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Chaim Potok Is No Longer With Us, but His Lessons Remain

On February 17, Chaim Potok, the novelist, scholar, painter and playwright whom I was privileged to call a dear friend, would have turned 80 years old. In the spring of 2002, he and I sat down for a series of interviews in the book-lined library of his home near Philadelphia. My Tuesdays with Chaim, we used to call these weekly sessions.

By then, brain cancer had noticeably affected his speech and thought patterns. His wife, Adena, would gently pick up a phrase or complete an idea when the flow of words and memories hit a sudden block. But these conversations, published in the Sunday magazine of The Philadelphia Inquirer in June 2002, the month before he died, also allowed Chaim to lay claim to his legacy. Even if the words were expressed more simply than they might have been in the past, the focus was more intense, as if he was trying to drive home a point.

One of the things we spoke about was the challenge of confronting modernity through the prism of tradition. This was the essence of Chaim’s contribution to the world of literature: the tug-of-war, as he called it, that he so brilliantly evoked through his characters Danny Saunders and Asher Lev and Ilana Davita Chandel — the struggle to reconcile deep faith and fidelity to ancestral ritual with the pulsing challenges of modern life. He asked the questions that others dare not ask, not out of disrespect or arrogance, but with an almost sweet and trusting belief that honest inquiry would eventually land us all in a better place.

Today, we need the right vocabulary for that discourse. Instead, I fear that the discourse is becoming ever more reductive and coarse, and that we, as a community, are becoming ever more illiterate. Not just in the matter of knowing language and text in the way that Chaim believed was so essential, but in our ability to bridge different worlds. Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders learned how to speak to each other, to listen and understand. So must other Jews with divided loyalties and conflicting passions.

Chaim used to lament what was lost in the Shoah, beyond the straightforward accounting of the six-million Jews and millions of others who perished. What was also lost was a generation in Eastern Europe raised with a rich grounding in Jewish text and culture, scholars who could encounter new ways of thinking and grapple with them from a position of knowledge and confidence, unafraid that one would diminish the other.

As he once said: “I think that the people who were in possession of the tools to move into modernity are gone.”

So what would it take for us to re-possess those tools today? This is not just a question of figuring out how the Hasid in one part of Brooklyn speaks to the hipster in another part of Brooklyn, although that would be a bridge worth building. I see a deeper impasse.

We live in a time when Jewish discourse seems to revolve not around God and Torah and Talmud, except in some religious circles, but instead around the State of Israel. It has become our new theology, our new self-definition. To the degree that Jews reference Israel at all, feel a strong attachment to it — and that number is dangerously shrinking, especially among the young — it seems to be in the polarized fashion of either being for or against whatever policies are promulgated by the current government in Jerusalem. The behaviors that once defined Jewishness — observance of laws, attendance at synagogue, study of text, creation of family, expressions of concern for the less fortunate — are not as relevant in many quarters. What seems to count more, from the left or from the right, is where you stand on Israel.

I have to believe that Chaim would cringe at the simplistic and divisive nature of this discourse, and would rail against its ugly turns. I won’t pretend to know whether his politics would have been more hawk or dove, AIPAC or J Street — that’s not important. I do know he believed in learning about and embracing a variety of thought and culture. “I am open to all people and to all means of expression,” he once told me.

I wonder if the polarization of our discourse isn’t rooted in a heavily laden anxiety about our future. Of course, this existential worry is buried deep in the Jewish psyche. My kids and I used to repeat the old joke that most Jewish holidays can be described in nine words: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”

But if you believe that the only way Israel will survive is through a hard-line defense policy that brooks no dissent… or if you believe that the only way Israel will survive is to accommodate its neighbors, no matter how unwilling or unable they may be to compromise… then, in either case, it’s just a short step to say that whoever is on the other side is inherently dangerous, an enemy of the Jewish people, and must be stopped.

And within that construct, if the person on the other side is a righteous person who adheres to Jewish practice and values, but happens to disagree with you on Israel policy, it often makes no difference. One thing trumps all.

What’s missing here, first and foremost, is the kindness and compassion we are instructed to show other Jews, no matter what their beliefs or dress code or voting habits. But what’s also missing is confidence — the assurance that the tradition will be able to beat back the assault. Chaim struggled with our tradition as much as anyone did, but that struggle grew out of enormous reverence for its vitality and ability to adapt to new challenges.

The bickering nature of our discourse today reflects a kind of fundamentalist outlook that Chaim would have deplored. It also reflects a lack of belief in ourselves, as Jews, to meet 21st-century challenges with the same passion and flexibility that we have displayed in centuries past.

One of my favorite scenes in Chaim’s work is at the conclusion of “The Gift of Asher Lev,” that magnificently woven scene at Simchat Torah, when Asher Lev — who had to distance himself from his ultra-Orthodox community to become a painter of world renown — is temporarily back in the exuberant but complicated fold and sees his beloved son Avrumel designated the heir apparent to the great rebbe. The father’s choice will not infringe upon the son’s destiny. Two worlds are bridged, with sacrifice, but also with understanding.

Jane Eisner is the editor of the Forward. This essay is adapted from remarks she delivered at a celebration of the arrival of the Chaim Potok Papers at the University of Pennsylvania on the 80th anniversary of Potok’s birth.


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