by Marius Buning

Free University Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Post-war Literatures in English
March 1995
Groningan: Nyhoff


Chaim Potok was born in the Bronx, New York, on 17 February 1929, to Polish Jewish immigrants, and was educated in Jewish parochial schools. At the early age of ten he showed talent in drawing and painting but was dissuaded by his father and Talmudic teachers from pursuing this interest. Instead, he undertook a serious religious and secular education, first at the Orthodox Yeshiva University, New York, where he received a BA in English (summa cum laude) in 1950; then at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, where he received his rabbinic ordination in 1954; and finally at the University of Pennsylvania, where he obtained a PhD in 1965.

Potok served as a chaplain in the United States Army with front-line units in Korea from 1955 to 1957. During that time, he made a number of trips to Japan, which turned out to be a crucial experience since it forced him to rethink his religious and cultural position. In an interview Potok has said that all of his books came about 'as a result of that moment in time when I stood in Hiroshima, trying to figure out where I was and what I was doing there, and what it all really meant to me'. He then began a distinguished teaching and publication career in Jewish studies; he became editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society of America and collaborated on the new authorized translation of the Hebrew Bible, which was finally completed in 1982.

Meanwhile Potok had started writing, first in diary form, on his experiences in Korea. This work appeared in strongly revised form as I Am The Clay more than thirty-five years later; it was followed by the first draft of what was to become his best-known novel, The Chosen, written in Jerusalem during the fall and winter of 1963-64, and published after major revisions in 1967. Basically dealing with the interplay of the Jewish tradition and Western secular humanism, it had an extraordinary world-wide success. The novel was turned into a major film in 1982. It was followed two years later by The Promise a sequel that continues to examine in fictional form the complicated relationship between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. In 1972 My Name Is Asher Lev appeared, a novel about a Hasidic painter as a young man in conflict with his family and his religious community. This further established Potok's literary reputation.

From 1973 to 1977 Potok went to live with his wife and three young children in Jerusalem. In 1975 In the Beginning appeared, which deals with anti-Semitism both in Europe and America. In 1977 he returned to America and settled with his family in Merion, a distinguished suburb north of Philadelphia, where he now lives in a lovely Tudor house, with a large painting studio on the second floor. Potok is a self-taught painter, who since the late sixties has produced a considerable number of idiosyncratic paintings.

In 1978 Potok published a non-fiction work, calledWanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews which is a highly personal and imaginative account of what Judaism is, what it borrowed from surrounding cultures and what it gave back to the world. It was followed in 1981 by The Book of Lights, which centers on the apparent contrast between the constructive 'light' of Jewish cabalistic mysticism and the destructive 'light' of the atomic bomb, co-developed by Jewish physicists. ln 1985 Davita's Harp appeared, the first Potokian novel with a female protagonist, who reclaims her Jewish heritage during its course. Published in 1990, The Gift of Asher Lev takes up the further developments of his earlier eponymous fictional hero, who now appears to be in a personal as well as artistic mid-life crisis that is ultimately resolved by an uneasy compromise between the demands of his family and the Jewish community on the one hand and those of his artistic calling on the other.

With I Am The Clay, which he had started writing before The Chosen but subsequently strongly revised and rewrote during the period of the Gulf War, Potok entered a new phase in his literary career. Although the Holocaust and the themes of suffering and survival have been thematically present in all his work, they become central in his latest fictions, The Trope Teacher (1992) and The Canal (1993). Both works show the devastating after-effects of the Holocaust on the respective main characters, neither of whom is an observant Jew any more. These novellas have still to appear in America, but they have already been published in Dutch translation. They show a remarkable change in style and tone; there is a greater spareness of language, a more flexible narrative technique, and above all a much more pessimistic outlook on the world than in Potok's earlier work. As he stated in a recent interview, 'we must learn to live with the possibility that there are no answers any more, at least no Answers with capital letters'. It may be more than accidental that his most recent publications include two children's books, The Tree of Here (1993) and The Sky of Now (1994), illustrated by the Pennsylvania artist Tony Auth. At present Potok is working on several projects, including a non-fiction work, that traces the tribulations of a Jewish family through several generations in modern Russia. He also continues to teach contemporary literature and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, and creative writing at Johns Hopkins University.

Note: I should like to record my gratitude to Chaim Potok for the hospitality with which I was received in his Merion home, for allowing me to see his paintings, and for the many conversations we had both in America and in The Netherlands. I am also grateful to Professor Lillian Kremer of Kansas State University, whose several articles on Potok have been of great value to me.

Critical Essay

Most of Potok's novels can be seen as the fictional sites of cultural confrontation and how that confrontation affects the people involved in them. The cultural confrontation is that between a minority immigrant Jewish subculture and the 'umbrella' culture (as the author himself calls it) of Western secular humanism; the problem for his characters is how to fuse what he terms 'core-to-core' or fundamental elements of both cultures without losing the essential nature of their own identity. Out of this 'culture shock' the typical Potokian 'Zwischenmensch' ('between-person') is born, one who rejects neither his original culture nor the contemporary culture surrounding him. Inevitably such a dialectical, transgressive personality will be under constant pressure from either side; at best he will achieve a precarious equilibrium between old loyalties and new ideas, as is the case in the early novels, from The Chosen to Davita's Harp. However, from the companion novels My Name Is Asher Lev and The Gift of Asher Lev (which appeared eighteen years later) it becomes painfully clear that the tenuous balance is no more than provisional and cannot last. 'To be a Zwischenmensch is to feel at home everywhere and nowhere simultaneously,' according to Potok, who considers the novelist to be an outstanding example of such a 'Zwischenmensch,' since he is the mediator between himself and his readers, between the past and the present, and between reality and the imagination.

Although it is true that the theme of cultural confrontation has been dealt with by other American Jewish writers like Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and many others, it is equally true that none of them has situated this problem in terms of a cultural conflict between orthodox and ultra-orthodox Judaism - comprising Jewish theology (including Talmudic studies and the mystical writings of the Cabala), liturgy, history, and scholarship - on the one hand, versus Western on the other, a humanism represented by modern literature, Freudian psychology, 'scientific' or 'higher' Bible criticism, nuclear physics, Marxism, and modern art. It is Potok's particular gift as a novelist and storyteller to have subjected these rather abstract areas of cultural expression to novelistic treatment and to have made them available to the common reader. He writes about these modern achievements with great enthusiasm and succeeds remarkably well in making them exciting for us, however complex they actually are. Yet he is not blind to the darker aspects of Western civilization, particularly since its history is fraught with an antiSemitism that reached its greatest intensity in the Holocaust.

The Chosenwe encounter a cultural confrontation between the closed, fundamentalist world of ultra-orthodox Judaism in which the brilliant young boy, Danny Saunders, son of a patriarchal Hasidic rabbi (who has imposed a gulf of silence between himself and his son to educate him into pain) is brought up, and the more enlightened upbringing of his friend, Reuven Malter, whose father indirectly helps Danny to become acquainted with some of the great texts of Western scholarship, notably the works of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud. After much torment and conflict Danny Saunders decides not to become a rabbi, but a student of psychology in a secular graduate school whereas, ironically enough, Reuven Malter does end up planning to become a rabbi.

Parallel to this cultural clash runs a political conflict with regard to the founding of the State of Israel after the Holocaust between the Messianic Zionism of Rabbi Malter, which consists in piously waiting for the Messiah since 'it will all emerge through holiness'-'God will build the land, not Ben Gurion and his goyim! When the Messiah comes, we will have Eretz Yisrael. A Holy Land, not a land contaminated by Jewish goyim!' (198) - and the activist Zionism of Theodore Herzl that Reuven Malter's father supports:

Some Jews say we should wait for God to send the Messiah. We cannot wait for
God! We must make our own Messiah' We must rebuild American Jewry. And
Palestine must become a Jewish homeland! ( 197)

Malter's father firmly believes that

the slaughter of six million Jews would have meaning only on the day a Jewish state
was established. Only then would their sacrifice begin to make some sense; only then
would the songs of faith they had sung on their way to the gas chambers take on
meaning; only then would Jewry again become a light to the world. (226)

In The Promise, sequel to The Chosen, we witness the clash between fundamentalist rabbinical scholarship that insists upon a literal interpretation of the Torah and the Talmud, which it considers divinely-inspired and therefore sacred, and the new, 'scientific' approach that allows for textual emendations and substitutions and, more generally, for an enlightened reading of these texts. The question of the right kind of approach is fought over to the death by all parties concerned, especially by one of the teachers, Rabbi Rav Kalman, a Holocaust survivor, who torments his mind, wondering:

If one accepted the possibility of changing the text of the Talmud, then what might
happen to the laws that were based upon these texts? ... Why not change the text of
the Ten Commandments or the various other legal passages? What then would happen
to the sanctity of the Bible? How was one to regard the Master of the Universe if one
could simply go ahead and rewrite the Bible? How was one to regard the revelation at
Sinai? The entire fabric of the tradition would come apart as a result of this kind of
method. It was a dangerous method, an insidious method; it could destroy the very
heart of Yiddishkeit [Jewishness] ... Had Jews suffered two thousand years for a
tradition based on texts that were filled with scribal error? (228-29)

The same problem of how to keep a deep commitment to Judaism in balance with the findings of modern biblical scholarship, which originated in Germany towards the end of the last [19th] century, lies at the heart of Potok's fourth novel, In the Beginning. In it Potok's alter ego, the brilliant young yeshiva student David Lurie, undertakes to bridge the gulf between fundamentalism and secular humanism, including ugly aspects of Western anti-Semitism, even at the risk of losing the respect of his family, his friends, and all of his teachers but one. David Lurie's transgressive personality bears comparison with that of Asher Lev, the brilliant young artist in the novel carrying his name in the title.

My Name is Asher Lev, Potok's third novel, is by common consent one of his most successful and most memorable creations, not least because of the use of a first-person narrator who is also the central character, which gives the novel a great deal of immediacy. It describes retrospectively and in vivid colors the painful, heroic struggle of the young Hasidic boy, Asher Lev, who tries to break away from his fundamentalist upbringing in order to become an artist. With the exhibition of his two powerful, highly controversial 'Brooklyn Crucifixion' paintings, in which he has used the crucifixion motif in order to depict his sense of his mother's protracted suffering because of the tense relationship between her husband and her son, Asher Lev has outraged his parents as well as his religious community to such a degree that he is temporarily exiled. And so Asher Lev moves to Paris, although he remains an observant Hasidic Jew.

In defense of his protagonist, Potok has remarked in interviews that for Asher Lev there was '[no] comparable aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment', adding that the cross as an artistic motif was repeatedly used by Picasso, the quintessential pagan, as well as by Chagall, who represented the plight of the pogrom-ridden Russian Jews in a painting of a Jew on the cross. From the sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev, published eighteen years later, we learn how deeply this core-to-core cultural conflict has struck, extending as far as the next generation of children and grandchildren. Having returned to his Brooklyn Hasidic community with his wife, a Holocaust survivor, and his two children in order to attend the funeral of his uncle Yitzschok, himself in private a collector of modern art, Asher Lev faces continuing resentment over his notorious crucifixion paintings, which to many survivors of Christian anti-Semitism amount to pure blasphemy. Moreover, he is confronted with a personal as well as an artistic mid-life crisis since his critics have strongly criticized his recent paintings for repeating themselves too much. After prolonged soul-searching he rediscovers his 'gift' as an artist and decides to return to France, albeit at the cost of partial separation from his family and at the price of allowing his son, Avrumel, to eventually succeed the aged, charismatic, childless Rebbe. This, then, is Asher Lev's 'gift' to the Hasidic community; it is an act that' in a symbolic way, parallels the biblical story of Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac, which also happens to be the subject of one of Asher Lev's own paintings.

The novels that feature Asher Lev as their central character belong to the genre of the Kunstlerroman My Name Is Asher Lev offers a portrait of the Hasidic artist/painter as a young man, and The Gift of Asher Lev depicts the same artist as a middleaged family man. Although the later novel can be read independently, it obviously acquires more relevance in the light of the former. One important difference between the novels is that the earlier novel is more concerned with the psychology of the artist, whereas the later novel focuses more on the artistic process itself, offering a great deal of insight into such painterly problems as the use of color, space, forms and techniques, besides making us share in a good many discussions on art.

This shift of emphasis is, no doubt, in large measure due to Potok's own growing interest in painting. As he has intimated, he had wanted to become a painter at the age of ten but both his father and his Talmudic teachers refused to permit him to pursue this interest because it was considered an idolatrous activity. It was only after the successful publication of The Chosen that Potok actually started painting. Potok has now created a small but distinguished collection of paintings, often related to characters or episodes in the earlier novels which, curiously enough, they often precede rather than follow.

In The Book of Lights the cultural confrontation is enacted on a more global scale: it deals with the values of Jewish esoteric mysticism known as the Cabala (literally: the tradition), encapsulated in the Zohar ('The Book of Splendor or Light') and composed around 1300 in Spain, which became after the Bible and the Talmud the third sacred source of Jewish spiritual guidance; it was much enlarged upon by a small group of Cabalists under the direction of Rabbi Isaac Luria in Safed, in the mountains of northern Israel, in the middle of the sixteenth century. Lurianic Cabalism is based on a mytical method of interpreting sacred texts that allows initiates to penetrate life's mysteries and foretell the future; theologically speaking, it offers interesting unorthodox speculations about the nature of God, the creation of the world, the interplay of good and evil, and the notion of the 'restoration' of the divine man in the medium of mortal man.

The Book of Lightscontrasts the creative 'light' or 'spiritual fire' provided by Jewish mysticism, and to which the young rabbi, Gershon Loran, feels deeply attracted, with the destructive, annihilating 'light' of modern science that, with the help of Jewish physicists, such as his best friend's father, developed the atomic bombs that were eventually dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of World War II. At the same time, the novel highlights the culture shock that Gershon Loran, closely modeled on Potok himself, experiences when he is confronted with the pagan world of the Orient, whose forms and values he has learned to appreciate. This experience makes Loran wonder whether the God to whom he prays also listens to the prayers of the Shinto, Buddhist, or Confucian Japanese priests, and if so, what the implications are for the centrality of Western religions. Loran also questions the apparently pointless suffering of the Koreans - a subject dealt with more fully in I Am The Clay; eventually he goes to Jerusalem, hoping to find enlightenment in a further study of the great texts of Jewish mysticism.

Up until now women had played only secondary and tertiary roles in Potok's maledominated fictional world. With Davita's Harp the first female character and narrator appeared in the shape of a very young girl, llana Davita Chandal, who grows up in New York City in the 1930s and early 1940s. The novel describes the cultural confrontation between Marxist ideology, represented by her non-believing parents, who support the republican case during the Spanish Civil War, and the orthodox Judaism to which the young protagonist feels attracted. However, Davita discovers to her dismay that she is barred from full religious participation because she is not allowed to recite Kaddish (the prayer for the dead) for her father, who has died in the Guernica atrocity, and at the yeshiva (a Jewish parochial school) she is denied the first prize in Talmud studies because she is a girl. In the end she is left with a 'sacred discontent' and decides to become a writer, thus breaking away from fundamentalism while still remaining a non-Orthodox Jewess. As a character she will reappear as a writer of contemporary ghost stories in one of Potok's latest fictions, The Trope Teacher.

Both the character of Davita and the story of the withheld first prize are with minor changes, 'true to life,' like so many of Potok's characters and events: Davita is the author's wife, Adena, to whom the narrated events actually happened. At the same time Davita's Harp is about the power of the human imagination as a way of coming to terms with the often bewildering and frightening world we live in; its salutary effect is symbolized by the door harp that makes the 'gentlest and sweetest of tones' when Davita's door is opened or closed.

It must be stressed, however, that in Potok's most recent fictions, starting with I Am The Clay - which can be seen as an absolute watershed in his literary output - the theme of cultural conflict between Judaism and Western humanism no longer plays the central role it did in the earlier, by now 'classic' novels. I Am The Clay tells us how the traditional, non-Christian values of Korean society are confronted with and destroyed by the technological warfare of the United States during the Korean War, while a Jewish chaplain plays only a minor and rather distant role in the events. The novel, whose title refers to several biblical texts and a Christian hymn, describes in stark detail the tortuous, nomadic flight of an old peasant couple through a war-ridden landscape and how they rescue at great risk and with great effort a severely-wounded young boy, who ultimately makes himself indispensable to their survival. The namelessness of its three main characters, only indicated as 'the old man', 'the old woman', and 'the boy', the theme of the journey through darkness and devastation, together with the persistent use of archetypal images of flight, degradation, and death as well as of recovery and restoration, allow us to read the novel as a haunting modern allegory or parable of human suffering and survival.

For the middle-aged protagonists of The Trope Teacher and The Canal their Jewish background is mainly a thing of the past; neither of them is any longer religiously observant. Their problem is how to come to terms with their own traumatic past and how to survive individually in today's thoroughly secularized, postmodern world, which no longer offers any apparent hierarchy of values to live by.

For Benjamin Walter, the central character in The Trope Teacher - the novel's peculiar title alludes to the trope as a figure of speech and as a form of liturgical chanting - his Jewish heritage mainly consists of burdensome memories of his former trope teacher, Isaac Zapinsky, who helped him prepare for his bar-mitzvah by teaching him how to chant passages from the Torah in the prescribed manner. To his utter dismay Walter discovers that both his teacher and his own father were deserters from the Austrian army in World War I. Himself a soldier in the Second World War, he imagines himself to have seen Zapinski's dead body in a mass grave near one of the concentration camps he has helped to liberate. This memory haunts him for the rest of his life and prevents him from writing his memoirs (his 'deathwork') as a professor of military history since he fails to see 'the cords of connection' both in his private and his professional life; it is only thanks to a number of encounters - cast in the form of retrospective confessions - with Davita Chandal, his new neighbor, and writer of ghost stories, who acts as his therapist and as his Muse, that he is able to come to terms with his painful past and, perhaps, with his cheerless present situation.

The Trope Teacher, aptly subtitled 'A Ghost Story for Our Times', can be read on several Ievels simultaneously. Besides being a story about the burdens of the past and of contemporary political problems in Europe and America as exemplified by the 'ethnic cleansing' in the Balkans and the 'political correctness' rage in American academic life, it can be seen as a metafiction, that is, a fiction about the act of writing and storytelling. We are given sophisticated discussions about the 'destroyers' versus the 'defenders' of fiction, with Flaubert, Joyce, Kafka, Conrad, Mann, Virginia Woolf and Beckett among the former, and Dostoevsky, Melville and Bellow among the latter category. Of the contemporary writers only Bellow and Pynchon can pass muster, all the others are 'small potatoes,' which leads to the somber conclusion that the art of writing or telling stories has come to an end. The professor/narrator also lashes out against poststructuralist literary criticism as practiced in today's American academe.

The novella's literary character is further accentuated by the its intertextuality, with references and allusions to at least some fifty authors, among whom Dante takes pride of place (notably Canto 13 of the Inferno) next to the Bible. Finally, The Trope Teacher can also be read as a philosophical inquiry into the origin of evil and the nature of suffering, as will be argued below.

For Amos Brickman, the successful, Philadelphia-based architect in The Canal, Potok's latest fiction to date, his Jewish heritage harks back to his childhood days spent in Krakow, Poland, and in particular to the gruesome details of his escape, together with his cousin Joel, from Nazi violence by jumping into a canal. These memories are relived in fragmented, highly dramatized flashbacks, which use both the past and the present tense. Hearing a mysterious voice insistently calling him to come, he decides much against his will to return to his birthplace and to visit Auschwitz and the crematorium at Birkenau. On his return to Philadelphia Brickman accepts, after much internal conflict and physical unease, the offer of his friend, the jovial Reverend Ellis Franklin - who ardently believes in reconciliation and healing between Christians and Jews to build near the city's canal a hypermodern, ecumenical, multifunctional church; its architectural shape is the form of a cube, a biblical Tent of Meeting, a place of worship 'where even questioning is a form of reverence,' with an actual stream flowing around the Sanctuary, to divide it from the Ambulatory.

Even from this incomplete outline it should be clear that The Canal is a highly symbolic story, a parable about religious relativism, replete with archetypal imagery, in particular of water connoting both death and redemption as well as spiritual mystery. Amos Brickman's name is also doubly suggestive: it refers not only to constructing buildings, in particular a modern church as the meeting place between the horizontal and the vertical, the profane and the sacred, but also to Amos, one of Potok's favorite prophets, announcing God's promise to His people of restoration and rebuilding - in this story extended to include all people of good will. On a more personal level restoration also entails resolving the generational and psychological conflict between Brickman and his son, a young anti-establishment artist trying to find his own way in the world.

Although one may be tempted to classify Potok's novels as 'novels of ideas,' in which characters, plots, and dialogues are subservient to the pervasive theme of cultural confrontation, such a classification would do injustice to the psychological and philosophical impact they have had and still have on generations of readers, young and old, Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and secular. Indeed Potok's readership is of the greatest possible variety and diversity.

To account for this worldwide impact is not easy. It is manifestly true that, from a structural, narrative point of view, they are not particularly complicated (unlike several novels by some of the American Jewish writers mentioned earlier), nor is Potok's style in any way exotic or difficult; on the contrary, there is always a recognizable basic story line, with a resolution of conflict at the end, and the style is, on the whole, simple and accessible. But these obvious literary features, characteristic of most bestsellers, cannot fully account for the immense popularity of his work that, content-wise, is far from simple, superficial or sentimental.

An explanation in terms of the psychology of Carl Jung may provide an answer: Potok's characters, situations and symbols or associations are thoroughly archetypal or universal; they draw on the collective experience of the entire human species, and are therefore basically relevant to all cultures. Clearly, readers of all kinds and persuasions can identify with the archetypal search for one's identity or 'roots', together with finding one's place in the world and giving some sort of meaning to it. Potok has succeeded in depicting this questpattern, involving a journey from innocence into experience, in a particularly concrete, lively, highly visual way that evidently lends itself to 'translation' into universal experience.

Moreover, with the exception of the most recent fiction, all Potok's novels end on an affirmative note, ranging from almost unbound optimism in the first two novels to a more qualified form in the later ones. This positive attitude derives in part from the fact that Potok's novels are decidedly American, so that his protagonists to varying degrees share in the ethos of the American Dream, something of worldwide appeal. In part this optimism (as Potok has himself pointed out) is inherent in the Jewish tradition of philosophical idealism: 'in the world it may seem that life is without meaning, and perhaps it is, but it is the task of mankind to give meaning to it.' As S. Lillian Kremer, one of the most perceptive of Potok critics, has convincingly shown (1989), his fictional heroes aspire, as the novelist himself does in Wanderings, 'to rebuild ... [Judaism's] core from the treasures of our past, fuse it with the best in secularism, and create a new philosophy, a new literature, a new world of Jewish art, a new community, and take seriously the meaning of the word emancipation.' Hence Potok's emphasis throughout his work on a restoration through renewal of Judaism in America and Israel.

According to Potok, American Judaism mirrors in microcosm the tensions not only in the Western world - but by extension within any civilization - of finding a balance between the values of the past and the achievements of the present. Potok is fond of quoting James Joyce's remark (in answer to the question why Joyce always wrote about Dublin) to the effect that 'if I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities in the world,' since '[i]n the particular is contained the universal.' In Potok's work Brooklyn Judaism in all its forms is the central metaphor in Potok's work through whose prism the universal search for identity and meaning in the modern world is reflected.

Moreover, this quest for identity and authenticity has been dramatically accentuated in our century by World War II and in particular by the Holocaust and the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These unprecedented atrocities require a radical review of the human predicament. Indeed, the traumatic aftermath of these events, particularly of the Holocaust, overshadows all of Potok's works. He is not only concerned with its devastating after-effects on his characters, but at the same time with what theologians and philosophers call the problem of Divine Providence or theodicy, centering on the unanswerable question of how God can allow the existence of physical and moral evil in a world supposedly created by Him. The question can be illustrated, for instance, by the case of Levi Abramovich in one of Potok's early, little-known, short stories (published in the same year as The Chosen) called 'The Dark Place Inside', who collapses when, sixteen years after having himself narrowly escaped a Nazi mass shooting, his murdered wife's watch is returned to him. This seemingly insignificant event provokes Levi into a dispute with God, echoing Job, another righteous sufferer:

Master of the Universe ... if You are truly real, then You are powerless and cruel. If
You are able to prevent evil but are unwilling, You are cruel. If You are willing to
prevent evil but are not able, then You are without power. And if you are able and
willing, why then is there evil?

He bitterly concludes that God 'no longer merits consideration'. The theodicean question is also raised in Potok's first novel, The Chosen, in which the pious Rabbi Saunders, after having been informed of some of the gruesome details of the Holocaust, exclaims: 'Master of the Universe, how do You permit such a thing to happen?' although he adds that we should accept God's will under all circumstances. In The Gift of Asher Lev the protagonist's wife (who has been in hiding during the war years and whose whole family has been killed in concentration camps) wonders: 'Can God have a plan? That is what I always thought when I was in that secluded apartment in Paris. That God had a plan, a great plan.' And Asher Lev himself rebels against God, the Master of the Universe, for allowing the death of his good friend, Lucien Lacamp, a righteous 'goy', in a bomb attack on a Jewish restaurant in Paris.

In The Trope Teacher the theodicean question is reduced to its most pregnant, minimalist, yiddish form: 'varoom' ('why'), repeated more than ten times throughout the ghostly story: why did Auschwitz exist and why did the Allied forces arrive too late; why does the protagonist's wife have to die and why did his student have to commit suicide; why do massacres take place in the Balkans or in Africa? Similarly in The Canal the protagonist bluntly raises the overwhelming question: 'What has God to do with Auschwitz? Even Satan doesn't live in Auschwitz'. After having visited that 'black hole in history' himself in the fall of 1992 Potok has been quoted as saying that Auschwitz is the place where God never was. Cultural confrontation and philosophical questioning, then, are Potok's major thematic preoccupations, to which must be added his abiding interest in the psychology of human relationships, particularly between fathers and sons, teachers and students, and among young men.

In almost all of Potok's novels father-son relationships are central to our understanding of the various conflicts that occur. It is the task of the fathers to pass on the Jewish heritage to their obedient sons. Critics have pointed out that the stress put on the authority of the father parallels a similar stress in traditional, patriarchal Judaism on God as King, Judge, and Father; hence the high level of respect, based on mutual love, that the sons display towards their fathers. Although the relationship may be vitiated by rebellion against the father, as is the case with Danny Saunders in The Chosen, or even more strongly in the two Asher Lev novels, this never results in a purely negative presentation of the father nor does it entail a final breach of family ties.

Equally important is the vital part played by teachers or tutors, either at the yeshiva or at the university level, all of whom take their profession very seriously; in their role as substitute fathers they act as mentors to the educational, psychological and spiritual requirements of their bright students, whose further course of study as well as their personal development is thereby greatly influenced. Examples are the tolerant scholar Abraham Gordon in The Promise, who is deeply responsible for Reuven Malter's intellectual progress, Rav Sharfman in In the Beginning, who strongly supports David Lurie's studies in modern biblical scholarship, or the exemplary teacher Jakob Keter (modeled on the great scholar Gershom Scholem) who will guide Arthur Gershon further into the mysteries of the Cabala. In the case of Asher Lev it is his unorthodox art teacher, Jakob Kahn, who strongly supports him in becoming an artist.

In all the novels mentioned we also encounter a pattern of intense, supportive friendship between two highly sensitive, studious and talented young men, often from different religious or educational backgrounds, both reacting to their upbringing and keen to discover the world for themselves. They are always skillfully set off against each other, thereby allowing the author to present opposite viewpoints from within a particular cultural conflict: such pairs are, for instance, Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter in the first two novels, or Gershon Loran and Arthur Leiden in he Book of Lights. This emphasis on human relationships no doubt adds to the emotional impact of Potok's novels on his readers.

So far this critical essay has been mainly, though not exclusively, concerned with Potok's world in terms of subject-matter. It remains to add a few remarks on its narrative technique and style, particularly since these have received blame as well as praise. As to technique we can clearly observe an increase of narrative complexity: from fairly straightforward, thinly-disguised authorial narration in the earlier novels, with much information told rather than shown, to more complex forms of story-telling and character presentation in the later ones, starting with The Book of Lights. These forms include the deft use of extended flashbacks, often narrated in the so-called dramatic present in order to heighten their impact, the vivid presentation of apparitions and visions, and the employment of more distinct free-indirect speech patterns approaching a stream of consciousness presentation of inner thought and emotions, as is the case in I Am The Clay and especially in The Canal.

Several critics have taken exception to Potok's style, which they consider too simple and even unnatural in its presentation of dialogues; they also complain of the lack of irony and humor in the novels and of an absence of sophisticated language games in them. This kind of criticism seems off the mark because it fails to accept the novels on their own terms and in the light of what the author has clearly set out to do. It has never been Potok's aim to create true-to-life characters (however realistic they may appear), flawless plots and mimetic dialogues but (as argued above) to present the emotional, intellectual and moral impact of cultural conflict, as well as philosophical questioning, on his characters. In order to counterpoint the complexity of his themes Potok always strives for maximal simplicity (which is, in fact, the result of a great deal of rewriting) and to reach the point where language is at its most communicative. In his most recent writings, which confront perplexing contemporary issues, this has even resulted in a kind of stylistic minimalism, a spareness of language, that - to use Ezra Pound's phrase - is 'nearer the bone' and therefore all the more effective than it might otherwise be.

Finally, however difficult it may be to categorize Potok's work, one thing is certain: it belongs to the mainstream of American fiction where it has earned its own distinctive place, next to Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage Ernest Hemingway's early work (In Our Time and Farewell to Arms), the U.S.A. trilogy of John Dos Passos (whose technique of using newspaper montages to present socio-political events Potok has borrowed to advantage), William Faulkner and Saul Bellow, to mention just a few formative influences. Potok is deeply resistant to being labeled a Jewish or (even more so) an ethnic writer since such labels are essentially reductive. He prefers to be thought of as an American writer with his own subject and territory: American Judaism, especially of the rabbinical tradition, as it confronts the twentieth century. A final quotation may fittingly and pointedly sum up Potok's view of his own writing:

I advocate nothing in my fiction: I look, I absorb. I gaze into my own mirror, I write.
That is all I know to do on earth, and all I want to know.

Webmaster's note: This essay has been included in the website at the request of the Author. The webmaster has copied the original publication using an Optical Scanner making corrections using an a Spell Checker with an American Dictionary. Any errors that have been introduced into the text as a result of this process are regretted and will be eagerly corrected if pointed out.--WMA

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