Cover image for Chaim Potok: Confronting Modernity Through the Lens of Tradition Edited by Daniel Walden

Chaim Potok

Confronting Modernity Through the Lens of Tradition

Edited by Daniel Walden


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Chaim Potok

Confronting Modernity Through the Lens of Tradition

Edited by Daniel Walden

“Daniel Walden has done American literature an uncommon and impressive service. This masterful collection will stand as a forerunner to further significant criticism, and as an inspiration.”


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Chaim Potok was a world-class writer and scholar, a Conservative Jew who wrote from and about his tradition and the conflicts between observance and acculturation. With a plain, straightforward style, his novels were set against the moral, spiritual, and intellectual currents of the twentieth century. This collection aims to widen the lens through which we read Chaim Potok and to establish him as an authentic American writer who created unforgettable characters forging American identities for themselves while retaining their Jewish nature. The essays illuminate the central struggle in Potok’s novels, which results from a profound desire to reconcile the appeal of modernity with the pull of traditional Judaism. The volume includes a memoir by Adena Potok and ends with Chaim Potok’s “My Life as a Writer,” a speech he gave at Penn State in 1982.

Aside from the editor, the contributors are Victoria Aarons, Nathan P. Devir, Jane Eisner, Susanne Klingenstein, S. Lillian Kremer, Jessica Lang, Sanford E. Marovitz, Kathryn McClymond, Hugh Nissenson, Adena Potok, and Jonathan Rosen.

“Daniel Walden has done American literature an uncommon and impressive service. This masterful collection will stand as a forerunner to further significant criticism, and as an inspiration.”
“Daniel Walden’s Chaim Potok: Confronting Modernity Through the Lens of Tradition is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the crucial role played by Chaim Potok’s novels in examining the clash between modernity and faith. This skillfully edited work contains both critical essays and personal reflections by leading Potok experts. The novelist was a personal friend of Walden’s, and this volume can be seen as the editor's memorial to the late writer.”
“Daniel Walden caps his distinguished career as a scholar, writer, editor, and esteemed pioneer in American Jewish literary studies with this sensitive and illuminating study of a side of American Jewish life not often, until recently, described in such lovely and moving prose as Potok’s. Walden does welcome justice to Potok’s originality and importance, and I highly recommend this book to all interested in Jewish American and American writing generally.”
“I can think of nobody better than Daniel Walden to edit this outstanding collection of essays about the late writer Chaim Potok. As the founding editor of Studies in American Jewish Literature, Walden has been a shaping hand in the direction of American Jewish literary study. Chaim Potok was a popular writer during his lifetime; this collection makes a persuasive case that he is also an important one.”
“In his previous work on Chaim Potok (Conversations with Chaim Potok, Chaim Potok and Jewish-American Culture), Daniel Walden has shown himself to be the go-to resource on the writer and his cultural impact. Now, in Chaim Potok: Confronting Modernity Through the Lens of Tradition, Walden has once again demonstrated his deft understanding of the subject. Pulling together an impressive array of contributors and working with some of the most prominent Jewish American literary scholars today, Walden presents us with a vast tapestry displaying the many hues of Potok's narrative worlds. With essays concerning modernity and tradition, the Torah and the Kabbalah, and myth and history, Walden's collection stands as the text by which all subsequent studies will now be judged.”
“A truly fine treatment by Daniel Walden, one of the founding figures in Jewish American literary criticism, this volume brings new historical and literary attention to Chaim Potok. Essays draw on new biographical and manuscript materials to provide fresh, critical treatments of Potok’s work during a major sociocultural revaluation of mid-twentieth-century American culture. This is an important book about a beloved and continuously read twentieth-century Jewish American writer.”
“These critical essays and personal reflections on Potok’s work and life will go far in solidifying his reputation as a leading American writer of fiction.”

Daniel Walden is Professor Emeritus of American Studies, English, and Comparative Literature at The Pennsylvania State University. He founded the Jewish Studies Program at Penn State as well as the journal Studies in American Jewish Literature.




Daniel Walden

Part 1 The Novels

1 The Chosen: Defining American Judaism

Kathryn McClymond

2 The Three-Pronged Dialectic: Understanding Conflict in Potok’s Early Fiction

Jessica Lang

3 Guardians of the Torah: Ambiguity and Antagonism in The Promise

Victoria Aarons

4 Daedalus Redeemed: Asher Lev’s Journey from Rebellion to Rapprochement

S. Lillian Kremer

5 Davita’s Harp: The Silence of Violence and the Limits of the Imagination

Susanne Klingenstein

6 The Book of Lights: A Book of Choices

Sanford E. Marovitz

7 History and Responsibility: An Assessment of Potok’s “Non-Jewish” I Am the Clay

Nathan P. Devir

Part 2 Looking Back: Memories of Potok

8 Choosing the Chosen: A Reappraisal of The Chosen

Hugh Nissenson

9 Chaim Potok: A Zwischenmensch (“Between Person”) in the Cultures

Daniel Walden

10 Chaim Potok and the Question of Jewish Writing

Jonathan Rosen

11 Chaim Potok: A Literary Biography

Adena Potok

12 Chaim Potok Is No Longer With Us, but His Lessons Remain

Jane Eisner

13 Adena Potok on I Am the Clay

Nathan P. Devir

14 Chaim Potok: My Life as a Writer

Chaim Potok




Daniel Walden

Chaim Potok was a world-class writer and scholar, a Conservative Jew who wrote from and about his tradition and the conflicts between observance and acculturation. With a plain, straightforward style, his novels were set against the moral, spiritual, and intellectual currents of the twentieth century. His characters thought about modernity and wrestled with the core-to-core cultural confrontations they experienced when modernity clashed with faith. Potok was able to communicate with millions of people of many religious beliefs all over the world, because, unlike his major predecessors, he wrote from the inside, inclusively.

Beginning with The Chosen and continuing through The Promise, My Name Is Asher Lev, The Gift of Asher Lev, The Book of Lights, and Davita’s Harp, Potok wrote very American novels. They were understandable and attractive to one and all. As Sheldon Grebstein put it, referring to The Chosen, a runaway best seller, the dream of success played out in an improbable but possible “only in America” way, demonstrating that “people can still make good through hard work, . . . integrity, and dedication,” if also at the cost of occasional alienation. Refusing to ignore modern thought, Potok was led to a crisis of faith, which he resolved by embracing both modernity and observant Judaism. In his view, Judaism was a tradition integrating into the American culture, not opposed to it. He kept his focus on working out his characters’ identity as American.

Through his novels, Potok was a major voice in American literature because he was the first Jewish American novelist to open up the Jewish experience to a mass audience, to make that world familiar and accessible as the outside world increasingly became willing to acknowledge that Jews are a multiethnic, multiracial, and multireligious people. Potok touched chords felt by many and diverse peoples with his probing and wonderfully written evocations of the world that he knew.

Herman Harold (Chaim Tzvi in Hebrew) Potok was born in 1929 in the Bronx, New York, to Benjamin and Molly Potok. His father was a Belzer Hasid, his mother a descendant of the Hasidic Ryzner dynasty. Growing up in an Orthodox family, he had little quarrel with his Jewish world. He had a very Jewish education: he went to cheder and then a yeshiva and earned his B.A. in English literature from Yeshiva University in 1950, graduating summa cum laude. But when he was nine or ten he began to draw and paint, and when he was sixteen he accidentally came across Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited in the local library. Reading outside the prescribed curriculum, Potok entered a new tradition, modern literature, and came to recognize that “fundamental to that tradition was a certain way of thinking the world” that he had not encountered or used before. It entailed a “binocular view of the iconoclast, the individual who grows up inside the inherited systems of value and, while growing, begins to recoil from the games, masks, and hypocrisies he sees all around him.”

By the time Potok was eighteen or nineteen, as he transitioned from the Hebrew high school to the university, he began to experience a significant change. He came to realize that he and his people were at the core of a subculture in America and that the new and exciting interpretations and ideas he was discovering and experiencing were from the core of the majoritarian culture that he came to call “Western secular humanism.” Having been formed by his very Jewish world of the Bronx, his encounter with this umbrella culture resulted in his becoming a “Zwischenmensch”that is, a “between person.”

One of the triggers that gave rise to his life as a writer was his discovery of the world of Evelyn Waugh when he was sixteen. Having been raised in a fundamentalist tradition, Potok found that Brideshead Revisited had a galvanic effect on him. “I will never forget the effect this book had upon me,” he once told me. “I found myself in a world of a barest existence of which I knew nothing about before.” Brideshead Revisited was about upper-class British Catholics. But, Potok explained, “I lived more deeply inside the world of that book than I lived inside my own world for the length of time it took me to read that book.” What had Evelyn Waugh done to him? How did a writer, Potok mused, “utilizing the faculty of [the] imagination, so fuse words and imagination onto empty sheets of paper that out of that fusion comes a world more real to the reader than the world in which the reader is actually living, his or her day-to-day life? What power there is in that creativity!” That was the beginning of Potok’s strange hunger to write, to create his own world out of words on paper. It is the when, the where, the what of his beginnings as a writer. Soon afterward, he read James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as well as works by Thomas Mann, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, and Hemingway.

Potok had made contact with modern literature. It is a literature whose practitioners are, by and large, in rebellion against the world that raised them, nurtured them, and taught them their primary system of values. Within that context, Potok attempted to track one element of this confrontation: ideas from the heart of one culture crashing up against ideas from the heart of another culture. He called it a core-to-core confrontation of cultures.

Potok recalled that another trigger occurred while he was serving as an American chaplain in Korea. After visiting the memorial to the dropping of the atom bomb in Hiroshima, Japan, he began to explore the world of Asia through the medium of storytelling. In the strict Jewish tradition, writing stories is regarded as a frivolity. Once, a Talmud teacher who had heard that Potok was writing stories told him, “I hear you want to be a writer. . . . What is it that you want to write?” Potok recalled, “I said, ‘Stories.’ And he was horrified.” The teacher sensed rightly, coming from an Eastern European tradition, that Potok had made contact with an element from the umbrella civilization that was inimical to his tradition—something adversary to the essence of the Jewish tradition he cherished. He was right.

Inherent in the modern literary tradition is a particular way of looking at the world and sensing rightly or wrongly the games that people play, the hypocrisies that enable us to make our way in the world, and the mechanisms that we use to live every day. Potok decided that there were three avenues he might take: break with the tradition that gave him life, give into it, or “live in constant tension with it,” as he put it in 1982. So he read Joyce, Waugh, O’Connor, Mann, Flaubert, Jane Austen, Upton Sinclair, and Mark Twain, even as he studied the Talmud. He was committed to the possibilities of communicating his own narrow world through fiction as objectively as he could, while presenting and exposing Orthodoxy, especially ultra-Orthodoxy, in as critical a way as Waugh had presented Roman Catholicism.

In replying to a “semi-sympathetic critic” in 1976, he wrote, “The sonnets of Milton taught me my regard for simplicity and careful naming; the flattening effect I learned from Stephen Crane.” He also admired Hemingway’s style and Joyce’s treatment of religious themes. For example, illustrating the care he exercised in writing, he stated that stylistically his short stories are quite different from his novels, being “more compressed, laconic and elliptical, closer to the third person narrative style in The Book of Lights than the first person novels like The Chosen, where a careful balance had to be effected between the narrator’s unsophisticated literary voice and the requirements of literary style.” He rewrote each novel at least four or five times, some more than a dozen times. He worked hard to achieve his simplicity of style. For instance, in The Chosen and The Promise, he needed his characters to speak like Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, not like they came from elite American backgrounds or from Eton.

When Potok published The Chosen, one critic said, “He’s not like the other Jewish-American novelists being read by the general American public. He’s an entirely new breed.” To be a new breed, Potok had to break from his fundamentalist past. He lost more than a decade’s worth of friends and teachers who had been close to him but would never talk to him again. He reflected, “A whole world that had been very warm and tribal vanished from my life.”

The Chosen was that rare thing, a novel about Hasidic Jews and Orthodox Jews set in Brooklyn toward the end of World War II. Written in a contemporary vernacular, it is about two kinds of Orthodoxy, about two subcultures confronting each other. It is also a kind of love story between Danny Saunders, son of and heir to Reb Saunders, the rebbe of the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sect, and Reuven Malter, son of the liberal journalist and teacher David Malter. Danny, a genius with a photographic memory who was raised in silence by his father in order to develop his heart and soul, struggles against the constricted world he knows and seeks secular learning, an expansion of his mind, to understand his own people. Interacting with Reuven, and with Mr. Malter, from whom he unknowingly seeks advice in selecting books at the neighborhood library, Danny’s initial hostility toward Reuven is transformed into friendship and love. In the opening scene, a baseball game between the Orthodox team and the Hasidic team, Danny wants to kill Reuven; he purposely hits a ball at Reuven’s face, breaking his glasses and damaging his eye. In Potok’s view, this “war” demonstrated the divisiveness and anger between variants of Orthodoxy, as well as the fanaticism of the ultra-Orthodox. Potok may have exaggerated the case, for as Judah Stampfer put it, “The book is too freighted with anti-Hasidic prejudice to be of value. . . . But Potok’s depictions of Yeshiva life have the ring of truth,” especially with regard to the confrontation between piety and fanaticism.

Why was The Chosen a New York Times best seller for thirty-eight weeks in 1967? Sheldon Grebstein pointed to it as a highly American novel, for all its religious character, and wrote that it was reminiscent of the American cultural myth or fable at the heart of the Horatio Alger stories and The Great Gatsby. According to Potok, The Chosen is no more like Alger or Fitzgerald than Mansfield Park is like Cinderella. Yet while Grebstein was mistaken in this regard, his description of The Chosen as a “really Jewish best-seller” is a gem. The point is that, in spite of certain roughnesses, as Hugh Nissenson described it, the book “remains in the mind and delights. It is like those myths that . . . do not essentially exist in words at all.” The structural pattern of the novel is complete, he added. “We rejoice, and even weep a little,” Nissenson wrote, “as at those haunting Hasidic melodies which transfigure their words.” In 1967, The Chosen—riding on the burgeoning impact of Bellow, Malamud, and Roth, the early successes of the new state of Israel as it faced a hostile Arab world, and the warmth of the American public as it gradually learned of the horrors of the Holocaust—resonated with Jews and non-Jews, Americans and people all over the world, by virtue of its exposure for the first time of the Jewish experience from the inside.

The Chosen, like Potok’s second book, The Promise, is subtle and complex. Danny, who chooses to be a clinical psychologist rather than succeed his father as the next rebbe, remains a righteous man. Reuven, son of a Zionist scholar-journalist, decides to be a rabbi. The central metaphor of The Chosen is “combat of various kinds”—on the baseball field and in Europe. As Potok explained to Elaine Kauvar in 1986, the book explores “what happens when the combat in Europe is actually brought home to Brooklyn because of the Holocaust and the subsequent hunger to create the State of Israel.” Additionally, he continued, “The Chosen is about two components in the core of Judaism or the core of any tradition, one component looking inward and one component looking outward to solve its problems. Both of those elements are in confrontation with an element from the core of Western civilization.” The core-to-core cultural confrontation likewise informs My Name Is Asher Lev, which depicts a confrontation with Western art. “Asher Lev typifies what might happen to a religious Jew who wants to enter the mainstream of Western art,” Potok remarked. “Remaining observant is a crucial element in all of my books.”

The central metaphor of The Promise, Potok told Kauvar, is “people gambling and winning or losing.” Davita’s Harp is about the power of the human imagination to restructure unbearable reality and thereby come to terms with it—as demonstrated in the excellent example of Picasso’s Guernica. Finally, the central metaphor of The Book of Lights is “the mystery and the awe that some of us sense in the grittiness of reality.” As Potok told Lynn Hinds in 1986, “The Book of Lights is about the tension between my particular tradition and the only pagan, or idolatrous, civilization left on this planet, which is the world of Asia.” According to him, when the world we know begins to break apart and when normative responses—religious and secular—become inadequate, you can become cynical, you can become a hedonist, you can enter a monastery, or you can leap into the mystical. In the end, we are left with a question: How can we make commitments in an utterly ambiguous world?

Potok, as he put it in Wanderings, had a “sense of renewal, a foresharpening of self-identity, a feeling of approaching some distant fertile plain.” What he meant was that the Jewish tradition has the inherent ability “to confront new civilizations and to renew itself as a result,” but also “to pull back when it realizes that it’s about to give up too much.” He shared with Kauvar his view that “there is a real possibility for the creation of something quite extraordinary, a third Jewish civilization. Indeed, the Jewish tradition may be one of the ways that Western civilization will save itself because I think Western civilization is in very serious danger of utilizing the dark side of its seminal thrusts for self-destruction.” At present, he concluded in Wanderings, just as many of his characters are preoccupied with their in-between existence, so the Jewish situation is “between worlds.”

As Potok told Michael Cusick in 1997, someone once asked James Joyce why he only wrote about Dublin. He answered, “For myself I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities in the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” Potok spelled out his particularities, primarily in certain areas of New York City. He explained to Cusick, “If the language is okay, and the story is interesting, what you end up doing inside yourself is taking those particularities and linking them to your own. And those two generate a universal. You as the reader can then function inside that universal.”

Chaim Potok died of brain cancer in July 2002. Thus ended his lifelong quest to confront modernity through the lens of tradition—or, as Jane Eisner phrased it, “to reconcile deep faith and fidelity to ancestral ritual with the pulsing challenges of modern life.” Potok asked questions that others would not, for he believed that through honest inquiry we would all arrive in a better place. He also expressed a commitment to learning about and embracing diverse ideas and cultures. “I am open to all people and to all means of expression,” he told Eisner.

Potok is a part of American literature. His novels are bildungsromans (novels of character development) and künstlerromans (novels about artists’ development), Edward Abramson concluded. The protagonists develop and grow in understanding and thus do not remain eternal innocents. Yet, even in the end, they cannnot be described as having totally lost their innocence, and their quest for a “romantic absolute” remains. Alienation, dread, and loneliness are basic elements in American literature. According to Potok, so are the affirmation of human potentialities, the worth of the individual, and the return to society. He agreed with literary critic Lionel Trilling’s notion that serious literature should assume an adversarial position with regard to the prevailing culture.

Though Potok was an observant Jew, a rabbi, and a Ph.D. in philosophy, he was able to depict the rigidities and intolerance of Orthodox Judaism. He demonstrated the desirability and possibility of Orthodox Jews becoming more aware of interpretation, modern text criticism, and modern scholarship. In the end, he was trying to understand and give some insight into the aimlessness and anxiety of the modern world. For him, the universe was ultimately meaningful, and the search for meaning was all-important. In Abramson’s words, “He has shown the ability to create characters who remain with the reader long after the novel is closed, to tackle difficult issues and complex situations, and to illuminate previously untreated areas of Jewish life. . . . These are no mean achievements.”

The structure of this book is twofold. The first part presents a significant body of criticism of Potok’s novels, which will help stimulate scholarly and critical discussion. The second half consists of more personal contributions. The aim of the collection is to further widen the lens through which we read Potok and thereby help establish him as an authentic American writer who created unforgettable American characters who successfully forge their own American identities while retaining their Jewish identities. This work seeks to illuminate the struggles in Potok’s novels that result from a profound desire to reconcile two equally strong yet opposed impulses: the appeal of modernity and the pull of traditional Judaism.

In chapter 1, Kathryn McClymond answers the question of why The Chosen was a runaway best seller despite the fact that it was not received positively by many critics. She insightfully attributes this critical response to Potok’s failure to fit the prevailing expectations for an American author writing from within the Jewish religion. In chapter 2, Jessica Lang emphasizes the dialectical forces at work in both The Chosen and The Promise, focusing on the triangulated relationship among an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sect, modern Orthodoxy, and traditional Conservative Judaism. Her essay explores the philosophical underpinnings of conflict in Potok’s writing. In chapter 3, Victoria Aarons claims that The Promise simultaneously depicts an adolescent boy’s descent into psychosis and an ideological battle within Judaism. Additionally, she contends, it examines the consequences of the covenant between God and the Jews and calls the nature of that “first promise” into question. The Promise thus provides a more realistic portrayal of the ethical and cultural challenges facing American Jews in the wake of the Holocaust.

In chapter 4, S. Lillian Kremer explores the simultaneous pull of modern art and Hasidism on Asher Lev in My Name Is Asher Lev and The Gift of Asher Lev. Acknowledging the influence of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on these two novels, Kremer draws insightful comparisons between Asher Lev and Joyce’s protagonist Steven Dedalus. In chapter 5, Susanne Klingenstein explains that Davita’s Harp is about the use of the imagination to cope with unbearable reality, as exemplified in Picasso’s Guernica. This painting and the terrible event that inspired it play a central role in the novel, and Klingenstein thus uses Davita’s Harp to explore Potok’s notion of the “redemptive power of the artist.” In chapter 6, Sanford Marovitz focuses on the affect of two lights—the mystical light of Kabbalah and the physical light of the atom bomb—on Gershon Loran in The Book of Lights. Gershon finds himself changed as a result of the core-to-core confrontations he experiences as a chaplain in Korea, which, Marovitz notes, echo the experiences of Potok himself. Finally, in chapter 7, Nathan Devir writes about the development of I Am the Clay, which was begun in 1956 while Potok was in Korea and was finished in 1992. Devir notes that Potok’s time in Korea constituted a defining moment in his adult sense of self and explores how his experiences and observations there informed the structure of his “first and last” novel.

The second part of the book relates and reflects upon personal memories of Potok’s life and work. Chapters 8 to 10 consist of three eulogies delivered by Hugh Nissenson, Daniel Walden, and Jonathan Rosen at a memorial service for Potok at the University of Pennsylvania in 2002. These are followed in chapters 11 and 12 by a brief literary biography of Potok written by his widow, Adena Potok, and an article by Jane Eisner, a close friend and editor of the Forward. Chapter 13 presents an interview with Adena Potok conducted by Nathan Devir, focusing on the novel I Am the Clay. Chapter 14 closes the volume with a speech, entitled “My Life as a Writer,” that Potok gave at The Pennsylvania State University in 1982.

This collection attempts to bring to light new and subtle nuances in the robust work of an exceedingly talented Jewish American writer. For the first time, an outstanding group of Potok scholars is brought together to offer elegant readings and crisp interpretations of Potok’s novels. It is hoped that these essays and remembrances will help readers explore and appreciate aspects of Potok’s work in greater depth than before and help establish Potok’s real significance and standing in mainstream American literature, as well as in Jewish American literature.