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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.)
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[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; but neither England nor America offered its hospitality to the stricken Jews. The revelation of Reb Saunders occurs at this point: since the Enlightenment has failed to enlighten Christianity, even the Chosen (the Hasidim) must come to the aid of the Jewish "goyim." The mystique of suffering, which the Hasid purveys, collapses before the reality of anti-Semitism, German, British, or American. That the world must replace its Jews is the message of this novel. It is a good, true, and beautiful message. (p. 12)
Karl Shapiro, "The Necessary People," in Book Week—World Journal Tribune (© 1967, The Washington Post), April 23, 1967, pp. 4, 12.
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["The Chosen"] starts with a rousing softball game between two Jewish parochial schools that quickly explodes into a bloody holy war. This is, unfortunately, the dramatic highpoint of the novel, and it's over by page 37.
Thereafter, until an emotionally charged resolution near the very end, we have a long, earnest, somewhat affecting and sporadically fascinating tale of religious conflict and generational confrontation in which the characters never come fully alive because they are kept subservient to theme: They don't have ideas so much as they represent ideas….
Mr. Potok offers a great deal of fascinating information about Jewish customs, the intricacies of Talmudic study, the origins of Hasidism, the constant strain in being both religiously Jewish and American, and, obliquely, the importance of women in the lives of [the] four males, which is apparently nil. Otherwise, the book is suffused with Wisdom and Empathy to the frequent point of disbelief.
In sum, "The Chosen" is an interesting but awkward novel, and both the interest and the awkwardness are because of its heavy emphasis on theme. One wants to like the book very much, and does somewhat.
Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Sons and Fathers," in The New York Times (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 24, 1967, p. 31.
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["The Chosen"] is Chaim Potok's first novel and—let's face it—there's something rough and unpolished about his style. Narrated in the first person by Reuven Malter, his speech rhythms are sometimes awkward, and the imagery blurred. And yet, while Reuven talks we listen because of the story he has to tell; and, long afterwards, it remains in the mind, and delights. It is like those myths that, as C. S. Lewis reminds us, do not essentially exist in words at all. Potok's style is transcended because he has given us a configuration of events which grip the imagination on their own.
The plot is simple enough. Two boys—Reuven and Danny Saunders—become friends, are estranged, and renew their relationship. (p. 4)
[Their] backgrounds are utterly different. Reuven is merely Orthodox; Danny is a Hasid, the son of a rabbi, and destined by his father to take his hereditary place as tzaddik—"a righteous one," who is a teacher, spiritual adviser, mediator between his community of followers and God, and living sacrifice who takes the suffering of his people—of all Israel—upon himself. But Danny is also a genius—and it is a tribute to Potok's talent that he makes this completely convincing—with a photographic memory, and a remarkably creative intelligence obsessed by the revelations of modern psychology. Thus, in one sense, the novel is about Danny's conflict between his craving for secular knowledge and his spiritual obligations. In another, it is something much more. It is a mythic Sacred Rite, a ritual mystery which initiates a human soul.
In simplest terms, we are mystified by Rabbi Saunders's silence. He has taken a vow to raise his beloved son without communicating with him, except to discuss the Talmud…. But why? He loves the boy—adores him—and, as much as he suffers, Danny knows it. Even Reuven, who fears and hates the old man, realizes this. Then what is the reason for his behavior?
It is here that Potok's imaginative grasp of his material is most apparent. It is the very essence of the Hasidic—and Kabbalistic—conception of the nature of divine reality, and the origin of evil, which he dramatically objectifies and even transmutes into poetry in spite of the limitations of his language. It is the idea of the "spark" and the "shell."
"A man is born into this world with only a tiny spark of goodness in him. The spark is God," Rabbi Saunders explains to the boys at last. "It is the soul; the rest is ugliness and evil, a shell…. [A] heart I need for my son," he cries out. "Righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want for my son, not a mind without a soul."
His silence has been explained. It has initiated his son into a comprehension of the meaning of suffering, and taught him compassion.
"Let Daniel become a psychologist," the Rabbi says. "I have no fear now. All his life he will be a tzaddik. He will be a tzaddik for the world."
Danny's conflict between the secular and spiritual life has been daringly, and brilliantly resolved.
Yet an even greater silence permeates the book: the silence of God. The history of the time, reverberating from the radio, and glimpsed in the newspapers, is the background against which the narrative is enacted: the war, the death camps, the struggle in Palestine, and the reestablishment of the Jewish state. Reuven's father is a Zionist. A frail, gentle Hebrew scholar, his work for the cause almost costs him his life. Like Rabbi Saunders, he has taken the suffering of his people upon himself. But actively. Unlike the tzaddik, he cannot passively accept the destruction of European Jewry as a manifestation of the mysterious will of God. (pp. 4-5, 34)
[He tells his son:] "We have a terrible responsibility. We must replace the treasures we have lost…. Now we need teachers and rabbis to lead our people."
Reuven eventually takes him at his word. A gifted mathematician, who at first wants to be a professor, he decides to become a rabbi. The structural pattern of the novel, the beautifully wrought contrapuntal relationship of the two boys, and their fathers, is complete. We rejoice, and even weep a little, as at those haunting Hasidic melodies which transfigure their words. (p. 34)
Hugh Nissenson, "The Spark and the Shell," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 7, 1967, pp. 4-5, 34.
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Once a man named Chaim Potok wrote a story called The Chosen. It was a good story and he told it skillfully. It was deeply evocative and called forth from the marrow of the heart certain memories of its own which still haunted the city streets of childhood. It was a story about Jews and the Jewishness of the characters, their embodiment of encounter and conflict between two ancient factions, gave to the tale an exquisite flavor of vinegar and honey; but its life and meaning derived from their humanity, which was something much deeper. It was, above all, a story which cracked barriers so that we were made to look each other full in the face and see—not stereotypes and shadow but flesh and blood.
Caroline Salvatore, in her review of "The Chosen," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1968 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), March 23, 1968, p. 3.
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Burdened with the same protagonists and the same unvital prose as The Chosen, The Promise suffers from the same faults, primarily Mr. Potok's utter pretentiousness, which makes his work pseudo-literary rather than literary. The artificiality is apparent in several aspects of the work.
First there is the monochromed, mono-rhythmed rhetoric, which gives a dubious unity to the novel…. The book is also burdened with a purposeless running literary allusion from Joyce's Ulysses ("Molly Bloom big with seed"), and festooned with fancy epigraphs from Pascal, Kafka, Joyce, the Midrash and the Rebbe of Kotzk. In addition, events are journalistically summarized rather than recreated…. Conversations generally have a stilted edge; people sound as if they were reading at each other rather than talking naturally….
Crowning all this is the irritating pseudo-Hemingway style, which assumes that half a dozen phrases scotch-taped by "ands" magically become poetry…. What Mr. Potok does not realize is that beyond the deceptively artless Hemingway style lurks a firm sense of esthetics, literary discipline and, above all, a harmonious fusion of language to theme, the latter obviously nonexistent in The Promise.
The omnipresent air of "creative writing" prevents the alert reader from suspending his disbelief. By being continually conscious of the attempt, the reader is soured on the result….
Another problem is characterization. Although a host of figures appear in the novel, most of them, with the exception of Reuven's father and, less so, Rav Kalman, are stiff and phoney. The book's biggest phonies are Michael's aunt and his professorial parents…. (p. 37)
As was its predecessor, The Promise is ridden with two levels of facts: The first is the cataloguing of objects, a Sears, Roebuck listing in words that do not bite and lines that do not sing. The second is the description of scenes to provide information for the wandering tourist. An interesting one is the ordination examination…. Another peek at Jewish exotica is the engagement ceremony at Reb Saunders's house. It is in these spheres that Potok's reportorial strengths lie. Familiar with this way of life, he can present it with credibility and without sounding pompous. The trouble, however, is that the narrative bears more resemblance to socio-anthropology—an attempt to record the folk-and mindways of an inaccessible group—than to fiction.
Reuven, the idealized first-person narrator, is too much a goody-goody to be true. Kind, pious, humble, he is the author's vision of the flawless future rabbi….
In The Promise one looks in vain for a touch of poetry, the imaginative slant or extra-dimensional quality that makes reading a delight. (p. 38)
Curt Leviant, in his review of "The Promise," in Saturday Review (© 1969 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. LII, No. 38, September 20, 1969, pp. 37-8.
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"The Promise" is a longer work than its predecessor, in a sense, it is a more depressing book—one that concentrates less upon the beauty of the Hasidic world and more upon the tribulations and conflicts within traditional Jewry itself. Although the in-fighting represents merely one example of the many love-hate relationships that are woven together to form "The Promise," it serves as a catalyst for the other displays of passion.
"The Chosen" was a simpler book than its successor. In "The Promise," the author deals not only with the myriad worlds of Judaism, but also with the realm of psychology. It takes the conflicts unveiled in "The Chosen," and describes how they manifest themselves in a troubled and somewhat twisted mind….
From the book's inception—a carnival scene that is as critical to "The Promise" as the furious baseball game is to the infrastructure of "The Chosen"—the author's personal attitudes, prejudices and outlooks are openly presented…. Potok is troubled by the growing influence of the right-wing Orthodoxy upon American Jewish life. However, on the other hand, he empathizes with them, recognizing that their ranks swelled after World War II with the remnants of the concentration camps….
To a great extent, what is missing in Mr. Potok's second book is the joy and warmth that endeared the author to many readers. Only once—when he describes the ecstatically wild dancing and outpouring of gladness at an engagement ceremony—does the beauty and majesty leap forth, drawing the reader vicariously into the circle of merrymakers.
If the sequel is more pensive and less comforting than its predecessor, there is no doubt about its merits as a novel and its first-cousin relationship to "The Chosen."
Michael J. Bandler, "A Sequel to 'The Chosen'," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1969 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), December 16, 1969, p. 13.
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I have no qualms about praising Chaim Potok's The Promise, a novel as orthodox as a Hasidic earlock, a novel which follows a definite canon of clarity, and which enters a most difficult terrain of experience without stumbling upon the obscure…. [The] ability to grasp village life and breathe into it the troubles of the world is not new to Jewish writing. One thinks, after the Old Testament, of S. Y. Agnon, who died this month. But Chaim Potok is a step onward, writing not about the Diaspora but about New York in the 1950s. Reuven Malter (the hero of Potok's The Chosen) is a student at a tightly Orthodox yeshiva. He is caught in a series of situations which force him to make certain basic choices affecting his family, friends and teachers. To say simply that the novel's conflict is about Reuven trying to reconcile the old, Eastern European traditions with those of enlightened modern scholarship makes it sound dull and denies Chaim Potok's logic, humanity and art. The Promise has a clarity and intensity of style which makes the interplay of characters and ideas take on a wholly appropriate allegorical significance.
Stanley Reynolds, "Quipped the Raven," in New Statesman (© 1970 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 79, No. 2033, February 27, 1970, p. 300.∗
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[In The Promise, Mr. Chaim Potok handles his] material with a lucidity and compassion, and an intimate yet objective knowledge of detail which produces both a touching, convincing picture of family and synagogue and a wider comment on spiritual inflexibility and spiritual triumph.
Mr. Potok's Brooklyn is a severe, insulated community, sometimes even rather too remote and self-sufficent in its own values to be credible. The outside world impinges only in so far as Senator (Joe) McCarthy is frightening as a persecutor or reassuring because he has Jewish aides, Messrs. Cohn and Schine; and there is a moment of distasteful complacency about the fate of the Rosenbergs. These faults apart, The Promise is a moving, continually absorbing, account of how people come to terms with a puritanical background, discarding its (understandable) severities and deriving strength from its virtues. Mr. Potok's narrative is rigorously and beautifully straightforward: the crises of the story are resolved with the aid of the Jewish virtues, but entirely without the schmaltz that sometimes lurks just under the surface in some distinguished Jewish novelists; and there is none of the familiar self-torment and turgidity. Against all the odds, with incomparable skill and resource, the author makes the conflict between Orthodox and Reformed theologians not only comprehensible but enthralling, the kind of dilemma it presents vivid to all who have understood the anguish of divided loyalties.
"Back to the Fold," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3549, March 5, 1970, p. 241.
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The conflict in Chaim Potok's novel The Chosen functions at several levels. These are: the generational conflict; the temperamental; the conflict between head and heart; the opposition between a petrified fanaticism and a humane tolerance; and, finally, the split between two visions of God and man's relationship to Him. Of all of these, however, it is the opposition between the head and the heart which predominates….
Although much of the story's direction is determined by the conflict between Hassidic and Misnagdic traditions in Judaism (as respectively represented by the Saunders and Malter families), it is the conflict between two generations and the Hawthornesque split between the obsessions of the head and the impulses of the heart that carry the major thrust of The Chosen. (p. 402)
While it is true that the Misnagdim in The Chosen did not actively oppose the Hassidim, the baseball game between the Misnagdic and the Hassidic schools on which the novel opens, not only triggers the conflict but determines the direction the novel will take. In a sense, The Chosen is a kind of exercise in the "Hegelian" dialectic which the Hassidim and the Misnagdim have engaged in for the last two and a half centuries; however, in doing so, they have articulated their respective visions toward life and God, and, in a sense, have managed to exert some beneficial influence on each other.
One of the central problems in The Chosen is communication—or lack of it. Part of this is deliberate and "chosen." Reb Saunders, in his oddly "Talmudic" way, believes that he can best teach his son the language and wisdom of the heart by forbidding, or discouraging, what he considers "frivolous" discourse—what most of us might think of as the minimal conversational civilities. Thus Reb Saunders denies Danny what Mr. Malter the yeshiva teacher freely gives to his son Reuven: warmth, communication, and understanding. (p. 403)
In the instance of Reb Saunders it is an admixture of pride and fanatic pietism that prevents any intimacy between himself and his son (rationalized by the elder Saunders' commitment to the Talmudic A word is worth one coin; silence is worth two). In Danny's case it is simply fear of his father that prevents any viable relationship between the two. (p. 404)
What we find in The Chosen is a kind of doppelgänger effect—minus the doppelgänger itself. For Reuven and Danny are symbolically two halves of a single (perhaps ideal? Jewish?) personality, each half searching for its complement, which we already know can never be found in an imperfect world…. In short, no perfection is to be attained, except in unity. But that is precisely the problem of the characters in The Chosen: theirs is a search for that elusive (or illusory) goal. For neither of these two boys growing into manhood can really be said to exist at their fullest potential unless they retain some sort of relationship with each other…. (pp. 404-05)
Reuven, whose father allows his son forays into symbolic logic, the mathematics of Bertrand Russell, ends up a rabbi! Danny, who throughout the novel is coerced into following Hassidic tradition, and is expected to succeed Reb to the leadership of the sect on his father's death, ultimately breaks away. 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 Hassidism, and finally from the Hassidic community itself. In a sense Danny is recapitulating (suffering through) the transitions and adjustments so traumatically demanded by the exodus from the Old World to the New, adjustments required of his father and his followers, "pilgrims" who came to America from the East European shtetle one step ahead of Hitler's kill-squads. (p. 405)
More significant than the conflict of belief in The Chosen is the conflict between the generations—each of which is so often collateral with the other. The novel itself could as easily, if not originally, have been called Fathers and Sons. For it is as much about the old split between the fathers and their offsprings as it is about the conflicts between religious views and personalities. The sons have been molded by the fathers, though in the case of Danny that influence is a negative one. For Reb Saunders is a fanatic, or at least has those propensities; he represents the archetypal, God-intoxicated Hassid. And it is he who has caused Danny to grow into a tense, coldly introverted personality. Reuven's father, on the other hand, is the tolerant (albeit religious) humanist, opposed both in mind and in heart to the cold scholasticism of the Saunderses.
In the growing estrangement between Danny and his father, the conflict of generations and of visions toward life surfaces. And it is America that is catalyst: the old East European ambiance is gone (unless one accepts Williamsburg as a pale substitute milieu for the vanished shtetle); and in the second instance the old ghetto traditions have become influenced, perhaps eroded—the old acculturation-assimilation story—by the pressures of urbanism and secular intellectualism.
The relationship between Reuven Malter and his father is rooted organically, not in principle—self or externally imposed—but in tolerance and mutual respect. Mr. Malter is a yeshiva teacher, yet he can comfortably discuss the secular philosophers with Reuven as Danny's father, the Hassidic Reb Saunders, never can with him…. Reuven's father allows his son to seek truth in his own way (possibly because of his own exposure to the rationalist winds of Western philosophy). Where Danny is coerced into the study of a specific mode of religious thought, Reuven is allowed by his father to roam free through the country of ideas. This seemingly minor approach to pedagogical technique—both fathers are teachers in their own ways—will determine the direction each of the boys will later take as young men. (pp. 405-06)
[Fanaticism] and intolerance go to form the iron board that binds Danny to his father. What is important here, though, is that Danny becomes an object, manipulated by his father, rather than a person one relates to. This determines Danny's ultimate hostility toward Hassidism itself, so that when he rebels, he not only rebels against a religious movement but against his father, who is its representative. The worship of God gives way, in the first flush of enthusiasm, to his admiration, if not worship, of a substitute god, Sigmund Freud. (pp. 406-07)
Ultimately, though, The Chosen is a paradigm of two visions that have not only sundered Judaism but have affected other areas of life—the split between head and heart. The Saunderses seem to have an excess of head in their (paradoxical streak of zealousness and emotion) makeup; but the Malters have heart and head: they are in balance. For Reuven is not only an outstanding student of Talmud but he "has a head" for mathematics and symbolic logic. Like his father, he also has a spark of tolerance which illuminates his own knowledge of human essences as opposed to ritualistic forms.
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 Hassid. 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 Hassidism, 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 latecomer to Hassidism) becomes pietism, rote learning, memorization. (p. 407)
The major irony, then, is that Hassidism—the brand portrayed in Potok's novel—though presumably a religious movement of the heart, has become transformed into its opposite.
I should like to say a few words about the symbolic symmetry of The Chosen. Potok seems to have extended himself beyond plausibility here. For the conclusion of this otherwise fine and sensitive work is marred by contrivance. Perhaps this can be ascribed to a symmetry which, while possible in life, somehow doesn't ring true when placed in fictional context. In this symmetry Danny escapes the confines of the Hassidic sect while Reuven stays within the wider boundaries of a more tolerant form of Judaism. Further, in this kind of resolution, Potok unintentionally (and unfortunately) reveals his intentions long before the novel ends. It takes no great effort to guess, even early in the novel, that Danny will rebel, while Reuven, the "nice Jewish boy," will become a rabbi.
Reb Saunders' "conversion"—his resignation to Danny's break with Hassidism—doesn't convince. The novel is too mechanical in this sense—with Danny, who was to have inherited his father's leadership going off to become a clinical or behavioral psychologist, while Reuven turns to the rabbinate.
The climax of the novel is illustrated by the following exchange the two young men engage in: Danny tells Reuven: "'I can't get over your becoming a rabbi.'" Whereupon Reuven answers: "'I can't get over your becoming a psychologist.'"… Even the dialogue is weak here, betraying the Procrustean ending; it is virtually the antithesis to the brilliant verbal fencing—stychomythia—that the great dramatists from Shakespeare to Shaw were such virtuosos at. In this instance, the dialogue verges on the cliché.
Thus, as Reuven moves closer to Misnagdic—non-Hassidic—Judaism, so Danny moves away from its Hassidic counterpart, giving the novel this mechanical symmetry. The saving feature in spite of the contrived ending is that the choices of the two young men are as much determined by motive and character (or lack of it) as by superimposed plot strictures.
The almost explicit theme of The Chosen, then, is that the more repression one is forced to knuckle under to (no matter the noble intentions), the greater will be the rebellion against the source of that repression…. (pp. 408-09)
Still—and this I mean to stress—the "contrivance of symmetry" with which the novel ends is a minor flaw in a larger pattern: that of tolerance against intolerance, empty ritual against the vital deed, rote learning against eager wonder. In any effective fiction it is the process rather than the outcome that is more important. This is especially true in The Chosen. For in this novel Chaim Potok gives us as keen an insight into the split between head and heart, tolerance and fanaticism, the strictures of tradition against the impulses of rachmonis (pity) as has appeared in the Jewish-American novel in a long time. (p. 409)
Sam Bluefarb, "The Head, the Heart and the Conflict of Generations in Chaim Potok's 'The Chosen'," in CLA Journal (copyright, 1971 by The College Language Association; used by permission of The College Language Association), Vol. XIV, No. 4, June, 1971, pp. 402-09.
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Why is it no one seems able to write a convincing novel about the life work of a painter?…
Chaim Potok, I'm afraid, is one more name to add to the list of failures. His dull, ponderous, humorless account of the rise of Asher Lev, Jewish artist extraordinary ["My Name Is Asher Lev"], cannot convince anyone who has held a brush loaded with oil paint and tried to make some meaningful strokes on a canvas, that this is what it's like.
The childhood and youth of the burning genius are recounted in some detail but Asher never really comes to life, and when we read the descriptions of his pictures, his final success seems unlikely. The break with his parents comes with the exhibition of a painting of his mother crucified on the living-room window, her head in three: one segment regards the artist, her son, to her left; one, her husband (with briefcase) to her right; and one looks upward.
Asher's parents don't like this sort of stuff, and though Mr. Potok plainly intends us to accept it as Great Art, my sympathies lay with Mama and Papa.
Anthony Barson, "The Artist As a Novel," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1972 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), June 14, 1972, p. 11.
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The difficulties inherent in the creation of a fictional genius have undone this extremely interesting book [My Name Is Asher Lev], which is ironic since it brilliantly transcends the impediment of being yet another novel about a Jewish family in New York, by reason of its seriousness and doggedness for truth….
The prayers, greetings, customs and attitudes of Hasidic Jews toll through the book; the writer is on intimate, respectful, but his own terms with them, and they are naturally and objectively conveyed. The opening of the boy's eyes to the riches, the compelling possibilities in every fall of light, in every demonstration of life in nature or in a human face, is marvellously done: one really believes in Asher's awakening powers.
But as the gift flowers in the book, the book topples. Jacob Kahn, the famous sculptor to whom the wise Rebbe apprentices the thirteen-year-old Asher, is entirely too full of dedication and wisdom, his conversation all lecture and sermon. The descriptions of Asher's first struggles ring so clear you feel you have seen the drawings of which they speak. His later work is smoothly announced as art of genius, but the triumphant struggle has left the painting and the writing about the painting, and we no longer believe in either.
"In the Goyish Mould," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3683, October 6, 1972, p. 1184.
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Chaim Potok's previous novel, "My Name Is Asher Lev," was about a young painter torn between religion and art. His new novel ["In the Beginning"], about a gifted Bronx boy who becomes a Biblical scholar, suggests that the author has decided in favor of religion. The book has an ascetic, stoical, almost self-punishing tone, established with its first line, "All beginnings are hard," and sustained through the painful and sometimes repetitious actions of the story. From shortly after birth, in the nineteen-twenties, David Lurie is plagued by chronic sinus illnesses that prove to be emblematic of his growing up…. David's inner life, tortured with fears and bad dreams, is followed through the Depression, which nearly ruins his family; through the late thirties and forties, as the news from Europe grows more and more dreadful; and into his budding years as a scholar, when he learns that curiosity can be a dangerous enemy of faith. His story could be described as a Hebrew "Pilgrim's Progress" or as a spiritual Horatio Alger story, and so it can't be recommended to everyone. Its prose is simple and smooth, but a heavy earnestness pervades it all. (pp. 193-94)
A review of "In the Beginning," in The New Yorker © 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LI, No. 39, November 17, 1975, pp. 193-94.
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"In the Beginning" seems radically different from [Potok's earlier novels, "The Chosen" and "The Promise"]. True, the shift in its locale and time period is only slight…. But he does seem to have taken up new and profoundly more complex themes.
For one thing, he appears to be exploring the nature of evil in human affairs. "In the Beginning" unfolds against the background of the mounting persecution of European Jewry, first in Eastern Europe during and after World War I, then in Germany during the rise of Nazism. And Mr. Potok seems to be trying to mirror that evil by visiting a series of "accidents" on his young hero, David Lurie, a precocious reader and brilliant student of Jewish scriptures…. The accidental aspect of [certain] … incidents in the story is heavily underscored by Mr. Potok. It is as if he is setting us up for some comment on the meaning of accidents (do they have a secret cause? or are they random events in an indifferent universe?), which will prove by extension an explanation of the evil occurring in Europe.
For another thing, Mr. Potok seems to be questioning how Jews ought to respond to this evil, whatever its nature…. In the mirror world, David is being persecuted by an anti-Semitic Polish immigrant and his cousin, and the most dramatic question posed by the first third of the novel (to me, at least) is how David will react to his persecutors—with hatred or forgiveness.
Finally, Mr. Potok appears to be tying his story to scriptural themes with unaccustomed complexity…. [One] of the passages that David puzzles over at length in his study of the Torah is the one concerning Noah's nakedness and his curse of Canaan. So when David's Polish persecutors attack him and remove his clothes so that they may see his circumcision, I felt certain that Mr. Potok was developing a parallel to Noah's emasculation. And even the most literal-minded reader cannot fail to be struck by a sequence in which David first investigates the relationship of the Jews to Jesus Christ, then contemplates the fact that he himself owes his life to the death of his namesake uncle who died in a pogrom ("He died and I am David"), and then accidentally receives a wound in his foot "almost directly above the instep." I confess this is all rather vague, but surely Mr. Potok was up to something.
Alas, he is not; none of these complications add up to anything. The many accidents that happen to David are merely random events that serve to illustrate the unhappiness of his childhood. David's Polish persecutors simply move away when the Depression reduces their parents' financial circumstances. And the Biblical parallels turn out to be ignes fatui conjured up by your reviewer's feverish imagination.
What "In the Beginning" finally boils down to is a story in which its hero must eventually confront—yes—the conflict between orthodox and modern approaches to the scriptures. Beneath its surface complexities, it's the same story all over again….
Of course, there's nothing fundamentally wrong about telling the same story over and over again. Most novelists do, when you come right down to it. And I may have done Mr. Potok a gross disservice by even imagining that he was up to something different. Still, I'd like to believe that he was trying, and that it all got so complicated that he had to fall back on the story he has told before. I'd like to think he'll follow all the way through the next time he writes a novel. Or maybe the time after that.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "New Promises, Familiar Story," in The New York Times (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 3, 1975, p. 43.
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[Chaim Potok] follows growing up Jewish in Brooklyn in the Fifties (The Promise) with growing up Jewish (and Polish-Jewish at that) in the Bronx in the Thirties and Forties [In the Beginning]. A trifle Brucknerian in pace, and told completely straight except for a closing flicker of fantasy, this novel about a Jewish brainbox puzzling at the irrationality of history, turns out unexpectedly moving. Partly, one suspects, because the European holocaust, which shadows the lives of the whole community, is kept offstage and reflected in microcosm: the street-corner humiliations, the tough gangs of goyim forcing copies of Social Justice on Semitic-looking schoolboys, offer much more controllable leverage on our emotions than, say, being slugged with Belsen. It is this careful focus which ensures that the conclusion works. With five million dead in Europe and a race about to make a new beginning, a decision to abandon orthodox Jewish study and see what goyische learning has to offer might seem less than a climax. It is a measure of Mr. Potok's plausibility and characterisation that the act (viewed as treachery by the community) comes across as necessary, heroic, and loyal to a deeper Jewish tradition.
Julian Barnes, "Zion Tamers," in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 91, No. 2351, April 9, 1976, p. 478.∗
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In the Beginning relates the changing fortunes and attitudes of the Luries, a Jewish family living in the Bronx. In particular it is the story of David, the narrator, and of the shaping of his character and vocation by the influences among which he grows up….
Chaim Potok has remarkable gifts of recall. He catches beautifully the atmosphere of a family party or a school quarrel. Rarer than this is the skill with which he shows how what a child learns and what it experiences are fused and transformed by the imagination. As an evocation of a religious childhood In the Beginning is impressive. But the author is aiming at something much larger than this. What David Lurie learns of scripture or history, what he hears about his parents' past, what he endures himself in the way of accident or cruelty all become aspects of a single experience—the Jewish experience.
Despite the resulting fullness and complexity the author has miscalculated. His patterning is too careful, too insistent. When every small episode or description is made thematically relevant there is a loss of the spontaneity that Mr Potok's fluid, associative mode of reminiscence seems to require. He proceeds too cautiously, as though fearful of spilling a drop of his meaning. An incidental effect is to make Jewishness seem an exhaustingly full-time condition imposing a conversational style that moves only between the gnomic and the wry.
But the most important aspect of the miscalculation is that, within the larger context the author has created, his hero is insufficiently interesting.
Michael Irwin, "A Full-time Condition," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3865, April 9, 1976, p. 413.
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In the Beginning, Chaim Potok's fourth novel, is again about urban life, about a young Jewish boy growing up in New York City and experiencing the strains that modern, assimilationist America can put upon a deeply religious, orthodox sensibility…. [Many] of the dramatic tensions in the novel develop through Max Lurie's active leadership in a society to help others emigrate to America. But the primary one derives from young David's situation in an environment that cherishes the old ways of life and Yeshiva study, while he becomes more and more conscious of a need to move out of that environment into the larger world of non-orthodox, even non-Jewish intellectual life—move out of it, moreover, without relinquishing it utterly. This is the theme of Potok's earlier novels, and while he treats it with great sensitivity and depth, he is dangerously close to repeating himself. He is unique among Jewish-American novelists in being able to write directly out of the context of lived orthodox experience …, and thus offers new perspectives on our visions of America. But other aspects of experience, particularly adult experience, should engage his interest more fully, as Max Lurie's does to a considerable though secondary extent in this fiction. (pp. 843-44)
Jay L. Halio, "American Dreams" (copyright, 1977, by Jay L. Halio), in The Southern Review, Vol. 13, No. 4, October, 1977, pp. 837-44.∗
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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 [in Wanderings], 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 preachment 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.
"Diaspora," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The Washington Post), December 3, 1978, p. E5.
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Potok has accomplished an amazing work [in Wanderings]: he has given us a long, well-researched history of the Jewish people, yet he does so with a narrative that is very personal and human. If he seems to scan centuries leaving gaps in the history, he does so because as a self-imposed editor, he must give space to the more important aspects of history which demand space. If he does not know how certain things happened, he offers the reader his own conjecture on the events, and how they came about. He includes the Bible as a record of fact, yet supports the stories within the Bible with a historical perspective. Potok's "wanderings" are passages through the history of his people, and not surprisingly, the peoples of other lands and other cultures.
David Winston York, in his review of "Wanderings," in West Coast Review of Books (copyright 1979 by Rapport Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. 5, No. 1, January, 1979, p. 36.
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The novelist's hand is evident in the flow of the narrative and the often felicitous turns of phrase [in Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews]. Despite the fact that it is not the work of a historian, it is sophisticated and judicious in its use of professional sources. Yet as the title makes clear, this is meant as a personal history, and its personal character is emphasized through the deliberate intrusion of the author into the narrative. (p. 84)
This sort of thing has a purpose: to help Potok formulate a perspective on Jewish history, and especially … on the Jewish confrontation with other cultures and civilizations. Yet considered as history, the volume never makes its thesis clear. And considered as personal history, it never makes clear how Potok's own faith has been reshaped, as he says it has been, by his encounter with non-Jewish, particularly Eastern, cultures.
The title, Wanderings, is suggestive of a perspective. Wanderings normally lack direction; they are not pilgrimages but random movements, perhaps searches for something whose exact location is elusive…. But despite the title and the frequent repetition of the idea in the book, I do not think that Potok's central thesis is that the Jews are a wandering people. Indeed, the book reveals the extent to which Jews in the last two thousand years have been at home in various civilizations….
There is another problem with finding this book's perspective. It is possible to come away from Potok's narrative with a clear impression of the fabulous achievements of Sumer and Akkad, Egypt and Persia, Greece and Rome, Christendom and Islam, and also of what Potok calls "modern paganism"—all the civilizations through which the Jews have passed—but without any real understanding of what the Jewish role in these civilizations has been. Potok's volume leaves one with the sense that even Christianity and Islam, in all but their earliest stages, show little or no trace of Jewish influence.
Why should this be so? According to Potok: "The central idea of biblical civilization was the covenant … the central idea of rabbinic civilization was the Messiah." In his book, the covenantal idea is fully discussed…. No such treatment, however, is accorded to the messianic strain in Judaism—precisely that element in Jewish thought and life which perhaps has made the greatest impact on others, and whose influence continues to be felt to this day. (p. 85)
For this reader there are also difficulties with Potok's division of Jewish history into two chronological civilizations, separated by the destruction of the Second Temple. Potok never defines what he means by a Jewish civilization. He says only that the central idea of the first is the covenant; of the second, messianism. But this is to say both too much and too little. It is too much because messianism predates rabbinic Judaism and because the covenant remained a central idea even after the maturation of the messianic concept. It is too little because a definition of Jewish civilization in terms of these two themes alone is oversimplified. The true distinctiveness of Jewish civilization both before and after the destruction of sovereignty lay in Jewish religious law and in the life that it shaped—biblical law in the first instance, rabbinic law in the second. Yet about this element of key importance Potok has relatively little to say….
At the end we are told that a third civilization of the Jews may be at hand…. The reader may be forgiven a certain skepticism on this point….
It would be possible to reverse the upbeat prophecies of Potok's final paragraph, in which he affirms his faith in the renewal of the Jewish people. The Jew is not solidly inside the affairs of the world. What surrounds him is a fresh wave of hate that has managed to encompass much of the so-called Third World, whole areas of the globe that never concerned themselves with Jews before. If, as Potok says, there will nevertheless be peace and renewal for Israel, the day seems as far distant now as it has ever been. (p. 86)
Erich Isaac, in his review of "Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews," in Commentary (reprinted by permission: all rights reserved), Vol. 67, No. 4, April, 1979, pp. 84-6.
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Beginning with his first novel, "The Chosen," Chaim Potok has illuminated for a vast and rightly fascinated audience the little-known and frequently misunderstood milieu of those communities of very pious Jews who live their lives in contemporary America entirely within the structure and strictures of the Old World orthodoxy of their forebears. In this dense, highly ordered, exceptionally demanding world—especially in the range of its proscriptions—Mr. Potok's brooding, passionately knowledge-hungry young protagonists commonly come to grief. In the course of their growing up, they become desperate to reach outside the prescribed confines of their religious education. Most of Mr. Potok's novels end with the unusually gifted, conflicted young protagonists leaving—and, in a sense, watching themselves leave—the community that bred and nourished them, and their protracted leave-takings are freighted, as the reader imagines their lives will always be, with shadowy self-indictment. For though they remain religious Jews, they have chosen not to take on the obligations and burdens they were taught would be theirs from birth.
"The Book of Lights," Mr. Potok's fifth novel, is the story of the dark and baffling inner journey of Gershon Loran, a morose, isolated rabbinical student who appears, in the words of one of his professors, to "have no enthusiasm," to be "without the feeling of possession by the divine." (p. 14)
[At a non-Orthodox rabbinical seminary, Gershon] meets the two men whose lives and ideas accompany him spiritually for the duration of the novel. Professor Jakob Keter, a celebrated secularist German-Jewish Kabbalah scholar, perceives in Gershon an extraordinary talent and spiritual affinity for the reading of Jewish mystical texts, and he encourages him to pursue this study…. In singling Gershon out and offering him discipleship, Keter is in effect choosing a spiritual son, but Gershon wavers.
This father-son dilemma is embodied more directly in the character of Arthur Leiden, Gershon's roommate. The cultivated, sophisticated Arthur is the tormented son of a famous physicist, one of the scientists responsible for the development of the atom bomb. That his father has used knowledge to create devastation is Arthur's single obsession…. (pp. 14-15)
Gershon begins to experience the spiritual fire he has been wanting when, upon ordination, he is sent to Korea as a military chaplain. In this alien environment, he reads and immerses himself in Kabbalistic texts and is often visited by visions. On his brief trips to Japan, a country utterly untouched by Judaism, and hence for Gershon unshadowed by reminders of the Jewish past, he approaches a transcendent apprehension of beauty and holiness previously denied to him. "He was being taught the loveliness of God's world in a pagan land." and this troubles him.
When the guilt-haunted Arthur Leiden joins him as a fellow chaplain in Korea, the two friends, each for his own reasons, together embark on a feverish, partly phantasmagoric journey to Japan that is the emotional climax of the novel. But this episode is greatly clouded by Gershon and Leiden's near hysteria. So much so that when Gershon, in a dialogue with his visionary voices, indiscriminately indicts not only the rationalist Jewish scientists but also his own biological father and his various spiritual fathers, Keter included, it is hard to ascertain what his harsh charges really signify. At times he appears to be linking all exponents of Jewish rationalist thinking with the destructiveness wrought by the bomb. The rage is unfocused, and there is a strange confusion between the private and public realms.
In Mr. Potok's earlier novels, the sons refuse to take their fathers' places; in "The Book of Lights," he appears to be suggesting that the undertakings of the fathers, "the giants of the century," have so devastated the world their sons have inherited that there are no places left to take. This is a dark and puzzling vision, and despite the author's attempts to provide a more optimistic conclusion, the novel does not ultimately transcend the gloom at its core. In "The Book of Lights," Chaim Potok has written a powerful, controversial and enigmatic novel. As always, he raises difficult and interesting issues, and addresses them throughout with seriousness and passion. (p. 15)
Johanna Kaplan, "Two Ways of Life," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 11, 1981, pp. 14-15, 28.∗
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The many lights in Chaim Potok's "Book of Lights" shine with allegorical splendor.
In his descriptions of tenement fires in a decaying Brooklyn neighborhood, the flash of the first atomic bombs at Alamogordo and Hiroshima, and the "light that is God" of mystical Jewish texts, Potok writes of luminous truths and darkly threatening evils….
Like his previously acclaimed novels, "The Book of Lights" is the story of an American Jew's search for identity and faith in the 1950s….
A story that draws much of its meaning from ancient Hebrew writings could be perplexing, if not boring, for the non-Jewish reader. But Potok cares too much for the ideas he's setting forth to lose them in abstract reasoning. We're caught up with Loran's questions because they're the questions we all have to answer. His quest isn't exclusively Jewish—it's a quest for the things of the spirit.
In a narrative style that's an intriguing blend of one-word sentences and flowing stream-of-consciousness paragraphs, Chaim Potok mixes intellectual probing and irreverent humor in equal parts, to keep his message from slipping into a soulful or guilt-driven apologia. He's writing about issues of the heart here and should attract readers who have hearts, not just card-carrying believers.
Diane Casselberry Manuel, "Potok's Journey toward Light" (reprinted by permission of the author), in The Christian Science Monitor, October 14, 1981, p. B4.
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Chaim Potok in The Book of Lights has adapted his by now standard structure to the story of yet another mild Jewish insubordinate. In each of Potok's previous novels, a representative of Jewish tradition comes into conflict with some incursion of modernity—psychology, comparative philology, art—and makes the perilous move to the other side. His present hero moves from the accepted province of talmudic law to the Kabbalah, the source of a more mysterious, and currently more fashionable, light.
Gershon Loran, the central character in The Book of Lights, is a troubled rabbinical student at the Riverside Hebrew Institute—a thinly-veiled fictional version of the Jewish Theological Seminary—in the early 1950's. He is torn between the required study of Talmud and an attraction to Jewish mysticism. The book includes certain staples of Potok's fiction: a friendship between the hero and a young man from a different sociopolitical stratum, in this case the son of a prominent physicist who has been involved in the development of the atom bomb; and the guiding presence of a mentor…. The historicity of the novel is selective, with current attitudes and cultural trends superimposed on events of three decades ago.
The rabbinical students are required to serve in the chaplaincy overseas—the book takes place during and immediately after the Korean war—and though Loran's academic performance wins him the alternative of graduate work, he decides after all to serve. The greater part of the novel, no doubt based on the author's own experiences as a chaplain in Korea, is set in that country after the war's conclusion. There the sheltered Judaism of the young rabbi is put to the test of alien surroundings, physical hardship, and personal confrontations with unsympathetic superiors. A more serious problem is faced by Loran's friend, who bears the guilt of his father's "complicity" in the bombing of Hiroshima and comes to East Asia to do penance. Drawn compulsively back to Japan, he is killed in a plane crash which leaves his parents childless.
His experiences in Korea and the death of his friend force upon the hero a spiritual crisis, from which he emerges with professional resolve. Without explaining precisely how this is so, the book suggests that the light of the Kabbalah is more effective than the Talmud when it comes to coping with such natural and human mysteries as physics and war. (p. 47)
Potok's overly tried formula of a confrontation between tradition and some encroaching challenge has resulted in quite a bad book—despite some occasionally interesting descriptions of the life of a chaplain in Korea. The author does not appear to be nearly so comfortable with the mystical inclinations of Gershon Loran as he was with the down-to-earth adolescents of his first two works, The Chosen and The Promise. (pp. 47-8)
More interesting than the book itself is its place in the author's development. Potok once seemed to be the writer for whom the American Jewish community had been waiting—an educated Jew who knew Jewish life from the inside and could give it authentic representation. As against the second-generation sons and daughters who inhabited most American Jewish fiction, figures estranged from the culture of their parents, with attitudes ranging from indifference to contempt, he presented a generation still raised in traditional homes and only tentatively facing the challenges of the Enlightenment. At the start of each of his early books, Potok's characters feel as if they are emerging out of the pre-modern period, and are only beginning to make an adjustment.
By now, however, the author himself has made an adjustment, one that is apparent in this novel in various ways. During his stay in Korea, for example, the hero tries to prove himself a good chaplain and a good Jew. As a demonstration of his honesty he gives preference to a hard-working Mormon over a Jewish boy from Brooklyn who tries to invoke "tribal familiarity" as the key to a cushy job. The scene bears an unmistakable similarity to Philip Roth's early story, "Defender of the Faith," but at least in the Roth story both Jews are seen to be suspect, the one for trying to use the Jewish connection for personal gain, the other for his discomfort in acknowledging it. Potok is less complex: he differentiates between the good Jew, his hero, who serves the army selflessly, and the bad Jew, who puts his comfort above the common weal. He puffs up his hero at the cost of employing a classical anti-Semitic stereotype, with none of the mitigating irony or sympathy that marks Philip Roth's treatment of the same moral dilemma.
Potok's oddest innovation is his attempt to Judaize the development of the atom bomb, one of the few modern events with which the Jews, as Jews, have happily not heretofore been associated. In one episode in the first part of the book, the seminary grants an honorary degree to Albert Einstein, in the presence of many who have been responsible for the bomb's creation; in the denouement, the son of one of them is sacrificed by the author in a symbolic atonement. Not only the boy's father, but his mother too is shown to have been implicated; as a noted art scholar, she had dissuaded the Secretary of War from bombing the beautiful city of Kyoto. "You helped save Kyoto and helped destroy Hiroshima," says her husband, trying to establish their common share in the deed. Of course their involvement was inadvertent, but "it was [their] part in all the inadvertence that [their son] had found unendurable."
We did not need Chaim Potok to tell us that Jews have an uncommon talent for cultivating guilt, but he is more than the bearer of the tale here. The book, in fact, takes a peculiar relish in this drama of Jewish self-accusation and expiation. The insensitivity this shows to the Jews may actually endear the novel to a kind of self-lacerating Jewish reader, but at least its trivialization of Hiroshima should not pass unnoticed.
The nature of the dilemma in this novel is the clearest indication of the author's present concerns. To have chosen the Kabbalah over the Halakhah might have been noteworthy within the rabbinate in 1950, but in a novel of the 1980's—after Harold Bloom and all America have approved Jewish mysticism—it is no more than what the publisher ordered. All the learned discussions and quotations from Jewish sources that run through the book, as they do through the author's work generally, do not add up to any perceptible interest in Judaism, the scholarship under discussion, or the Jews. A writer who began by validating traditional Judaism now takes his cues from the culture at large. (p. 48)
Ruth R. Wisse, "Jewish Dreams," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 73, No. 3, March, 1982, pp. 45-8.∗
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The Book of Lights is set in the 1950s…. [Its] core is the hero's inner development. His questing nature is shown by his choice of a non-orthodox seminary, his first step away from safety and certainty, and his interest lies rather with the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical writings, than with the safer Talmud….
Isaac Bashevis Singer has given the occult element in life a poetic resonance, be it in the Polish shtetl before the holocaust or among the survivors in America. Potok is alive to the same Hassidic tradition. But he does not have a sense of dramatic effect, he doesn't vary the pace or highlight important moments—everything has equal emphasis, so it is difficult to see, except in retrospect, what is significant….
Potok has chosen a difficult and exalted theme, but the development of the hero is not sufficiently related to the experiences he undergoes during his quest; nor are the changes themselves made vivid or interesting. For all the emphasis on light, this proves to be rather a glum Odyssey.
Monty Haltrecht, "In the Shadow of Giants," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1982; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4130, May 28, 1982, p. 594.