Books about The Book

The compelling phenomenon that was Chaim Potok is recognised with a Penguin Modern Classics double release


The Chosen
By Chaim Potok
Penguin Modern Classics, £9.99

My Name Is Asher Lev
By Chaim Potok
Penguin Modern Classics, £9.99

Chaim Potok was the most unusual of the Jewish-American writers who exploded on to the literary scene in the 1960s and ’70s. Unlike such contemporaries as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, Potok was religiously Orthodox, fascinated by the Chasidic world. As one reviewer pointed out, “few Jewish writers have emerged from so deep in the heart of Orthodoxy”. And yet, Potok’s novels about the clash between Orthodoxy and the secular world sold in hundreds of thousands, won numerous awards and established him as one of the best-loved Jewish writers of his time.

Potok was born 80 years ago in New York City, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland. He grew up in a deeply religious world; his brother became a rabbi and both his sisters married rabbis. He studied at Yeshiva University and was subsequently ordained as a rabbi after studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. It would be hard to imagine a more different formation from his fellow Jewish writers — Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Neil Simon — born in 1920s’ New York.

Potok often said that it was reading Brideshead Revisited as a teenager that made him want to become a writer. An unlikely choice but it offers an interesting clue as to what was to follow. Evelyn Waugh’s novel, after all, was about an Anglo-Catholic family both part of and apart from the surrounding society, inspiration perhaps for Potok’s great theme of the relationship between the religious and the secular.

The two novels now reissued as Penguin Modern Classics — The Chosen (1967) and My Name is Asher Lev (1972) — both with excellent introductions, are probably Potok’s best-known works. The Chosen, his first novel, written while he was living with his family in Jerusalem, was on The New York Times best-seller list for more than six months.

Set in the 1940s, in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, it tells the story of two Jewish boys, Reuven, a Modern Orthodox Jew, and Danny Saunders, the brilliant son of a Chasidic Rabbi. The two boys become friends. Danny’s father, Reb Saunders, wants his son to succeed him as a rabbi and the leader of their Chasidic sect, but Danny feels trapped by Chasidic tradition. He is more interested in Freud and wants to enter the secular world and study psychology.

Reb Saunders is a towering figure. “The world flays our skin from our bodies and throws us to the flames!” he exclaims at one point. The world laughs at Torah!... It asks us to join its ugliness, its impurities, its abominations!” Danny has to choose between his father’s uncompromising religious values and the outside world, with its freethinking ideas and scholarship. The echoes of The Jazz Singer are unmistakable.

My Name is Asher Lev tells a similar story. It is about a boy born with prodigious artistic ability into a chasidic family, again in 1940s’ Brooklyn. His artistic gift brings him into conflict with the members of his devout sect and, in particular, with his father.

Caught in the middle is Asher’s mother. Like The Chosen, it is about choice between your family, the world you have grown up in, your faith, and the temptations of the outside world.

Both novels had sequels (The Promise, 1969, and The Gift of Asher Lev, 1990). And their success led to a long and prolific literary career. Potok continued to write up until his death in 2002.

Not everyone enjoyed Potok’s style. Some found his writing sentimental and thought he lacked an ear for vernacular American speech. His prose, wrote The Guardian, was “serviceable”.

He could not attract the critical acclaim of Bellow or Roth. But the context was crucial to Potok’s success. The Chosen was published in 1967, the year of the Six-Day War, when American Jews were becoming more aware of the Holocaust. His books tapped into a new interest in Orthodoxy. Chaim Potok became the voice for a new generation of readers seeking a richer kind of Jewish identity.

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