Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Reading Chaim Potok

There is a wrenchingly powerful passage in Chaim Potok’s The Promise, in which an elderly Rabbi, a great Talmudist who has survived the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and come to the USA, sees in the New York Times reports of the death sentences being upheld against the Rosenbergs. His voice shakes with terror, sure that pogroms must surely follow. He is almost incapable of comprehending the answers of his young American Jewish student, who tries to reassure him that he is living in a different world now. It’s a heartbreaking scene.
I was told this morning that Melbourne, where I’m writing this, has the largest population of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel, greater than that of New York or London. This makes it an even more poignant place to read Potok’s account.
I love Chaim Potok’s accounts of Orthodox Jewish life in Brooklyn. I love the exquisite detail with which he renders daily life in a community which is at once terrifically insular and yet incredibly close-knit and resilient. It chimes with the times which Jewish friends have invited me for Seder or Shabbat dinner, and the glimpses that has given me into a sense of community which I – brought up in middle-class, Anglican-agnostic, white, car-dependent, suburban London – can barely relate to. And yet Potok never romanticises this life, but shows the damage its inward-looking ways can also wreak on those who can’t conform to them.
I also love Potok’s depictions of an environment in which study and learning and the search for knowledge and truth is absolutely the most beautiful and important thing in the world. Again, it’s not romanticised – one of Potok’s main themes is the bitter, vicious battles of ideas that can go on in such an atmosphere. Books like The Promise, The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev challenge me; they show me the precious, fragile, beautiful things about this way of life, and yet how little those chime with my main experiences of Brooklyn Hasidim – or at least those who have made the journey to Israel and become some of the most violent, intolerant, dangerous settlers in the West Bank. I assume Potok’s politics are in some form Zionist – his books don’t explore the subject in detail, but do touch on it occasionally. Sympathetic characters express Zionist sentiments, but he also refers to deeply religious Jews who see the existence of the State of Israel as a heresy, like the modern Neturei Karta.
I think Potok’s books also have such power for me because of their setting: Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, Eastern Parkway, Prospect Park. For me, that’s the setting for the most scarring, gorgeous and painful love affair of my life, a bitter example of how it’s possible to be moved by another human being in simultaneously enriching and damaging ways. I use the word ‘affair’ deliberately; we never had a ‘relationship’, more of a confused and heady extended encounter. But my time with him gave me permission to take writing – including my own writing – seriously, in a way that’s had a bit impact on my life since. Those place-names still bring up the hairs on the back of my neck. He was someone for whom ideas and beliefs, ethics and the written word, were the centre of the world; Potok’s young Jewish men, trying to find a fit between their traditions and modern American life, remind me of his complicated fragility. In my mind they too have very white, lightly freckled skin on their back and shoulders, where the bones show through.
The incredible love of knowledge and the effort which Potok’s characters pour into understanding their faith also resonate particularly with me at the moment. I’m trying to use the opportunity of being on the wrong side of the world for a year (with no work visa) to find some time to think, not just to absorb and regurgitate information and experience. It contrasts sharply with the idiots at last Wednesday’s supposed ‘Palestine solidarity’ meeting – students and academics (!) who apparently find knowledge and understanding a bourgeois affectation.

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