Books by Chaim Potok

ZEBRA by Chaim  Potok
CHILDREN'S
Released: Aug. 1, 1998

In six quietly powerful stories, Potok (The Sky of Now, 1995; for adults, The Gates of November, 1996; etc.) explores varieties of inner and outer healing, both in individuals and in families: "Zebra" begins to regain use of his crushed hand and leg creating art assigned by an itinerant teacher; after the deaths of her father and brother, "Isabel" finds unexpected solace in the company of her new stepsister; the spirit of "Max," a larger-than-life family hero killed in Vietnam, resurfaces in the next generation not in his namesake, as expected, but in young Emmie; although her father returns after a brief desertion, "B.B." loses the utter trust of her childhood; "Moon" lets out his adolescent rage in an explosive musical tribute to a murdered Pakistani child slave. In the collection's haunting centerpiece, "Nava" uses her father's experiences in war, and his connection with a Navajo healer, to fend off a frighteningly persistent drug dealer. The families represented are all middle class or upper-middle class, but the relationships, the feelings of loss, grief, regret, hope, and relief are universal; readers sensitive to nuances of language and situation will be totally absorbed by these profound character studies. (Short stories. 11-15) Read full book review >
HISTORY
Released: Nov. 1, 1996

Potok, whose novels of families at odds with themselves ring so true (I Am the Clay, 1992, etc.), turns his attention to a deeply divided real-life family of Russian Jews. Volodya Slepak's name will be familiar to anyone who was active in the movement to free Soviet Jews in the 1970s and '80s. He and his wife, Masha, were two of the most steadfast of the "refuseniks," Jewish activists who were denied exit visas to emigrate to Israel from the Soviet Union. What is less familiar about Slepak is his family's unusual history. His father, Solomon, was a high-ranking functionary in the Bolshevik movement who weathered the purges and bloodshed of the Stalin era. Virtually until his death in his late 70s, Solomon continued to uphold the party and the Kremlin, disdaining his son's political activities. Potok, who first encountered Volodya when he himself was active in the movement for Soviet Jewry, has had access to many hours of taped interviews with Volodya, Masha, their two sons, and other family members and friends, and he has used them to reconstruct the story of a bitterly estranged father and son, and the ideological civil war that split them apart. Regrettably, because so much of the history of Solomon's life is missing—the KGB wouldn't release his files, much of his early story can only be garnered by reconstruction and guesswork—the first half of the book is sketchy and unsatisfying. When Potok begins to trace Volodya's history, his novelist's eye and ear help bring the tale to life. But the end of the story is a somber one, with both Volodya and the author given to pessimistic ruminations on the future of their respective homelands. While not on a par with his best fiction, this Potok offering will engage many readers, particularly those with vivid memories of the struggles of, and for, Soviet Jews. Read full book review >
THE SKY OF NOW by Chaim  Potok
CHILDREN'S
Released: Dec. 1, 1995

Potok (The Tree of Here, 1993, etc.) makes a ponderous foray into bibilotherapy in this longish picture book. Young Brian has a talking ceramic clown named Broomer—a ninth birthday gift from his Uncle Conor, an airline pilot. Brian and this statue discuss many things, including Brian's fear of heights. During visits to the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, Brian has genuine anxiety attacks. The arrival of Brian's early tenth birthday gift— a pilot—foretells plans for a big birthday surprise: a ride in a glider piloted by Uncle Conor. Brian, with the help of his imaginary friends, successfully overcomes his fears with the inspiration of a soaring eagle, relishing the moments of flight. Auth's watercolor paintings are flat, cartoonish, and pale, and add little zest to a painfully awkward story, contorted by wise- cracking dialogue and a heavily philosophical denoument. (Picture book. 5-9) Read full book review >
THE TREE OF HERE by Chaim  Potok
CHILDREN'S
Released: Oct. 1, 1993

Jason's family is making their "third move in five years"; once again, Jason says good-bye to his friends and packs his belongings. Meanwhile, he finds comfort up in a dogwood tree. It listens to his worries and even answers, and when it's time to leave an old gardener gives him a sapling that promises similar comfort in his future home. Stagily wistful, overwritten, long, and punctuated with pointless scenes, this well-known novelist's first children's story has little to recommend it. Auth captures some of the atmosphere that goes with any big childhood change, but can't compensate for the story's unwieldiness and inconsistencies. At one point, the mother's "sacrifice" for the move is that she'll give up her travel-agency job. That idea is dropped, and readers are given a scene of her at her parents' graves: "It's hard for me to leave them." It would be, if there were any emotional authenticity within these pages—but there's not. (Picture book. 5-9) Read full book review >
I AM THE CLAY by Chaim  Potok
Released: May 15, 1992

At first glance, this acutely moving novel by the author of The Chosen and other stories of punishing spiritual journeys within Orthodox Judaism, may seem a departure. Here, the setting is Korea of the 1950's as two aged peasants and an orphaned boy survive a cruel refugee trek. But the old pair and the boy, like all hapless innocents and victims of catastrophe, search within the shell of self for the answer to a universal pliant: "Why cio the spirits play with us?" Each will find some warmth in a spark of love. The 11-year-old boy, grandson of a famous poet and scholar, is dying in a ditch beside the old woman and her husband. The woman refuses to leave him and tends his wounds; the old man considers him "a burden sent by evil spirits," but cannot shake the resolve of the "crazy" old woman. The journey from Seoul to the refugee camp and the camp itself mean near-fatal starvation, terrible cold, roads and fields of dead and dying. Yet the boy's healing will occur with the change in the journeying as the pair becomes a trio. Because of the boy, the old man's life is saved. Could he have a magic power? And within each are fevered dreams and memories. The woman, racked by fatigue, pleads with the spirits; the old man sees his uncle, the "great hunter," amid images of flying hawks; the boy is tortured by images of a beloved family, hands tied, sightless in a mass grave. Then—surely the boy is magic—the three find that the old man's village has been spared. Now the dangers the boy must face are more subtle, yet deadlier than fierce weather, hardship, or a terrible foe. Potok has created a landscape of horror and beauty that seems charged with spirits—both malevolent and benign—and a human landscape where, against the terror of empty meaninglessness, only connection offers salvation. Read full book review >
THE GIFT OF ASHER LEV by Chaim  Potok
Released: May 11, 1990

In this sequel to My Name is Asher Lev (1972), the author of The Chosen (1967) and Davita's Harp (1985)—as well as other fictional probes of the rich complexities of Jewish Orthodoxy—brings his protagonist artist back to the Hasidic community in Brooklyn from France. Asher had been "banished" 20 years before, and now once again he must exist between two apparently exclusive worlds: there is the sacred "world of Torah," and there is also the secular, solitary, and visionary world of the artist. Renowned painter Asher Lev, his wife Devorah (still psychically a captive of a Holocaust-crippled childhood), and a young son and daughter are in Brooklyn to participate in the mourning period for a revered uncle. Asher's father—the 89-year-old Rebbe, prime deputy for the leader of the Ladover Hasidic community—and Asher's mother are no nearer than ever to understanding Asher's deliberate turn to the "pagan" world of art. (Yet in the deceased uncle's study Asher finds a stunning collection of secular art and, from the uncle's fine and courageous mind, a gift of faith.) Through the days and nights—in the heart of the Ladovers in the States and in France—with the warm love of family, the pulsing of ritual loyalties and taboos, ripples of terror (as old fears and hatreds surface), Asher finds his "nerve ends still connected" to the community. Then, pressed between sacred and profane worlds, Asher joins in a dialectic with the riddling shades of such as Picasso, a famous sculptor, his dead uncle—and the Rebbe, both in his tiny person, or on the phone, and, at the close, after a miracle journey "in a single stride," in France. Just as magical—and disturbing—is the appearance in Asher's work of his little son's face, in the Sacrifice of Isaac. At the end, there is a linkage of worlds in a kind of redemptive sacrificial act in the gift of a son. Potok's style stiffens periodically into clumps of clichÉd settings ("in the distance a dog barked") or pokey dialogue. But, then again, there is that restless, eager journeying in the dark—and then the sudden shimmerings of possibility—in odysseys of the soul that gives Potok's spiritually searching novels their saving strength. Read full book review >
DAVITA'S HARP by Chaim  Potok
Released: March 11, 1985

Jason's family is making their ``third move in five years''; once again, Jason says good-bye to his friends and packs his belongings. Meanwhile, he finds comfort up in a dogwood tree. It listens to his worries and even answers, and when it's time to leave an old Ilana Davita Chandal is the New York-born daughter of Michael and Anne, both Communists of the Thirties. Michael is a Maine native and newspaper writer; Anne (once Channah) is a brilliant ideologue with a bitter European-Jewish past(her rabbi-father's paternal neglect, pogroms); they are atheistic, committed, peripatetic. (Party cell meetings necessitate many moves to different apartments throughout the city.) And, now and again, the Chandals give respectful shelter to an old friend of Anne's from Europe, Jakob Daw, a tubercular writer of political allegories. As liana Davita grows up, then, Daw introduces her to the widened-out perimeters of the imagination. Meanwhile, David Dinn—a Jewish boy living next door to the Chandals at the Seagate beach one summer—introduces her to an almost opposite world: the strange, beguiling forms of religious observance. So, while her father goes to Spain to cover the Civil War, Ilana Davita begins to attend a local synagogue on Saturdays (against her mother's wishes); then her father is killed at Guernica—and mother Anne loses her political faith with the Stalin/Hitler pact. There's still more loss ahead: Jakob Daw, deported from refuge in the US because of his politics, dies in France. And eventually Ilana Davita and her mother—both cast adrift—come ever closer into the orbit of consolation that religion can provide: Anne nurses Michael's devoutly Christian sister Sarah; Ilana Davita enrolls in a yeshiva; later Anne marries David Dinn's father, an immigration lawyer she knew from Europe, an Orthodox Jew who tried to help with Jakob Daw's fight to remain in the country. Thus, the reclamation of Jewish heritage is complete at last—Yet Potok refuses to end the novel on this uplifting note. Instead, the theme of justice rises at the finale—as Ilana Davita, a crack student at the yeshiva, finds herself discriminated against because of her sex: Potok seems to be arguing both for sexual equality in Judaic practice and for a more liberal Torah hermeneutics, involving allegory and imagination. As in The Book o Lights, Potok's themes in this long novel are developed slowly, sometimes repetitiously often undramatically; Ilana Davita's narration, which has a somewhat YA-ish quality, tends to underline each point rather too heavily. Still, despite the faulty pacing, the ideas here are rich, provocative, thickly interesting: the soul's desire for a sustainable faith, the tension between political, worldly justice and religious, spiritual justice. And, for readers who've been happy to settle down and tackle Potok's previous ventures into philosophical fiction, this will not be a disappointment.gardener gives him a sapling that promises similar comfort in his future home. Stagily wistful, overwritten, long, and punctuated with pointless scenes, this well-known novelist's first children's story has little to recommend it. Auth captures some of the atmosphere that goes with any big childhood change, but can't compensate for the story's unwieldiness and inconsistencies. At one point, the mother's ``sacrifice'' for the move is that she'll give up her travel-agency job. That idea is dropped, and readers are given a scene of her at her parents' graves: ``It's hard for me to leave them.'' It would be, if there were any emotional authenticity within these pages—but there's not. Picture book. 5-9) Read full book review >
THE BOOK OF LIGHTS by Chaim  Potok
Released: Oct. 16, 1981

Yes, Potok (In The Beginning, The Chosen) is once again following a young Jewish protagonist on a journey that ends, somewhat too perfunctorily, with a reaffirmation of Faith. But this time the doubts along the way are so textured, so centrally disturbing, that this flawed, richly challenging novel (perhaps too challenging for some of Potok's usual audience) offers considerably more to the non-believer than Potok's previous fiction. The quiet, questing hero here is Gershon Loran, "a scared twentieth-century Jew with visions." His parents were killed in a riot while on a 1930s landbuying trip to Israel; he's grown up in Brooklyn with his uncle and aunt, fragile beings shattered by their son's WW II death. So by now, circa 1950, Gershon has turned inward, away from the horror—to the study of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism); at a N.Y. seminary he becomes the protege of a great Kabbalist, spurning an equally great sage of Talmud (a more worldly, law-oriented field of study). But Gershon's roommate at the seminary turns out to be a boozy embodiment of the horrors from which Gershon is fleeing: he is Arthur Leiden, the handsome, joking, guilt-wracked son of a key A-bomb physicist. And after Gershon has spent a year as a chaplain in postwar Korea (functioning well in the real world but riveted by memories and visions), Arthur turns up there too, obsessively determined to visit Japan. Hiroshima, of course, is the destination—and Arthur says Kaddish at the monument there. But for Gersbon there is also the unsettling impact of the vast alien Orient, seemingiy outside the "world" of the Old Testament: "He was being taught the loveliness of God's world by a pagan land." So finally, after Arthur's plane-crash death—headed for yet one more Japan pilgrimage—Gershon's visions and voices debate the right response of a new generation to "the shards left by the giants." This finale, with Gershon repeating the Kaddish and returning to the Kabbalah, seems oddly evasive. And, throughout, Potok slips into platitudes, with some ponderous stretches. But the novel is tremendously shapely, stately in pace yet dramatic and vivid in its canny storytelling. And, though occasionally overdone, the, haunting interplay of "light" imagery (from Kabbalah legend to Hiroshima's "death-light" to the fluorescents in a delicatessen) reflects a fundamental spiritual questioning that goes beyond secular concern. A dark tapestry of a book, then, more suggestive than powerful, with threads that may reach out and hold a surprising range of readers. Read full book review >
NONFICTION
Released: Nov. 14, 1978

A failed tour de force: picturesque but amateurish history by a professional novelist. Potok did a great deal of research and a fair amount of traveling for what was obviously a labor of love, but the end result is misproportioned and unreliable. He spends too much time on biblical, and early post-biblical, Israel, and crams everything from the Enlightenment to the present into the final tenth of the book. He recreates the atmosphere of life in Sumer, ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome with lavish scene-painting, but says next to nothing about the ghetto in medieval Europe, the shtetl, or even the Holocaust. He writes at length of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, but never mentions Felix Mendelssohn (because he converted to Christianity?), Martin Buber, Marc Chagall, Isaac Babel, S. Y. Agnon, etc. He quotes lumpy translations of Solomon ibn Gabirol and Judah Halevi, but passes over all of modern Hebrew (and Jewish) poetry. He dismisses Karl Marx with a cryptic reference that makes one wonder if he realizes Marx was a Jew. And then-inevitable hazard for any work pieced together from secondary sources—Potok often gets his facts wrong. He confuses Ethbaal (father of Jezebel) with Eshbaal, or Ishbosheth (son of Solomon). He claims that the "original creativity" of Hellenism died around 200 B.C. (Plutarch? Plotinus?) He translates the Latin term plus (dutiful, godly) as "likable." He generalizes recklessly. The Olympian gods are all "cool, rational, remote." "Hanging was a German contribution to human civilization." With its several hundred paintings, drawings, and photographs, Potok's book appears designed as a gift item, for Hanukkah, say. But with the many good scholarly and popular treatments of Jewish history on the market, there's no real need for this one. Read full book review >
IN THE BEGINNING by Chaim  Potok
Released: Oct. 1, 1975

Chaim Potok continues his saga of the American sojourn of the Chosen People with this portrait of the education of David Lurie—namesake of his gentle and beautiful uncle dead in a Polish pogrom, son of a fiercely militant Zionist organizer—as he learns what his "job" in the service of the Jews will be. David's father works to secure the immigration of family and friends still in Europe but loses everything in the Depression; while sickly, bookish David begins by dodging the malevolent goyim in his Bronx neighborhood and demonstrates a precocious gift for Scripture. With the coming of wax, the boy's oedipal problems are compounded by his attraction to the secular branch of Bible study in which German scholars formed the vanguard. But he perseveres and ultimately his pilgrimage to Bergen Belsen reunites the grown man with "the dead of my family's beginnings" as well as the loving ghosts of both father and uncle, who are well pleased with him. Potok draws in all the little details of Jewish family life which will be as virtuously familiar and comforting to his readership as it was . . . in the beginning. Read full book review >
MY NAME IS ASHER LEV by Chaim  Potok
Released: April 1, 1972

This features the agonizing young years of Asher Lev caught between the imperatives of his Hasid family's dynastic destiny and the forbidden visions of the goyische world of art. Asher's father exists, as did his fathers before him, within the rituals of prayer and sacrifice and does "good deeds" as the Brooklyn-based emissary of a Landovian Rebbe. He helps to establish schools, consolidate communities in Europe and to rescue Jews from Soviet oppression. But Asher, while haunted by his mythic ancestor calling him to follow his father, is also driven by his own compulsion to draw and paint. When it becomes obvious Asher cannot assume a preordained role, the Rebbe gives him a cautious blessing and Asher studies painting with Jacob Kahn, an elderly artist, while Asher's father deepens the silence which divides them. But his tormented mother is a weary voyager between the two, and it is Asher's knowledge of her suffering — a clearer vision of his own identity and an understanding of the many masks of atonement — that produce the masterpieces, two Crucifixions, which bring him both fame and exile. When Potok is writing of Crown Heights — the enclosed Hasidic structure of circumscribed piety, hierarchical certainties, and the close weave of obligations and dependencies — his work has a moving acuity. However the visual arts seem somewhat out of his reach and the creative impulse is articulated by Jacob in the declaratives of the Hemingway era: "I will teach you how to handle rage in color and line. You draw with too much love. . . ." But Potok, as in The Chosen, is able to sustain a singleminded gloomy intensity and will attract the same audience, assisted by the Literary Guild selection. Read full book review >
THE PROMISE by Chaim  Potok
Released: Sept. 15, 1969

This tributary from the surprisingly successful The Chosen (1967) pursues the careers of Reuven young Orthodox student awaiting his examination for the Rabbinate, and Danny, the "liberated" Hasid. Again the exigencies of their fathers' religious stances and accommodations are visited upon the sons. Reuven finds himself defending the critical methods of his father's scholarship before the thunderous attacks of his teacher, Rav Kalman, whose burning dedication survived the horrors of the concentration camp. Danny pursues his career in psychiatry, painfully feeling his way from the Hassidic vision of his father's leadership. Young Michael, son of Abraham Gordon, the brilliant and controversial "liberal" theologian, is almost destroyed by the virulence of his father's enemies. Danny, who eventually marries Rachel, Michael's cousin, takes over the treatment of the seriously ill boy and attempts a frightening "therapy of silence." As the crises are resolved some light illumines dark corners — Danny's father's acceptance of Rachel into the family; Rav Kalman's recognition of Reuven's reverence and strength of intellect; Michael's growing understanding of his parents. Somber, meticulous in religious matters, although a bit muddled in psychoanalytical processes and practices, with dialogue as thuddingly persistent as a pendulum, this is nonetheless, snugly secure in the wake of The Chosen. Read full book review >
THE CHOSEN by Chaim  Potok
Released: April 28, 1967

This first novel, ostensibly about the friendship between two boys, Reuven and Danny, from the time when they are fourteen on opposing yeshiva ball clubs, is actually a gently didactic differentiation between two aspects of the Jewish faith, the Hasidic and the Orthodox. Primarily the Hasidic, the little known mystics with their beards, earlocks and stringently reclusive way of life. According to Reuven's father who is a Zionist, an activist, they are fanatics; according to Danny's, other Jews are apostates and Zionists "goyim." The schisms here are reflected through discussions, between fathers and sons, and through the separation imposed on the two boys for two years which still does not affect their lasting friendship or enduring hopes: Danny goes on to become a psychiatrist refusing his inherited position of "tzaddik"; Reuven a rabbi.... The explanation, in fact exegesis, of Jewish culture and learning, of the special dedication of the Hasidic with its emphasis on mind and soul, is done in sufficiently facile form to engage one's interest and sentiment. The publishers however see a much wider audience for The Chosen. If they "rub their tzitzis for good luck,"—perhaps—although we doubt it. Read full book review >