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Remembering Chaim Potok

August 04, 2002|THANE ROSENBAUM | Thane Rosenbaum is the author of the novels "The Golems of Gotham" and "Second Hand Smoke."

Sometimes no matter how many books an author writes, one of them stands out above the rest. This is the book that is read by more people and can define an entire career. Henry Roth's first novel, "Call It Sleep" heralded and sustained his literary reputation although he wouldn't publish another book for decades. Elie Wiesel has written many books, but is mostly known for his first, the memoir, "Night." Then there is Chaim Potok, who died July 23 at the age of 73, and his first book "The Chosen."

Potok clearly participated in that great renaissance of Jewish-American writing that flowered in the second half of the 20th century, but his fiction wasn't overly respected among critics, even though "The Chosen" was read by almost everyone. Writers such as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Cynthia Ozick were taken much more seriously, but among Jews and gentiles alike, "The Chosen" wound up on many more bookshelves and inside more classrooms and was arguably as influential as J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye." "The Chosen" has remained a perennial seller since its publication in 1967.

"The Chosen" is the story of a friendship between two Jewish boys who lived in the Brooklyn shtetl of Williamsburg during World War II. One of them is an heir-apparent rabbi in a Hasidic dynasty; the other comes from a Orthodox family that adopts a more secular American lifestyle. And yet they meet in the most American of childhood pursuits, during a game of baseball. The Hasid eventually leaves the community and embraces Freud while studying to become a psychologist; the other, ironically, becomes a rabbi.

Despite the fact that the story is packaged with a "for Jews only" title, it invokes many universal truths about fathers and sons, destinies and departures, silences and inner screams and the stresses on faith that come with the distraction of modern society. As a reminder of a vanishing world that miraculously was resurrected in America, the novel resonated deeply, regardless of the reader's cultural heritage or ethnic background.

Those who read "The Chosen" instantaneously felt a deep intimacy with the Jewish Orthodox world, which is a tremendous achievement for a book that depicts the nuances of a closed-off society. The novel taught countless readers about Orthodox Judaism, but never sanitized the experience by making it more acceptably American and less Jewish.

Indeed "The Chosen" may have been among the first truly multicultural American novels. It luxuriated in its cultural uniqueness, its unabashed ethnic and religious particularity, its free-spirited yet honest ambivalence about what it means to voluntarily remain outside the margins of the American mainstream. Potok showed us ghettos of self-exile in which the choice of seclusion was made freely, but not without inner conflict. The title of the novel didn't mince words: These characters were Jewish, they were chosen, but for something perhaps entirely different from what was originally planned.

Other Jewish novelists were outflanking each other in producing a literature of escape and disguise. Their characters were awash in the homogeneous waters of assimilation, scrubbing off the accents, shame and stigma of the Ellis Island arrival. Potok, unapologetically and by contrast, decided to center many of his novels in a world that existed within America, but shared far more emotional baggage with a European Jewish life that was being murdered and annihilated across the ocean.

What we learned from him is that observant Jews also felt burdened by the religious imperatives of being the chosen people. But they also experienced the head rush and weak knees that came from living in such close, seductive proximity to modernity. Potok was not a modernist writer, yet his characters had to contend with modernist concerns. Their lives are at first closed-off by the callings of the theological universe, but eventually these tentative repressed figures find themselves reading Freud, as in "The Chosen," or painting wild, impiously desecrating images, as in "My Name Is Asher Lev," or are haunted by musical sounds, as in "Davita's Harp." Indeed, for a man steeped in Talmud and trained as a rabbi, Potok had a surprisingly keen aesthetic and sensory appreciation of the natural world, far more so than other Jewish novelists whose work have been deemed more literary, if not as commercial.

The critics dubbed his prose as being too straightforward and his plots overly sentimental. Perhaps this criticism comes from having written a bestseller, which is lovely for the bank account but is seen by some as a terrible label for literature. (Nevertheless, in spite of the brisk sales and brusque critical reception, "The Chosen" was nominated for the National Book Award.)

Enigmatically, Potok is more closely aligned with Leon Uris, Howard Fast and Herman Wouk than to those whom he should be more properly compared. Yet literary reputations are always fragile and in flux. Some authors are read more widely after their deaths, and some popular writers are suddenly taken more seriously.

"The Chosen" will continue to have an immense influence on Jewish literature and American culture. Potok could have titled his novel differently, but no matter what it was called, the reading public would have eventually chosen it.

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