Saturday, May 27, 2017

Chaim Potok: Two novels

Chaim Potok
The Chosen
The Promise 

One of the reasons I belong to several book discussion groups is that I get an opportunity to read and discuss works that I probably would not read on my own, either because I have never heard of the book or the author or because the book or author didn't sound interesting at that time.  I had heard of Chaim Potok but not in such a way as to suggest that I might be interested in reading him.

Several months ago,  Chaim Potok''s The Chosen was the selection of one of the discussion groups.  I was so impressed that I immediately borrowed the sequel, The Promise, from the library.  At the end of the year, one of the discussion groups always asks the same question: What new authors have impressed you the most this past year?  If that question were asked today, I would say Chaim Potok.

The comments about the two novels will be brief as I think I need to reread them to be able to stand back and view them somewhat objectively.

The place is Brooklyn and the time is during WWII.

The Chosen:
Reuven, the POV character, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family.  His father was a highly respected scholar and teacher.  Reuven was free to choose his life's work, and he decided to become a rabbi.

Danny grew up in an Hasidic household and his father was a rabbi with a devoted following.  Danny actually was groomed to become the leader after his father had either retired or died, but he had different ideas.

Reuven and Danny met through a baseball game in which Danny injured Reuven and almost cost him his vision in one eye.   They became close friends, in spite of  Danny's father who believed that the Hasidic Jews were the only true Jews and those who were not Hasidic were followers of Satan, or at least dupes working for Satan.   Another problem was that Reuven's father was an outspoken Zionist while Danny's father hated the Zionists because they wanted to set up a secular Israel, which went against the word of the Lord, as they interpreted it.

The Promise:
This novel takes place several years later.  Reuven and Danny are both well along in their struggle to achieve their goals.  Reuven is finishing up his studies to become a rabbi, in spite of opposition to him from one of his teachers.  The opposition comes primarily from a Hasidic rabbi who has survived the concentration camps and has emigrated to the US.  His experiences in the camp has only made him more intolerant of those who disagree with his views, and he works especially hard to block Reuven,  again partially because of Reuven's father and partially because he is terrified by the ways Reuven discusses and interprets the Torah, ways which Reuven learned from his father.

Danny is finishing up his course of study to become a  clinical psychologist and is now an intern at a psychiatric institution.  One of his patients is a young boy whom Reuven brought to him.  Reuven had met the boy through his friendship with the boy's cousin, Rachel.

The major problem for both is the struggle between the old ways and the new.  Reuven uses but does not accept completely the historic method of Talmudic exegesis,  just as Danny, while highly impressed with Freudian psychoanalytic techniques and theory, does not accept all of it.  Both select what they feel fits them and their unique situations.

The novels constitute a fascinating tale of two boys growing up in an environment  I know little about.  Both novels are filled with rich details regarding Jewish rituals, beliefs, joys, and sorrows.   One of the surprises, although it shouldn't have been, was the rupture between the Hasidim and all other Jews.  But, fundamentalists, regardless of their beliefs, are much alike, as Eric Hoffer points out in his book, The True Believer.   They alone have the Truth, and all who disagree are traitors or heretics and hated by God. 

Chaim Potok is now on my Search List, and I will be looking for more of his writings.


  1. nice synopsis... i've seen the author's name in the library, but haven't tried one of his books... they don't sound like they resemble Lawrence very much, but as they say, variety is the spice of life... next time i'm in the library, i'll look for one of Potok's books... tx for an intro to a new experience...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      Thank you for your kind words. I have now heard that his _My Name is Asher Lev_ is his best book. It will be the next one of his that I will read.

      Trivia: I just read that Potok decided to become a writer after reading Evelyn Waugh's _Brideshead Revisited_ at age 16. That's a favorite of mine which I have reread a number of times. I can see how it could influence Potok, not only to become a writer but in what his subject material might be.

  2. I had read The Chosen sometime in my teens, and then more or less forgotten it until my son was assigned to read it in high school. It seemed as good in middle age as it had in my teens. Having said that, I haven't gone out of my way to look up his other writings.

    1. George,

      I first read it recently, in my declining years, and was moved to read the sequel _The Promise_. I also intend to read more: the next one will probably be _My Name is Asher Lev_.

      Any particular reason why you didn't read any more by Potok?

    2. In my teens, I tended to read whatever was at hand; somehow The Chosen was at hand, the others weren't, and I wasn't that systematic in my reading. By the time I encountered it again, I usually had three or four books waiting to be read, indeed two or three partly read. Good through The Chosen is, it didn't compel me to make room for the others. Maybe I could take one on the next long airplane flight.

    3. George,

      I've had similar experiences: authors that I enjoyed but couldn't find anything available (before the day of Net that was) and then I forgot about them, and other authors and books were around.

  3. These books sound very worthwhile. I love novels about such ideas and conflicting even if I cannot entirely relate to the ideas and conflicts.

    Fundamentalists of all kinds are so difficult to deal with.

    1. Brian,

      From what I've heard, _My Name is Asher Lev_ is supposed to be his best book. It's about a young boy growing up in an Hasidic family but who is attracted to the world of art.

      Not being Jewish, I couldn't relate to the specific issues involved, but I certainly was able to recognize the narrow-minded attitudes of the fundamentalists. The Jewish version is the same as the Christian and the Islamic varieties: they and they alone have the Truth and there's no need to listen to anybody else. They are impervious to anything other than their own beliefs and delusions.

  4. I read these books one summer in the early seventies. I was mesmerized by Potok's prose and fascinated by my introduction into a culture very different than my own. More recently, only a couple of years ago, I returned to Potok by reading "My Name is Asher Lev". I was delighted to find that an even more moving book. As an added bonus I was able to attend a dramatic adaptation as well. Thanks for your insightful review of these fine novels.

    1. James,

      Thanks for your kind words. I've heard others comment very favorably on _My Name is Asher Lev_ also, so I'm looking forward to reading it.

  5. Hi Fred. I read the Chosen a couple of years ago and enjoyed it very much. Since then I have read a few other books by Potok. My favorite was called Old Men at Midnight which was a collection of short stories.

    The subject of fundamentalism is an interesting one. What is truth? What qualifies someone as a fundamentalist and who makes that qualification? Can one be a fundamentalist agnostic or atheist? If something is true is it fundamentalism to adhere to it? Or is it fundamentalism to believe in something that is false?

    If so, how does one acquire the authority required to know someone else's belief is false or "delusional"?

    Sorry, certain comments trigger a series of thoughts in my mind. I've always wondered about the term fundamentalist and what it means.

  6. Sharon,

    A fundamentalist is one who takes a literal interpretation of a holy book. Every word is true because it was dictated by the deity. If the book says the sun stood still, then the sun stood still, which is possible because the sun goes around the earth and not vice-versa. Therefore anyone who claims the earth goes around the sun is denying the word of God, a heretic who must be punished.

    God created the world in six days and all the animals in it, so evolution must be wrong when it claims it took millions of years to develop the various species. Geologic evidence indicates the earth is around 4 billion years old, whereas some have insisted, based on their study of the Bible, that the world is about six thousand years old, created on Oct. 3, 2004 BC. This is what fundamentalists believe.

    I accept evolution because there is considerable evidence to support it while the story of creation in Genesis has no evidence to support it, except for one book written by a group of people several thousand years ago. All peoples have a creation myth, all of which are supported by the claim that it was told to them by their deity.

    Talking about truth in general or as an abstract idea is fruitless, at least to me. Truth doesn't exist as an independent being. There is no such thing that one can point to as Truth. Truth is an quality that relates to a statement's closeness to reality.

    I'd rather discuss specific issues and their truth or falsity.

    1. Hi Fred,

      Thanks for your reply; I really appreciate it. I actually don't want to debate this issue because it's so touchy but since you shared why you believe in evolution, I'll share why I don't.

      I think that if something is true then fundamentalism doesn't matter. If something in its entirety is true than it is true and nothing else matters. The question is not is it likely or is it proven, or even understandable, but is it true. If it is true, how then should we act?

      I don't accept macro evolution because I see no evidence to support it.

      One, it contradicts the 2nd law of thermodynamics: that things are deconstructing and running down not becoming more complex and energizing. Thermodynamics is a law, not a theory, and evolution is a theory.

      Secondly, there is no tool that can accurately measure time of that magnitude. Carbon 14 dating does not date prior to (supposedly) 14000 years. Radiocarbon dating is error prone due to the high instance of contamination.

      And then there is the fossil record. Where is it? Where are the transitory fossils? I don't mean one or two artifacts based on a couple of bones that are largely guesswork. If everything evolved, there should be millions upon millions of fossils showing creatures in development: animals with part of an eye (although I don't know what use it would be) or part of an arm or leg.

      In fact, we should see these creatures running around now. There should be all sorts of animals currently in states of transition.

      Finally, how do you get something out of nothing, embue it with purpose and a sense of morals? Evolution doesn't answer these questions, but the Bible does. If we evolved, how did a sense of the supernatural evolve if it doesn't exist?

      Frankly, if God wanted to take a billion years to make the world, He could. If he wanted to create it in 6 seconds, He could. If He wanted to take six days...He's God, is He not?

      Just because someone believes in the absolute truth of the Bible does not make them a terrorist. If someone is a believer in the inerrancy of the Bible they would never become a terrorist. If you want to point out crimes committed in the name of God, you will have to point at people who don't believe or read the Bible, regardless of their belief claims. I know this because I read the Bible and can compare what the Bible says to their actions.

      I'm not sure I understand your last statement. Truth is eternal. Like laws of nature. And we all believe in truth. How could you and I disagree with each other if there was not a paradigm by which we each could compare the other's assertions?

      Sorry if I took your blog post in a different direction. Hopefully we can agree to disagree without hard feelings.

      Take care! :)

    2. Sharon,

      Yes, the issues are too many and too complex for debating here in a comments section, and I agree that we should agree to disagree and move on.

      "Old Men at Midnight" Thanks for the title. I'm a great fan of short stories, and I shall put this on my Search List.