Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha

Chaim Potak

From    My Name is Asher Lev  by Chaim Potok

It would strike some as odd that an ordained rabbi who served a chaplaincy in the Korean War, later earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from an Ivy League university, earned a reputation as a world-class Judaic scholar, and wrote several best-selling novels along the way, would be known for his mapmaking abilities. But Chaim Potok has spent the majority of his life doing just that–mapping out the terrain of his Jewish past in novels which have transported both Jew and non-Jew into fictional worlds that transcend religious boundaries. (Mars Hill Review, 1997).

Born February 17, 1929 in Brooklyn, NY Herman Harold Potok was the son of Polish immigrants who had strong ties to Hasidism and was reared in an Orthodox Jewish home. In an interview Potok said, “I prayed in a little shtiebel [prayer room], and my mother is a descendant of a great Hasidic dynasty and my father was a Hasid, so I come from that world.”

After reading Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when he was a teenager, Potok decided to become a writer. Riveted by the world of upper-class British Catholics that Waugh brings to life in the novel, Potok realized for the first time that fiction had the power “to create worlds out of words on paper.” To learn how to write, Potok carefully studied the novels of such writers as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain. Over a period of five years, he spent most of his free time reading the novels of great writers.

At the same time, Potok became fascinated by less restrictive Jewish doctrines, particularly the Conservative movement. He attended Yeshiva University and graduated summa cum laude in English literature in 1950 before moving on to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he was ordained a Conservative rabbi. Potok served as combat chaplain with the United States Army in Korea from 1955 to 1957. He then taught at several Jewish colleges, including the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, before moving on to become the managing editor of Conservative Judaism in 1964. After spending a year in Israel working on his doctoral dissertation, Potok earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania, and the following year he became the editor of the Jewish Publication Society of America. He remained in that position for eight years before becoming a special-projects editor of the publication in 1974. Throughout his career in publishing, Dr. Potok wrote numerous popular articles and reviews. 

Potok began his career as an author and novelist in 1967 with the publication of The Chosen, which stands as the first book from a major publisher to portray Orthodox Judaism in the United States. With its story about the friendship between the son of a Hasidic rabbi and a more secularly-minded Jewish boy in Brooklyn, The Chosen established Potok’s reputation. Critics praised the book for its vivid rendering of the closed Hasidic community, while many considered it to be an allegory about the survival of Judaism. Potok followed The Chosen with a sequel two years later called The Promise.  He returned to the subject of Hasidism for a third time with the 1972 novel My Name is Asher Lev, the story of a young artist and his conflict with the traditions of his family and community.

Potok continued to examine the conflict between secular and religious interests in his other novels as well, which include In the Beginning in 1975, The Book of Lights in 1981, and Davita’s Harp in 1985. His most recent works include I Am the Clay, published in 1992, The Tree of Here in 1993, and the 1995 novel The Sky of Now. Potok also published several non-fiction works, including Wanderings: History of the Jews (1978), in which the author combines impressive scholarship with dramatic narrative, and The Gates of November, a 1996 chronicle of a Jewish family in the Soviet Union.  Chaim Potok died July 23, 2002, at his suburban Philadelphia home of brain cancer at the age of 73. He was survived by his wife, Adena, daughters Rena, college a professor and Naama, an actor in New York and a son, Akiva, who is a filmmaker in California and two grandchildren.

MHR (Mars Hill Review, 1997): This reminds me of a sentence from The Gift of Asher Lev: “Art happens when what is seen is mixed with what is on the inside of the artist.”

CP: That’s exactly right. It’s a relational experience. Art happens somewhere along a relational arc, between what you are and the object of creation. And that’s why art is very often a different experience for each and every person. I am convinced that the readers who come to my books experience them differently because they are not sitting back as passive individuals with this thing called a book being pumped into them, filling their empty reservoir. That’s not the way it works. They’re coming to a book with a whole life. And it’s the relationship between their life and the life inside the book that forms the experience of reading–the arc.

MHR: There’s something very mystical about that.

CP: Yes, but then there’s something very mystical about gravity too, which we can’t quite see [laughing]. True, you can do mathematics on gravity, and it’s harder to do mathematics on the relationship between a work of art and the person experiencing it. Both are invisible and both are very real.

MHR: Throughout your work there is a strong thread of autobiography. As a Jew, what has been the role of remembering?

CP: I think Judaism is a memory religion par excellence. We are told to remember. Americans generally don’t remember much beyond five years in the past. Who remembers the Persian Gulf War today?

MHR: I think Christians struggle with forgetting our past. Will you say more about the idea that Judaism is a memory religion?

CP: We have about four thousand years of history to remember. And what you are really bidden to do as an intelligent Jew is to remember and incorporate that history into your essential being. The biblical images of Abraham and Jacob are real. The story of the binding of Isaac is real. The story of Joseph is real. The story of David and Solomon, that’s a real story. It all becomes a part of the way you think about the world.

MHR: When you talk about what could be, is there a sense of the original “image of God”?
CP: Yes, absolutely–there is a sense of an origin to things. And my feeling is that the biblical image is a magnificent metaphor of that feeling or sense that we have of the mysterious origin of things. That is the quintessential mapmaking. It’s so rich that it has forever changed the mindset of our species. v Is it ontologically true? Well, the fundamentalists will say yes. Someone who knows a great deal about the history of Jewish thought will probably say that it has profound value in the way it has set the human mind in a certain direction–that that is its truth. And for me that’s truth enough.                                                                                   

MHR: Whether or not the ontological reality is there? 

CP: That’s right.

MHR: Are you saying that whether or not the existence of it all is real isn’t as important as the metaphor that guides your life?

CP: It’s the richness of it. That is an awesome reality. I can’t step beyond the richness of that and move to the other side. Do you know that in the Hebrew Bible there isn’t a single mention of God as he, or she, or it truly is? There is only the mention of the creator God who is constantly trying out new plans and failing. He creates the world and fails. He creates Adam and Eve and fails. He creates the Garden of Eden and that doesn’t work. He creates a human species and fails, so he brings the flood. He saves a human being whose first act is to get drunk. He chooses a people with whom He constantly quarrels. That’s the creator God. The God utterly infinite, utterly unapproachable, utterly spiritual –we don’t hear of that God. That God won’t turn to us. It is in-conceivable that he would ever turn to us. That God is all that ever was and is and will be, into infinity and eternity. How could that God conceivably relate to us? It is the God of the Bible that we relate to!: Yes, absolutely–there is a sense of an origin to things. And my feeling is that the biblical image is a magnificent metaphor of that feeling or sense that we have of the mysterious origin of things. That is the quintessential mapmaking. It’s so rich that it has forever changed the mindset of our species. Is it ontologically true? Well, the fundamentalists will say yes. Someone who knows a great deal about the history of Jewish thought will probably say that it has profound value in the way it has set the human mind in a certain direction–that that is its truth. And for me that’s truth enough.

Published works

  • Jewish Ethics (1964–69, 14 volumes)
  • The Chosen (1967)
  • The Promise (1969)
  • My Name is Asher Lev (1972)
  • In the Beginning (1975)
  • The Jew Confronts Himself in American Literature (1975)
  • Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews (1978)
  • The Book of Lights (1981)
  • Davita’s Harp (1985)
  • Theo Tobiasse (1986)
  • The Gift of Asher Lev (1990)
  • I Am the Clay (1992)
  • The Tree of Here (1993)
  • The Sky of Now (1994)
  • The Gates of November (1996)
  • Zebra and Other Stories (1998)
  • Isaac Stern: My First 79 Years (with Isaac Stern) (1999)
  • Old Men at Midnight (2001)
  • Conversations with Chaim Potok (edited by Daniel Walden) (2001)
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