The Orthodoxies of Chaim Potok

By Jochnowitz, George | Midstream, September-October 2004 | Go to article overview

The Orthodoxies of Chaim Potok


Jochnowitz, George, Midstream


Novelist and scholar Chaim Potok was born in the Bronx on February 17, 1929 and died in Merion, Pennsylvania, on July 23, 2002. His novels were extremely popular; his first book, The Chosen, was on the best-seller list for more than six months. Nevertheless, Potok's work is rarely taught in college courses. His highly readable novels, filled with information about the variety of communities, practices, and doctrines found among Orthodox Jews, ave generally ignored by literary critics.

It is not entirely clear why some literature is considered great. Emotional anguish, frustrated love, and sexual desire are typical of many respected novels. Yet none of these is found in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, recognized as a masterpiece. Great novels, we are told, are about complex characters, simultaneously good and bad, reflecting the mystery of the depths of the human soul. Potok's characters are typically good people. But then, so are all of the protagonists of Manzoni's The Betrothed, often described as the greatest Italian novel of the 19th century. On the other hand, there is certainly emotional anguish in Potok's work, but it is about internal struggles concerning a character's relationship to Judaism and Jewish communities.

Novels capture societies. Philip Roth's characters, generally American-born third-generation Jews who do not understand Yiddish, speak English as if their parents, also English speakers, could at least understand Yiddish. How does Roth do this? Who knows? He is a genius with a wonderful ear. Potok's characters, including his Chasidic Jews, who certainly know Yiddish, speak English in an entirely non-ethnic American style, even when they are discussing intricacies of Jewish law. Perhaps Potok's work would be more honored if we could hear in the speech of his heroes the irony and the bite that we associate with the world of Yiddish speakers. The society that engendered these religious discussions, the world of Jews from Eastern Europe, is missing.

If Potok does not have the sound of Yiddish reflected in his novels, he nevertheless has the sound of discussion and exploration of religious issues. He manages to make the difficult easy; he opens up a world that most people know little about to his readers. Thomas Mann is admired for the debates about religion and atheism that take place between his characters Naphta and Settembrini in The Magic Mountain. Potok deserves similar praise for his portrayal of religious disputes.

Novels are fictional explorations of human beings and their struggles. There is no end to the different types of conflict that have been part of the human condition in every place and every period. Novels may deal with all this variety; nevertheless, some topics have been especially prominent in literature. One recurring theme in Western literature is the distinction between class and money. Edith Wharton, Henry James, Honore de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and countless other authors have written of worlds where money is the enemy of class. Money is the tool that the lower classes can use to destroy the system of inherited privilege. The details of upper-class manners are the tools that the upper classes can use to resist the inroads of the nouveaux riches. Those who consider themselves aristocrats because of their families and their styles of behavior fight to maintain their status, however empty it is of content, thus bringing misery to themselves and others.

Another recurring theme, especially among Jewish authors, is the communication gap between generations. Kafka's villains ave the fathers who make no attempt to understand their sons. Gregor Samsa, who turns into a dung beetle--not a cockroach--in "Metamorphosis," can understand the human speech of his family, but his father refuses to recognize that within Gregor's insect body there is a human soul. Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint is about a mother and a son, but father-son relationships--human relationships, not like those in Kafka--dominate many of Roth's other works. …

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