Monday, December 13, 2004

Chiam Potok: 1929 - 2002

There is a paradox of sorts in the above title to this post; a Jewish Rabbi's life is counted in those years that I call "the year of our Lord", but which his people call the "Common Era". That paradox in some ways exhibits the novels of Chiam Potok.

My first introduction to Potok was several years ago when I read The Chosen, and its sequel The Promise. In this past month I had occasion to read My Name is Asher Lev. Its sequel The Gift of Asher Lev is on my Christmas wish list.

Again as I type this, I am hit with the irony of positioning a book written by a Jew and about Jews in the context of my Christian celebration of the advent of a Jewish baby boy to a Jewish young mother some 2,000 years ago.

There is a psychological intensity in Chiam Potok's novels that is gripping. It is hard to put one of his books down. I devoured all 369 pages of My Name is Asher Lev in a two day period.

Take the tensions and conflicts of the musical Fiddler on a Roof without the humor and music that tended to shade and mitigate the reality, and add to that the grimness of the 1969 movie release The Fixer which was the story of a Jew in Tsarist Russia passing himself off as a "goy". You will then have an approximation of what Chiam Potok portrays, but only an approximation. There are probably some people who would find Potok's novels hard to read because of the same psychological intensity that I found so compelling.

Potok's heros struggle to maintain their Orthodox Jewish identities in a world that is changing. That change challenges their identification with their community as they seek to maintain their own self-integrity within the bounds of the community's tradition. In that respect, it is the same kind of challenge Tevye faces in Fiddler.

As an Evangelical Christian, I see a number of positive values in Potok's writing that not just Christians, but humanity at large should and can relate to; things that C. S. Lewis would call the "Tao". To balance self-integrity with community responsibilities is something all mankind to one degree or another wrestles with. To embrace change without bankrupting tradition is a struggle that cuts across all cultures and communities. In writing these novels, Chiam Potok has allowed us as gentiles a peek into the struggles in his community, culture, and tradition. Such a peek is a privilege not to be dismissed or taken lightly, but one to be respected.


~ The Billy Goat ~

No comments: