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.

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