Radio Curious Interview With Chaim Potok

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Radio CuriousFebruary, 1997with Barry VogelWelcome to Radio Curious, interviews with those who wonder about. I'm Barry Vogel. Chaim Potok, author of The Chosen, The Gift of Asher Lev, Davita's Harp, and many other novels, has now chronicled the life of a Russian Jewish family in a new book entitled The Gates of November. This true story of the Slepak family, Solomon Slepak, his son Valodya, and daughter-in-law Masha spans 100 years. Beginning with Solomon's childhood at the turn of the century and his escape to America, it eventually describes Valodya and Masha's life after they apply, in 1968, for an exit visa to leave Russia. I spoke with Chaim Potok from his home in Philadelphia and asked him what drew him to trace the Slepak family chronicles.

POTOK: It's a likely story with a number of bumps and ups and downs. I began to hear about the Slepaks in the 1970s and my wife and I decided to go to the Soviet Union. We were there in 1985 and we met them in Moscow. They had recently come back from exile in a tiny village near the border of Mongolia. The chemistry was perfect among the four of us; we just hit it off right.

VOGEL: The characterization in the prologue to your book of how you met with them is just so precious. I wonder if you could tell us briefly about that.

POTOK: Well, we met them in an apartment in Moscow. He didn't even know who we were because when my wife called them she didn't identify us. That's not the sort of thing you do if you're on the telephone. In the course of the evening, he sort of turned to me and asked me if I knew the writer Chaim Potok because he knew Chaim Potok lived somewhere in the Philadelphia area and he knew that we were from the Philadelphia area. So I said, "Yes, I'm the writer." He was rather flustered. He thought that somehow I hadn't understood his question. So he asked me again, did I know the writer Chaim Potok. And I said, "Yes, I'mthe writer Chaim Potok." And I pulled out one of those business cards that I had been urged to have made up and carry along with me to the Soviet Union. When he saw my name on the business card, I was suddenly a person to him, and it was rather a warm and extraordinary meeting of four strangers who were suddenly very close to one another. When we left them that evening, we were sure we'd never see them again, and they were sure they'd never get out of the Soviet Union. A couple years or so later, they were out! And my agent wondered one evening over dinner in New York if I knew anybody who might be interested in writing their story. Then I said, "Well, what is their story?" And he said there was a tape that Valodya Slepak had made about his story. It had been translated by his son. I listened to it and there was an interesting story there. I thought, well, spend a year or so writing his story. There were still many, many individuals trying to get out of the Soviet Union who couldn't. What I would write would be, perhaps, of help in the growing body of literature protest that was making an attempt to get these people out. I thought, well, give it a year and so on, and I'd get back to my own work. As I started to write, the Soviet Union opened its doors to these individuals and suddenly there was no issue--it was gone. And I thought, So's the book. The book is gone. Then I thought I'd write a more general book about the Soviet Union and dissident movements of the Soviet Union, and what that was all about. And suddenly there was no Soviet Union. That book was gone. Then I thought what I would do was write a history of the Jews in Russia and of the Soviet Union, the whole Bolshevik movement and the participation of Jews and non-Jews in it, try to track the growth of the dissident movement and try to understand the causes for the incredible sudden implosion of one of the mightiest empires the world has ever seen and the extent to which these dissidents played a role in this implosion. Could I track one family, a microcosm, and say that the microcosm is somehow representative of things that were going on in a macrocosm among tens and tens of thousands of families at the same time? If that was indeed the case, then one might understand, more easily, the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

VOGEL: In doing that, did you find elements of yourself in the characters you wrote about: Valodya, and Solomon, or some of the other people?

POTOK: Not really, other than the notion of one generation having significant quarrels with another. I have to say that this was a very different world from the world in which I grew up.

VOGEL: Preparing this book, I wonder how it was different for you than it was in the preparation of The Chosen or The Promise, or Davita's Harp?

POTOK: Well, this book takes the father-son relationship from an altogether and different perspective. It's an entirely secular world. And here you have the same father-son tension arising. The difference, of course, was that this was non-fiction. In fiction, when you come to the end of your facts, you can then use your imagination to fill it in. That's where things really get exciting, when you can use the imagination at the end of the trail of facts. But here, when I come to the end of a trail of facts, I say so. And I don't augment it any way. This is a work of non-fiction.

VOGEL: In The Chosen, for instance, how much of that is a revelation of your childhood?

POTOK: What I write about is very much my world, but that's fairly typical of modern literature. The writer writing about a certain world, very often will use elements of her or his own experience, which he or she then transforms for the sake of fiction. But the starting point is a world that is very familiar to the writer.

VOGEL: Where is that world in your life in Davita's Harp?

POTOK: That's my wife's world. That was my wife's experience, especially the losing of the prize at the end. That was her experience.

VOGEL: Do you still have the door harp?

POTOK: Oh yes, indeed. We have two of them, as a matter of fact.

VOGEL: In the introduction to The Gates of November, you pose two questions that the book seeks to answer. First, what conditions will drive individuals, living in comfort, at the very summit of a political system, suddenly to turn against that system and bring ruin down on their lives? And second, can a single family serve as a microcosm that might shed light on what ultimately happened to all the peoples of the Soviet Union?

POTOK: Everybody has a map, a model of the world in that space between our ears as formed generally in the early years and during the teens. Everything that happens to us is filtered through that model, that construct, that map, that paradigm. In the pre-modern world, that model remained quite firm, quite static all through one's life. In the modern world, the tendency is for that model to undergo significant transformation, beginning in the teens--late teens, and often, once again, in later life, in the forties and so on. When you live in a hermetically sealed system, such as the Soviet Union was, that map, that model between the ears is formed for you by the culture in which you live. And it's very difficult for it to be altered. The question I set for myself was, here were individuals at the very top of their culture, of their society, and in spite of the fact that they were the elite of that society, that map between the ears changed. How did it change? What were the forces of change? And the change consists of two elements. One, breaking the map, and two, a new map that takes its place. What broke the map? And how did the new map get itself constructed? That was the essential question.

VOGEL: I wonder if, in fact, some of the elements of the map were actually created by Solomon in Valodya's eyes, because, as I see it, Solomon returned to Russia because he wanted to live out his ideals. Valodya applied for an exit visa because he wanted to live out his ideals.

POTOK: Well, that's later, the application for the exit visa. The application for the exit visa comes in the wake of the breaking of the old map and the construction of the new map. That's what I set myself as a goal to understand. Clearly, Valodya's map was constructed for him by his father and by the Soviet state. What changed it?

VOGEL: What changed it?

POTOK: Well, that's what the book explores. The only way that you can change, I think, a map constructed in a hermetically sealed civilization, is if it becomes internally inconsistent. If the system itself seems to be self-contradictory and those self-contradictory moments are charted very carefully in this book. One being the doctor's plot. The other being Khrushchev's speech in 1956 against Stalin. And the slow building of internal inconsistencies that rendered the map a broken model inside Valodya's head. Then came the problem of what replaces the model, and in fascinating fashion, the conduits of that replacing was a little box called a radio which he and his few science friends altered to make into a short wave radio. It was a radio you could buy anywhere in the Soviet Union, but it received only the local broadcast. They changed its innards, as it were, it's coils and its capacitors so that they could now receive broadcasts from The Voice of America and Radio Liberty, Russian language broadcasts, and the BBC, and the armed forces network, and the Voice of Israel. Slowly, over a period of many, many years, alternate maps began to form inside the heads of Valodya and Masha Slepak, consisting of the information that they were getting over this radio.

VOGEL: Was this a conscious search on their part, or were they feeling out for some security and for some intellectual stimulation, or something else?

POTOK: Once that original map began to crack, they made a conscious effort to make a connection to the outside world to see if somehow the outside world might not offer them a different picture of life. They began to feel that what they were getting inside their own world was not the truth, certainly not a truth they could be comfortable with.

VOGEL: And the crack, as you say, and the subsequent rupture began with the doctor's plot and Khrushchev's speech about Stalin?

POTOK: That is correct. The first major crack in their lives started with the doctor's plot, the tirade against Jews in the Soviet press. The issue with regard to the doctor's plot was that many of the Jewish doctors who were accused and arrested for attempting to poison the upper eschelon of Soviet leadership. Many of those doctors were colleagues of Masha Slepak, Valodya's wife. She herself was a physician who had studied with some of those doctors; they were her colleagues, and she knew they were innocent. She knew this thing was simply inconceivable. It's one thing when something is happening and you're distanced from it. It's another thing entirely when it's happening, you're right in the middle of it, and you know the people involved; you know how absurd the thing is.

VOGEL: Sure. But she herself was not accused.

POTOK: She was not accused, but she was very close to those who were. And when she told Valodya about this, and the two of them confronted the old man, Valodya's father about this, he told them it's worth jailing a thousand people, even if 999 of them were innocent if they find the one who was guilty. It's still worth jailing the thousand. At that point, he and Valodya had an enormous row, and that was the first of many quarrels that they had. It was that doctor's plot, which is what that issue has come to be called--the arrest of the doctors that began to take place at then end of 1952 and continued early into 1953 and then came to an end when Stalin died in March, 1953, and very soon afterwards--in April--the doctors who had been arrested were all freed and the announcement came that the arrest was illegal.

VOGEL: Why were the Russians and the KGB so hostile to the Jewish people, and subsequently to the refuseniks and the dissidents?

POTOK: Well, much of this goes back to the very beginnings of Russian history. Sometime around the year 900 or so, the tribes that had come down from the North, which are generally called the Rus tribes, settled originally around Kiev. That tribe adopted a Greek Christianity which became Russian Christianity, Byzantine Christianity. Adopting it, they also adopted the attitude of Byzantine Christianity or Greek Christianity toward the Jews, which was to say the very least, hostile. The Jews were regarded as "the eternal other," a demonic people whose essential purpose was to corrupt and destroy Christendom. That pure, unalloyed anti-Semitism became part of the very fabric of Russian culture. Now it was, to some extent, part of the fabric of western culture as well, except the west had two ameliorating experiences that thinned out that attitude toward the Jew, it attenuated it. One was the Renaissance and the other was the Reformation, which left a spectrum of attitudes toward the Jew in western culture, but Russian never experienced the Renaissance and Russia never experienced the Reformation. So when the Kievan Rus disintegrated as a state, sometime in the 1200-1300 under the onslaught of the Mongols and then the next state became the Russian or Muscovite state, they simply inherited that culture, and it thrived all the way through. There were no Jews in Russia until about 1795-1796 when Russia conquered parts of Poland and inherited, suddenly, half a million or more Jews, which, about a century or more later, ended up being closer to five million. They never knew what to do with their Jews. The attitude toward the Jews was they were simply a horrific people and we wish they would just go away. Now with the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, this softened considerably, and remained so for about 10-15 years. Then with Stalin, especially toward the end of Stalin's life, that old Russian attitude toward the Jew began to surface and anti-Semitism became very much a part of the Soviet agenda. It came boiling to the surface with the doctor's plot, that old medieval notion of the Jew as poison. And Masha found herself right in the middle of this because she herself was a doctor.

VOGEL: Do you feel that the shaping of Solomon's life and the softening, as you describe it, under Lenin's time had an effect on Solomon's remaining the old Bolshevik to the end and standing by the government, turning his back on his son when he said, "I want an exit visa"?

POTOK: Oh yes. Solomon was one of the fairly small handful of Jews, about 2000 indeed, who were active Bolsheviks in a party of about 100,000 or more who really felt that the Bolshevik dream was to improve mankind. When they became part of the revolution, they became committed dreamers, par excellence, feeling that the Bolshevik dream was the only way, once and for all, to change the world. You uprooted the old aristocracy. You uprooted the old corrupt bourgeoisie, and in its place you put a regime, a world, run by common, ordinary people. And they hoped that this new world would once and for all do away with anti-Semitism. And indeed, in the early years of the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin could not be called an anti-Semite in any ordinary sense of the term. He simply felt that the Bolshevik was a Bolshevik, with no ties to any particular group. And the early Jewish Bolsheviks were totally committed to the dream of the revolution. It was later that that dream became corrupted, especially during the time of Stalin. Old style anti-Semitism simply came back to the surface of the Russian world.

VOGEL: Let me take a moment and say I'm talking with Chaim Potok from his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania about his new book entitled The Gates of November: The Chronicles of the Slepak Family. You're listening to Radio Curious, I'm Barry Vogel. Chaim, in the luck, if luck is the right word, is that what you feel saved Solomon's life so many times from being executed shortly after he returned to Russian in 1918 and throughout his life in his many different involvements? Or was there a closer connection that he had that sustained himself with the Soviet government?

POTOK: Well, that's one of the ongoing mysteries throughout the book that I try to explore. And indeed, I'm still trying to find out how he escaped all those purges; everyone around him was picked up. He was certainly a visible entity. He was Deputy Head of the Foreign Desk of Tass. He was preparing briefing books for Stalin and the members of the Politburo. All around him people were being picked up and shot. A number of people inside Tass preferred to shoot themselves rather than be arrested. And he somehow alluded arrest. And I'm not sure how that happened, and neither is anyone in the family, certain as to how that happened. There's all kinds of conjectures. He may have slipped through the bureaucratic cracks, but for that to happen over and over again is, to say the least, unlikely. He may have been lucky, as you put it, but nobody was really that lucky. He may have had something on somebody. We're not sure. And that's what I say in the end; we're not sure. I'm still trying to get into his KGB files. So far they're still closed.

VOGEL: I'd like to ask you, as we come to the close of our program, to read the section of your book where the Slepak's life was transformed.

POTOK: Well, this part takes place after years of listening to the Voice of America, after years of listening to Voice of Israel, BBC, Radio Liberty, Armed Forces Network. After the doctor's plot, after Khrushchev's speech in 1956, after the map has changed, and there's a moment where they have to make a decision about what to do with their lives.

VOGEL: Did they realize that moment was going to be there that day? Maybe you should answer that by reading the passage.

POTOK: The moment took place in 1968, December 25th, in a Moscow apartment. Friends of theirs, they had a small circle of friends they were a part of, that they were a part of--Valodya and Masha, and that circle met and they met with number of people leaving for Israel soon. Especially one individual who's going the next day. And that individual had told him that if they were to give him their family data, he would take that with him to Israel and the process would begin for getting them exit visas. They knew that once they gave that data and the Israelis responded, the KGB would monitor their mail and find out, and their lives would never be the same again. Valodya Slepak was in a top position as a scientist. He was one of those responsible for the air defense system of the Soviet Union. And Masha Slepak as a leading physician in one of the top hospitals in Moscow. Their lives would never be the same again. Valodya Slepak had security clearance just below those members of the Politburo, just below Stalin.

VOGEL: And he lost of all of that security.

POTOK: Of course he did.

VOGEL: Yeah.

POTOK. The passage is as follows: Now, in the Drabkin's apartment, the circle of friends talked with six people from Riga, among them a man named Mark Bloom in his late 20s who was not returning to Riga because he was unmarried and no family there. Instead he was to leave for Israel shortly via Vienna. Did anyone in the group wish to give him the personal data needed by the Israelis in order for them to send the official invitations that were necessary to get Soviet visa applications? Name, addresses, children, date of birth, names of parents, relatives in Israel. He would give the information to the Israelis who would then search for the relatives. In cases of the total absence of relatives, the Israeli authorities would look into the possibility of other arrangements. Members of the group began to write down the information. Valodya and Masha sat looking at each other It was late evening. The curtains were drawn against the winter gloom outside. Masha got to her feet and took Valodya's hand and they moved to a dark corner near a window and a desk, and stood with their backs to the others.Masha said quietly, "This is a special opportunity. Who knows when it may happen again? Are you ready to do it?"Valodya, lost in fearful hesitation, did not respond. Fighting back her apprehension about the consequences of their act upon their children, Masha said, "We must use this opportunity." And Valodya, after a brief silence, said, "Let's do it." And felt they had suddenly fallen into deep and icy waters.

VOGEL: Chaim Potok, I want to thank you very much for joining us at Radio Curious, but before we close, I'd like to ask you the question I ask all of my guests at the close of an interview, and that is: Can you tell us, very briefly, of an interesting book that you've read lately?

POTOK: The English Patient. And well, a number of interesting books, but that's quite a significant novel.

VOGEL: Chaim Potok, thank you very much for joining us on Radio Curious.

POTOK: You're very welcome.

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