Response Interview With Chaim Potok
Seattle Pacific University
Interviewer: Jennifer Gilnett
Chaim Potok spoke at Seattle Pacific University on October 29, 1997. Thefollowing interview was conducted by SPU's institutional publication,Response, prior to Potok's visit.
Response: Many of your writings deal with characters who are "comingof age." Why has that been such an important theme for you?
Potok: I think that those are the ages where individuals from any given culture are profoundly affected by ideas that might come to them fromother cultures. Those are the vulnerable ages.
Response: How well do you think American higher education today isassisting students in this formative time of their lives?
Potok: I teach at an Ivy League school and I doubt that's representativeof what is going on generally in the United States. My impression is thatin many areas universities are wanting. And it's very difficult topinpoint exactly what it is that's going wrong, why and where. I think alot of people are quite concerned, and rightly so, and are attempting toreevaluate the educational process.
Response: In the courses you teach, what are some of the questionsthat students are asking today?
Potok: Universal questions like: Who am I? What do I owe my community? What am I learning about my past? What am I preparing to give to the future? What sort of commitments am I going to make? Students are involved in the search for meaning. They're very concerned about what place they're going to find in this culture in the next century -- what the real world is going to be like for them.
Response: At Seattle Pacific, we use your novels The Chosen and MyName is Asher Lev in our freshman core classes. What attitudes do you hopethat we would bring to an exploration of your works?
Potok: An openness to discuss all sorts of ideas. The conviction that no idea should be foreign to us. A willingness to debate without fear ofconsequences. At the same time, an acknowledgment that, as a civilization,in the end there have to be limitations; there have to be borders; therehas to be some measure of what most of us will agree is the deviant in ourculture. There has to be some way of living a day-to-day life in spite ofthe fact that the discussion remains fluid.
I think that's the fundamental purpose of the university: to teach the student how to create a balance between an ongoing, fluid discussion about the nature of a culture, and the reality that when the student wakes up Monday morning he or she has to commit himself or herself to something. It's one thing to discuss; it's another thing to live.
Response: That's reminiscent of the character Danny Saunders in your book The Chosen. Here is someone steeped in both religious readings and psychoanalytic theory. His efforts to reconcile the two push him to adeeper understanding of himself and the world, don't they?
Potok: Yes, I think that really can happen -- and that would be the ideal for me. And you know, you don't have to be overly brilliant to achievethat sort of understanding. The character Asher Lev isn't especially smartacademically. He's gifted as an artist. But, he certainly doesn't havesignificant academic prowess. Not all kids are geniuses at the level ofDanny Saunders. All of us can achieve this at our own level, if properlydirected.
It's important to confront ideas from outside our cultures andsomehow come to grips with them and not be overwhelmed by them. The best way for that to happen is to be firmly grounded in whatever culture youcome from so that you confront the world from a base of knowledge andcommitment, rather than from a base of ignorance.
Response: In My Name is Asher Lev, you write that "one man is nobetter than another because he's a doctor while the other is a shoemaker.One is no better than the other because he's a lawyer while the other's apainter. A life is measured by how it is lived for the sake of heaven."What does it mean to live a life for the sake of heaven?
Potok: That's a very strong strain of thought in Judaism, and my guess is in Christianity as well. There's this great Hasidic story of a shepherdwho came to the synagogue on the Day of Atonement and couldn't read theprayers. And the Hasidic master told him to do whatever it was that hecould do the best. And the shepherd whistled. And the Hasidic master saidto his followers, who were sort of aghast at this, that that whistle meantmore to God than all their prayers together, because that whistle reallycame from the very soul of that shepherd. It's the depth of a life lived.That's what touches the transcendent. And everybody's capable of that.
Response: The characters in your books often suffer real trauma in course of their lives. And that seems to bring on a reckoning, a sense of calling to use their individual gifts in the culture. What role do you thinksuffering has for us as people?
Potok: If we live, we're going to suffer sooner or later -- especially in this century. It's inconceivable to me that anybody could have livedthrough any significant part of this century and not encountered majortrauma of one kind or another. It makes little difference where you'refrom or what your background is. And sooner or later we have to come toterms with that suffering. It affects our lives and our commitments inprofound ways.
Response: For the characters in your books, one way of expressingthemselves is through art. Do you see this as something that's becominglost in a technological culture?
Potok: I don't think it's going to become lost because I think the hunger for art is fundamental to human expression. It's one of the essentialmeans of human communication. It's one of the fundamental ways that wegive meaning to our existence. It can be put on the back burner for awhile by benighted individuals and by technology, although peoplesophisticated about technology know that technology, too, has itsaesthetics. It's not anything we can set aside.
Response: In Davita's Harp, the character Jacob Daws said that "awriter is a strange instrument of our species, a harp of sorts, finelytuned to the dark contradictions of life." Would you agree with thatdescription of your vocation?
Potok: Oh, yes, oh yes. I do, indeed, believe that. It's through thewriter that the world and its winds are heard. But, remember that the harpis an instrument and the winds that go through it, that hit it, are notthe same as the music or winds that come from it. Transformations takeplace as a result of the contact with the harp.
The harp is capable of angelic music and also capable of some very heavy strumming. And I think it's the fundamental responsibility of a writer to deal with both the angelic and the darkness. No one else is going to do it. The politician sure isn't going to do it.
Response: I think of Asher Lev's choice to paint the crucifixion asa metaphor for the pain experienced by his parents. As a Jewish writer,what kind of response did you receive within your own culture about thischoice?
Potok: It was not received well at all. The echoes of it continue to this day. I paid a high price for that book. But that's the job of a writer.You pay the price, but you have to be honest. If you're not, no one'sgoing to pay any attention to you. And I made that decision when I was 16,17 years old: that I would do it to the best of my ability. And I've beenpaying the price ever since. I mean I've paid other prices since the AsherLev book, but that was a particularly steep price.
Response: The religious establishment is a figure of authority inmany of your writings. How have you been affected as a writer who writesabout questions of faith within a religious subculture where art may notbe valued?
Potok: For me, in my culture, it was an uphill struggle. The only worse kind of struggle that one can envisage is if one enters into the doing ofart -- painting, sculpture and so on. There is still significant respectfor the word in Judaism, so that if you're sitting and writing, andif you're standing before a canvas trying to make pictures. And that's ofcourse a problem that Asher Lev had.
Response: There is a line in My Name is Asher Lev: "The master ofthe universe gives us glimpses, only glimpses. It is for us to open oureyes wide." Do you think that as human beings we tend to squint at therealities around us rather than keep our eyes wide open?
Potok: Actually, squinting gives you a sharper image than just keeping your eyes wide. But we tend to blink and cut pieces of the world out, or we tend to turn away from them. Of things we don't understand, or thatfrighten us, or bore us, we do get only glimpses.
We go about creating constructs or "maps" of reality and mostly what we'remaking maps of are these glimpses. We are map-making animals, meaning-making creatures. That may very well be the human partnership with the universe and with God -- to make maps out of glimpses. Certainly we cannot see the universe the way God sees it.
Response: Where do you see the intersection of those "maps" todaybetween the Christian and the Jewish cultures in America?
Potok: Well, connections can be made along very broad lines. In many ways, we speak the same language of meaning, of response to mystery. The dimension of the spirit is what we try to acknowledge, to tap into, andmake sense out of. Science is interested, and rightly so, in particles, inthe world of physics, and the world of nature, and the world of matter.Our commitment is to another realm, the realm that cannot be measured andquantified.
Because both Judaism and Christianity come from the same mountain and the same city ultimately, we can pretty much speak the same language once we get past the ideological sparring about origins and beginnings. And that's becoming increasingly invaluable in the world in which we live, which is more and more technological, and more and more materialistic, and more and more hedonistic.
Response: What do you think is the most important question we should be asking for the future in a community like Seattle Pacific?
Potok: Well, the fundamental theme that we have to address for the next century is how to create thinking, moral beings in the face of what will most definitely be a supreme technological age.
I think people are asking this question in the deepest recesses of their being. I think that what they want, whether they can articulate it with an unremitting expansion of technology. I think everyone is profoundly concerned about what sorts of commitments we make in a society where values have been rendered virtually entirely relativistic and instrumentalist by the findings of science and by the technologies that we've created.
Response: Is that what you meant in The Gift of Asher Lev where you said, "And without God, what is man? Everyone needs the help of someone to create the work of creation that is never truly created."
Potok: Exactly right.
Let me know if you have any questions or if I can help in any other way.
Jennifer GilnettResponse Editor
Office of University Communications
Seattle Pacific University
Telephone and Voice Mail: 206/281-2974