Chaim Potok and the Problem of
Assimilation for the American Jew
America has been a country of immigrants since Europeans first settled it over five hundred years ago. America has always faced the problem of assimilation, a challenge faced by every country with a considerable immigrant population. Because immigrants founded America, her culture is a combination of the cultures of other countries. Should these immigrants isolate themselves from the mainstream American culture, or should they sacrifice the culture of their homelands for the benefits American culture has to offer? Judaism, one of the world’s oldest religions, has remained strong over its six thousand year history by remaining distinct ? and isolated ? from other cultures. Chaim Potok, in his books The Chosen, My Name is Asher Lev, In the Beginning, and The Book of Lights, focuses on this conflict between Orthodox Judaism and the secular world.
Many of Chaim Potok’s characters want the American Jewry to remain isolated from the mainstream American culture:
The world kills us! The world flays our skin from our bodies and throws us into the flames! The world laughs at Torah! And if it does not kill us, it tempts us! It misleads us! It contaminates us! It asks us to join in its ugliness, its abominations! (The Chosen 127)
The Chosen ?deals with the problems Jews have faced in trying to preserve their heritage ? in particular, the problem of how to deal with the danger of assimilation? (Young)). The Jews have always been professionals occupying jobs in medicine, law, education, and other fields requiring a college degree. American Jews, however, face a dilemma: ?Ideas from this secular world inevitably impinge upon an individual born in a church community or a synagogue community, especially when that individual embarks ona college experience? (Potok 2). American Jews must either take on nonprofessional jobs, assuming an identity completely different from that of European Jews, or expose themselves to secular America. Isolation is thoroughly impractical for the American Jew.
Chaim Potok’s works often focus on main characters whose talents draw them to the outside world:
When individuals are brought up in the heart of such a community or culture [as Danny’s and Reuven’s] they learn to commit themselves to its values ? They see the world through the system of values of that unique community. At the same time, however, they experience important ideas or values that come from the world outside their community (Potok 1).
In the Beginning deals with a young Jewish boy who stumbles on a scientific way to analyze the Bible. He is able to understand difficult passages but his community disapproves of his technique (Potok 6). In The Chosen, Danny Saunder’s brilliance leads him to read books forbidden by his father; these books present view points contradictory to what his community believes, and he must reconcile his newfound knowledge with his upbringing (Potok 2). My Name is Asher Lev focuses on a Jewish child with an amazing gift for art. Judaism has always discouraged art because it borders on the idolatry of Paganism and the iconography of Christianity. Asher Lev must reconcile his need to create art with his cultural ties (Potok 5). Potok’s novels feature characters whose extraordinary gifts cause them to interact with the secular world as well as their Jewish communities.
Chaim Potok emphasizes the connection between Orthodox Jewry and the secular world by having his characters react to major historical events (PinkMonkey.com). The Book of Lights is set against the Korean War. In that novel, Gershon Loran travels to Korea and Japan, two countries that have never been influenced by Judaism. Loran has always been taught that Judaism is the civilizing force in Western Civilization. He must reconcile his own faith in the supremity of Judaism with this beauty that was created without any Jewish impact (Potok 6-7). The Chosen deals with the aftermath of the Holocaust and the Zionist movement. In this novel the characters handle the news of the Holocaust in different ways: Reb Saunders seeks an answer from God, while David Malther becomes a Zionist, working in the world to prevent such travesties from occurring again (Young). Reb Saunders does not believe in the Zionist movement because the Messiah has not yet come, which the Torah clearly states must happen before a Jewish state can be created.
In Potok’s novels the characters’ interactions with the secular world help them define themselves. His novel The Chosen ?teaches the fact that certain things may happen in your life, and from there on out, you’re changed forever. A new outlook, a new perspective? ([emailprotected]). Danny Saunders is both the protagonist and the antagonist of the story; the novel s about his struggle to accept his Hasidic upbringing, which conflicts with his study of Sigmund Freud (PinkMonkey.com). Freud did not believe in a supernatural; with no supernatural, Freud says, religion is an ?infantile delusion of the species which we all ought to outgrow? (qtd. Potok 3). Danny’s community has always been centered on religion. Should he disregard everything Freud teaches, or should he accept the fact that everything he ever knew was false, that his entire world was a sham? Danny eventually embraces Freud’s view of man but not his view of religion. This struggle serves as the catalyst for Danny’s chrysalis from youth to adulthood (Potok 3). Reuven helps Danny reconcile his feelings about Freud with his Hasidic upbringing. During the course of the novel the boys both have to choose their career; the novel is about ?finding one’s place in the world rather than letting it be assigned by others (Stanbro). Danny and Reuven ?must choose for themselves which elements to retain and which to reject from their traditions? (Stanbro). The novel is ?about learning to take different positions. It is about the importance of interaction with our problems? (greglor). Reuven and Danny initially become good friends because of an accident in a baseball game. The baseball games were advocated primarily by the English teachers:
To the rabbis who taught in the Jewish parochial schools, baseball was an evil waste of time, a spawn of the potentially assimilationist English portion of the yeshiva day. But to the students of most of the parochial schools, an inter-league baseball victory had come to take on only a shade of less significance than a top grade in Talmud, for it was an unquestioned mark of one’s Americanism, and to be counted a loyal American had become increasingly important to us during these last years of the war (The Chosen 12).
Danny and Reuven would never have become friends if they had stayed within their communities; they only came to know each other through a ?potentially assimilationist? activity. Both boys grew to maturity because their friendship introduced them to experiences outside of their childhood communities.
Chaim Potok’s books often focus on the pain characters cause themselves and their communities when they choose to embrace the secular world rather than Orthodox or Hasidim Judaism ([emailprotected]). The Chosen begins with Reuven Malther being injured in a baseball game. His assailant is Danny Saunders
who is driven to violence by his pent-up torment, who feels imprisoned by the tradition that destines him to succeed his awesome father in an unbroken line of Hasidic rabbis, while his own restless intelligence is beginning to reach out into the forbidden areas of secular knowledge (The Chosen: Synopsis).
In The Chosen, Potok contrasts Reuven Malther, who was raised to think for himself, with Danny Saunders, who was raised to accept his father’s Hasidic ideologies (PinkMonkey.com). Both boys choose a path different from what their fathers would have preferred: Danny Saunders becomes a psychologist, and Reuven a rabbi. Danny’s choice to become a psychologist, however, is much harder than Reuven’s choice to become a rabbi because Danny’s culture has taught him that the will of the community is more important than the will of the individual (PinkMonkey.com). David Malther, because he is a teacher and a scholar, is more open to secular ideas and is willing to let his son choose his career. Reb Saunders, on the other hand, has always tried to protect his community from what he sees as the impurities of the world (Young); the idea that his eldest son would choose to be a psychologist, a secular profession, rather than a rabbi is disgraceful to him. Reb Saunders is tormented by his son’s brilliance:
The master of the Universe blessed me with a brilliant son. And he cursed me with all the problems of raising him ? When my Daniel was four years old, I saw him reading a story from a book ? about a poor Jew and his struggles to get to Eretz Yisroel before he died. Ah, how the man suffered! And my Danny enjoyed the story ? he realized for the first time what a memory he had! (The Chosen 263-264).
To Reb Saunders, compassion is more important than intelligence. His son, however, is plagued with a mind so brilliant that he cannot have a soul as compassionate as his father would like.
Chaim Potok’s two most famous novels, The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev, both focus on a brilliant son who chooses a career in the secular world, much to the disappointment of their fathers. These books, in addition to The Book of Lights and In the Beginning, also focus on the problem of Jewish assimilation into mainstream American culture. Chaim Potok’s novels are distinctly Jewish yet contain universal themes that apply to everyone, regardless of ethnic background.