Chaim Potok: Biography And Writings Essay, Research Paper
Chaim Potok, arguably the most powerful writer of modern Judaism, was born on February 17, 1929, in the Bronx of New York to Benjamin and Mollie Potok. At age 8, Chaim Potok showed talent in the realm of drawing and art. His father and teachers of the Talmud, a compilation of Jewish law, greatly discourage him from pursuing art. This was because it was considered nothing more than a waste at best and breaking the commandment ?thou shalt not make any graven image? at the worst. Eventually, he gave up his interest in art to pursue another, writing (Current Biography, 1983).
At the age of 14, Potok began to tire of simple childish fiction and sought to read more adult oriented books. At random, he chose the book Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. He was completely overwhelmed by the fact that such a seemingly real world could be created with words on paper. Potok knew from that time on that writing was what he wished to do. Anything he read from that time on he would he would carefully analyze to understand how to create fictitious worlds (Contemporary Authors, 1992).
His enthusiasm for writing was not met well with his parents or Talmudic teachers. His teachers were quite disappointed that Potok would devote his bright mind to the ?frivolous? nature of writing fiction. His mother told him, ?You want to be a writer? Fine. You be a brain surgeon, on the side [you will write stories].? Potok told in an interview with Studies in American Jewish Literature that he was quite angry with the way people reacted to his dream. Jewish tradition has always cast a very condescending view of fiction. He was quoted as saying ?Scholarship is what counted in the Jewish
tradition, Talmudic scholarship, not the product of imagination.? Today, many of his novels represent themes of religious values versus secular ones (Current Biography, 1983).
For the next five years he allocated much of his spare time to analyzing pieces of fiction. During his education as a major in English Literature, Potok eventually concluded that it would be extremely difficult creating fictitious literature in the orthodox atmosphere in which he was a part. After receiving a B. A. in English Literature, he became drawn to another sect of Judaism called Conservative Judaism. Conservative Judaism takes a more modern, Westernized, and historical approach to the study of Jewish literature and texts. Eventually he transferred his studies to a Conservative Judaism school where he could get a quality rabbinical education. This helped to strengthen his writing; however, he became sort of an outcast of the orthodox setting in which he grew up (Current Biography, 1983).
In 1954, Potok graduated from college and was ordained as a Conservative Rabbi. From 1955 to 1957 he served as a chaplain in the US army in Korea. The experiences he had there lead him to right his first novel. Although unpublished, it was the source of inspiration for the first five of his novels (Current Biography, 1983)
In 1965 he completed his doctorate in philosophy. In 1973, he and his family settled in Israel but moved back to the USA in 1977. From there to the present, he has spent most of his time writing and lecturing. He has a wife, Adena Potok, and three children. He now lives in Pennsylvania and currently enjoys writing, painting, and traveling (Abramson, 1986).
He has written the novels The Chosen, its sequel The Promise, the critically acclaimed My Name is Asher Lev, In the Beginning, Wanderings: Chaim Potok?s History of the Jews, The Book of Lights, Davita?s Harp, (Abramson, 1986) and I am the Clay (Internet). He has also written several children?s books, short stories, and plays. In 1982, The Chosen appeared as a major motion picture (Internet).
Chaim Potok?s writings, like that of many other writers, have been influenced by both experiences in life and the age in which he lived. Potok largely emphasizes on the concept of religion and its relationship with the changing world, and with the struggle of religious people trying to cohabitate worldly and secular ways in their lives. Potok himself has been forced to deal with these issues, especially because of his love of art and writing. These things have made him compromise his values by adopting a new way of viewing Judaism itself. He neither wished to alienate himself from his Jewish heritage, nor forsake his passion for things of a secular nature. Indeed, most of his works follow youths who are torn between their Jewish roots and the thirst for worldly knowledge.
His later works such as The Wanderings and The Book of Lights deal with another equally important theme: tracing your roots to discover who you and your people are, and the search for new methods to explain the universe. Of course all of these themes are universal to any time; after all, the three questions that have plagued mankind are ?Who am I??, ?Where did I come from??, and ?Where am I going??. In almost every age people have had to answer the question and themes Potok has raised, though Potok is obviously trying to put things in the perspective of the world as it is today.
The Chosen is a tale of the expectations of your roots versus the temptation of the world. The story revolves around two characters, Danny Saunders and Reuven Malters who are each from opposing sects of Judaism. Danny is the son of a Hasidic rabbi; Reuven is the son of an Orthodox scholar. Danny is expected to follow in his father?s foot steps, though he wishes to be a psychologist. Danny is instructed in the ways of worldly knowledge by Revuen?s scholarly father, while Reuven begins to take interest in rabbinical studies. In the end, Danny becomes the secular figure and Reuven becomes the spiritual one. Ironically, this is almost an exchange of the expected roles that their fathers have for them (Contemporary Literary, 1983).
Although the conflict of parental expectations versus the interest of the offspring is the main idea of the plot, Contemporary Authors (1987) quotes Karl Shapiro of the Book Week–World Journal Tribune as saying, ?The argument of the book concerns the level of the survival of Judaism, whether it shall remain clothed in superstition and mysticism, or whether it shall convey the message of humanitarianism, with the secular Jew as the prophet of gentleness and understanding.? Indeed, this is shown by Danny taking the role of a psychologist, almost a rabbi of the people and not just the Jew, and Reuven Malters becoming a rabbi (Contemporary Literary, 1983).
Potok?s second book The Promise follows up on The Chosen. In this book, Danny is finishing up his Ph.D. in psychology while Reuven is finishing his rabbinate studies. The plot is set into motion by a patient of Danny?s, Michael Gordon. After an old Jew cheats Michael at a gambling game, an experience that happened to Potok himself, he develops a hatred of all of Orthodox Judaism, who were responsible for excommunicating his father. The experience Danny and Reuven have with Michael causes them to realize that their respective Jewish roots and stances on religion must be tolerated. Reuven even begins to accept modern criticism to the Talmud, though he refuses to accept criticism of the Bible (Current Biography, 1983).
The third book of Potok, My name is Asher Lev, is considered one of his best works to date. Again, it uses the theme of personal interest and talent against the values
of traditional life. It also shows the themes of the artist and his separation from his society. Asher Lev is a gifted artist, however, his father, a member of the strict Hasid sect, does not understand Asher?s gift for painting nor does he try to. He only shows contempt for his son?s interest. When Asher learns to draw things such as nudes, his fathers attitude is even more strongly shown. Asher, however, refuses to turn his back on his heritage. This display of loyalty to his roots differs from that of the products of other Jewish American writers. Most of Potok?s characters live in and work in the non Jewish world, but lead pious lives in their private time (Contemporary Authors, 1987).
His fourth novel, In the Beginning, focuses on a slightly different theme. This book looks on David Lurie, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland who was forced to America by a pogrom. David?s father has no love for the goyim, that is the gentile, and tries to organize Jewish self-defense units. David?s approach to self defense is slightly different than the one that his father has created. David decides to join Bible school in order to change the view of the non Jew to the Jew. He hopes to use modern criticism to defend Judaism, much in the same way it has been used to condemn it. David?s father, of course, views it as defecting to the enemy and does not support it (Current Biography, 1983).
Potok, in an interview with Cheryl Forbes, explains why he wrote In the Beginning. During his youth he knew many such Jews that did what David Lurie did and were triumphant. Many people?s opinions were changed, and the attitudes of several of the Biblical schools in regards Judaism were changed as well. According to Chaim Potok, ? This [In the Beginning ] is their story,? (Current Biography, 1983).
His next book, The Wanderings: Chaim Potok?s History of the Jews, was Potok?s first step into the world of nonfiction. It is a composite of over 4,000 years of Jewish history and culture. Potok uses this book as a tracing of the roots of his people to better understand who they are, what they have become, and how their culture reflects who he himself is. He also tries to answer many questions about the Jews as a people that have been around for a while. Foremost among them is how the Jews have managed to physically and culturally survive the hardships of the many civilizations that have persecuted them. Although it remains unanswered, he sheds much new light onto the subject and gives a better understanding of Jewish life and culture (Contemporary Literary, 1980).
The Wanderings also presents a sort of evolution in the writings of Potok. In his previous stories, Potok wrote about men like himself seeking themselves in the world. With The Wanderings , Potok seems to be searching for his soul and himself not through the world, but by tracing his origins. Instead of searching for himself directly, he uses the history of his people to help determine how he has arrived at being who he is today (Contemporary Authors, 1992).
The Book of Lights, Potok?s next novel, goes into a new area of Judaism, the mystical and occultist side of it. After his experience as an army chaplain in Asia, Gershon Loran, the main character, decides to study the Kabbalah (Cabala) in order to try to get a better understanding of the relationship of God to man and man to God. The Kabbalah is a doctrine of Judaism that was given simultaneously to the Torah and deals with mysticism. The book has an ongoing argument of the validity of studying the Kabbalah versus the studying of the more conventional Torah and Talmud (Abramson, 1986).
In this book, Potok is trying to use another method and perspective of looking at things. Potok recognizes that the Kabbalah, which is a largely ignored area of Jewish study, is very valuable piece of knowledge. He realizes that it very well could have much impact in the way we look at things today and that it is worthy of study to shed light on the subjects of who we are and the relationship of religion to the modern world (Abramson, 1986).
His next novel, Davita?s Harp, explores a young girl who becomes enchanted with her roots. Her parents both gave up their religions to become devout communists; however, Davita becomes attracted to her mother?s former religion by witnessing the religious practices of her neighbors. She eventually accepts Orthodox Judaism as her religion. She, however, does experience the imperfections of her religion when she is refused the rank of valedictorian at her Jewish school because of the fact that she is a girl (Contemporary Authors, 1992).
This novel has attracted much skepticism from the fundamentalist sect of Judaism. They claim that no such school like the one Davita went to existed at that time ever existed; however, it so happens that Potok based the school Davita went to off of one that his wife attended when she was a child. A similar incident happened to her too, as she was forced to give up an award as valedictorian because of her gender (Internet).
His next novel, The Gifts of Asher Lev, is a follow up to My Name is Asher Lev. This book follows Asher Lev later on in life. He is know an accomplished artist living in France. When his uncle dies, he and his family go back to Brooklyn. Although he despises it there, his family thoroughly enjoys being around people of the same roots as themselves. His son, meanwhile, is being groomed by the leader of the Hasidic movement to take over it over when he comes of age. Asher lets his son join the movement, and a comparison is drawn between him and Abraham sacrificing Isaac for God. Asher returns home to France leaving his family in Brooklyn. He finds their that his art has been rekindled by the entire experience (Contemporary Authors, 1992).
In this book, there are a few themes. For instance, the situation with Asher and his father is now reversed with him and his son. His son is now the one who would be religious, where he would prefer his son not having anything to do with leading the religious movement of the Hasids. However, he is not going to stand in the way of his son or his family and lets him choose his path. This results in the theme of sacrificing what he loves for his God, and for the happiness of those he loves (Contemporary Authors, 1992).
His most current novel, I am the Clay, is unlike most of his previous books in the setting and types of characters. This book is about an elderly couple who rescue and take care of a boy during the Korean War. The theme of this book almost seems to be more about the horror of war than anything else. It also deals with the fact that how even in the midst of war, love can manifest itself. This book is probably based on some experiences Potok had as an army chaplain in Korea and is also suspected to be a rewrite of his first unpublished book about Korea.
As you can tell from the brief looks into Potok?s works, most of his themes deal with finding a middle ground between the secular world and the process of discovering who you are. Other themes such as sacrifice, anti-Semitism, accepting different views, and the horror of war also are prevalent in many of his works.
None of these themes are entirely indigenous to there age, as people have been trying to make a cohabitation of religion and the world since the Renaissance. Ever since civilization first started, people have been trying to find out who they are. The theme of the horror of war has definitely been around for a long time. Potok?s themes, while very relevant to the time we are in, are not inapplicable to that of other ages as well. Potok, however, has been an author who has modernized these themes and successfully used them in present day literary works.
By Shoshana Caruthers