The three books to be reviewed today were all written by Chaim Potok, an author well-known for his religious roots and focus on the Jewish plight.
And he is someone I consider to be the “Hayao Miyazaki” of literature. Both know know how to move his audience in the most subtle fashion through beautiful storytelling alone. Neither men resort to over-dramatized plots or soap opera-ish twists. With only the quiet tools of observation, Potok and Miyazaki convey their intent.
And the reason why I practically worship Chaim Potok is that he doesn’t resort to the cheap method of defaulting villains. Books and movies today ingrain us with this incredibly misleading notion that there’s always an inherent villain in our stories, that there’s always a “good guy” and a “bad guy.” But come on…people aren’t born villains. To label someone as a protagonist while labeling another as an antagonist is a frankly a cop-out method of selling stories, and I detest it. But Potok, like Miyazaki, fights against that mainstream. There is never one instance of that wholly evil or wholly corrupted antagonist in their stories, and I respect that from the bottom of my heart.
In this, Chaim Potok tells stories, not just a story. He shows us that if “good guys” and “bad guys” CAN learn to put aside differences and coexist as equal protagonists. Everyone’s stories are important. For that reason, today’s book review theme is COEXISTENCE, in which I’d like to celebrate an author whose books are all about empathy and learning to see the good in people.
The Chosen (1967)
“Honest differences of opinion should never be permitted to destroy a friendship,” he told me. “Haven’t you learned that yet, Reuven?”
The book’s plot starts off quite simply with a baseball game between two Jewish yeshivas in 1940’s New York. On opposites teams, Reuven Malter (son of a Zionist) and Danny Saunders (son of the Hasidic rebbe) meet on quite hostile terms for despite being of both Jewish Orthodoxy, Hasidic Jews are a more stringent faction that disdain of others more secular beliefs of Judaism. However, Danny and Reuven rapidly become best friends once they discover that they have much more in common than they realized, but their friendship is predictably hounded by their respective Jewish communities. And the fact that their fathers are key opposing leaders of the campaign to establish a secular Jewish homeland in Israel doesn’t help their friendship either. But in this way, The Chosen explores how two friends overcome such obstacles, and ultimately of how people can learn to understand one another through heart and soul alone.
Often when an author makes religious or political subjects the focus of his book, the characters are lacking–but that’s not the case here! Because while religion is a driving tool for the plot, the themes of family and friendship ultimately prevail as the prominent focus of this book. Reuven coming to realize Danny’s pain, Danny struggling to understand his father, the ways of raising a child to become compassionate–wow. Each character’s motivations are perceived in incredible depth. Therefore, I would highly recommend this book to anyone. Usually, I would take into account the person reading the book (age, preference, background), but the message of love and acceptance is so pervasive that I don’t think you need to be particularly religious or well-read to appreciate the wisdom this book has to offer. And bonus: the prose itself is fluid! The religious terms might be a bit tedious on first read, but Danny and Reuven’s stories are so consistently strong and well-paced that you can’t possibly lose the thread while reading this.
This is a book that I’ve read over at least 50 times since I was twelve, and I’m not even that religious. Yet I was flabbergasted by how much this book made me care about the characters, their beliefs, their motivations. WHAT a masterpiece. The Chosen made me cry every single time (freaking damn onions under my eyes) because the message is so hopeful and optimistic that you can’t help loving all the pain you went through to read it. So read it–you are missing out on something incredible here!
The Promise (1969)
“Each generation thinks it fights new battles. But the battles are the same. Only the people are different.”
A continuation of The Chosen, Reuven is now studying to earn his smicha from Hirch University, while Danny is in graduate school at Columbia University to become a psychologist. But here, the book focuses much more closely on Reuven himself by exploring parallels with a mentally disturbed kid called Michael. Once again, Reuven, through his compelling maturity and compassion, bonds with someone who is not very easy to get along with. But Michael’s self-destructive behavior prompts those around him to put him in therapy, and as he undergoes treatment under Danny’s supervision, Reuven comes to understand more things about himself and his life in his attempts to perceive this troubled child.
The moment I found out about this book 3 weeks ago, I scrambled to Barnes & Noble and snatched up the last copy off their shelves. This in itself wasn’t easy as I literally had to haunt three different chains before finding a B&N that actually carried this book. But seriously….HOW DID I NOT KNOW OF THIS SEQUEL BEFORE??! I feel really, really, really stupid that I found this book a whole freaking decade after reading The Chosen. I never knew it existed….sobs in a corner in shame Though initially, I was a bit skeptical that this sequel would measure up to the greatness of The Chosen….but lo and behold, Chaim Potok did it again. This book is wonderful, and I’m actually quite stunned by how easily Potok transitioned into this new universe. He introduces completely new (yet compelling) characters while at the same time connecting his readers with the old characters again on an even deeper psychological level. And really, wow–the cause of Michael’s anguish is left a befuddling mystery right till the end of the end, at which point coincides with Reuven’s conquest. I thought this was brilliant. Potok married two disjointed character storylines together so effortlessly.
I especially loved that this time around, Reuven was the one who needed help. Because in The Chosen, he spent so much time counseling and acting as the mature companion for his friend Danny that he himself didn’t really get a chance to address his own concerns and problems. But now here in The Promise, Reuven’s the one one unhinged. Still a polite, smart, and very well-adjusted individual, but it’s actually quite interesting to see how Reuven reacts when his values are continually being challenged, and how he overcomes them in the end. Very very interesting. I was ever so pleasantly surprised by how much I loved reading this book, and I think it’s the perfect sequel to The Chosen. A perfect duo–no exaggeration!
My Name Is Asher Lev (1972)
“Everything that lives must die so life would be precious. Something that is yours forever is never precious.”
Clearly an art prodigy from a young age, Asher Lev has an unbridled passion and need for art. But this soon becomes a point of concern for his parents who are strictly Orthodox Jews that tend to disdain any “self-centered” activities, and they attempt to discourage his art endeavors. Therefore, their rebbe sets Asher under the tutelage of the great Jakob Kahn (a very successful artist) in hopes that his guidance might prevent Asher from being entirely consumed by the modern secular world. And it’s from there that the book propels into action, chronicling Asher Lev’s rise to fame and the choices that he must make in order to protect his passion for art and his obligation to family.
Wow, this book made me NERVOUS, let me tell you. I almost felt unsure about what was going on in the book, likely due to Asher Lev’s withdrawn and almost reticent nature. The Chosen and The Promise were very well-articulated, but that’s because the characters themselves were well-articulated–Reuven, who’s a very smart and well-adjusted boy in The Chosen, is the complete opposite of Asher Lev, who’s not at all expressive and certainly not in touch with himself or the world. For while Asher is a genius who perceives the world in a different and interesting light, he is often clueless to the needs and frustrations of the people around him, and that gives this book a consistently muted and strangled atmosphere; yet you know the tension is there, bubbling underneath the surface and ready to explode God knows when. However, it was really great viewing the world from the shoes of a misunderstood genius, and Potok conveys his world so freaking well. And YIKES, the guts to dump such an open-ended finale on us right at the end–Potok really seemed to be affirming the dogged nature of this book’s moral: that life’s gonna throw shit at you, but you go on if you allow yourself to. Because that’s what the ending suggested–that Asher Lev will go on. After all, he’d persevered through so many obstacles (his mother’s mental instability, his dismal schooling, his father’s anger), and he’ll persevere more in his life. It was heart-wrenching and uplifting conclusion at the same time.
Now what I found really interesting was that while I certainly sympathized with Asher Lev–because he’s sincerely torn between his love for art and family–I also understood why his parents didn’t get him. Asher’s not great at explaining himself! It was simple as that. Heck, he wasn’t even that great at understanding his family either, and the miscommunication between them was really like a bird trying to explain to a fish why it’s gotta fly, and a fish trying to explain to a bird why it’s gotta swim–their values and language were too different for the two to effectively communicate their intents. And that’s what led to that explosive finale. I thought that this was a really, really interesting facet of the book, because My Name Is Asher Lev ultimately demonstrates that you can’t despise or resent anyone for who they are–because life never works that way.
So Chaim Potok always does a really incredible job telling stories, not just a story.
I’ve cried and smiled each time I read his works. Not only are they compelling and page-turning, but they also radiate an overwhelming sense of love and acceptance. Always written from the good, unbiased heart, all his characters are given a fair motivation that shows that no one is born a villain in this world, that we can ALL live as protagonists with equally relevant stories–and for that I salute you, Master Potok.