“The readiness is all”: after the countless portrayals in American fiction of wandering and assimilated Jews—from Malamud’s S. Levin to Bellow’s Moses Herzog to Roth’s Alexander Portnoy—the literary public, at least a large and enthusiastic segment of it, would seem to be ready for Chaim Potok’s version of the American Jew—one who has never left the traditional religious community. Potok’s latest exploration of the world of Orthodox Judaism is In the Beginning1; his fourth novel and an all-but-negligible variation on the theme of his first three (The Chosen, The Promise, and My Name is Asher Lev), it is also his fourth best-seller, and it, too, like the first three, has been treated with respect, if not acclaim, by the critics.
What Potok’s main theme consists of exactly is difficult to say. All his books center on the conflict between the religious life and the life of the imagination, but it is certain that his books are not bought—much less remembered—for the quality of their author’s metaphysical speculations. A better clue to his popularity lies perhaps in the fortuitous coinciding of timing and a talent, howsoever meager, that is capable of rising to an occasion it has suddenly come upon. That occasion is the rediscovery, in the culture at large and among Jews in particular, of “ethnic consciousness,” and Potok has put this rising awareness to profitable use, spinning out tales of unassimilated “people of the book” to the delight of the many assimilated Jews who read him.
It is understandable enough: after Portnoy and his alarming fantasies, who would not be ready to gather Potok’s resuscitated ghetto Jews, with their delicate feelings and righteous habits, into his arms? In each successive novel, Potok has imparted freshness to an image of Jews as otherworldly wraiths, innocent, devoutly principled, without so much as a touch of the cosmopolitan angst that afflicts so many of their fictional (and real-life) brothers. Potok’s figures still live in exclusively Jewish worlds; their energy is spent on issues most contemporary Jews have abandoned, together with separate dishes for meat and dairy foods. And this perhaps suggests yet another reason for Potok’s popularity: laden as his works are with the colorful details of Orthodox ritual and with gobbets of Jewish history and folklore, they perform a pedagogical function in a relatively painless way, informing Jews about their heritage and making them feel nostalgically good about it at the same time.
That Potok’s books are badly written seems to bother no one. In the Beginning was reviewed glowingly in the New York Times Book Review, and was treated in what can only be called a kindly fashion by the New Yorker: clearly Potok’s work is not accorded the normal critical reception, but is handled in the way matters of faith are handled by the non-religious in a carefully tolerant age, with kid gloves (or the way ethnic theater, for example, is reviewed in the daily press, with critical judgment suspended). Aesthetically damning as this slackened attitude may be, it is in its own way just, for Potok writes more as a rabbi (which in fact he is) than as a novelist, inspired by the responsibilities of the pulpit rather than the license of the muse. Potok seems to conceive of his novels as instruction or even initiation into such perplexing issues as the conditions for religious belief in a faithless time—issues rarely if ever dealt with in contemporary fiction. Unlike more consequential Jewish writers whose heritage colors but does not dictate to their material, Potok writes both as a Jew and because he is a Jew: one aspect validates the other. So Potok feels himself duty bound to present Orthodox Judaism in the best possible light: not as a mere moral code or a set of historical imperatives tacked on to the everyday business of life, which goes on elsewhere, but as a magically powered and all-pervasive essence that somehow affects the very character of that life at its core.
As a novelist, then, Potok has consciously forgone the attempt to write about situations or characters that might stand in for the situation of humanity in general, and has concentrated instead on the particular, writing from an insularly Jewish perspective that denies broader implications. Yet by keeping to his own side of town, to the restricted but fertile Jewish territory of high-toned wrestlings with God and self, he has hit upon both a formula for success and a comfortable frame in which the only limits to artistic achievement are the limits of his own imagination. Unfortunately, as In the Beginning demonstrates once again, those limits are rather quickly reached.
In the Beginning is the story of David Lurie. The latest in Potok’s line of golden boys, long on brains and short on muscles, David grows up in the Bronx during the years surrounding the Depression. Like Danny Saunders (of The Chosen and The Promise) and Asher Lev (My Name is Asher Lev), David Lurie staggers under the weight of his intellectual gifts. Even as a sickly little boy—he falls out of his mother’s arms as an infant, and the true extent of the damage (a deviated septum) goes temporarily undetected—David strains after Truth: “I spent my early life growing a little and being ill a lot . . . I lay in my bed and watched and listened. I turned my long lonely days and nights into nets with which I caught the whispers and sighs and glances and the often barely discernible gestures that are the real message carriers in our noisy world.”
David’s early years are beset with many misfortunes and few joys. He is plagued by the recurring pain and illness brought on by his untreated injury, and he is victimized by the neighborhood anti-Semite, blond Eddie Kulanski, who hates him—in a phrase suggestive of Potok’s chronic aversion to understatement—with a “mindless demonic rage.” (David’s perceptions are all at this fever pitch: discovering that he will have to stay in bed again, he says, “I looked into the dark cavern of the coming days and shivered with dread.”) David is also a sensitive witness to the upheavals in the world at large, which have their repercussions in the Lurie household: the Crash, in which David’s immigrant father loses his thriving real-estate business; the ensuing lean years of the Depression which reduce his father’s confidence and aggression to bewilderment and sadness; and then the slow recovery of the Lurie family’s spiritual and economic resources. Finally, there are the swiftly changing events in Europe, and David’s connection to them through his homesick mother’s letters to her family left behind, and through his father’s involvement with the mysterious “Am Kedoshim Society.”
David’s happiest moments are those he spends studying Torah with the elegant Mr. Shmuel Bader, whose sophistication is noted each time he appears, fingering a dark-red “cravat.” In high-school David meets another influential teacher, Rav Sharfman, one of those hooded-eyed and impassive-faced “rebbes” who crop up in every Potok novel. Sharfman is given to communicating by way of dark, penetrating stares and enigmatic asides: “I have wings enough for only one man.” Singling David out as another potentially winged creature, he gently nudges him—cautioning that “a shallow mind is a sin against God”—toward the decision he makes at the book’s close (in the face of parental opposition) to pursue his secular studies.
It is distressingly easy to catalog the faults of Potok’s writing, from the amateurish style to the implausible dialogue to the paper-thin characterizations. David’s manner of speech, for example, is insufferably solemn and self-inflating. “It was always exciting to hear new words. It was what I had instead of good friends,” he says at one point; or again, “I could not remember when I had last seen my mother laugh. She never laughed. Laughter was as much a stranger to her as sleep was to me.” Then there are Potok’s precarious lurches into the metaphysical: “Here and there along the path, as we walked its beckoning curves into the heart of the wood, a huge gnarled root showed its dark power as it lay pushing up the earth.” Potok combines words with an exasperating lack of imagination, and he has an unerring ear for clichés—“secret pool of sorrow,” “fever of excitement.” “Dense” seems to be his favorite meaningful adjective; it appears, heralding profundity (as in “a dense hush fell over the synagogue”) at least a dozen times.
In the Beginning’s peculiar achievement is to render its figures so monochromatically—once someone “murmurs” in this novel he is condemned to murmuring as a permanent style—and to present its tensions so glaringly—“Being born a Jew is the biggest accident of all”—that one can easily skip several pages without loss. In this sense the book is a set-up; it fulfills expectations by setting up types—the frail, flowering prodigy, the suffering withdrawn mother, the tense, irate father—and then proceeds to have them do exactly what we would expect such types to do: the prodigy astounds his teachers with his precocious grasp of textual problems; the mother weeps; and the father loses patience. In the Beginning is thoroughly predictable, and as consoling as a glass of tea.
Potok’s strength, here as in his earlier books, is his storytelling skill. His panoramic plots feature something for everyone, and the narrative thread weaves in and out of locales and periods with enviable effortlessness. There is no denying that In the Beginning, in its own plodding way, is a good read, and this in itself goes far toward excusing the black-and-white moral scheme, the pseudo-profundities, and the spurious bits of homely wisdom in which it abounds.
It does not, however, excuse Potok’s misleading and sentimentalized version of Orthodox Judaism, which functions in all of Potok’s novels less as a reality than as a symbol. For all its intricately wrought scenes and its wealth of detail, In the Beginning does not succeed in capturing the quixotic spirit of observant Judaism; its conception is at once too hallowed and too facile. Thus, emotions in the novel all take place on a spiritual level; no one experiences any primitive appetitive urges. To take one obvious example: Jews are notorious “noshers,” yet though the Luries are forever sitting down to Sabbath meals, they eat oddly little—David abstains completely and the others subsist on cups of coffee and left-over boiled chicken. Potok likewise “plays to the grandstands” (to borrow Rav Sharfman’s metaphor) by keeping David free of sexual desires throughout high school; he wouldn’t recognize temptation if it winked at him from between the pages of his Talmud. Judaism in Potok’s world is never simply lived; it is, rather, an intellectual curiosity that is always being examined, questioned, held up to the light, displayed.
In an astute essay originally published in these pages,2 Philip Roth once maintained that the real question lurking behind the attacks on him by the rabbinical “establishment” was the defensive one: “What will the goyim think?” With Potok, this question would never appear to arise. Yet the attitude toward Judaism in his novels does turn out to be defensive after all, one that implicitly acknowledges the insufficiency of all those quaint rituals and historical ideas to stand on their own and compel the mind. Writing from within a world whose sympathetic spokesman he has become, Potok might have risen to the chance to see that world steadily and whole. That he has failed to do so, that his portrait of Orthodoxy is as carefully selective as it is, may in part be a failure of talent, but it may also be attributable to an unspoken fear of what the goyim will think—even though in this case the “goyim” happen to be the assimilated Jews who are the majority of his readers. Potok’s rendition of Orthodox life is entertaining and informative, but his work does not expand to the dimensions it reaches for, and he has so far not exhibited enough confidence in the viability of his own materials to accord them the rounded and unapologetic treatment they are still waiting to receive.
1 Knopf, 454 pp., $8.95.
2 “Writing About Jews,” December 1963.