Chaim Potok Potok, Chaim (Vol. 26)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Chaim Potok 1929–

American novelist, short story writer, and historian.

Potok's reputation as an American Jewish novelist was established with his first novel, The Chosen. In this, as in his succeeding four novels, his inspiration and focal concern is traditional Judaism. That tradition becomes the source of conflict for his central characters, as they seek their identities in contemporary, secular society. Potok, an ordained rabbi, combines scholarly knowledge with his thematic concerns to present informative fiction about American Jewish life.

This scholarly aspect of Potok's writing is not always an asset, for critics point out that his prose style is sometimes stilted and that his plots are contrived. However, he has sustained enough interest in his characters and their lives to make his books popular and, in general, critical successes.

(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 7, 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Karl Shapiro

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Chosen] is a deeply considered exegesis of modern Judaism. Formally, it should be ticketed as an allegory. The plot is simple and slight, though strong and graceful: the plot carries the deadly weight of the argument through seas almost too stormy for the mind to bear. The style has a solo quality, in the sense that Charles A. Lindbergh flew alone across the Atlantic, every second in peril of death. The style is beautifully quiet and gentle. One is amazed that so frail a structure can make it into port with such a freight of grief. It does so, heroically.

The story is set in the Williamsburg district of Brooklyn in the 1940s, the moment before the full horror of Hitlerism bursts upon the 20th century. There are only four characters to reckon with, two fathers and two sons. One father is a Hasid whose son will inherit his rank and prestige. The other father is a mere Orthodox Jewish scholar, despised by the mystical sect of Hasidists. His son, however, will become a rabbi. The son of the Hasid will defect and become a psychologist. This exchange of roles defines the limits of the plot….

The allegory is dramatized on the level of the two sons, who engage in a spiritual battle of love and hate. The argument of the book concerns the level of survival of Judaism, whether it shall remain clothed in superstition and mysticism, or whether it shall convey the message of humanitarianism, with the secular Jew as the prophet of gentleness and understanding.

The action revolves, simply and allegorically, around a baseball game between two Jewish parochial schools. Reuven Malter is pitcher for the Rationalists, as it were. Danny Saunders, son and heir of the Hasid rabbi, wants to murder the apikorsim, the rationalist infidels. Saunders slams a ball pitched by Malter directly at his head, almost blinding him. But while Malter is recovering in the hospital, the two boys become spiritual and intellectual brothers. The author paces the unfolding of this relationship with care and love. In the absence of "action" the intellectual drama takes over and the depths of religious bigotry are revealed. (p. 4)

The split between the Jewish Enlightenment of the post-ghetto Jews and the Polish ex-mystics helps define the dilemma of modern Judaism. Any true reconciliation between the Hasid Reb Saunders and the enlightened orthodox Europeanized scholar, Reuven's father, is unthinkable. Each Jew respects the other; each turns his back on the other. The crisis occurs with the realization of Zionism. The Hasids denounce the founding of a Jewish state by non-Hasids…. But when the reality of Hitlerism dawns upon the consciousness of Reb Saunders, his spirit crumbles; he gives permission for his brilliant son to become a psychologist—"a tzaddik for the world," not merely for the Jews. It is the symbolic end of Hasidism for him, possibly the end of Hasidism itself. (pp. 4, 12)

The governments of the Western World, or the Allies, were completely aware of the German plan to exterminate the Jews during the Second World War. Anthony Eden spoke of it in Parliament;...

(The entire section is 10,254 words.)