The Promise by Chaim Potok

promise

There’s a scene in Chaim Potok’s The Promise in which Danny Saunders, studying for his Doctorate, takes his fingers to the side of his face and tugs on the now imaginary earlocks that were once there. They are one part of his Hasidic upbringing that he chose to leave behind as he studies Psychology instead of taking his father’s place as leader of his community. Continuing from Potok’s The Chosen, Danny seamlessly moves between his Old World Hasidism and his new intellectual and professional pursuits. It’s not that he hasn’t had his share of struggles and conflicts but he now appears comfortable in both of his worlds.

Reuven Malter, on the other hand, has conflicts within his own world as he studies for his rabbinical ordination. In his Talmud class, he uses more modern methods of interpretation as opposed to the traditional ones much to the dismay of some of his teachers. Reuven’s conflict is wonderfully expressed in this sarcastic rant characteristically listened to by Danny in a supportive and gentle manner:

“We are at war, friend. Didn’t you know we are at war?”

Danny said nothing.

The enemy surrounds us. The evil forces of secularism are everywhere. Look under the bed before you say the Kriat Shma at night. Look under the bed before you pray the Shacharit Service in the morning. And while you’re at it check the books on your desk and look in your typewriter and close the window because they come in with the wind. Did you know they come in with the wind?”

“All right,” Danny said quietly.

“The hell it’s all right. We become like dead branches and last year’s leaves and what the hell good are we for ourselves and the world in a mental ghetto. The hell it’s all right.”

To have a friend to whom one can truly express their frustrations is presented as a huge blessing by Potok and I think it’s what continues to fascinate me with Danny and Reuven. Their friendship stays strong.

While a rabinnical ordination may not usually be intense drama, Potok brilliantly lets the tension mount between Reuven and his teachers to the point that his oral examination becomes a nail-biter for the reader.

How disagreements over tradition can cause hurt and pain both endured and inflicted becomes a major theme for Danny and Reuven and the friends they make as they continue their spiritual and intellectual journeys.

 

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The Chosen by Chaim Potok

 

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Chaim Potok’s The Chosen introduced me to two of my favorite characters in all the books I’ve read.

The narrator, Reuven Malter, an Orthodox Jewish teenager living in Brooklyn in 1945, observes the commandments and believes in God. His father is the one who has brought him up this way and is also the one who recognizes his son’s intelligence. While his father studies the Talmud with Reuven, he encourages his son to think critically and on a more scientific and historical level than most Orthodox Jews would during this time.

Danny Saunders, a Hasidic Jewish teenager living a few blocks from Reuven, follows more rigid traditional practices and is next in line after his father to take over as leader of his sect. However, like Reuven, Danny also has a brilliant mind and secretly reads works by Darwin and Freud which have been forbidden by his Hasidic community and his father.

potok

The two boys meet during an intense baseball game between their respective schools. And they become fast friends in spite of their differences as evidenced by Reuven’s comment during their first conversation:

“I’m all mixed up about you. I’m not trying to be funny or anything. I really am mixed up about you. You look like a Hasid, but you don’t sound like one. You don’t sound like what my father says Hasidim are supposed to sound like. You sound almost as if you don’t believe in God.”

And as their friendship grows, Reuven continues to have questions. Questions that Danny doesn’t necessarily answer but is comfortable with Reuven asking:

…Danny was patient, as patient as my father, and slowly I began to understand the system  of psychological thought Freud had constructed. And I, too, became upset. Freud contradicted everything I had ever learned. What I found particularly upsetting was the fact that Danny didn’t seem to have rejected what Freud taught. I began to wonder how it was possible for the ideas of the Talmud and the thinking of Freud to live side by side within one person. It seemed to me that one or the other would have to give way. When I told this to Danny, he shrugged, said nothing, and went back to his reading.

As the story unfolds leading to the emotional conclusion between Danny and his father, the boys learn to think on their own. But what has always attracted me to this story is the fact that neither boy walks away from his faith. They question many aspects of it and choose to eliminate ideas or practices that they can’t reconcile to the world they see themselves living in – but they continue their religious and intellectual journeys.

Potok manages to pull the reader into these boys’ worlds with only ever so brief explanations for those (like myself) who might not be familiar with the Jewish culture. The author teaches the reader about this world while they think they are only reading a good story. An amazing feat!

This is the third time I’ve read The Chosen and I’m still moved by the friendship of these two boys and the fathers who let them go.

 

 

 

Brideshead Revisited

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Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame – a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem.  It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.

Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited has everything that fascinates me in a story.  It takes place in post-World War I England (one of my favorite time periods in history and literature) and tells the story of Charles Ryder’s spiritual journey as he encounters the wealthy Flyte family.  Waugh’s writing, which is both beautiful and hilarious, makes this one of the more memorable novels I’ve read.

At Oxford, Charles becomes infatuated with Sebastian Flyte, the eccentric and quirky black sheep son of the Lord and Lady of Marchmain.  When Charles visits Sebastian’s family at their mansion, Brideshead, he begins relationships that will continue to affect and change him for decades to come.  Lady Marchmain is devoutly Catholic and struggles to instill her faith in her four children.  Of the four, Sebastian and Julia prove to be the less compliant to their mother’s hopes but have the biggest impact on Charles’ agnosticism.

The specifics of Charles’ and Sebastian’s relationship seem to be left purposefully vague and while it serves as the catalyst for Charles’ journey, it’s only one aspect of the story.  As a result of his own journey, Sebastian slowly and eventually fades into the background of the novel.  Charles’ point of conversion also has very little detail and occurs mysteriously at the end of the novel; however, it is completely realistic and gives me the impression that Charles’ journey (as opposed to his conversion) is what Waugh found most intriguing and most important and what he really wanted to write about.

I can now include Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen as novels that effectively weave faith into stories that remain profoundly human.  I don’t consider any of these novels to be “religious” novels in the sense that their purpose is not to promote a specific religious belief or to provide entertainment only to those within that belief set.  Instead, they happen to beautifully and realistically illustrate the human condition with characters that happen to have varying degrees of faith.

While this may seem like a very serious novel, Waugh’s wit shines through to make this story just about perfect for me.  I found one scene, in which a very long debate occurs as to whether to give last rites to a lapsed Catholic, both incredibly serious and irreverently funny. Julia’s politician suitor gives her a birthday present in the form of a live tortoise with diamonds etched into it’s shell.  Waugh’s description of the gift and the family’s reaction is priceless.  And finally, I found it hysterical when Charles attempts to assign a degree of excitement to an aristocratic get-together by counting the number of water droplets falling off the beak of the ice sculptured swan.

This novel became a groundbreaking PBS mini-series in the early 1980’s starring Jeremy Irons.  It was also made into a film a few years ago with Emma Thompson.  I haven’t seen either of them, but it would just be my hunch that the mini-series would be the better option.

The Tree of Here by Chaim Potok

I read The Tree of Here, the second children’s book written by Chaim Potok.  I read The Sky of Now earlier this year.  Since both of these books are out of print, I appreciate The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County for hanging on to these.  He’s been one of my favorite authors for most of my adult life, and while his novels have had more of an impact on me, I have always been curious about these two kids’ books.

The Tree of Here

The Tree of Here is the story of Jason who finds out he is moving from his current home (which isn’t exactly specified) to Boston.  He goes through typical emotions of a young boy having to leave his house and friends behind.  He talks to the dogwood tree in his front yard.  And since it’s a kids’ book, it’s no problem for the dogwood tree to talk back.  Jason takes a small dogwood sapling to his new home (it also talks to him on the ride to Boston).

Both of Potok’s kids’ books are subtle and sweet.  I’m glad I read them.  He has two non-fiction books that could be interesting (they may be out of print also):  The Gates of November and Wanderings: A History of the Jews.  

Potok is mostly known for his novels.  I’m curious if anybody out there has read his non-fiction?

 

Chaim Potok and The Sky of Now

I’ve mentioned briefly in other posts that Chaim Potok is one of my favorite authors.  As I’ve read most of his work prior to blogging, I haven’t mentioned him as much as I’d like.  From somewhere in the deep dark basement of the Cincinnati Public Library, I managed to get one of his two books for younger children, The Sky of Now.

Cover art for THE SKY OF NOW

It’s been a while since I’ve read this type of childrens book as my kids have moved on to books for older kids and even at times adult books; however, that didn’t stop me from reading The Sky of Now and enjoying it – both the story and the pictures (by illustrator Tony Auth).

Brian lives in New York City (not uncommom for Potok characters) and is preparing for his tenth birthday.  His parents take him to the top of the Statue of Liberty.  When he looks down, he realizes that being up high is frightening. 

(Author Chaim Potok)

At home he has two clay models of a clown and a pilot whom he talks to – and they talk back.  This part of the book was great as no explanation needed to be given that these were imaginary friends – they just started talking.  When Brian explains his fear, the clown manages to come up with the profound notion:  “You’re only nine – you’ll grow out of it”.

For his birthday, Brian’s Uncle Conor, a pilot, gives him a wonderful birthday present that helps him overcome his fear.

This may not be the type of book many adults would enjoy but it only took me ten minutes to read it and I found it to be well worth the time.  To complete Potok’s work, I need to read his other childrens book and his two non-fiction books -something to add to my reading goals for the future.  Rereading some of his adult novels might not be a bad idea either.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Make Me Think

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.  This week’s topic is books that make me think.  In some cases, it’s easier to come up with an author that makes me think as opposed to one book, but here goes in no particular order other than when they popped into my head:

1.  The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

2.  Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

3.  Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard

4.  The Stranger by Albert Camus

5.  Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

6.  Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

7.  The Chosen by Chaim Potok

8.  We Make A Life By What We Give by Richard B. Gunderman

9.  When I Was A Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

10.  The Sea Wolf by Jack London

Library Memories: The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

In 2006, I moved to Northern Kentucky of the Greater Cincinnati Area.  For a couple of years, I made the trek across the river via the Brent Spence bridge to work in downtown Cincinnati.  One of my first tasks outside of work was to find the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.  A couple of blocks away, I was pleased to find it to be a large building that spanned two blocks with the magazine area crossing over 9th Street.  It reminded me of the Atrium at Circle Center Mall in Indianapolis.  While most libraries have a drive-up drop-off to return books, CPL also has a drive-up to pick up books.

A sculpture of giant books with a waterfall graces the entrance on Vine St.  Inside, the building has three floors.  Taking stairs or elevators to the second floor, crossing through the magazine area, then taking a spiral staircase back to the first floor brings you to the children’s section.  The second floor has a huge computer lab that is continuously utilized by thousands of patrons.

I discovered an interesting aspect of CPL when I was looking for a copy of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons for my book club (which was still in Indianapolis).  The on-line catalogue stated that CPL had the book and that it was in.  It also had a message that said to see the Information Desk.  This was the first of many times in which I requested an either out-of-print or obscure book from the Information Desk and they brought it up from what I imagined to be a dark and dusty basement.  I’m glad they were able to keep these books as opposed to throwing them away.  My imagination would sometimes get the better of me in wondering what kind of secret place these books were kept.

For a brief time, I worked in Blue Ash (north side of Cincy) and became a regular visitor of it’s branch.  While I was working here, a colleague of mine was listening to a group called The Little Willies.  After listening for a while, we figured out many of the lead vocals were by Norah Jones.  Not thinking I would be able to find this music on CD at the library, I looked it up any way.  Sure enough, there it was at the Blue Ash branch.  I picked it up at lunch and enjoyed listening to it for several weeks.

My favorite part of the downtown branch of CPL was the reading garden.  Set up with garden tables and chairs, trees and fountains, while the weather was warm (and sometimes when it wasn’t), I would spend several lunch hours a week there, getting away from the hectic grind.  What I liked best about the garden was the tall vine covered brick wall that surrounded it, keeping out the busyness of downtown.

I stopped working in downtown Cincy in 2009.  Since then, I haven’t been as frequent of visitor to CPL.  There are still a few out-of-print books that they have that I want to get.  Two of them are childrens books written by Chaim Potok:  The Tree of Here and The Sky of Now.  I’ve looked for these books for years and could never find them, then one day I looked on-line at CPL and there they were with the message “See Information Desk”.

Here’s one last picture:  Baseball and books – what could be better?