Chaim Potok has become one of my favorite authors. My wife met him once while interning at a theatre in Philadelphia. They were putting on a stage adaptation of the Jewish writer’s first novel, The Chosen. That encounter with him and his work led her to pick up some of his books at the used bookstore. So when I was looking around for a book to read a couple of years ago, he was right in my house waiting to be discovered. I recently finished In the Beginning, about a boy named David Lurie who is an exceptional student at the yeshiva (Jewish school)—a voracious reader with an amazing mind and memory. His coming of age grows along the intersection of intellectual, familial and religious lines. The historical backdrop is New York City, post-WWI through post-WWII, which provides rich and terrifying tension as each character struggles with Western anti-Semitism throughout while horrors beyond their imagination eventually come to light with the defeat of Hitler in Europe.
In each of the books I’ve read (The Chosen, its sequel The Promise, My Name is Asher Lev, In the Beginning), the principle character (and narrator) is a Jewish boy of rare giftedness whose coming of age includes those lines mentioned above with David Lurie in In the Beginning. The struggle is chiefly about identity–where the tensions of communal obligation vs. personal prerogative and religious tradition vs. modern Western secularism collide. But each story plays on the theme in a unique way. The boys find themselves in conversation with the secular world on different topics and Potok uses these characters to engage some of the major challenges to conservative faith of the twentieth century—psychology, art, and biblical criticism. In each novel, I felt invited to see the issues from various points of view, represented by various characters.
I enjoy that Potok manages to write beautifully while moving the story along at a nice pace—somewhere between John Updike (whom I read slowly) and John Grisham (whom I read quickly), though I have set his novels down for a time and returned to them (But I tend to read several books at once). To read his books is to enter another world, exposing the reader to a cultural education in the Jewish world in New York City through the beginning and middle of the century. This is a world very different from my own (a Methodist in the Bible Belt of East Texas in the last quarter of the 20th century), yet with remarkable points of connection for anyone who wrestles with faithfulness within one’s religious identity and genuine engagement with the world. The stories press the question, “What does it mean to be developing a distinct identity and engage in serious conversation with radically different worldviews and presuppositions than those of my community?” This question makes them wonderful and quite useful for Christians who endeavor to take both the faith and the world in which we live it seriously.
(If you’ve read some of the books I have, you might enjoy this interview I found quite interesting in Christianity Today. It was originally conducted not long after In the Beginning came out in the mid-1970s. It discusses especially that novel and My Name is Asher Lev.)