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Cultural clash a way of life, literature for Chaim Potok

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The name of a Baltimore Hebrew University professor was incorrectly reported in an article on Chaim Potok in yesterday's Today section. The professor quoted was Judy Meltzer.

The Sun regrets the error.

Merion, Pa. -- Ever since his first novel, "The Chosen," wapublished in 1967, Chaim Potok's books have sold millions of copies around the world. He gets letters, as he says, "from nuns in the Philippines, from Eskimos in Alaska and teachers in the outback country of Australia." His tales of Jewish life in New York in the 1930s and 1940s have become classics, read and reread by Jews and Gentiles alike.

Chaim Potok is a leading contemporary novelist, and one of the major Jewish-American writers of this century. But his books are not welcome at the Jewish school that's practically at the doorstep of his home.

That's why when Mr. Potok delivers the commencement lecture at Baltimore Hebrew University tonight on the theme "Literature and Tradition: Enemies Forever?" he'll be speaking about a familiar experience. As a young man in New York City, he rebelled from his Orthodox Jewish upbringing because he wanted to be a writer and such a secular activity was not encouraged. His seven novels have dealt extensively with the theme of culture clashes, of people who are raised in one world and must confront the values of another. Now, as a 64-year-old novelist, he continues to live that clash: His works are still shunned byfundamentalist Jews.

"A block and a half from here, there's a Jewish parochial high school that bans my books," Mr. Potok says ruefully during a wide-ranging interview at his suburban Philadelphia home. "The kids aren't allowed to read them, and they're banned for an interesting reason. It's a very fundamentalist Jewish school, and they've banned my books because the kids in my books go out of the stories with more than what they came in with.

"Now, I know that if the characters left the stories the same way they came in, then the students would be able to read my books. But the people in my books are profoundly affected by the world around them, and fundamentalist Jews won't countenance that."

Did he talk to the school's teachers about the ban?

Mr. Potok waves a hand dismissively, more in sorrow than anger. "Yes," he answers after a moment. "It was very upsetting, though it was not surprising. I grew up in that sort of world. I left it a long time ago. But it was still very upsetting when it happened."

But he understands, he says: "The teachers at that fundamentalist school are very smart. They know that writing is one of the central instruments of secularism, and so they don't want their students to have anything to do with it. Serious writing asks raw, angry, open-ended questions that very often lead one not to answers but to ambiguity."

Mr. Potok is a studied and gracious man, of medium height, with a full beard that's mostly white and gray. With a degree in English literature and a doctorate in philosophy, he's a man of considerable intellect, but it's masked by a quiet self-deprecation. He considers each question before answering, pausing while he thinks out the answer. That comes from many years of studying the Talmud, the essential writings of Judaism, in which students are expected to explore each and every nuance of Talmudic teachings.

That exhaustive, sometimes combative, study of the Talmud is one of the memorable subtexts of "The Chosen."

Indeed, when Mr. Potok finished writing the book, he wasn't sure if many people at all would want to read a book about Hasidic Jews in the 1940s in New York, and how one of their best and brightest young men, Danny Saunders, chafed under the strictures of the sect. Ordained as a rabbi -- he remains a practicing Conservative Jew -- Mr. Potok had begun the book in the early 1960s, after turning down three offers to lead synagogues because he wanted to write fiction.

"When I wrote 'The Chosen,' I didn't know that maybe 500 people in the world would be interested in two kids growing up in Brooklyn," he says now.

But there were -- and many, many more. "The Chosen" was a monster best seller in hard cover and paperback, and its sales have run into the millions.

"I hear from 8-year-old kids who are trying to struggle through a book like 'The Chosen,' " Mr. Potok says with a tone approaching wonder. "Eight years old! With 13-year-olds, the book might have been assigned to them; 15-year-olds are writing a paper on it; college graduates are writing master's theses or doctoral dissertations."

"He has successfully woven Jewish civilization into the tapestry of American literature," says Judy Richter, associate professor of American Jewish Culture at Baltimore Hebrew University. "He's always interested in examining the role of religion in a secular age. He has a strong knowledge of the Jewish tradition, and uses the novel to examine the modern Jewish experience.

"He provides a good sense of Judaism not only to non-Jews but to Jews who may have very little knowledge of the religion and history. Some of the earlier Jewish-American writers, such as Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth -- none of them wanted to be known as Jewish writers. What they said is, 'We are American writers who happen to be Jewish.' I admire them very much, but they are intellectual assimilationists and suburbanites. Potok is much more attached to his past through text and history."

As the success of "The Chosen" continued, Mr. Potok tried to understand why. The reason, he discovered, was one of the underpinnings of literature: universality.

"I saw the book climb up the best-seller list, and the amount of mail coming in, and I said to myself, 'What is this all about?' " he says. "What I realized is that I had stumbled upon a cultural dynamic that we're all going through today. You grow up in one world, you encounter another world. You have this clash of cultures and you try to handle all these new ideas. I had this experience as a Jew, but others have had it as a Calvinist, as a Catholic. That's what people are locking into -- this tension between differing ways of seeing the world -- and it's a conflict I'm constantly exploring in my books."

He continued to develop the theme of culture clashes in his most recent book, last year's "I Am the Clay," which was set in Korea. Mr. Potok became interested in the country while stationed there as an Army chaplain in the mid-1950s, and used that experience as the background for the book -- his first novel not set in Jewish New York.

"The readers' response, I would say, was somewhat dubious and somewhat confused, in the sense that what was I doing writing about Koreans?" he says. "This was something that I expected, and my response to that was I've lived more than my New York Jewish life. I don't want to keep spinning my wheels in that era. What I was writing about came out of a very profound experience, my Asian experience, and it's a mine I intend to explore as long as possible."

Interestingly, though, one topic he has seldom written about -- and usually from the American perspective -- is the Holocaust. Mr. Potok acknowledges that some might consider it inconceivable for a Jewish writer to stay away from the topic, but, he explains carefully, "It's not of my experience. And I've always been very wary of being seen as capitalizing on what, obviously, was a very horrible time -- not only for Jews, but for humanity.

But after a trip last fall to Poland, where he visited some of the concentration camps that virtually wiped out the European branch of his family, Mr. Potok returned deeply moved. He wrote an essay that was read at the recent dedication of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum ("Its presence announces: Never forget what people once did to one another when, during the Second World War, they unleashed the hideous night within them.")

"I probably will write about the Holocaust more," he says quietly. "I've had three major upheavals in my life. The first was reading as a teen-ager Evelyn Waugh's 'Brideshead Revisited' and Joyce's 'Portrait of the Artist' and realizing that I, too, as a Jewish boy in New York, could write fiction. The second was going to Korea, where all my cultural assumptions were challenged.

"Going to Poland last year was the third. I'm still trying to sort out all the questions in my head."

He was back on familiar ground. Always more questions.

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