Chaim Potok | Critical Review by David M. Shribman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Chaim Potok.
This section contains 901 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by David M. Shribman

Critical Review by David M. Shribman

SOURCE: "Fathers and Sons," in The Wall Street Journal, December 12, 1996, p. A10.

In the following review, Shribman offers high praise for The Gates of November, which the critic describes as a "gripping" story.

Let me tell you a story: Twenty years ago, as the last remnants of snow lingered on the edges of Moscow's sidewalks, I took a decrepit elevator to the eighth floor of an apartment building on Gorky Street. Loaded down with jeans, sweaters and books, I stepped into an extraordinary world; the redoubt of a refusenik family that, through grit and guile, had battled the Soviet authorities to a standstill.

This was the home of Vladimir Slepak, his wife and sons. In times of tension and detente alike, it had become a gathering place: for Russian Jews who were fighting to leave their native land; for visitors who wanted to offer a bit of solidarity along with their sweaters; and for KGB agents who wanted to keep an eye on the intrigue and intelligence that swirled around the supper table.

There you spoke by writing messages on magic slates, and the idiom was that of struggle: tales of hunger strikes, knocks in the night, forced entries by the KGB (you could see the splinters they had left behind on the very doorway you had just passed through), arrests, secret trials, Siberian prisons. Two years later, Vladimir himself was sentenced to five years of exile in Siberia.

Now the Soviet Union is gone and so are the Slepaks, along with the sad suspicion (you couldn't repress it in that cold apartment so long ago) that the privations and prejudices of communism might well outlive us all. The Soviet Union is a pile of rubble in history's trash heap and the Slepaks, now in Israel, are free to think whatever they like and worship the way their forefathers did.

But that is only the half of it, as I discovered in racing through Chaim Potok's The Gates of November. Yes, this was the struggle of a stubborn family against a stubborn system, and the story would be enduring and ennobling for that alone. But the rest of the story is gripping as well, the struggle of father and son, revolutionary and refusenik: Solomon Slepak, one of the Bolsheviks who built the Soviet Union, vs. Vladimir Slepak, one of the dissenters who helped tear it down.

To this tragic struggle Chaim Potok, rabbi and novelist, brings a sharp ear, a sharp eye and a soft heart. This is a family chronicle, the tale of two men, each in his way an incurable idealist. Each, in his way, wanted to remake the world, to better it. Each, in his way, was a fighter. Each, in his way, was a hardened survivor.

Born a Jew in Russia, made a revolutionary in early 20th-century America, Solomon Slepak was one of the few (Trotsky and Bukharin were among the others) who reversed their journey of immigration. He returned to Russia on a cargo ship to take part in the great romantic dramas of the period, the Russian Civil War (where he eventually commanded 10,000 men against Cossack bands) and the building of Soviet Russia (a process that cost many of its supporters dearly).

"The Russian Jews who gave themselves heart and mind to the Bolshevik cause were, like Soloman Slepak, men and women who embraced a cruel between world." writes Mr. Potok. They were "no longer part of the world of their Jewish beginnings, which they had long since abandoned, and not yet fully a part of the world of Russia, which loathed and feared Jews."

But few between-worlds have been so fascinating, so intoxicating: Solomon traveled on Comintern missions to China on money likely raised by the sale of the czar's jewels, and family legend has it that it was he who persuaded Sun Yat-sen, the early Chinese revolutionary leader, to allow Communists into the Kuomintang in 1922. Master of 11 languages, Solomon somehow avoided the spasms of arrests that caught so many of his fellow travelers in the Stalin years.

Solomon named his son for Lenin, but the clarity of the red dream was lost on the younger Slepak. He took his lessons in Marxist Ideology, Principles of Marxism-Leninism and Marxist Political Economy, but there were so many mysteries in his early life: books thrown out after their authors were arrested, photographs inked out after their subjects fell from favor, relatives and friends suddenly regarded as imperialist spies.

And so the break came as the son discovered that the ideal society the father was building had no room for Jews. It was a simple plastic radio, black and yellow and measuring 12 by 8 by 4 inches, that opened the son's eyes with news from the West—and opened the rift with his father. Vladimir Slepak worked on the air-defense system of the Soviet Union but could no longer defend the Soviet system.

It took protests, imprisonment, petty harassment and a chilly desert exile before the exit visas to Israel finally came. By then the Soviet Union was on its last legs and Vladimir's father had died. A year ago there arrived information from the KGB files: Vladimir Slepak's five years of internal exile had been illegal after all; he was guilty of no crime. But Mr. Slepak's struggle was not for nothing, because now the modern KGB recognizes that it is no crime to want to live in freedom.

(read more)

This section contains 901 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by David M. Shribman
Follow Us on Facebook