Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Universal Appeal of Chaim Potok

I first read The Chosen, the wonderful novel by Chaim Potok, in the summer of 1983 after completing my first year of law school. Potok’s novel captured my imagination and opened my eyes to a particular time, culture and religious tradition – Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism in 1940’s Brooklyn – that was worlds apart from my upbringing in the 1960s and 1970s as the son of a Lutheran minister in suburban New Jersey. In ways that resonate with me still, I was profoundly moved by the story, its rich and complex characters, and the internal conflicts that tormented the novel’s main protagonist, Danny Saunders.

Danny was the son of Reb Saunders, the Rebbe and spiritual leader (tzaddik) of a dynastic Hasidic sect in Brooklyn who had a deeply loyal following among his people. Danny was in line to someday succeed Reb Saunders as the Rebbe, but he had secretly developed an interest in psychology and literature, Freud and Dostoyevsky and Joyce, subjects and books that were off-limits to the son of a Hasidic tzaddik and serious student of Talmud. Danny is deeply torn between his devotion and loyalty to his father, whom he greatly loves and respects, and his desire to break free from the bonds of tradition. He wants desperately to explore the wider world around him.

Danny develops a close friendship with Reuven Malter, a fellow student who observed a more liberal form of Orthodox Judaism and whose father had quietly introduced Danny to books on psychology and literature and Western secular thought. At one point in the story, Danny explains to Reuven his torment:
Imagine being locked in a cell where you can see the whole world and everything you want is right outside the window, but you’re not allowed to look or think or move and you are supposed to stay right there, trapped, just like that, your whole life. Do you have any idea what that feels like? 
… How can I ask questions, and then ignore the answers? How can I read Freud and then ignore everything I learn? . . . What if there are some points of view so contradictory that they can’t be reconciled? What then?
Danny’s expressed anguish hit home with me, as I had begun to experience internal discord over my own guilt-ridden spiritual and intellectual journey. My increasingly dispassionate, rational understanding of faith and religion was causing me to question deeply embedded assumptions and accepted truths of the first two decades of my life. I felt myself drifting away from the comfortable and confined Christianity of my upbringing into a more humanistic encounter with the world. Like Danny, I was torn between two competing forces – love for family and respect for the religious roots of my upbringing versus my compelling need to explore a different path and seek answers to longstanding questions and doubts.

Despite the teachings and creeds of conventional Christianity, I had believed for a long time that no one religion possesses absolute truths. Even at a young age, I did not accept that Christianity offers the exclusive formula for achieving eternal salvation, if such a thing exists. I believed then, and believe now, that there are many equally valid paths to an internal peace with God.  Unlike Danny Saunders in The Chosen, however, I was fortunate to have a father who was open to conversation, and who possessed a liberal attitude and open mind on such topics. My dad was much more like David Malter, Reuven’s kind and loving father. But my psychological anguish was significant to me, for there was only so much doubt I was willing to reveal to my father. I greatly respected his life’s work, which was founded on years of theological education, decades of service to the Lutheran church and to bearing witness to his sincere and well-studied religious convictions. But I could not dismiss the questions that Danny asked: How can I ask questions, and then ignore the answers? What if there are some points of view so contradictory that they can’t be reconciled?

Reading The Chosen did not resolve my internal conflict, but it helped me place things in perspective and understand that my concerns were not unique to me. After The Chosen, I was immediately drawn to My Name is Asher Lev, which became my second favorite Potok novel, and to their respective sequels – The Promise and The Gift of Asher Lev. I eventually absorbed Davita’s Harp and The Book of Lights, each of which further sparked my desire to learn of other cultures, experiences, and time periods, from Communist resistance to fascism in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, to a Jewish Army chaplain’s experiences in Korea and Japan in the 1950s following the Korean War. I would later enjoy the film and theatrical productions of some of these works, most recently in The Collected Plays of Chaim Potok, all of which explore, in a variety of contexts, the tensions between traditional Jewish values and secular culture.

Potok’s stories are universally appealing because almost all of us, at some point in our lives, are conflicted by familial expectations and our individual passions and desires; between the religion of our childhood and the mind expanding knowledge offered by exposure to other cultures, religions, and ideas; to science and philosophy, education and travel. Potok’s books and plays contend persuasively that there exist no absolute truths, but many co-existing truths.

In the introduction to The Collected Plays of Chaim Potok, daughter Rena Potok suggests that “we cannot confront the core of another culture if we believe that the core of our own culture holds the singular truth;” and that “to encounter the core of another culture from within the heart of our own, we must believe in the inherent existence of multiple, equally valid ways of being in the world. Once we let go of the idea of a single ‘Truth’ – once we can see another culture’s truth as equally valid and rich as our own – then we are primed for core-to-core culture confrontation.” It is for this reason that Potok’s characters, however different their backgrounds and experiences from our own, are so relatable. His stories express an ongoing struggle to understand the humanity of others and the truths of the world they inhabit.

In The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev, Potok’s protagonists come from insular and strictly confining worlds of rituals and tradition, from which many expectations are placed on them. And yet, they long to experience the broader, more expansive world of art and literature, philosophy and psychology. They are compelled to question and search for meaning beyond the narrowly defined conventions of their families, to which they are devoutly loyal. They love their families and do not want to disappoint them. But they see the world differently than their fathers do, and they are compelled to carve their own paths in life.

As Rena Potok explained in The Collected Plays, Potok expressed “the thoughts and feelings of individuals who are trying to come to terms with two universes of discourse that they love passionately, and that are, at times, antithetical to one another.” Like Danny Saunders, Potok himself was raised in a strictly Orthodox Hasidic household and discovered early in life that “the boundaries of his world could not contain his growing passion for aesthetic and intellectual knowledge and experience.” Like Asher Lev, Potok was committed to his religious traditions, while also committed to his artistic and intellectual pursuits unrelated to the study of Torah and Talmud.

The characters in Potok’s novels and plays are drawn to the world of Western secular humanism – to critical thinking, creativity and expression separated from religious dogma – which ignite their passions and pull them in opposite directions from their expected destinies. Potok’s stories are deeply Jewish, embedded in the traditions of a narrow segment of Orthodox Judaism practiced by a small minority of American Jews, a world to which most of his readers (Jews and non-Jews alike) have not been exposed. But the themes explored in those stories, expressed through cultures and settings entirely different from our own, resonate with audiences of all backgrounds. 

We connect with Potok’s stories through the compelling portrayals of his characters – we care about them and want to know how their conflicts are resolved. The reader experiences Potok’s longing to reconcile the conflicts and heal the anguish experienced by his characters. In his play Out of the Depths, Potok’s protagonist articulates a message that is fundamental to Potok’s narratives:
I believe we should respect all the expressions of the culture, all the people – the religious, the secular, the intellectual, the factory worker, the shoemaker. I wish to bring the people together. Why is it necessary, this divisiveness? Does it make us stronger, wiser, kinder, healthier? Why not reconciliation? Are we that weak? Are we that frightened? Is there no room among us for all sorts of ideas?
These pearls of wisdom are interspersed throughout Potok’s stories. He believed that the essence of life is found in acts of kindness, empathy, and understanding, and in our search for meaning. In the theatrical version of The Chosen, David Malter (Reuven’s father), explains to his son that the choices we make in life have profound consequences:
God said: "You have toiled and labored, and now you are worthy of rest." Worthy of rest. We do not live forever. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye. So then why do we live? What value is there to our life if it is nothing more than the blink of an eye? . . . The span of a life is nothing, but the man who lives may be something if he fills his life with meaning. Meaning is not automatically given to life. We must choose. And if we choose to fill our lives with meaning, then perhaps when we die we too will be worthy of rest. 
To simply meander through life without thinking, reflecting, questioning and learning is not worthy of the human endeavor. “Merely to live, to exist,” Malter says to his son, “what sense is there in that? A fly also lives.”

The stories of Chaim Potok will always be special to me, for they helped me better understand the internal conflicts that all of us, on some level, struggle to reconcile during key moments of our lives – the pull of tradition versus the forces of modernity; loyalty to family and convention versus the freedom to think and act on one’s own terms; the incongruity between religious dogma and contemporary liberalism. Potok allowed us to respect our surface differences on equal terms while recognizing how alike we all are at our core, how our dreams and aspirations overlap, and how the search for a meaningful life transcends religion, backgrounds, and the origins of our birth.

As I continue to search for answers and reconcile my own internal conflicts, I will be forever grateful to Chaim Potok for expressing in words and stories that I am not alone.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

What Would Fred Rogers Do? The Devaluation of Human Kindness in American Society

I have previously written of the widening political and cultural divides in American society and the increasing sense of despair many of us feel over the depraved state of our public discourse. For the past three years, we have been led by a president so insecure and intellectually deficient that he resorts every day to lies, insults, and personally demeaning comments towards his political opponents, members of the press, foreign leaders, our trusted allies, even members of his own Cabinet. A perennial bully, he loves to humiliate people and lacks respect for the institutions over which he presides and to which the public has entrusted him.

I contemplate every day whether there is anything we as concerned citizens can do as the nation’s political and spiritual crisis becomes worse by the hour. How can we even begin to respond to the enormous needs and stakes of this moment in American history?

Sometimes the answers to such questions are found in childhood, when the most important lessons we learned were simply to be kind and to treat people with decency and fairness. In my lifetime, the one person who best practiced and exemplified these values was Fred Rogers, the creator of the long-running public television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Rogers’ life is a reminder that there are certain people we encounter over the course of our lives – an inspirational teacher, a valued mentor, a rare public figure – who influence our sense of self-worth and how we treat those around us, and from whom we gain insightful wisdom about the meaning of life.

Rogers dedicated his life to childhood education and offered an important contrast to a mean-spirited political climate and a world consumed by materialism, competition, cynicism and violence. As explained by Maxwell King in The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, “His legacy lives in the concept of a caring neighborhood where people watch out for one another, no matter where they come from or what they look like. Far from being old-fashioned, his vision is in fact more pertinent than ever in a fractured cultural and political landscape.”

A daily glance at the morning news provides a harsh reminder that the human values championed by Rogers are a thing of the past. And yet, the kindness and humanity he displayed every day of his life could not be more needed today. The lessons he imparted were simple and direct; he appealed to the essence of our humanity. By his example, he showed us that human kindness enhances our lives and makes the world better, and that meanness and selfishness degrade all of us.

A talented musician, philosopher, theologian, writer, and poet, Rogers was a serious student of childhood education and psychology. His intellectual depth far surpassed his image as the lovable “Mr. Rogers”. And yet his television personality was no act; in real-life, his concern for other human beings, for what was essential in life, never wavered. Fred Rogers recognized the goodness, and the child, in everyone he encountered.

I cannot say if Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell – or media personalities Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and so many others – ever watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood when they were younger. But the overwhelming force of their shameless disdain for American democracy, their tolerance of racism and bigotry and fear of immigrants, their pervasive mean-spiritedness, strongly suggests they did not. Indeed, the values taught and instilled by Rogers to young children for forty years are frighteningly overshadowed in today’s political climate.

Unlike Trump and his henchmen, Rogers was the opposite of macho intensity. He listened, more as a vessel than a force in social interaction, and displayed a near Christ-like humility. He enhanced the lives of those around him through constant displays of warmth, humor, and understanding. He despised depictions of violent and aggressive behavior on television, and the crass, low-grade quality of most children’s programming. When he created Neighborhood, his show was one of only a few that spoke to young children on their terms.

An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers was strongly influenced by the theologian Dr. William Orr, a chain-smoking seminary professor who taught that forgiveness was the essence of human kindness. Although he was a man of deep Christian faith, Rogers also studied and adopted universal wisdoms from Buddhism, Judaism, and many other religions, and believed in the inherent goodness of all of God’s children.

Rogers appealed to children’s sensibilities with a combination of slow pacing, simple explanations of complex problems, and a distinctive emphasis on human kindness. He was not afraid to explore difficult and sensitive topics – death, divorce, loss, pain, the evils of racism – in subtle and appropriate ways that resonated with children as young as three and four years old. This was a truly radical concept in the 1960s and 1970s. The day after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, Rogers wrote a special program designed to help parents and children cope with tragedy and the graphic displays of violence then plastering the evening news. As Maxwell King explained in The Good Neighbor, Rogers’ signature message was that “feelings are all right, whatever is mentionable is manageable, however confusing and scary life may become. Even with death and loss and pain, it’s okay to feel all of it, and then go on.”

Ironically, Rogers was criticized in some circles (including by Fox News in recent years) as too soft and na├»ve, and for not helping children prepare for the rigors of a demanding and competitive world. What these critics failed to understand, however, was that Rogers consistently emphasized personal responsibility and self-discipline. He helped children find and develop their own capacities, which he believed made them stronger adults. He understood that life was a journey and that the choices we make along the way, as both children and adults, impact the world for better or worse. In the last commencement address he ever gave – at Dartmouth College – Rogers said:
I’m very much interested in choices, and what it is and who it is that enable us human beings to make the choices we make all through our lives. What choices lead to ethnic cleansing? What choices lead to healing? What choices lead to the destruction of the environment, the erosion of the Sabbath, suicide bombings, or teenagers shooting teachers? What choices encourage heroism in the midst of chaos?
The life and teachings of Fred Rogers offer an important counterpoint to the meanness and vulgarity in our culture today. Were he alive, I can imagine the heartbreak he would feel for the state of our political discourse and the disrespectful, degrading rhetoric of the President. In his quiet and gentle manner, he would offer alternatives to the gratuitous violence in our television shows and movies, to rampant commercialism, and to the constant grab for more, bigger, better, faster that permeates all aspects of American society.  

He would have been especially horrified with the Trump administration’s family separation policy and images of children in cages at our borders, with the rising tide of white nationalism, and the emphasis on America First. Rogers believed fundamentally that how society treats its children directly impacts how those children develop, mentally and socially, and who they will become and how they will act as adults. “Childhood is not just about clowns and balloons,” he said. “In fact, childhood goes to the very heart of who we will become.”

Although he understood the importance of traditional learning and the utility of science, math, and reading, he emphasized the need to instill values and help children develop socially and mentally. As he told the American Academy of Child Psychiatry in 1971:
It is easy to convince people that children need to learn the alphabet and numbers.  . . . How do we help people to realize that what matters even more than the superimposition of adult symbols is how a person’s inner life finally puts together the alphabet and numbers in his outer life? What really matters is whether he uses the alphabet for the declaration of war or the description of a sunrise – his numbers for the final count at Buchenwald or the specifics of a brand-new bridge.
Although Rogers earned a significant degree of fame, he cared little for it. “What matters is what you do with it,” he said. “In the one life we have to live, we can choose to demean this life, or to cherish it in creative, imaginative ways.” Now more than ever, America would do well to heed the lessons of Fred Rogers and recognize that the presence or absence of human kindness affects everything.

We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes. – Fred Rogers