On Potok

by | Nov 22, 2013 | Book Reviews

Chaim Potok: Confronting Modernity
Through the Lens of Tradition
Daniel Walden, Editor
The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013
184 pages

Chaim Potok, who died in 2002, shared two things with your reviewer. We both graduated with Bachelor-of-Arts degrees in literature in 1950 and we both had our minds opened to literature by Evelyn Waugh (among others). He was smitten by Brideshead Revisited; I by A Handful of Dust. We both studied James Joyce, particularly A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Potok went on to join the pantheon of great American writers, and more particularly of great American Jewish writers.

Daniel Walden, professor emeritus of American Studies, English, and Comparative Literature at Pennsylvania State University was the founder and longtime editor of the journal, Studies in American Jewish Literature. We both received our Masters degrees in literature at Columbia University, but our paths never crossed until recently. Readers of this column know that this reviewer is generally untroubled by bouts of humility, but Professor Walden has assembled essays from such a distinguished group of scholars that any reader should be a bit intimidated.

Still, for any fan of Chaim Potok, especially one who has read most of his novels decades ago, this collection is as much a joy as it is a challenge. Walden and his contributors made me recall that, whereas Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth captured and ruminated on the conflicts engendered by Jews fitting and not fitting into the fabric of American culture, Potok’s early works such as The Chosen and The Promise did the same—but within the context of Judaism alone. This is one reason Potok seems to be considered a kind of “outlier” among Jewish American authors.

The first half of the book is a significant body of criticism of Potok’s novels, including some of his later and less well-known works, providing a review for those who may be a bit rusty on Potok— as well as the basis for scholarly and critical discussion. The second half consists of more personal considerations, notably a wonderful essay by Potok’s widow, Adena Potok, who in addition to her own career as a psychiatric social worker was his “first reader” until his death in 2002.

Herman Harold (Chaim Tzvi in Hebrew) Potok was born in 1929 in The Bronx, N.Y. (We were chronological, geographic, and name contemporaries and I have wondered my entire life what it was in the name Harold, a Middle English name derived from the Scandinavian, that fascinated Jewish mothers in the Bronx at that time.) His father was a Belzer Hasid and his mother descended from the Hasidic Ryzner line. A yeshiva borcher from childhood through rabbinic ordination, Potok was enamored of painting until Orthodox concerns with idolatry forced him to seek other intellectual pursuits. Brought up in the tight Jewish world of the Bronx, he emerged blinking in the powerful light of what he termed “Western secular humanism.” One could argue that this was a western extension of the European Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment movement in Europe of the late 18th to late 19th centuries inspired by Moses Mendelssohn. It could be further argued that there was a line of connection going back to writers like Sholom Asch, who emigrated to America and whose novels, such as East River, foreshadowed the work of E.L. Doctorow, Herman Wouk, as well as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud.

Chaim Potok concludes with the reprint of an address by Potok himself in 1982. In it he acknowledges that “the Eastern side of our planet has some overlap with our side, but at the heart of things, I think the two sides of the planet really think the world structures reality in ways quite different, one from the other.” The new world, only about 300 years old, begins with the Enlightenment, thus our “civilization makes no appeal to the supernatural.” No wonder Potok has been described as a “Zwischenmensch,” a “between person,” and not only Jews, but Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists have taken to his works as they struggle to live in constant tension with tradition and daily reality.

Re-reading one’s favorite books is more and more difficult as we are bombarded with a surfeit of new publications on our Kindles, Nooks, or good old paper. However, re-reading the perennially relevant Chaim Potok is what your reviewer has in his bucket, and Daniel Weldon’s Chaim Potok is an invaluable guide to that task.