Chaim Potok Potok, Chaim (Vol. 26) - Essay


(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...

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Eliot Fremont-Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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.

Hugh Nissenson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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...

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Caroline Salvatore

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Curt Leviant

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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…....

(The entire section is 449 words.)

Michael J. Bandler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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.

Stanley Reynolds

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.

Sam Bluefarb

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anthony Barson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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The New Yorker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 216 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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 entire section is 624 words.)

Julian Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 212 words.)

Michael Irwin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 283 words.)

Jay L. Halio

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 222 words.)

Book World—The Washington Post

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 222 words.)

David Winston York

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Erich Isaac

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Johanna Kaplan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 712 words.)

Diane Casselberry Manuel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 224 words.)

Ruth R. Wisse

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1136 words.)

Monty Haltrecht

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 200 words.)