Chaim Potok | Critical Review by Richard Freedman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Chaim Potok.
This section contains 686 words
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Critical Review by Richard Freedman

SOURCE: "A Warm Glow in a Cruel, Cold World," in Washington Post Book World, September 14, 1969, p. 3.

In the following review, Freedman commends Potok's "vivid" characterizations and narrative presentation of The Promise, but finds shortcomings in his excessive exposition of Jewish theology.

One of the few remaining pleasures we get from reading popular contemporary novels is that they are filled with well-researched information about a particular place, occupation or way of life. This helps salve the consciences of the swelling horde of readers who feel that fiction is a waste of time.

Thus, from Hawaii we learn the detailed history of that exotic state, and Airport tells us why we are right to prefer trains. This massive accumulation of facts, with a banal story line and styrofoam characters, is not the loftiest goal of fiction, but it is a time-honored one. As Mary McCarthy once observed, you can get some really workable recipes out of Anna Karenina, and you learn a lot about whaling from Moby Dick. From the novels of Dr. Chaim Potok, a graduate of Yeshiva University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, you learn all about Judaism.

His first novel, The Chosen, contained a long expository chapter about the history and traditions of the Hasidic sect in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn during World War II.

It was deservedly successful, however, not because it made clear the doctrinal differences between the Hasidim and other Orthodox Jews, but because its wealth of arcane lore was successfully dramatized in the story of two friends growing up amid the conflicts created by warring religious denominations. Its heroes, Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders, were believable boys, not too distantly removed, really, from Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Potok's new novel, The Promise, suffers from a slight case of sequelitis. The boys are older now. Reuven is studying for the rabbinate; Danny has managed to break away from his Old Testament patriarch of a father to do graduate work in psychology at Columbia.

Reuven struggles against the fanatical fundamentalism of one of his teachers; Danny struggles to wrest the mind and soul of his fiancée's cousin from the grip of schizophrenia, ingeniously using equal parts of Freud and the Talmud. As in The Chosen, the characterizations are vivid, the incidents dramatic, the narrative fluid.

Both novels are leagues above the facile, haimish Yiddishkeit of a Fiddler on the Roof or a Wednesday Afternoon the Rabbi Ate Blintzes. There isn't even an overbearing, chicken-soup-wielding mother in the cast.

Yet it is the very intellectual dignity, the gift for austere but fascinating exposition of problems in Jewish scholarship which so distinguish Potok, which also tend to clog The Promise and make it a bit disappointing.

What we get, essentially, is layers of Talmudic lore of the highest interest (but irrelevant to fiction) sandwiched between rather ordinary insights into human situations. Shy boys hate their successful fathers, and Potok serves this up as his denouement. Rabbis who escaped Hitler's ovens can be nasty and vindictive, and Potok seems surprised that outrageous suffering doesn't always make us mellow.

In both novels, for instance, he is concerned with bigotry: not between Jew and Gentile, but between Jew and Jew. Reuven has been brought up by his father to be a modern historical critic of the Talmud, employing the kind of scientific exegesis of ancient texts which stunned the Christian world a century ago when it was applied to the Gospels.

The wrath this arouses among the diehard Hasidim nearly costs him his ordination. Potok understands that modern scholarship is necessary, but he also understands the motives underlying old-guard resistance to it. What he doesn't seem to comprehend is that religion by its very nature is a fecund producer of bigotry—with or without reason—and anyone who gets involved in it should be prepared for the consequences.

Over all there is a glow of humane erudition and compassion which suggests that Potok would be an ideal rabbi. But the world of art is a cruel, capricious one, and sometimes an out-and-out monster like Dostoyevsky can render more of the real quality of religious experience than an obviously nice, reasonable man like Chaim Potok.

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This section contains 686 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by John H. Timmerman