Walking his collie one evening, Chaim Potok encountered a Hasidic couple (the most Orthodox of Jews) and their young son - people cloistered from the world: no TV, no newspapers, no movies. "Look, Papa," the young boy said in Yiddish, as they passed Potok's dog, "Lassie!"
The story, told at a recent lecture at the University of Utah, is a perfect microcosm of the cultural conflicts that Potok explores in his best-selling fiction.Potok was in Utah for a tour sponsored by the Utah Endowment for the Humanities and by Friends of the Humanities. Besides the U., he also spoke in Blanding, Price and Vernal.
"I would urge an individual caught up in a struggle of this kind to learn his own culture thoroughly and to learn the second culture to the best of his or her ability so that when choices are made, they're made out of knowledge and not out of ignorance," Potok counseled.
Asked if the Mormon culture could create conflict and tension, Potok said, "I think anyone born into a small and particular world experiences this tension. It makes no difference what it is; it could be a family, a small town, a church community. Indeed, it could even be a secular world."
"I see an on-going dynamic," Potok said. "At times the old ways give way to the new ways, at times the new ways give way to the old ways. Today we see a kind of renaissance of faith, of fundamentalism, in many areas of the planet, not only in Christendom but in Islam and Judaism. That's the pendulum swinging in another direction, away from the secularism of the early part of this century," he said.
Potok, author of "The Chosen," "The Book of Lights," "Davita's Harp," "In the Beginning," "My Name Is Asher Lev" and "The Promise," shared insights about his work. "What I'm writing about are individuals who know their cultures, who've grown up in the heart of their cultures and at the same time come across elements from the heart of the general civilization we all live in."
Potok offered a glimpse into the significance of names in his fictional work. Gershon Loran is a rabbinical student who becomes caught up in the study of the kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, in "The Book of Lights." When I asked if the name Gershon was suggested by the famous kabbalah scholar, Gershom Scholem, Potok said, "Sure. Also, in Hebrew Gershon means `I was a stranger there' and Loran is a long-range navigation device that the American armed forces used in the Second World War, and that's what he tries to do: some heavy navigating through the chaos of his life."
Potok's advice for young writers is succinct: "If you're asking yourself, `Should I be a writer or a carpenter?' I would urge you to be a carpenter. In other words, if you're at a point where you're making a choice, then don't be a writer. If you say to yourself, `I'm a writer whether I succeed or fail, this is all I can do with my life, I have no choice in the matter,' then there are certain things I can say to you to do. The first thing I would say to you is to read and to write. The second thing I would say to you is to read and to write. And that's the third, fourth, fifth and sixth thing I would say to you," Potok said.
"Make the great masses of creative art and literature your teacher and write. Write and write and write. And say to yourself that you're prepared for a 10-year apprenticeship. Because that's how long it may very well take before you discover whether or not you have a special voice."
"The best technical advice I could give is that the writing really occurs in the rewriting. The first draft is there to be thrown out."
Potok fears for today's children. "If kids don't know where the Pacific Ocean is, we're doomed! If a kid thinks that the Holocaust is a Jewish festival - what does that say about the way we're educating our children?" But he has hopes as well as fears, since children will be the focus for his new books. He is basing his future fiction on the relationships of his books' protagonists with the children they now have. The book Potok is working on is a sequel that should be completed in March. "I'm continuing the story of Asher Lev," Potok said.
In the first book, Asher Lev is a Jewish artist drawn, almost against his will, to use the theme of crucifixion in his paintings. I asked Potok if he ran into problems with Orthodox Jews because of this.
"Absolutely - very serious problems, and I run into them to this day. There are those who certainly have not forgiven me for that," Potok said. "It's a horrible thing for him (Lev) to have done because for Jews, the crucifixion instantaneously triggers images of rivers of Jewish blood because of the deicide charge.
"How could he have taken the central religious theme of a civilization that's killed tens and tens of thousands of Jews all through the centuries and used that as the central theme of two of his greatest paintings? Because it's the only theme available to him that he can use to express suffering, torment. There is no other theme in Western Art that he can use, and that's the dilemma. Does he do it or does he not?
"Now here's an instance in a confrontation of cultures where a high price is paid - he's asked to leave his community, he's sent into exile," Potok said.
"In the book that I'm continuing now - 20 years later, in the year 1988 something happens that forces him back. Now he has children and he has remained a religious Jew outside that community. So he has problems now with his children because they want to know why he's painting crucifixions.
"All these people are now in their 40s, they now have children, so I'm going to be dealing with them as fathers and mothers. . . . Davita will be my writer; Reuven Malter will be my Talmud scholar; Gershon Loran will be my kabbalist, my mystic; Danny Saunders will be my psychoanalyst; Asher Lev is my artist, and it's with those individuals that I hope to explore where is art today in the final decades of the 20th century."