Cultural clash a way of life, literature for Chaim Potok

May 20, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

MERION, PA. — The name of a Baltimore Hebrew University professor was incorrectly reported in an article on Chaim Potok in yesterday's Today section. The professor quoted was Judy Meltzer.

The Sun regrets the error.

Merion, Pa. -- Ever since his first novel, "The Chosen," wapublished in 1967, Chaim Potok's books have sold millions of copies around the world. He gets letters, as he says, "from nuns in the Philippines, from Eskimos in Alaska and teachers in the outback country of Australia." His tales of Jewish life in New York in the 1930s and 1940s have become classics, read and reread by Jews and Gentiles alike.

Chaim Potok is a leading contemporary novelist, and one of the major Jewish-American writers of this century. But his books are not welcome at the Jewish school that's practically at the doorstep of his home.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

That's why when Mr. Potok delivers the commencement lecture at Baltimore Hebrew University tonight on the theme "Literature and Tradition: Enemies Forever?" he'll be speaking about a familiar experience. As a young man in New York City, he rebelled from his Orthodox Jewish upbringing because he wanted to be a writer and such a secular activity was not encouraged. His seven novels have dealt extensively with the theme of culture clashes, of people who are raised in one world and must confront the values of another. Now, as a 64-year-old novelist, he continues to live that clash: His works are still shunned byfundamentalist Jews.

"A block and a half from here, there's a Jewish parochial high school that bans my books," Mr. Potok says ruefully during a wide-ranging interview at his suburban Philadelphia home. "The kids aren't allowed to read them, and they're banned for an interesting reason. It's a very fundamentalist Jewish school, and they've banned my books because the kids in my books go out of the stories with more than what they came in with.

"Now, I know that if the characters left the stories the same way they came in, then the students would be able to read my books. But the people in my books are profoundly affected by the world around them, and fundamentalist Jews won't countenance that."

Did he talk to the school's teachers about the ban?

Mr. Potok waves a hand dismissively, more in sorrow than anger. "Yes," he answers after a moment. "It was very upsetting, though it was not surprising. I grew up in that sort of world. I left it a long time ago. But it was still very upsetting when it happened."

But he understands, he says: "The teachers at that fundamentalist school are very smart. They know that writing is one of the central instruments of secularism, and so they don't want their students to have anything to do with it. Serious writing asks raw, angry, open-ended questions that very often lead one not to answers but to ambiguity."

Mr. Potok is a studied and gracious man, of medium height, with a full beard that's mostly white and gray. With a degree in English literature and a doctorate in philosophy, he's a man of considerable intellect, but it's masked by a quiet self-deprecation. He considers each question before answering, pausing while he thinks out the answer. That comes from many years of studying the Talmud, the essential writings of Judaism, in which students are expected to explore each and every nuance of Talmudic teachings.

That exhaustive, sometimes combative, study of the Talmud is one of the memorable subtexts of "The Chosen."

Indeed, when Mr. Potok finished writing the book, he wasn't sure if many people at all would want to read a book about Hasidic Jews in the 1940s in New York, and how one of their best and brightest young men, Danny Saunders, chafed under the strictures of the sect. Ordained as a rabbi -- he remains a practicing Conservative Jew -- Mr. Potok had begun the book in the early 1960s, after turning down three offers to lead synagogues because he wanted to write fiction.

"When I wrote 'The Chosen,' I didn't know that maybe 500 people in the world would be interested in two kids growing up in Brooklyn," he says now.

But there were -- and many, many more. "The Chosen" was a monster best seller in hard cover and paperback, and its sales have run into the millions.

"I hear from 8-year-old kids who are trying to struggle through a book like 'The Chosen,' " Mr. Potok says with a tone approaching wonder. "Eight years old! With 13-year-olds, the book might have been assigned to them; 15-year-olds are writing a paper on it; college graduates are writing master's theses or doctoral dissertations."

"He has successfully woven Jewish civilization into the tapestry of American literature," says Judy Richter, associate professor of American Jewish Culture at Baltimore Hebrew University. "He's always interested in examining the role of religion in a secular age. He has a strong knowledge of the Jewish tradition, and uses the novel to examine the modern Jewish experience.

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