In my early twenties I went through a period as a reader and writer that a friend who thought I had the potential to be a great writer – thinking, perhaps, of Picasso’s “Blue Period” and such – vaingloriously called my “Jewish Period.” (It came close upon my “Steinbeck Period,” which was in fact a continuation and expansion of my earlier reading of that American author in high school.) During that period, anyway, I read a variety of works by such as Elie Wiesel, Isaac Bashevis Singer (I loved “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy,” including Barbra Streisand’s particularly American adaptation!), and Bernard Malamud. I also read the screenplay of the documentary Shoah and other Holocaust-related works, as well as the paperback of popular Jewish-American writer Chaim Potok’s history of the Jews called Wanderings.But my obsession at the time were Potok’s novels starting with The Chosen, that masterful tale of friendship and its “worth and choice” (he cites Ben Jonson’s phrase in an epigraph), and its sequel The Promise; followed immediately by My Name is Asher Lev, the moving story of a Hasidic youth whose artistic gift leads him toward a painful break from his family and faith tradition, and In the Beginning, about which more later. I became particularly fond of The Book of Lights with its departure from primarily American to Korean soil, a novel whose protagonist was a Jewish chaplain during that 1950’s-era conflict and which explores quite intriguingly the world of Jewish mysticism. Davita’s Harp was I believe his only novel that was written from the perspective of a young woman, and the female protagonist was as sharply drawn and as strong a character as any of the men. Later would come The Gift of Asher Lev, which revisited from a later perspective the terrain of his third novel.
Potok was criticized sometimes for being a popularizer as well as writing children’s voices that were much more sophisticated than the voices of children that we commonly know. But as for the latter criticism, I think that he wrote mainly of children who were indeed much like he must have been as a child and youth, embryo really of the man who brought such intellectual rigor to his writings. Perhaps the focus on mostly male and always precocious characters represents a literary limitation in his work, but that hardly diminishes the achievement. The first three novels, in particular, remain popular classics for young readers as well as adults, and they are remarkable for the apparent ease with which he establishes for non-Jewish readers the background necessary to understanding the world of Hasidic Jews and their more liberal counterparts inNew York City, in particular.
During that period, though I am not a Jew, I also wrote a “Jewish” story called “Joseph bin Jacob,” which however flawed was I like to think a rather majestic failure in terms of the promise it contained. A particularly strong passage dealt with an encounter with Gypsies inArgentinawhere as a yet younger man I had served a Mormon mission. The central encounter between a Jewish-Mormon missionary and an old French immigrant gentleman who turns out to be a rabidly irrational anti-Semite was also strong, I think, though a Jewish professor whom I asked to read it commented that while quite interesting a Jewish readership would probably not relate to it. There were other problems with the story, but Potok’s influence was also present in it as I imitated his tendency to delve into psychological realms by staging hallucinated or dreamt dialogues between living beings and their dead ancestors.
I mention all of this to demonstrate that at the very least, though not a Jew, I am no anti-Semite. My own practice at the time of Mormonism was in fact much indebted to Judaism for its keen sense of intellectual engagement with Talmudic sources and with the Torah, an intellectual rigor so expertly and movingly captured by Potok in his novels. Some images from those novels continue to stand out vividly in my memory, none more than the image of Asher Lev’s agnostic teacher of art drawn on the occasion of Simchas Torah – by his still devout young protegé – into a religious ecstasy of dancing:
“… I danced with a Torah scroll – and there on the edge of the crowd of thousands that always came to watch our joy on that day was Jacob Kahn. I pulled him into the line and we held the Torah together and danced. His small dark skullcap was as awkward on his head as was the grasp of his fingers upon the Torah. But we held it together and we danced.”
Potok’s central theme was always the beauty that occurs at the often intensely painful meetings between cultures. It is in this context that I refer back to the novel In the Beginning, in which the young David Lurie is a naive observer of his father’s passionate conversations with like-minded friends on militant Zionism. It was Potok’s gift to reveal with deep sympathy the understandable passion of the immediate victims of the Holocaust while simultaneously revealing those same violent impulses for what they are: human passions that left to fester might be damaging to the religious spirit inspiring them.
And so I approach at last the reason for this post, which is related to the so poignant and so discouraging Israeli-Palestinian conflict of our present day. I should hope it would be understood that to criticize an Israeli policy of excessive force and obstinate provocation of their Palestinian neighbors is not to be anti-Israel or even remotely anti-Semite. Voices of sycophantic flattery who allege that, because of the great crime of humanity that the Holocaust represents, Israel can now do no wrong in its war of self-defense against an eternal Arab enemy – well, these flatterers and hounds of perpetual war are no true friends of Israel given the very great price that everyone involved in that conflict is bound to pay without a genuine effort on behalf of human understanding and peace. Surely no greater evidence of Potok’s thesis on cultural conflict and beauty exists than in the contestedterritoryofIsraelandPalestineat the present moment.
But the dialogue at present is so charged with invective that one can hardly speak a word of reason on that account, and to challenge Israeli policy is to invite the mischaracterization of an anti-Semite. As the editors at the new website Bumba Broadsides suggest, the American public is sorely uninformed or misinformed on this issue. The journalism necessary to really shed some light is out there but only on the margins, scarcely if at all represented in the mainstream media. For that reason I am pleased to publicize an excellent piece of on-the-ground reporting from that website, courtesy of a young American who has just been in Palestine and is soon returning. I urge my readers to check out this important piece of writing at the following address: http://bumbabroadsides.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/the-west-bank-a-view-from-the-ground/. I hope you will find it profitable and that somehow, out of this morass of too often willful hatreds and misunderstanding, the seeds of a lasting reconciliation between two great and suffering peoples might still be planted and grow.