words."
Just as we discover Kalman's heroism, first in student speculation and later confirmed by David Malter, so we also first learn of Kalman's suffering under Nazi medical experimentation through an exchange he has with Reuven's friend Danny Saunders regarding his treatment of a withdrawn patient. Kalman becomes rigid at Danny's mere mention of the word experiment to explain Michael Gordon's psychological therapy. Later we learn that because of the experiments he endured Kalman has not remarried and started a new family. This indirect means of suggesting holocaustal atrocity is typical of Potok's reluctance to use graphic description of torture or direct or dramatic references to the concentrationary universe. The reader can assume from ample historic reference the types of medical experiments Kalman may have witnessed and endured. In addition to Kalman's response to the word experiment and speculation about that which he experienced, one of the novel's most sympathetic characters, the modern scholar and victim of Rav Kalman's fierce orthodoxy, Abraham Gordon, addresses the philosophic implications of Kalman's Holocaust suffering:
The concentration camps destroyed a lot more than European Jewry. They destroyed man's faith in himself. I cannot blame Rav Kalman for being suspicious of man and believing only in God. Why should anyone believe in man? There are going to be decades of chaos until we learn to believe again in man.
The progressives of Potok's fiction, like their Orthodox and fundamentalist brothers, consistently respond to the Holocaust with determination to rebuild Jewry through a revitalized and strengthened Judaism. Unlike the debilitated survivors of Wallant's, Bellow's, and Singer's novels, Potok's survivors are developed not in terms of their physical and psychological disabilities but as Jews strengthened in their commitment to Judaism. They are ever vigilant, ever dedicated, whether as rabbis, scholars, or Zionists, to the survival and flourishing of Judaism and the Jewish people. Beyond Holocaust horror looms a Jewish renaissance.
Potok's fourth novel, In the Beginning, continues to evidence his interests in Judaism and Jewish history. The subject is the Jewish encounter with anti-Semitism, including European, Arab, and American variations. Like Bellow, Epstein, Wallant, and Singer, Potok makes a strong case for a causal relationship between the Holocaust and historic Christian anti-Semitism. He departs from some of the others in the extent to which he develops the American and Arab varieties. Although the Holocaust was of import in the earlier fiction, Potok had presented it as a haunted presence in the lives of American Jews and survivors and as further motivation for their commitment to Judaism and Zionism. In the Beginning brings historic anti-Semitism, "the dark underbelly of Western civilization," and its holocaustal manifestation to the thematic core and dramatic center of the novel. Addressing the importance of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust on the American-Jewish consciousness, Potok said:
Probably the American Jew feels … quite guilt-ridden … For whatever reason, he never did enough at a crucial point in time by way of an effort to get the thing stopped, or to protest it…. I don't see how it is possible to think the world through Jewish eyes without having the blood-screen of the Holocaust in front of your eyes as part of the Filtering. I'll go even further and say that for thinking people, Jew or non-Jew, I don't think it is possible to think the world anymore in this century without thinking Holocaust.
Readers of Potok's earlier novels will find much that is familiar in the fourth work: narrative that is presented from the point of view of an intelligent, sensitive young boy; a positive and supportive relationship between two males; and vital father-son and teacher-student character constructs. Departure from the previously established patterns is seen in a sustained antagonism between two boys and the significant intrusion of the secular world in terms of economic depression and social conflict.
David Lurie, the first-person narrator, tells his story chronologically from childhood through early adulthood revealing his initiation to anti-Semitism through his father's European memories and his own victimization at the hands of anti-Semitic neighborhood bullies. The narrative is set in an immigrant Bronx neighborhood where transplanted Europeans have retained their Old World fears and prejudices and passed them on to their American-born children. Here Potok offers an unusual double exposure to anti-Semitism, superimposing a child's American experience on the adult European manifestations. The bustling multiethnic neighborhoods of the Bronx, where Potok spent his childhood, provide the realistic backdrop for antagonistic encounters between Jew and gentile. Urban experience impinges more forcefully on David Lurie than it had on Reuven Malter, Danny Saunders, and Asher Lev. In addition to a yeshiva classroom, a synagogue, and an observant home, the novel's settings include streets, schoolyards, business districts, and a local zoo. Eddie Kulanski, son of Polish immigrants, is described by his Jewish victim as hating Jews with "a kind of mindless demonic rage." Although still a child, this hooligan acts like an adult, expressing prejudice that "bore the breeding of a thousand years." The novel's Jewish protagonist, named for an uncle who died in a pogrom, has been educated in the history of European anti-Semitism and knows of his family's persecution, but is nevertheless surprised to find it prevalent in America. Eddie learns that David's family is from Poland and he spews the Old World venom in his mother tongue, using the Polish epithet Anonymowe Panstwo, ("Anonymous Empire") reiterating the slander outlined in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—namely, that Jews secretly conspire first to destroy Christian countries and then to dominate the world. Exemplifying Potok's method of using the novel to inform the reader of Jewish history is the expository speech on the Jewish conspiracy by David's older cousin, Saul:
This group is supposed to be able to make all kinds of problems for the goyim because it owns most of the banks and newspapers in the world. These old Jews can do almost anything because they have so much money and control the news and what people say and think. They have plans for all the goyishe governments to get into such bad trouble that they'll fail—and then these Jews can take over the world. My teacher said that in Poland they call this secret organization Anonymowe Panstwo. It's even in the Polish dictionary, he said. Almost everyone in Poland believes it.
Variations of anti-Semitic attitudes expressed in all historic periods reappear in the microcosm of David's childhood world. In a scene that would be comic were it not for its sinister implications, David is watching his sleeping infant brother when Eddie and an older cousin, who shares his anti-Jewish prejudices, insist on inspecting the baby's horns. Disappointed to find the child hornless, they question David about the age at which he lost his horns. Eddie parrots the oft-repeated Christian charge of Jewish influence and affluence, albeit in childish overtones: "You own all the money, but you don't own this here sidewalk." Paralleling the European model, but on a smaller scale, violent words lead to violent action. After David accidentally rides his tricycle over Eddie's hand, which was poised on the sidewalk in a street game, Eddie seeks revenge. Nothing short of David's Jewish life will suit him. He tries repeatedly to push the tricycle and rider into oncoming traffic. Unable to inflict his murderous desire on David because an adult intervenes, Eddie arranges for his cousin to slash the tire of David's tricycle. On another occasion Eddie and his cousin conduct a surrealistic chase and assault on David, in an environment suggestive of primitive brutality. The cousins ambush the unsuspecting David in the Bronx Zoo. With the rallying cry "for Christ's sake," they molest David, satisfying their lurid curiosity about the appearance of a circumcised penis. During the attack, David suspects the young anti-Semite's pleasure in Jewish pain and asks rhetorically: "Eddie. Have you seen a concentration camp? Did they look good, all those corpses of dead Jews?"
Emphasizing the Christian source and sustenance of anti-Semitism that is dramatically manifested in the conflict between the boys, a Christian neighbor cites the deicide libel as the fuel for nearly 2000 years of murderous Christian anti-Semitism and informs the Jewish innocent of church doctrine and books that perpetuate the infamy. David is persistently puzzled by the motivation for Christian anti-Semitism. As he looks out the window of his small synagogue at a large local church, he wonders "how a statue whose face was so full of love could be worshipped by someone whose heart was so full of hate." To understand why Christians hate Jews so vehemently, David goes to the library to read the New Testament, the ur-text for anti-Semitism. In Matthew, he finds "rage and scorn directed at the scribes and Pharisees. The rabbis of the Talmud … called hypocrites!… the word Jews in the account of the crucifixion. In Mark he finds further expression of hatred for the Pharisees and similar invectives on the crucifixion in Luke and John. Further, David finds corroboration for early Christian anti-Semitism in current Catholic textbooks that he finds in the playground of a nearby parochial school. In Religion: Doctrine and Practice by Francis B. Cassilly, S.J., he reads "The widespread popularity enjoyed by this text since its appearance in 1926 is evidence that our Catholic schools consider the fundamental truths of Faith essential to the high-school course in religion." He turns to the index to search for references to Jews and finds the following: "The Jews as a nation refused to accept Christ and since His time they have been wanderers on the earth without a temple or a sacrifice, and without the Messias." Next he finds a Catholic distortion of the Jewish rejection of Jesus: "The Jews rejected Christ mainly because they expected Him to found a never-ending kingdom, as was foretold in the prophecies. This He really did, but the kingdom He founded—the Church—was a spiritual one, not a temporal one such as the carnal Jews were hoping for." The causal link between Catholic anti-Semitism and the success of the Holocaust is manifested in Potok's documentary incorporation of propaganda disseminated by Father Charles Coughlin and his supporters during the Holocaust.
Potok skillfully juxtaposes David's American anti-Semitic experiences with his father's European encounters, demonstrating how each generation is shaped by this social pathology. Although Max Lurie's animosity for Christians has been regularly and amply refurbished through repetitions of anti-Jewish actions, the Tulchin massacre looms largest in his consciousness as a touchstone of Christian betrayal of Jewry and Jewry's misplaced trust in Christian decency. Max begins his account of the attack on the city objectively and concludes in a passionate denunciation:
There were in it Jews and Poles. Cossacks attacked it. The Jews fought well. The Poles wanted to surrender. The Jews could have taken over the city from the Poles and continued fighting. But their rabbi would not let them do it. He was afraid that Poles all over Poland would take revenge on all the Jews in Poland. So the Jews of Tulchin gave all their possessions to the Poles to give to the Cossacks. They hoped the Cossacks would take the money and jewels and gold and not destroy the city. The Cossacks took it all from the Poles and then asked the Poles to hand over the Jews. They handed over the Jews, the same Jews who had fought with them to defend the city. The bastard Poles … A nice story, yes? The courageous Jews! What Martyrdom! They could have lived if they had converted to Christianity. Not one of them accepted the offer. What was there in Christianity? It is the idolatry of butchers and murders.
It is from this experience that Max knows it is naive for Jews to expect help from gentiles in the Nazi era. As a descendant of a Tulchin massacre survivor, Max rages against the passive Jewish mentality, which tries to negotiate peace when armed resistance is needed to counter enemies bent on slaughtering Jews. Max Lurie shares the contempt for Poles that is common among many of Singer's Jews, because of their extensive experience with Polish anti-Semitism. Certainly the bitterness of Lurie's tone is unprecedented in the fiction created by American-born novelists, but it is authentic in light of Polish-Jewish history. Lurie rages equally against Catholic murderers and Tulchin's rabbi, who trusted Christians to be true to their Jewish neighbors and prevented the Jews from defending themselves.
The ex-machine-gunner spares no details when telling his son of the wholesale butchery of Polish Jews by Russians, Ukrainians, and fellow Poles during World War I. He teaches David about Jewish suffering under Marshall Pilsudski, a national hero, who refused to discomfort Polish peasants by interfering with their violence against Jews. Like Potok's father, Max Lurie returned from serving his country in World War I to the native enemy eager to exercise its anti-Semitic prejudices. Emblematic of traditional Polish anti-Semitism is the scar Max bears from a wound he sustained on a postwar troop train. The train was detained by bandits who stole only from Jewish soldiers. Max refused to surrender his prayer shawl, and a bandit slashed his face. Not one comrade with whom Max served came to his assistance. It is this kind of pervasive Polish anti-Semitism that leads Max to unite the surviving Jews of his unit into the Am Kedoshim Society, a Jewish self-defense group. For Max Lurie, two thousand years of Christian betrayal and indiscriminate slaughter of Jews make the formation of aggressive Jewish self-defense units the only viable response to anti-Semitism.
Photography and the visual imagination offer means through which David Lurie engages in his people's suffering. The Am Kedoshim photograph and the history it represents serve for Potok as connective tissue for David's comprehension of historic anti-Semitism and as a structural link connecting the microcosm of Lurie family history to collective Jewish experience. Lurie founded the society in the aftermath of World War I to combat Polish anti-Semitism. Opposing passive acceptance of persecution, the men of Am Kedoshim
learned never to forget the harm our enemies inflict upon us. We have learned that when we work together we can defeat our enemies. We will not stand by with our arms folded when our enemies attack us; nor will we do as some of our families did almost three hundred years ago in Tulchin when they decided not to attack the Poles in that city because they feared what Poles in other cities might do to Jews. We leave such righteousness to other Jews,… to Jews whose pure souls make them unable to shed goyishe blood.
Growing Depression-era anti-Jewish violence and the rise of Nazism lead the Am Kedoshim to send a representative to get Jews out of Europe and to assist those facing the mounting terror.
David's education in anti-Semitism takes a particularly sinister turn with the news of the Hebron Massacre. He expects outbursts of persecution against Jews in Europe, but he is astonished by the slaughter of Jews in Palestine. Although he learns of violence against Jews in Jerusalem, Safed, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, it is the Arab massacre of yeshiva students in Hebron that troubles David most intensely. Max makes the historical analogy between the Tulchin rabbi and the Hebron Jewish leadership. He voices ire against the Hebron leaders who had anticipated Arab violence, yet refused the protection of the Jewish self-defense organization in order to avoid antagonizing the British commander who guaranteed community safety on the condition that the Jews do nothing to provoke the Arabs. As Lurie's response to Hebron becomes a free association with Tulchin, the novelist superimposes a forward glance at the Holocaust in the Hebron Massacre:
On the fifteenth of August, Tisha B'av, there had been Arab disturbances in Jerusalem. The British said these had been in reaction to the demonstration staged by the followers of Jabotinsky at the Western Wall protesting new British regulations that interfered with Jewish religious services at the Wall. But we knew all about the British, he said. Our dear friends, the British. They announced that they washed their hands of the Jews as a result of this demonstration, and the Arabs took the hint. The day after the demonstration, on Tish B'av, a group of Arabs beat up Jews gathered at the Wall for prayers, and then burned copies of the Book of Psalms…. Then the Mufti of Jerusalem spread the rumor that the Jews were ready to capture and desecrate the holy mosques on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Arabs began coming into Jerusalem from all over the country. In Hebron, Arabs who were friends of the Jews reported that messengers of the Mufti had been in the city and had preached in the mosque … that the Jews had attacked Arabs in Jerusalem and desecrated their mosques.
The leaders of the Jewish community of Hebron met secretly. They were informed that the Jewish self-defense organization had sent a message from its headquarters in Jerusalem that it was prepared to dispatch a group of armed young men to defend the Jews at Hebron. At the same time, the leaders were informed that the British district commander had guaranteed the safety of the Jews of Hebron on condition that the Jews do nothing to provoke the Arabs and that no one who was not a resident of the city should enter it…. The Jews decided to reject the offer of the self-defense organization. They believed the goyim. They were possessed by the mentality of Tulchin…. A band of Arabs returned to Hebron from a mass meeting led by the Mufti and his followers in Jerusalem. They ran through the city attacking Jews. They killed a student they found in the yeshiva…. On Shabbos morning,… Arabs began coming into the city from all over. They carried rifles and revolvers and knives and swords. The Jews locked themselves in their houses. The police warned the Jews to remain inside. Like sheep, they remained inside. And like sheep, they were slaughtered. They were shot and stabbed and chopped to pieces. They had their eyes pierced and their hands cut off. They were burned to death inside their homes and inside the Hadassah Hospital in Hebron.
Bernard Malamud's treatment of the Russian persecution and incarceration in the Beiliss case is an analogue for the Holocaust. So, too, Potok's description of the Hebron Massacre includes elements in common with the Holocaust. Lurie's description of the Hebron Massacre incorporates all the elements of European Holocaust betrayal. False claims of Jewish intent to destroy Islamic holy places parallels Nazi lies about undue Jewish political and economic influence in Europe. Staging the attack on Tisha B'au, a day of fasting, mirrors Nazi "special actions" on Jewish holy days—like the Passover offensive against the Warsaw Ghetto. Britain's betrayal of Jews in Hebron foreshadows Britain's betrayal of the Jews in the concentration camps and Britain's sabotage of the Joel Brand mission to save a small portion of Hungarian Jewry in 1944. Potok's lengthy history lesson, like I. B. Singer's use of the Chmielnicki Massacre in The Satan of Goray, corresponds to the holocaustal violence and the methods of deceit used to stir up violence against the Jews—the attacks with armed units, which are then protected and inspired to further atrocities by the government in power.
The recitation of anti-Semitic history and David's experience of anti-Jewish street violence converge in the recesses of his imagination as he juxtaposes his father's militant response with his impotent fear. Introduction of the Holocaust in this novel is an organic outgrowth of Potok's focus on Polish and Arab anti-Semitism. Representative of the novelist's increasing skill and sensitivity for integrating liturgy and theme is his invocation of the Holocaust theme in relation to a Yom Kippur memorial service. As David chants a lament for Torah sages martyred during Roman dominion, he grieves for an anonymous Jew, whose murder in Berlin by uniformed Nazis was witnessed from a passing cab by an Am Kedoshim member. The witness later read that "the man, a Jew, was found dead the next morning in an alley near a bookstore." During a subsequent trip to Germany to help Jews, the Nazis inform the witness that they will look kindly neither upon his presence in Germany nor his efforts to rescue Jews. American Jewish efforts to aid European Jews is given scant attention in American Holocaust fiction, but Chaim Potok, like Arthur Cohen, acknowledges the central role of immigrant Jews in this endeavor.
Complementing the theme of the continuum of anti-Semitic persecution through reference to the lamentation liturgy is the introduction of biblical and folkloric material. Am Kedoshim's foiled efforts to save Jews, culminating in Max Lurie's rage, find parallel in David's withdrawal into biblical and mythological constructs. He conceives of a flood that would cleanse Lemberg, Warsaw, Lodz, the cities of ancestral persecution, and then the site of his own victimization. Rather than a destructive flood, however, it would be a purging flood in whose aftermath "everything outside would be clean and white and the Angel of Death would have less of a job to do because goyim would not kill Jews and the entire world would be free of accidents. Perhaps the Angel of Death himself would die in the flood; the only one to die." On the occasion of the Hebron Massacre, David retreats into a stream of consciousness revery in which he assumes his father's militant personality, raging as his father has against Jewish passivity in the face of gentile violence. Recalling Russian and Polish anti-Jewish atrocities, the boy soldier rants against the Cossacks, for having "Jewish blood on their sabers. And the Jewish flesh on their whips." He also rebukes the Jews: "You are going to sit there reciting Psalms? When did a Psalm prevent a throat from being torn open?" David imagines taking his father's role: the Jew who fights the oppressor, the machine-gunner and cavalryman, the founder and organizer of the Am Kedoshim Society, a holy order for the defense of the Jewish people.
In The Last of the Just, Andre Schwarz-Bart incorporates the legend of the thirty-six righteous men as a means of relating the history of anti-Semitic persecution from the eleventh to the twentieth century, culminating in the Holocaust. Potok takes a similar approach in his incorporation of the Golem of Prague myth. Jewish folklore created a mythic golem, fashioned from lifeless, shapeless matter by a person who knew God's ineffable name and who could, by its mystic means, breath life into the homunculus. The sixteenth-century golem was characterized as a huge and very strong figure with a propensity for exercising its physical power, even in indiscriminate destruction. Although the oral tradition inevitably generates variations, most share commonalities including the golem's supernatural capacity to discover and foil anti-Jewish violence and the golem's enormous strength, used most often to protect powerless Jews from potent enemies. Viewed within the historic frame of European anti-Semitic terror, it is the golem's protective role that appealed to the collective imagination of an oppressed people. For his Legend of the Golem of Prague, Rabbi Loew endowed the figure with communal responsibility and moral conscience and thus fashioned "a national protector of persecuted Jews, a God-sent Avenger of the wrongs done to a helpless people."
David's golem fantasies coincide with the Third Reich's heightened anti-Jewish violence. Gazing into the dark rectangle of his window shade David imagines a Nazi demonstration, flags and banners waving, torches smoking, and twenty-thousand brown-shirted men shouting and saluting. As the news from abroad becomes more violent, ever more menacing visions appear in David's window shade. He consults with the golem and envisions himself performing heroically, shouting down the Nazis, quelling demonstrations, and spying on Nazi strategy sessions. The shadow glows red and the boy imagines a German building ablaze. Another time, he imagines a holocaustal conflagration, a synagogue a flame, and himself plunging swiftly through smoke and fire toward the ark to save the endangered Torah scrolls:
Golem, look what they've done, the brown-shirted servants of the Angel of Death. We must save the Torah scrolls! He came then out of the invisibility in which I had left him and stood beside my bed in the darkness. He bowed in mute acknowledgment of my words, bringing his face close to mine, the face I had molded, my face; then he straightened his massive seven-foot frame and in a leap my eyes could barely discern was suddenly inside the window shade…. Through the flames! Into the smoke and through the flames! The flames tore at me but I felt nothing and I moved swiftly through smoke-filled corridors and burst into the heart of the synagogue where the pews were burning and the flames licked at the curtain of the Ark…. I tore at the flames with my fingers, beating them away from the sacred words. I gathered the scrolls into my arms and left them with startled sleepy-eyed men on the street. The flames roared in my ears. I slipped from the rectangle and lay in my bed listening to the long clattering of an elevated train. You did well, I murmured. Slowly, the Golem bowed.
Dreams commonly used in European Holocaust literature here, too, reflect anxieties of the impotent while adding mythic elements to link historic brutality and contemporary travail. As Nazi harassment of German Jews escalates, the golem recedes. During the Passover season—the celebration of the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage—David retreats into silence. The golem having failed, David now longs for another Moses to deliver the Jews from the German Angel of Death. Potok closes this section of the novel by juxtaposing the end of the golem reveries with the German invasion of Poland and cessation of the delivery of mail to or from the family in Poland. "The silences deepened and grew lengthier as the Nazi darkness spread itself across Europe."
The final segment of the novel, set in the Holocaust era and its immediate aftermath, deals with heightened American anti-Semitism as exemplified by the followers of Father Charles E. Coughlin and his Social Justice Movement. Coughlin spewed anti-Semitic propaganda on his regularly scheduled radio broadcasts and in his tabloid, Social Justice. As with the Third Reich, rhetoric inspired action. Roaming gangs of American hooligans ambushed yeshiva boys and old Jews: "platoons of goyim numbering about twenty-five each walking the streets of New York looking for Jews. They would try to sell a copy of Social Justice to someone who looked Jewish and if he refused to buy it they would start taunting him and pushing him and then they would beat him and run off." Max Lurie had assured his son that the great difference between European and American anti-Semitism was that anti-Semitism was supported and sponsored by the government in Europe, but the American government rejected such behavior. Yet David is a witness to the collaboration of police officers' anti-Semitism, when they passively stand by as a Jew is assaulted in a blatant anti-Semitic attack. Incorporation of the Father Coughlin episode suggests both the Christian foundation upon which Nazi racial anti-Semitism thrived and the support given the Nazis' program of genocide by the churches in Europe.
While hooligans attacked Jews in American streets, genteel anti-Semites in Congress blocked Jewish immigration despite their knowledge of the mass murders occurring in Europe. Although Potok fails to develop this matter at length, he alludes to it in the Am Kedoshim rescue worker's assessment of Jewish emigration from Nazi-occupied Europe: "Europe and England will take in a few. So will America. But no country will want many of them." As Germany's Final Solution becomes ever clearer, Max's despair gives way to fatalism. In response to his son's inquiry about assistance for the Jews, Lurie explains: "It is not officially known as yet. When it becomes officially known, then governments will meet and decide that nothing can be done." Since the Jews of America can do little during the war to save European Jewry, the members of the Am Kedoshim, like Arthur Cohen's Jews of the Society for the Rescue and Resurrection of Jewry, begin to plan their strategy for helping the surviving remnant. Max advocates the need for a Jewish army in Palestine to counter the anticipated British resistance to Jewish immigration.
Through David's mother, Potok registers the impact of the Holocaust on American-Jewish immigrants whose families were being destroyed in Europe. Ruth Lurie continues to care for her American family's physical needs, but withdraws from them emotionally. Having failed to convince her parents to come to America from Poland when they actually had visas and when exodus was possible, she fears they will not survive the war. Eventually Ruth stops reading the old letters from her parents and, for periods lasting several days, avoids speech. The Luries knew during the second year of the war of the massive death toll of Eastern European Jewry, but it is at war's end that they learn the full impact of the concentration camp atrocities and mass murders. Confirmation is received that the families were transferred from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen and no one survived. Over 150 family members perished, a fate similar to that which the Potoks suffered. The novelist, who was David's age at war's end, draws on his own history for David's reaction to "newspaper photographs, the memorial assemblies, the disbelief in the faces of friends, the shock as news came of death and more death." Potok writes, "I remember my father's rage, my mother's soft endless weeping." Predictably, Max rages and Ruth weeps.
Only when he writes of the Bergen-Belsen photographs does Potok treat Holocaust atrocities graphically. "Grotesque forms with skeletal arms and legs and rib cages and heads lay stacked like macabre cordwood on a stone ramp." The enormity of the crime is suggested by "hills of corpses, pits of bones, the naked rubble of the dead and the staring eyes and hollow faces of the survivors." David is overwhelmed by a photograph of dead children, "eyes and mouths open, bodies twisted and frozen with death." From the photographs, David understands the truth of his teacher's assessment of the German contribution to the technology of death and the full implications of the Nazi crime against Jewry: "They destroyed an entire civilization. The Nazis have taught Western civilization that not only making cars but also committing murder can become a mass production industry." In addition to realistic rendering, Potok composes an imagistic revery in which David imagines the Bergen-Belsen newsphotos while walking along a parapet overlooking the Hudson River. As he looks at the railroad tracks and a shanty town across the river, he falls down a rocky bluff and cuts his finger, which bleeds profusely. The river begins to flow red—all the world is red. As a freight train passes, he imagines the central holocaustal vision of the trains that crisscrossed German-occupied Europe, behind whose sealed doors he envisions "a multitude of writhing human beings packed together riding in filth and terror." The photographs of Bergen-Belsen atrocities catapult David from traditional to secular biblical scholarship and to a determination to dedicate his life
to fighting what these accident-makers are doing with … the most beautiful photograph of all; that is to say, the picture of my people in the Bible. As a result of the fusion of these two metaphors, he leaves his Orthodoxy, enters one of the metaphors: the secular world, in order to understand better the other metaphor: the photograph, the Bible, which is the picture of his people at a certain period of time.
The final confrontation with anti-Semitism comes to this boy from modern Bible criticism. David follows the path of Potok's colleagues who entered the field of Bible scholarship "to change the attitude of that discipline toward Jews." He loves the Torah and decides to join the ranks of its detractors to prove them wrong, to discredit their insertion of anti-Semitic innuendo in their writing, to use textual criticism—the scholarly method abhorrent to traditionalists—to save the Torah from its detractors. The child who sought to save the Torah from the flames of the anti-Semites in his golem fantasies has matured and found a substantive way to contribute to Torahic preservation. However, his method distresses his father who objects to textual criticism because of its association not only with all that he hates about modern Germany but with nineteenth-century German Jewish scholar's creation of Reform Judaism, which he regards as the destruction of Torah Judaism.
The novel's final Holocaust reference appears in the postwar era. David, a biblical scholar, travels to Germany to inspect a manuscript. There he sets out on his quest "into the final beginnings" of his family. In the land of annihilation, standing at the entrance to Bergen-Belsen, David is seized by paralytic terror. Inclined to flee, he is urged forward by his Uncle David's voice and by a vision of his teacher commanding him to view the remains of a family devoted to Torah. Out of the wind, his Uncle David, the victim of the Lemberg pogrom, urges him to a new beginning, implying that out of the ashes Judaism will arise again. For David the revitalization takes the form of biblical scholarship. He reads the numbers of the dead, the dead in the hundreds of thousands in Bergen-Belsen, and laments his family losses: "Who lies beneath my feet? I am walking on the dead of my family's beginnings." In this place of barbarism, Potok celebrates Jewish dignity in a superimposed dialogue between Max and his brother, David. They celebrate the living David, who, carrying his uncle's name, will bring new life to old roots. In an allegoric juxtaposition, Potok contrasts the poison of one civilization with the fruit of its victims. Germany's use of modern technology to exterminate millions of Jews and the millions they would have begotten is contrasted with the ancient Jewish Leverite marriage, which symbolizes Judaism's will to survive despite the world's effort to destroy it. Young David is living testimony to the Torahic encouragement that a childless widow may marry her husband's brother and name the first son of the union for the dead husband, thereby perpetuating his name in Israel. David follows his uncle's scholarly path and is perceived by the family as "the resurrection of the dead." Unlike the ghost of the murdered in Renaissance and Jacobean drama who returns to demand vengeance, Uncle David's ghost demands devotion to Judaism and Jewry. At Bergen-Belsen Uncle David strengthens his nephew's commitment to Jewish scholarship. The novel concludes with David's recitation of the Mourner's Kaddish, a prayer for the dead, but a prayer filled with hope for Jewish survival on the site that witnessed the murder of so many Jews.
The continuity suggested by David's incantation of the Kaddish is given dramatic realization in this novel, as in all Potok's fiction, through the renewed vigor of Jewish-American education, manifested in David Lurie's scholarship, and through building and sustaining a vibrant Israel, the mission Max Lurie adopts as his own. Recalling David Malter's turn from Holocaust defeat to Zionist promise in The Chosen, Max Lurie rejects passivity in the wake of the European debacle. Like Potok's father, Max is also a fervent Irgunist and supporter of Vladimir Jabotinsky's militant approach to Jewish immigration and survival in Israel. "With grim and silent satisfaction" that Benjamin Max Potok possessed, Lurie supports Irgun raids for Jewish rights in Palestine.
Illustrative of Potok's growing craft as a novelist is his successful integration of biblical and sacred textual matter with the historic themes of the novel, particularly the incorporation of Genesis subjects, language, and imagery. The Genesis parallels operate structurally, thematically, and allusively. The title is derived from the first word of the Hebrew Bible, Bereshith. As Genesis traces the history of the Israelites and their relations with other peoples, so too does Potok now abandon the closed societies of his early fiction, the parochial enclaves of Williamsburg and Crown-Heights, for a multiethnic Bronx neighborhood; this neighborhood serves as a microcosm for twentieth-century Jewish interaction with the gentile world. Toward the end of Genesis, Joseph recapitulates the lesson of his career: that God brings good out of evil, and that He will bring the Jewish people out of Egypt and to the land He promised the patriarchs. Potok invokes this redemptive voice to celebrate the remnant's emergence from European Holocaust bondage and its going forth to rebuild and to restore the land and people of Israel. Similarly, during the worst period of Holocaust suffering, the nineteen-year-old David recalls his Bar Mitzvah Torah reading: the entry of the Jews into Egypt and its accompanying prophetic reading from Amos regarding restoration of the fortunes of the Jewish homeland and those who would rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them. Potok's Jews, survivors and American Jews, are determined to make a new beginning after the Holocaust, a beginning that rejuvenates Judaism and Jewry. Whether the new beginning is in Israel or in the Diaspora is unimportant to them; however, that it support Israel as the Jewish homeland and maintain Judaism in Israel and in the Diaspora is of paramount significance. Chaim Potok's dedication to the State of Israel, Jewish scholarship, and the creation of fiction addressing the dynamics of Jewish civilization testify to his celebration of Judaism and Jewry. Potok adds his voice to Emil Fackenheim's affirmation for Holocaust restoration through commitment to Judaism and Jewry, since, like Fackenheim, Potok believes that "the alternative [to Jewish commitment] is to say Hitler succeeded, that everybody really died for nothing."
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SOURCE: "Potok's Exiled Asher Lev Revisits His Hasidic Roots," in Chicago Tribune Books, May 6, 1990, p. 7.
[In the following review, Solomon finds weaknesses in The Gift of Asher Lev, but notes Potok's "knowledgeable insights to share about art."]
It is sometimes difficult, says a critic in response to artist Asher Lev's latest Paris show, to find the distinction between establishing an individual style and repeating oneself. He might be speaking to Chaim Potok about this sequel to the superb 1972 novel, My Name Is Asher Lev.
Potok has marginal success with sequels. The power of his debut novel, The Chosen (1967), stemmed largely from its artlessness, the author's refusal to obtrude on his characters' deep-rooted decency and passion for ideas. Its sequel, The Promise, also a trenchant book, seemed marred by Potok's new self-consciousness, his effort not only to tell his tale but also to sound like a writer. His third novel, My Name Is Asher Lev, was even better than The Chosen. But The Gift of Asher Lev is a weaker sequel than The Promise.
Asher's plight in the earlier book, which covered his boyhood and adolescence, was an enhanced version of Conservative rabbi Potok's own. Asher could not solve the conflict between his artistic calling and the values of Hebraic tradition. An artist born into a community of Ladover Hasidim, Asher lives in a world that considers art a worthless vanity at best and a blasphemy at worst. Unlike Roth's or Malamud's protagonists, Potok's feel passionately bound to their orthodox identities and have no wish to join the mainstream culture. Asher's was an insoluble conflict. Ultimately, the Ladover's rebbe, its spiritual and political leader, exiled Asher to France.
When The Gift of Asher Lev opens, 20 years have passed, Asher, now a world-renowned painter, has married Devorah, whose parents were killed by the Nazis. They live in Southern France with their daughter, Rocheleh, and son, Avrumel. Then a call comes from Brooklyn. Asher's beloved Uncle Yitzchok has died.
Back for the funeral among his parents and former neighbors, Asher almost immediately longs to return to France. "We came for my uncle's funeral, not mine," he tells Devorah. But events conspire against him.
Devorah begins making Asher's parents her own. And Uncle Yitzchok, whose chain of thriving jewelry stores helps finance Ladover schools, oddly had become an art collector. Having bought one of Asher's paintings only to see its value more than double in a year, Yitzchok decided "there's more to art than meets the eye." His will makes Asher trustee of his enormously valuable collection. Asher can do with it what he wishes, provided the profits go to the Ladovers.
The rebbe and Asher's father urge him to keep his family in Brooklyn. Gradually, Asher comes to believe he knows the real reason. The aging rebbe needs a successor for his worldwide movement. Asher's father seems likeliest, but his own advanced years dictate the need for a clear successor to him as well. They must want Avrumel, his son, Asher suspects.
The material for a gripping story is all there, and there is much about the book to admire. As usual, Potok excels at capturing the concrete details of his settings. He tries more earnestly than before to portray not only the severity but also the joy and song of the Hasidic environment. Most importantly, Potok's is a world of intense meanings; ideas and behavior matter deeply to his characters, and even a mild rudeness can be portentous.
Unfortunately, Potok's early strengths are absent. Never a masterly stylist, here he often narrates what should be shown and describes many things too inconsequential to relate. At times he recreates perfectly the syntax of Hasidic English: "'They're repaving this whole section of the parkway,' the driver said. 'Months they're working on it. New trees also they'll put in.'" But often his dialogue, like his narration, falls flat.
Worse still, Potok never mines the conflicts Asher faces. Despite international acclaim, Asher fears he may have lost his creative vision. Artists slash ears off and stick shotguns in their mouths over such things, but Asher says and does little that reflects artistic agony. Surrounded by neighbors who consider him an embarrassment, who taunt him as an impious sinner, Asher remains torpid. Even expected to give up his son, Asher merely utters a line about how he had hoped to see the boy grow up in his own home.
As Asher sleepwalks through these pages, so too does the plot wander, despite some resolutions that form toward the end. The world of the Hasidim is intriguing, and Potok has knowledgeable insights to share about art. But Asher Lev casts far less spell in this revisit than he did two decades ago.
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SOURCE: "Art Is an Affliction," in The New York Times Book Review, May 13, 1990, p. 29.
[In the following review, Stiller finds shortcomings in The Gift of Asher Lev, particularly the novel's "sanitized" characters who lack development.]
Jewish artists have long felt a conflict between Jewish tradition and the individual talent. Susskind von Trimberg, the medieval Jewish troubadour, thought of going back to the ghetto if his gentile patron went bankrupt. Heinrich Heine, a heretic if ever there was one, wished to die facing Jerusalem. Marc Chagall, best known of Jewish painters, borrowed much of his imagery from Christian peasants.
Chaim Potok has concentrated in his novels on the pull between secular self-fulfillment and communal Jewish values. In The Chosen, for example, a teenager destined to replace his father as the head of a Hasidic dynasty finds himself impelled to study psychology instead of Torah. In My Name Is Asher Lev, and now in The Gift of Asher Lev, Mr. Potok has sought to make the conflict more dramatic. His main character is a painter, that is, one who speaks through the graven images that the very Orthodox consider prohibited by the Second Commandment.
In the earlier work, a child in a Hasidic household is overpowered by the desire to paint. Some indulge him, but his father, a narrow man devoted to the welfare of the Ladover, a group closely resembling the Lubavitcher, attempts to staunch the boy's genius. The Rebbe, as the community's spiritual leader, wisely recognizes Asher's calling and rescues him. When Asher begins to exhibit nudes and crucifixions, however, the Rebbe exiles him to Paris for the good of the Brooklyn community. Art for most of these Hasidic Jews is "foolishness" or worse—a gift from the other Side. Moreover, it is just after World War II: Hasidism is endangered in Russia, and the Holocaust's shadow is everywhere. The most pressing issue is collective survival.
In the sequel, taking place in the 1980's, conditions are more relaxed. The Rebbe employs television for reaching larger audiences, his followers prosper internationally. In the meantime, Asher Lev has become famous, but his passion for painting has worn thin. He's living with his family on the Côte d'Azur, and he's run out of inspiration. As the novel opens, he is recalled to Brooklyn for his beloved uncle's funeral. From the outset, the questions are: How can the artist and the community be reconciled, and what can each give the other?
Unfortunately, The Gift of Asher Lev offers simplistic answers. Asher, feeling trapped, wants to escape immediately after the week of mourning. But his wife, Devorah, and their children prefer Ladover heimischkeit—warmth and bustle-to artistic isolation in the south of France. The Rebbe intercedes, and the condolence call lengthens. What's more, wealthy Uncle Yitzchok, a secret art lover, has willed his nephew a world-class art collection. Asher remains in Brooklyn to claim it.
Asher is revitalized by his renewed contact with his people. To regain his artistic freedom, however, he must leave his family, including his little boy, with the Ladover as a sacrificial gift demanded by the Rebbe. Asher's father, successor to the aged leader, wants little Avrumel to succeed him in turn as Rebbe. Asher's father will teach the child pious Ladover ways. The child will teach the philistine grandfather, and thus the community, something about art. How neatly it all works out.
For Mr. Potok is conducting a guided tour of reality—something that perhaps accounts for his widespread popularity. The Hasidim are colorful in their long coats and kerchiefs. Anyone who has read Arthur Frommer's travel books can recognize St-Paul-de-Vence, the Rue des Rosiers, the allusions to Cézanne, Picasso. The predictable prevails in the obvious motif of Abraham and Isaac, and in the prose: a presentiment is "precise, stark, lucid"; the synagogue air is "stale, warm, faintly malodorous." Despite the synagogue air, the characters have been sanitized. Most are Good. A few merely lack understanding, though Cousin Yonkel is the devil incarnate. No Alexander Portnoys here! Asher Lev is relentlessly solemn, Devorah, a survivor, relentlessly benign. Asher has depicted his mother somehow crucified on a Venetian blind, she suffers from angst. His brave little daughter suffers from asthma.
No one suffers from serious doubt, and this allows the reader a complacent superiority to the novel's poor benighted folk. Unlike the protagonist of Chaim Grade's masterpiece, "The Yeshiva," Asher never considers abandoning orthodoxy. He wonders why there's no brucha, or blessing, for pagan beauty, but not whether to adhere to a sect that perceives beauty as pagan. He complains about the Jewish edict that forbids him to pray at Chagall's grave in a Christian cemetery, but does not consider defying it. While Asher decides to vote his own choice in a Presidential election, rather than obeying the Rebbe, and has cut off his earlocks, too, his only real deviance is his painting. Even this is perceived not as a choice but an affliction. Mr. Potok does not wrestle with the angel of autonomy. Though the novel begins with a trip back home, for all the distance Asher Lev has come, he might as well have stayed on Brooklyn's Eastern Parkway.
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SOURCE: "Banished and Banished Again," in Times Literary Supplement, November 2, 1990, p. 1182.
[In the following review, Morton presents a favorable assessment of The Gift of Asher Lev which, according to the critic, "heralds a new sophistication in Potok's art."]
With the possible exception of Bernard Malamud, the postwar Jewish-American novelists have given out a version of Judaism that is secular and social, and largely passive. "Jewishness," a ready shorthand for qualities such as seriousness, humaneness, anguished historical awareness, rather than a system of beliefs, has provided a backdrop against which to play out dramas of self-discovery, rebellion and accommodation. In sharp contrast to these, Chaim Potok has shown a marked awareness of the internal tensions of modern Judaism, which are prior to its conflicts and accommodations with the Gentile world. His Judaism has content, not just form; beliefs, not just abstract "pieties"; an exact mentality that participates in a wider society at the same time as it belongs to a distinct enclave.
Potok's new novel is about representation and self-representation. Even though he never describes himself, it is clear from the fascinated stares he records that Asher Lev is a distinctive figure, an exotic in his native America if not in his adopted St-Paul-de-Vence. The closest he comes to self-description is to trace his outline in the opaque steam of a bathroom mirror, an image that remains even when a degree of clarity is restored. It is an ironic gesture, and a very significant one. It occurs at a moment when he has, almost literally, lost sight of himself; it is the first sign of his return to artistic activity; and it takes place in Brooklyn, to which he has returned for the funeral of his uncle, a wealthy Jew with a secret art collection.
The Gift of Asher Lev is a sequel to My Name Is Asher Lev (1972) and begins, quite properly, in medias res—"Afterward I lived in Paris …"—with memories of Picasso's death and Lev's exile. The irony of Lev's distance from Yisroel is that it is entirely physical; in sharp contrast to the lukewarm alienations of the Jewish-American novelists, he has been banished from the Ladover Hasidic community in which his father holds high office as secretary to the Rebbe. His crime is to have turned to the Gentile world for images of suffering. My Name Is Asher Lev recounts the painting and reception of the "Brooklyn Crucifixion," in which the faces of the crucified are those of Lev's mother and father. That personal treason is compounded by still greater betrayals: the "inauthenticity" of going outside "the tradition" for his imagery; and the enormous risk, less than a generation after Auschwitz, of reminding the Gentiles that Jews were, in the favourite antisemitic slur, "Christ-killers." Now, "banished" again by the savagery of the Paris critics, who consider he is "repeating himself," Lev stops painting. At his uncle's graveside, he wakens to the complexity of his inheritance, not just the secret Cézannes and Matisses in the old man's attic, but also the world of politics and everyday perception that somehow isn't allowed to intervene under the unchanging sky of Saint-Paul (the very name suggests that his exile is a further betrayal). If the clear Provençal air saves his daughter Rocheleh from asthma, it ultimately prevents Lev from breathing at all.
Unlike Malamud's Pictures of Fidelman (to which it bears a certain thematic resemblance) and Philip Roth's obsessive fictional investigations of life after Portnoy's Complaint, Potok's new novel is more than a portrait of a sensitive individual in conflict with a repressive and philistine heritage, for Lev has been banished from a community whose values he embraces wholeheartedly; he is neither Ishmael nor Cain. His exile "afterward" represents a further humanization of a man almost pharisaically obsessed with his own moral and artistic mission. The novel also heralds a new sophistication in Potok's art, which in the past was short on humour and reticent about whole areas of experience, notably the erotic. The Gift of Asher Lev is far less schematic than its predecessor, Davita's Harp, though its female protagonist seems to have freed in Potok some of the awareness that surfaces in Lev's passionate relationship with his wife Devorah (a writer of children's books who lost her own childhood in a sealed apartment in Occupied Paris, much like Anne Frank). It is less profound than his first novel, The Chosen, written in 1967, but paired with the original Asher Lev novel (which, in retrospect, was disturbingly incomplete) it covers much the same ground with considerable subtlety.
There is a further dimension, which the Rebbe buries in a riddle. The price of Lev's restoration to his people is his physical and personal exclusion. Much as Christ was a sacrificed "missing generation" between God and mankind, Lev's self-sacrificing art is a personal crucifixion, but also, as the old Rebbe recognized, a guarantee that the tradition will pass on from the new Rebbe, Lev's father, to Avrumel, his young son. While Lev sweats in Saint-Paul, the boy is growing up in New York, with an absent father and without the beloved doll that stood for all the book's simulacra of absent people. "Devorah writes me. Avrumel has lately taken to ignoring Shimson and insists on walking to school by himself." Father and son. Of the making of images, and of learning, there is no end.
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SOURCE: "Chaim Potok Traces a Korean War Orphan's Existentialist Journey," in Chicago Tribune Books, May 17, 1992, p. 6.
[In the following review, Abrahamson finds shortcomings in I Am the Clay, citing Potok's "unsuccessful foray into the realm of existentialist thought" and his simplistic appeal for Christian love.]
In The Book of Lights (1981) Chaim Potok drew upon his experience as a U.S. Army chaplain in South Korea from 1955 to 1957. In I Am the Clay, his eighth novel, he draws upon it once again, this time taking the 1950–53 Korean War for his canvas. Potok is not interested in the 38th parallel, in the North Korean invaders and their Red Chinese allies, nor in the clash of armies. What interests him is the impact of the war upon the countryside and its peasant farmers. He renders this impact through the eyes and experiences of an old peasant couple and Kim Sin Gyu, the orphaned young boy they save from death.
Shifting the point of view from one character to another, Potok pictures a dangerous world: troops in retreat; long processions of refugees; jeeps, trucks and tanks on the go; helicopters whirling overhead; jets streaking by. Thieves, roving gangs of orphans and suspicious South Korean soldiers menace the innocent. Refugees huddle in the night around wood-burning oil drums. Black smoke rises from huge mounds of corpses set afire by flame throwers.
Potok focuses in on the struggle for survival as the farmer, his wife and the boy battle hunger, sickness, cold, exhaustion and the land itself. He traces their emotions, calls up their memories, delves into their spiritual world—their ancestor worship, their acceptance of a world governed by unseen demons, spirits and ghosts.
But Potok draws his title from a hymn that Christian missionaries taught the old woman's mother. The farmer's wife still remembers the song her mother taught her: "Have thine own way Lord have thine own way thou art the potter I am the clay," even as she recalls how to make the sign of the cross—one stroke with the hand horizontally, another vertically.
Though she is totally ignorant of the meaning of the words of the song and the sign of the cross, Potok portrays her as living the life of a Christian, and just hours before her death he formally turns her into one, having her undergo a symbolic baptism. Just as the words "Have thine own way Lord" cross her mind, she suffers a stroke and slips gently into the stream where she has been washing clothes.
Potok chooses as the motto for his story a line from Albert Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus," and, at first glance, Kim Sin Gyu does have existential possibilities. A survivor of the massacre of his entire family, in the last few pages of the novel—now all of 14 and at a critical point in his life—he invokes the spirits of his dead to protect him and guide him toward his future. But when they do not respond, he faces the stark existential meaning of their absence and asks himself, "Are the spirits as helpless as men? Perhaps there are no spirits anymore … and only emptiness is left for us to fill." And his decision to leave the old farmer behind and pursue in Seoul the studies that will lead him into the world of the scholar or the poet comes across as an existential choice, a break with the Korean fatalistic order of things. Determined to go his own way, Kim Sin Gyu—the only character Potok ever names—might well be a Korean youngest brother to Asher Lev.
But Kim Sin Gyu makes his decision before his confrontation with nothingness, not as a result of it. Indeed, his decision is no real choice at all: He is simply consciously fulfilling a destiny predetermined by the centuries-old intellectual tradition to which his family belongs.
Camus' Sisyphus, recognizing that he lives in a universe "without a master," realizes that he alone is "the master of his days." Surely Potok knows that for Camus there is no potter other than man, who must mold his own clay. For all Potok's sleight of hand, his Kim Sin Gyu is a world away from Western individualism and existentialist thought.
If Potok makes a case for anything at all, it is for Christian love. The old farmer's attitude toward Kim Sin Gyu changes from anger and hatred to love. Likewise, his wife's attitude toward the boy shifts to love from kindness. Kim Sin Gyu himself even leaves the old farmer because of his love for him.
Except for its unsuccessful foray into the realm of existentialist thought, I Am the Clay, offers no challenge. But it seems likely that the novel will satisfy Chaim Potok's audience.
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SOURCE: "The Sacred East," in Times Literary Supplement, November 27, 1992, p. 26.
[In the following review, Cheyette finds fault with Potok's limited knowledge of Korea and "didacticism" in I Am the Clay.]
As a young Rabbi, Chaim Potok was a United States Army Chaplain during the Korean War. He served on the front line for sixteen months and this experience later provided the material for his first, unpublished, novel. I Am the Clay is evidently a rewriting of this embryonic early work. On one level, Potok could not have moved further from the rather sentimental depictions of New York's Hasidic Jewish community which he has made his own. And yet, the traumatic clash of conflicting cultures within an adolescent hero—which is Potok's perennial theme—is at the centre of this novel no less than his preceding work. Kim Sin Gyu, who takes up this boyish role, remembers his grandfather telling him that "only the wisest and stupidest of men never change. Which are you?" It is the combination of spiritual wisdom coupled with the necessity of modernization which has always preoccupied Potok. As with Reuven Malter in The Chosen (1967), Kim Sin Gyu stands on the cusp of the ancient and the modern worlds.
Kim Sin Gyu is discovered lying in a ditch with a shrapnel wound, "a piece of the scale from the dragon of death." He is saved by an unnamed old woman and her husband, who come across him during the retreat from the Chinese and the North Korean army. Most of the novel is taken up with the painful struggle for survival of these three refugees as they move towards an American-made shanty-town and back to their villages in the North. Potok, to his credit, wishes to recount their story from the viewpoint of the victim. But, in attempting laudably to get under the skin of the Korean peasantry, he has adopted a faux-naive style, which often has an oddly condescending tone: "The old man watched in wonder and terror. The machines of the foreigners. How can they be defeated, these giants of pale skin, these devils on our sacred soil?"
Potok's aim is to convey a "sacred" Far Eastern world in which the spiritual realm struggles to overcome an oppressive reality. His clipped, repetitive sentences endeavour to portray the trance-like state of the refugees as they continue to pay homage to their gods and the ever-present spirits which surround them. At the same time, he is happy to cite Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot and Elie Wiesel (among others) in showing the horrors of the Korean War from the perspective of European history. The problem for Potok is that it is impossible for him to let the old man and woman—as they are known throughout—simply speak for themselves. In becoming a surrogate son whom the woman nurtures and the old man jealously rejects, Kim Sin Gyu evokes primeval emotions.
The boy eventually embodies the "magical" dimension which is meant to characterize the Korean peasantry. But, instead of speaking with the authentic voice of the victim, Potok's refugees seem to be mere counterpoints to a brutal Western modernity. The "upside down" world of America is clay-like, filled with machines and "empty" when compared with the primitive, child-like, and spiritually fulfilled East.
By the last and most successful chapter of I Am the Clay, a Potok-like chaplain appears and arranges for Kim Sin Gyu to move away from the rural village which he has made his home. His adopted mother's grave, which is the site for the spirits of his deceased family, has to be removed to make way for an American encampment. Once the limits of his "magical" powers are realized, Kim Sin Gyu, not unlike his Kiplingesque counterpart, travels to the Westernized city of Seoul. The synthesis of opposites is the basic pattern to which all of Potok's fiction conforms. But when applied to a world with which he has only a passing acquaintance, his didacticism is exposed as limited and anaemic.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 746
SOURCE: "Generation Gap," in The New York Times Book Review, December 1, 1996, p. 33.
[In the following review, Barringer praises The Gates of November as a "fascinating" tale, though finds shortcomings in Potok's overreaching history of Soviet Jewry.]
Acts of dissent in a totalitarian state can seem incongruously mundane. In some places, it is an act of courage to observe an anniversary, or to hang a sheet with a few words scrawled on it above a busy downtown street.
The last was what Vladimir and Maria Slepak did in June 1978, when they found themselves locked in their Moscow apartment by K.G.B. agents. "Let us go to our son in Israel," read their makeshift placard. K.G.B. agents rushed to break down their apartment door, and Vladimir Slepak—called Volodya by all—spent five years in exile in Siberia. It was the logical culmination of nine years as an "enemy of the people" who showcased the Soviet Union's refusal to permit free Jewish emigration.
Weeks afterward, when Solomon Slepak heard that his estranged son had been sentenced to exile, he had a heart attack and died. A dogmatic Old Bolshevik, he himself had narrowly avoided the net of Stalin's purges more than once, but always justified them to his son by citing the Russian proverb: "Whenever you cut down trees, the chips will fly in all directions." When his only son, and his two grandsons in their turn, renounced the society he had helped to build, he renounced them.
The men and women of Solomon Slepak's generation were young when they created a Communist state on the ruins of the Russian autocracy. Many didn't have time to grow gray before they were devoured by their own creation. And their children were only in their 50's and 60's when the edifice their parents built finally crumbled. A few of them, like Volodya and Masha Slepak, were as committed in their rejection of the state as their parents had been in creating it.
Chaim Potok has won well-deserved praise for his ability to describe the rifts between fathers and sons in novels like The Chosen and My Name Is Asher Lev. In Wanderings, he showed a facility for capturing and conveying accessibly the intricate panorama of Jewish history. In The Gates of November, Mr. Potok tries to do it all. Using the taped reminiscences of Volodya and Masha Slepak and their sons, he sets about telling a family tale, a tale that is enmeshed in Soviet history and that is part of Jewish history.
However, it is a tricky thing to write intimate portraits of individuals and also to make them actors in historical dramas. In this case, the result is an often ungainly mixture of the personal and the political, short on insight into the minds and hearts of the father and son whose histories and relationship are the core of the narrative.
Mr. Potok is on more familiar and comfortable turf when describing the Slepaks' struggle to leave Russia. But he overplays his hand: the Slepaks' chronicles are a part of the story of Soviet Jewry, yet the details of distant pogroms are not always a part of the Slepaks' story. Nor are Mr. Potok's all too frequent excursions into Soviet history. The book jolts backward and forward in time, as Mr. Potok tries to weave a larger history into the family narrative. More disconcerting, however, is the multiplicity of voices: now Volodya's, now Masha's, now the voices of their sons, most often Mr. Potok's. Sometimes this produces a cohesive narrative. More often, the result is cacophony.
But the tale remains fascinating. Solomon Slepak defied his mother's wish that he become a rabbi, fled from home at the age of 13, emigrated to New York, converted to Marxism, returned home, commanded Red Army troops in the civil war, murdered comrades and rose to the Communist Party's inner circles.
Volodya Slepak accepted his father's blind faith in Communism until a fierce quarrel in 1952, when Jewish doctors were being arrested on charges of poisoning the country's leadership and an anti-Semitic purge was apparently averted only by Stalin's death. Seventeen years later, he and Masha surrendered their comfortable lives for the dissident's lot: the slow choking off of employment, friendships and, eventually, freedom. Too often in The Gates of November they seem less three-dimensional people than simulacra, the literary equivalent of wax figures in Madame Tussaud's museum. Even so, their heroism as people and as Jews cannot help being moving.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 902
SOURCE: "Fathers and Sons," in The Wall Street Journal, December 12, 1996, p. A10.
[In the following review, Shribman offers high praise for The Gates of November, which the critic describes as a "gripping" story.]
Let me tell you a story: Twenty years ago, as the last remnants of snow lingered on the edges of Moscow's sidewalks, I took a decrepit elevator to the eighth floor of an apartment building on Gorky Street. Loaded down with jeans, sweaters and books, I stepped into an extraordinary world; the redoubt of a refusenik family that, through grit and guile, had battled the Soviet authorities to a standstill.
This was the home of Vladimir Slepak, his wife and sons. In times of tension and detente alike, it had become a gathering place: for Russian Jews who were fighting to leave their native land; for visitors who wanted to offer a bit of solidarity along with their sweaters; and for KGB agents who wanted to keep an eye on the intrigue and intelligence that swirled around the supper table.
There you spoke by writing messages on magic slates, and the idiom was that of struggle: tales of hunger strikes, knocks in the night, forced entries by the KGB (you could see the splinters they had left behind on the very doorway you had just passed through), arrests, secret trials, Siberian prisons. Two years later, Vladimir himself was sentenced to five years of exile in Siberia.
Now the Soviet Union is gone and so are the Slepaks, along with the sad suspicion (you couldn't repress it in that cold apartment so long ago) that the privations and prejudices of communism might well outlive us all. The Soviet Union is a pile of rubble in history's trash heap and the Slepaks, now in Israel, are free to think whatever they like and worship the way their forefathers did.
But that is only the half of it, as I discovered in racing through Chaim Potok's The Gates of November. Yes, this was the struggle of a stubborn family against a stubborn system, and the story would be enduring and ennobling for that alone. But the rest of the story is gripping as well, the struggle of father and son, revolutionary and refusenik: Solomon Slepak, one of the Bolsheviks who built the Soviet Union, vs. Vladimir Slepak, one of the dissenters who helped tear it down.
To this tragic struggle Chaim Potok, rabbi and novelist, brings a sharp ear, a sharp eye and a soft heart. This is a family chronicle, the tale of two men, each in his way an incurable idealist. Each, in his way, wanted to remake the world, to better it. Each, in his way, was a fighter. Each, in his way, was a hardened survivor.
Born a Jew in Russia, made a revolutionary in early 20th-century America, Solomon Slepak was one of the few (Trotsky and Bukharin were among the others) who reversed their journey of immigration. He returned to Russia on a cargo ship to take part in the great romantic dramas of the period, the Russian Civil War (where he eventually commanded 10,000 men against Cossack bands) and the building of Soviet Russia (a process that cost many of its supporters dearly).
"The Russian Jews who gave themselves heart and mind to the Bolshevik cause were, like Soloman Slepak, men and women who embraced a cruel between world." writes Mr. Potok. They were "no longer part of the world of their Jewish beginnings, which they had long since abandoned, and not yet fully a part of the world of Russia, which loathed and feared Jews."
But few between-worlds have been so fascinating, so intoxicating: Solomon traveled on Comintern missions to China on money likely raised by the sale of the czar's jewels, and family legend has it that it was he who persuaded Sun Yat-sen, the early Chinese revolutionary leader, to allow Communists into the Kuomintang in 1922. Master of 11 languages, Solomon somehow avoided the spasms of arrests that caught so many of his fellow travelers in the Stalin years.
Solomon named his son for Lenin, but the clarity of the red dream was lost on the younger Slepak. He took his lessons in Marxist Ideology, Principles of Marxism-Leninism and Marxist Political Economy, but there were so many mysteries in his early life: books thrown out after their authors were arrested, photographs inked out after their subjects fell from favor, relatives and friends suddenly regarded as imperialist spies.
And so the break came as the son discovered that the ideal society the father was building had no room for Jews. It was a simple plastic radio, black and yellow and measuring 12 by 8 by 4 inches, that opened the son's eyes with news from the West—and opened the rift with his father. Vladimir Slepak worked on the air-defense system of the Soviet Union but could no longer defend the Soviet system.
It took protests, imprisonment, petty harassment and a chilly desert exile before the exit visas to Israel finally came. By then the Soviet Union was on its last legs and Vladimir's father had died. A year ago there arrived information from the KGB files: Vladimir Slepak's five years of internal exile had been illegal after all; he was guilty of no crime. But Mr. Slepak's struggle was not for nothing, because now the modern KGB recognizes that it is no crime to want to live in freedom.