The Gates of November
Father-Son Leaders of Russian Revolution
Los Angeles Times, November 27, 1996
Orange County Ed., Life & Style p. 12, November 28, 1996
Potok says third time was charm for his tale of Russian dissidents
Boston Globe, November 30, 1996
November 24, 1996
Review in the Chicago Tribune
Vadertje Stalin en de joden: de andere holocaust
Jewish Boston Online: The Jewish Advocate
Potok struggles to capture saga of Russian Jews
Frank Scott, Advocate Staff
January 12, 1996
Chaim Potok's latest book, The Gates of November (Knopf), due out later this year, almost didn't get written.
"I don't know that I ever had a harder time writing a book," Potok says of the non-fiction work which chronicles modern Russian-Jewish history through the exploits of a single family, the Slepaks. Writing the book took more than seven years, partly because of the break-up of the Soviet Union and partly because of Potok's closeness to the book's subjects, Volodya and Masha Slepak.
Potok and his wife, Adina, met the refusenik couple in the Soviet Union in 1985. Potok was intrigued by their story and started writing it as be part of a book on refuseniks in 1987, when the Slepaks finally received permission to emigrate and move to Israel. But then the Soviet Union collapsed, and the resulting chaos made getting a handle on a book about Jews in Russia "like sculpting with water," Potok says.
Potok put the project aside, presumably for good. But even though he wrote his most recent bestsellers, The Gift of Asher Lev and I Am Clay, during this time, the book about the Slepaks "kept bothering me. It wouldn't let me drop it."
When the situation in Russia had "stabilized to typical Russian chaos" Potok took up The Gates of November again. But even then, the writing didn't come easily. "It's very hard to write a book when you're that close to the subject [as he was to the Slepaks]," Potok says. "I had to step back so I could focus on the subject."
The Gates of November starts with Solomon Slepak, Volodya's father. Solomon's mother, a devout Jewish woman, wanted him to become a rabbi. Rebelling, he fled Russia in the decade before World War I. He came to New York and, oddly enough, became a Bolshevik (communist) there. He tried to go back to Russia, but Alexander Kerenski, the leader of the provisional government that had toppled Tsar Nicholas II, wouldn't let him return. So Slepak went to China and eventually became an agent for Comintern (the international communist body). He returned to Russia after the Bolsheviks overthrew Kerenski and set up the communist government that eventually became the USSR.
Jewish fortunes were mixed in the early days of the Soviet Union. While some Jews rose high in the Bolshevik ranks, rank-and-file religious Jews "thought they had been better off under the Tsar," Potok said. "At least under the Tsar, Jews could run their shuls, newspapers and schools. They may have been oppressed, but at least they could exist. They had more freedom than they had under the Bolsheviks" who banned all religious activity.
Solomon survived the vicious purges of the 1930s-"by some mysterious process; I've never been able to fathom quite how," Potok says-and his son became an engineer. Volodya was instrumental in creating the Soviet Union's air defense system. He had nothing to do with his Jewish heritage, even though he had married a Jewish woman "strictly by chance," Potok says. "But then a paradigm shift occurred, which I track carefully in the book," Potok says, and Volodya and Masha became committed to their Jewishness. They applied for an exit visa in 1969 and spent 18 years as refuseniks.
Although they finally got to move to Israel in 1987, the story doesn't have a happy ending. Volodya and Masha's children haven't joined them in Israel, preferring to live in the United States. "They know English better than they know Hebrew," Potok says.
"Another reason is that they don't want to serve in the Israeli military [required of all Israeli citizens]."
Potok is now working on a collection of short stories. As always, he's writing the first draft in longhand, with a ball-point pen. "I need the silence of a pen," rather than a typewriter or word processor, he says.
He does his writing between his duties as a professor at the University and Pennsylvania (near his home in suburban Philadelphia) and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He was in Boston last month to speak at a fund-raiser for Combined Jewish Philanthropies, part of a series of such appearances for Jewish federations around the country.Nathan Ehrlich, Hebrew College