The Book of Lights

When I finished reading all of Chaim Potok’s novels for the first time in the early 2000’s, I considered his novel The Book of Lights my least favorite. In re-reading it, I think I’ve gained a better appreciation for it.

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Potok’s novels usually have an element that is uplifting as his protagonists struggle to figure out where they fit in to their world – leaving behind some aspect of their traditional faith or upbringing. In The Book of Lights, however, things are more bleak even if it does end on an affirming note.

As a rabbinical student in the 1950’s, Gerson Loran studies Kabbalah, mystical Jewish texts from medieval times – a topic not all of his professors feel is worthy of study. As he moves on from seminary to become a chaplain in Korea, he frequently sees visions and hears a voice from the “darkness” pointing out the sad state of affairs in which his century finds itself. Adding to his confusion, his experience in the Eastern world leads him to appreciate the beauty of God in what his tradition considers a pagan land:

Do you flee from the giants of your century, the great ones whose lights blind the eye and whose faults numb the heart? They fill you with hurt, with anger, with awe, do they not, these giants? They make ashes of great ideas, do they not? Do you flee to pagan worlds remote from the civilization of your teachers – to test their teachings? To escape their visions, their echoes, and the shadows that lie between what they are and what they teach? How far will you flee? Or are you done? Did your journey end in the fused light and darkness of the Macao brothel? I ask cruel questions of truth, Gershon. Truth. I come from the other side.

Gershon’s seminary roommate, Arthur Leiden, also struggles with the events of his century in that Arthur’s father helped develop the atomic bomb. And in an interesting twist, Arthur’s mother also had a hand in the United States’ decision to drop the bomb on Japan. Arthur’s struggles seem more self-destructive than Gershon’s questioning but both of their journey’s take them to Hiroshima where Arthur movingly says the Kaddish  at the Peace memorial – but the journey still doesn’t end.

While the voice out of the darkness could easily be only a literary device, Potok uses it to provide depth to the questions Gershon and Arthur ask. These questions are not just their own questions but questions for an entire generation. Questions that don’t come with any answers. Questions that produce the prevailing sadness of the entire novel.

 

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I Am the Clay

In Chaim Potok’s novel I Am the Clay, an old Korean woman remembers the words of a hymn she heard from her mother who heard them from a white missionary: have thine own way Lord, Have thine own way, thou art the potter, I am the clay.

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The woman doesn’t understand the words or their meaning but sings them anyway. While the question is never asked explicitly in the novel, as the reader, I couldn’t help wondering what the woman would think if she did understand them. The woman and her husband, referred to as “the old man”, flee from their home and village as the Chinese and North Koreans attack. They flee to a refugee camp amidst all the horror of war. How could one truly believe that a loving God could have his way and this is what the world looks like?

At the same time, the old couple finds a boy badly wounded ready to die. The woman insists on helping the boy and eventually nurses him back to health much to the dismay of her husband who sees the boy as a burden. As the boy regains his strength, though, he becomes a blessing to the old couple in his ability to find food and barter for needed supplies. While the old woman saves the boy’s life, he eventually saves her life and her husband’s. Is there something out there that can mold something beautiful – like a family – out of something horrifying? Is there something out there that can change the old man’s mind:

…and one morning, as he watched the boy climb the hill to the grave wearing the hat of mourning, he felt deep within himself a slow and tortuous turning and then an opening of doors to deeper and deeper recesses inside himself, caves leading to caves, and his heart raced and he wondered if this was what was meant by the word love…

This is the only novel of Potok’s that doesn’t center around his own Jewish faith. He does include a Jewish chaplain as a minor character, just as Potok himself was a chaplain in Korea.

 

The Gift of Asher Lev

Master of the Universe, how You run Your world. To me You give this gift so I cannot live without the scents in which the gift finds life; to Rocheleh You give a curse so she cannot go anywhere near those scents. If there is wisdom here, it escapes me. Unless You wish to show irrevocably that the gift is mine alone; that there is no future for it in my family; that it begins and ends with Asher Lev. Is that it? Asher Lev, artist. Asher Lev, troubler. Asher Lev, dead end.

In Chaim Potok’s The Gift of Asher Lev, Asher has a few conversations with the Master of the Universe. I say conversations but Asher is the only one doing the talking or at least the thinking to himself. In this sequel to the novel  My Name is Asher LevAsher is now 45, married with two children, and living in France still in exile from his Ladover Hasidic community in Brooklyn.

Gift

He still lives in conflict with his faith and his art while continuing to uphold both. As twenty years have passed, it’s now obvious that this tension won’t go away and this knowledge gives Asher a kind of melancholy strength as he deals with situations that bring his family back to Brooklyn.

After reading both novels back to back (second time for both), the endings for both stand out for their lack of resolution. The reader gets the idea that Asher will be living with this unresolved tension for the rest of his life.

The plot of this novel slowly and thoughtfully proceeds to a major decision for Asher and his family; however, much of the novel consists of the thoughts that go through Asher’s mind as he edges closer and closer to what could be considered inevitable. Some of those thoughts come out as prayers to the Master of the Universe. Most of these prayers are anything but pious. As the brutal honesty in Asher’s art causes much of his conflict, that same honesty finds its way into Asher’s inward heart and prayers.

 

My Name is Asher Lev

I am an observant Jew. Yes, of course, observant Jews do not paint crucifixions. As a matter of fact, observant Jews do not paint at all – in the way that I am painting. So strong words are being written and spoken about me, myths are being generated: I am a traitor, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflicter of shame upon my family, my friends, my people; also, I am a mocker of ideas sacred to Christians, a blasphemous manipulator of modes and forms revered by Gentiles for two thousand years.

Well, I am none of those things. And yet, in all honesty, I confess that my accusers are not altogether wrong: I am indeed, in some way, all of those things.

But I will not apologize. It is absurd to apologize for a mystery.

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Asher Lev’s father works to set up Hasidic yeshivas (Jewish schools) throughout post-War Europe while his son Asher stays in Brooklyn continuing to pursue his artistic gifts. Both of these passions collide to become the core conflict in Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev. In this novel, Potok does for faith and art what he does for faith and learning in The Chosen and The Promise.

Asher’s father never truly comes to terms with Asher’s gift and passion. As a child, Asher, himself, doesn’t fully understand it. In spite of his parent’s love for him, they don’t know what to make of his drawing and painting. It is interesting, though, that once a week on the Sabbath, all differences are set aside.

Potok portrays Asher and his parents with so much grace and subtlety that the reader understands both sides of this conflict even if Potok’s sympathies are with Asher. It’s also amazing how realistically Potok gives Asher’s Rebbe, the leader of his Hasidic community, the wisdom to know that while Asher will stand out as different, his talent and desire won’t be squashed. The Rebbe does his best to keep Asher within his Hasidic faith even if Asher’s talent moves him into what could be considered dangerous territory. And by the end of the novel, the Rebbe has appeared to succeed. While some traditions may go by the wayside and Asher leaves his community, he continues to practice both his faith and his art.

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As Asher’s faith world isn’t sure where his art belongs, his art world isn’t sure where his faith belongs. When Asher attempts to hide his Hasidic side curls behind his ears, his mentor tells him to either keep them where they are or cut them off, but don’t try to hide them. As a teenager, Asher talks to his agent about how his art might influence the world, she tells him:

Art is not for people who want to make the world holy…Do you understand me, Asher Lev? If you want to make the world holy, stay in Brooklyn.

Asher ultimately determines his rationale for painting as he compares his work to his father’s:

I wanted to paint the same way my father wanted to travel and work for the Rebbe. My father worked for Torah. I worked for – what? How could I explain it? For beauty? No. Many of the pictures I painted were not beautiful. For what, then? For a truth I did not know how to put into words. For a truth I could only bring to life by means of color and line and texture and form.

For me personally, I could read this novel over and over again without getting tired of it. Being able to look back over the decades since I first read it, I see how it helps me reconcile my own faith with my love for art and literature.

 

 

 

The Promise by Chaim Potok

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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.

 

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.

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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.