Chaim Potok--American Author Challenge January 2019
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Herman Harold Potok was born in 1929 to Polish parents with ties to Hasidic traditions, and was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home. He was given the Hebrew name Chaim, and received an Orthodox education. As a teenager, he read Brideshead Revisited, and was transported to another world, one inhabited by upper-class British Catholics. He began writing fiction himself, optimistically submitting a story to The Atlantic Monthly at the age of 17. He received a B.A. in English literature from Yeshiva University, where he was first published in its literary journal. Following graduation, he went on to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, from which he was ordained as a Conservative rabbi. He did graduate studies in English, Philosophy and Theology at various times in his life. In 1955 he enlisted in the US Army, serving as a chaplain in South Korea for 2 years, again becoming fascinated with another religion, as well as with another world—one in which there were no Jews, and no trace of anti-Semitism. He served on the faculty of several Jewish universities, edited two Jewish publications, and worked with young people in Conservative summer camps and youth organizations. For 7 years he and his family lived in Israel.
Potok’s first novel, The Chosen, is also probably his best known work. It was published in 1967 to much critical and popular acclaim. It is the story of two boys, one from the Hasidic community and one from a slightly more worldly Conservative Jewish family. Their friendship developed despite the challenges brought about by the differences in their life-styles, and Potok used this device brilliantly to explore those differences for a wider, non-Jewish audience. It was the first book dealing with Orthodox Judaism in this way to be published in the United States. Most of Potok’s subsequent fiction is also concerned with the conflict between religious and secular interests.
In addition to his novels, Potok wrote plays, stories for children, scholarly articles and two non-fiction works Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews and Old Men at Midnight. He also painted in a style reminiscent of Chagall, and created a real-life version of the fictional Brooklyn Crucifixion painting described in his novel, My Name is Asher Lev.
Chaim Potok died in 2002 of brain cancer. His correspondence, lectures, sermons and other papers are in the collection of the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught graduate seminars for several years before his death.
The General Discussion Thread for the 2019 AAC is here.
I have read at least 3, possibly more, titles by Potok. I should probably reread them, though, because I read them eons ago and have little recollection apart from the knowledge that I loved his writing. However, since I have more books than years left to read, I rarely reread. So, I will read a volume I have in my house right now called The Gift of Asher Lev. I am also fairly certain I have a copy of Davita's Harp somewhere in this house but for the moment, I have not been able to locate it.
Thanks again for setting this all up Linda.
I'll be reading My Name is Asher Lev for January. It will be my first Potok.
The Chosen was one of my favorite books when I was a teen (a long time ago!) I think I need to read it again, as an adult. And I'm hoping to fit in a few more Potoks in January. Looking forward to it!
I read The Chosen some time ago and absolutely loved it. I enjoyed the sequel, though not quite as much. Tried My Name Is Asher Lev about ten years back and just couldn't get into it. I'm waffling between a reread of The Chosen and reading Davita's Harp, which I've never tried and have on hand. Leaning slightly toward the one that will be new to me, I think.
What a grand mix we have of people who already love Potok, and people who have never read him at all. For those with several of his novels under their belts already, I can recommend the collection of short fiction, Old Men at Midnight in which Davita Chandal reappears and is the common denominator, as well as the excellent non-fiction piece of Russian history, The Gates of November.
>12 laytonwoman3rd: thank you! I am going to check our library system for those.
I have ordered a copy of The Chosen and I should have it by the weekend. Surprisingly, it wasn’t available on kindle or audiobook. I haven’t come across Chaim Potok before, but it sounds interesting.
>13 fuzzi: I hope you can get one or the other.
>14 alcottacre: I'm pretty sure it's non-fiction, Stasia, although I see some people have tagged it fiction. Some of the people in it are listed as co-authors, and I understand it is based on Potok's interviews with them in Russia.
>15 SandDune: Good. I really think you'll enjoy it.
>17 fuzzi: Old Men at Midnight was just 'ok' for me. I will be interested to see what you think of it.
From The Gates of November: "The atmosphere in the room was disquieting; it seemed to quiver with barely suppressed apprehension. Someone once said that the only true question we ought to ask one another is: 'What are you going through?' Probably in the course of this evening the question would be answered without ever being asked. It was a desperate way for people like these to sustain life and hope: through strangers dropping in from the sky."
I do so love the way that Potok writes! He paints such a vivid picture in my head.
>18 alcottacre: - Hmm, interesting to hear this. I am still looking for my copy (that I know is somewhere in this house!) of Davita's Harp but instead I found Old Men at Midnight and have decided to read this one instead of the one I originally planned to read, (The Gift of Asher Lev), mainly because Old Men is paperback and The Gift is a heavier hard back and I am travelling on Thursday and don't want to lug a hardcover on the train and home again.
>20 streamsong: hahahahaha!!!!!!!!!
(I'm that way, too)
I loved Asher Lev when I read it a few years ago. My mother was a big Potok fan but I'd not gotten around to checking out his works until then.
If I recall (without peeking), I gave Asher Lev either 4 1/2 or 5 stars.
EDIT: I peeked, I gave it 5 stars back in 2014.
I read My Name is Asher Lev in 2017 and gave it five stars. I highly recommend it.
I’ve never read anything by Potok but I’m planning to read The Chosen which has been on my shelf for about ten years.
I'm nearing the end of The Chosen. Although I know I read it and was impressed with it decades ago, I find I remember very few details, just the overall sense of friendship overcoming differences. I am once more very impressed with the story, and marveling a bit at what I must have made of it in my early 20's, when I had a much narrower grasp of the historical and philosophical issues embedded in it.
>19 jessibud2: I do not blame you! I would not want to be lugging around heavy hardbacks while I am traveling either.
I requested My Name is Asher Lev as a library Kindle loan yesterday; it was checked out at the time so I thought it might take a week or more. But no, I got it later in the day. Okay, so, I guess that's what I'm reading now. 😀
I started reading last night and am quite intrigued. A few years ago, quite by accident, my husband and I found ourselves walking through a Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn. It was our first visit to Brooklyn and we were actually a little lost. Now we know the area a bit better, and this book makes me want to know more about Brooklyn's Jewish community(ies). I'm off to do some Googling ...
My Name is Asher Lev is set in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Asher's family is described as "Ladover." I found a source describing Ladover Hasidism as a fictional sect, bearing the most resemblance to the Lubavitch Hasiddim, "one of the most open and worldly of the Hasidic groups." The Lubavitch hasidic movement was based in Crown Heights.
I found more context about the Lubavitch Hasidim and Crown Heights in this primer on Brooklyn's Jewish Communities:
I assume the "outreach activities" are the reason Asher's father travels so much for the Rebbe?
>25 laytonwoman3rd: I started reading the first few pages of The Chosen yesterday and all of a sudden old synapses clicked. Robby Benson. I read the book and saw the film in the early 80's. I don't really remember the story but as soon as i started reading it was all completely familiar. I suppose I wasn't overwhelmed with it back then because i certainly don't remember it as a favorite. I may or may not get back to it at the end of the month to re-read. I don't have an urge to, but I'm glad everyone seems to be enjoying it.
I picked up a copy of The Chosen for 50 cents at a used bookstore. I'll be reading it.
I started Old Men at Midnight last night and so far, so good. One of the main characters is Davita and the *harp* is already manifesting as a major *thing* for her so I will assume she is the same character as the one is his Davita's Harp, which of course, I will now have to find and read. Maybe I should have found a copy before reading this one but since I am not at home at the moment, I will just finish this one and find Davita later.
Chaim Potok is the author who made me love books. I picked up a copy of My Name is Asher Lev at a second hand bookshop when I lived in Australia (there were many copies of it, it must have been prescribed reading for a school), and I think it's fait to say it changed my life. It remains my favourite book of all time.
>40 LovingLit: I think every one of us has a story like that....I love hearing them.
I finished Old Men at Midnight. In fact, it is really 3 novellas, linked by one common character who appears in each, at different ages. I liked the first and the third sections well enough, did not like the second at all. The bulk of Potok's writing, in this book at least (I read most of his others too many years ago to remember them in this way) seems to be more tangent than straight storyline. An interesting construct but it sometimes felt awkward. I wish the first novella had been longer, and more developed. I felt left hanging when it was over, expecting the second section to pick up the story but it didn't. I think this reinforces for me precisely why I generally do not enjoy short stories.
Oh well... win some, lose some.
I must say, though, that I think I will find my hidden copy (somewhere in my house) of Davita's Harp as it is her character that appears in each of the 3 sections of the one I just finished and Davita's Harp, as far as I know, is a full length novel.
edited to add in a line I underlined; couldn't help myself:
"In my world we sized people up by the books they read and the libraries in their homes."
Hehe, Potok could have been an LTer!
I am halfway through The Gates of November and really enjoying one of Potok's forays into nonfiction. I suspect though, that unless you are interested in Russian history post-revolution, the book might not catch you up as it has me. The writing, as expected from Potok, is excellent and the story is well-told.
-Guernica, Pablo Picasso 1937
^This painting is featured prominently in My Name Asher Lev. I am not sure what is exactly happening in this painting but I still find it intriguing. I am well into the second half of the novel and truly loving it. I am so glad I finally pulled this one down off the shelf:
"Those mornings, the beach was my synagogue and the waves and the gulls were audience to my prayers. I stood on the beach and felt wind-blown sprays of ocean on my face, and I prayed. And sometimes the words seemed more appropriate to this beach than to the synagogue on my street."
>45 alcottacre: That landed on my mat today Stasia, though probably won't be read this month.
>46 msf59: Darryl read about this painting last year, and I think has seen it, he might be able to give you some info that will help you understand it Mark.
I'm on the last ten pages of My Name is Asher Lev and will finish it before bed. A brilliant read. I've ordered the sequel: The Gift of Asher Lev. In the meantime I may read The Chosen in the second half of the month.
My Name is Asher Lev (Chaim Potok) (09/01/19) *****
A wonderful novel on so many levels. The writing is fine and vivid. You can feel what it is like living in that family, in that community. Every character has depth.
I learnt about Judaism, art and art criticism. I learnt about the problems art can create in such an environment. I understood better the power some art can have.
Even some of the finest art historians can struggle to describe for you the image they can see, but I saw all Asher Lev's paintings, even though he rarely offered up the colours.
This 320 pages are epic.
I am looking forward to the sequel The Gift of Asher Lev landing on the mat.
I also recently finished My Name is Asher Lev, and agree with Caroline's sentiments (>49 Caroline_McElwee:). It was an amazing book. The climax is intense and emotional, and Potok takes his time building up to it. I kept hoping there would be a way to avoid the inevitable. It was really powerful.
>50 laytonwoman3rd: thanks for the reminder, Linda. That's a very good representation of what he describes in the book.
>46 msf59: Mark, Guernica is one of Picasso's most famous works. I had the opportunity to see it last year when visiting Madrid. It's huge, with much to explore, and you can't help but feel its impact. I found this source with more background on the painting. Here's a snippet from the opening paragraphs:
Probably Picasso's most famous work, Guernica is certainly the his most powerful political statement, painted as an immediate reaction to the Nazi's devastating casual bombing practice on the Basque town of Guernica during Spanish Civil War.
>47 Caroline_McElwee: I hope you like it when you get to it, Caroline.
The Gates of November is a terrific nonfiction book by Potok. The story is told about a father and son, who are fundamentally different. There is no favoritism shown by Potok as he writes first of the father and his experiences, mainly post-revolution, and the son, who becomes the opposite - fighting for the right to leave Communist Russia and emigrate to Israel. I found the book well worth the read and gave it 4.5 stars.
>49 Caroline_McElwee:, >51 lauralkeet: I am clearly going to have to revisit My Name is Asher Lev; I know I read it years ago, but I don't remember being as impressed as you two have been with it. That tells me that I may not have been "ready" for it at the time, and it deserves more of my attention. Thank you for your excellent reviews.
>52 alcottacre: I thought The Gates of November was very powerful, Stasia. And I loved this quote from Potok's epilogue: "Can we learn something from these chronicles about iron righteousness and rigid doctrine, about the stony heart, the sealed mind, the capricious use of law, and the tragedies that often result when theories are not adjusted to realities?"
>53 laytonwoman3rd: I think I might be in the same place with The Chosen. I read it either in my teens or in college, and I'm sure it would make a different impression now.
>31 RBeffa: You know, I don't think I ever saw the movie. I wonder if it did justice to the book. Anyone else remember it?
>55 laytonwoman3rd: I recall I liked the movie a lot. I believe I read the book after the film (I have a few penciled notes in my paperback that suggest that). I haven't gotten back to the book yet but I still have a lot of month to go! Potok's books are sure getting a lot of praise here.
I'm just finishing The Chosen and I found it just as compelling and well-written as I did when I was a teenager (long ago and far away). I've just requested the movie version because I remember it as being a great visualization of the book. I'm reading Old Men at Midnight during the rest of the month.
Chaim Potok for the January AAC seems a solid "win" for me!
>53 laytonwoman3rd: I agree about the epilogue, Linda. Potok certainly makes some good points in it. The part where he discusses America was, I thought, very telling especially given the current political climate.
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