His Judaism, and his dissatisfaction with it, formed the cornerstone of his stories.
Chosen for Greatness
Published in 1967, it became a bestselling phenomenon, birthing a sequel (Potok's next novel, The Promise), a major motion picture, and a deluge of critical praise.
The novel, set in the 1940s, tells the story of an unlikely friendship between two teenage boys--Reuven, who is Modern Orthodox and lives with his widowed father, and Danny, the son of a formidable Hasidic rebbe. It commences in the most unlikely way: During a baseball game between the Hasidic boys and the Modern Orthodox boys of the neighborhood, Danny accidentally injures Reuven's eye, by hitting a fastball straight at him. Danny's father sends him to visit Reuven in the hospital, and the two strike up a friendship.
Their friendship is helped along by both boys' fractured family structures--Danny's father only speaks to him during study periods; Reuven's mother is dead and his father is an emotionally-distant academic. Though they discover the gap that divides their worlds, they also gain confidence in each other.
Danny trusts Reuven with his biggest secret: He has been reading secular books in the library, studying forbidden subjects like psychology and philosophy. In return, Reuven is welcomed into the cloistered Hasidic enclave. But when the State of Israel is founded, Reuven's father becomes a vocal proponent of the fledgling state, and Danny's father disapproves of Zionism. The two boys wrestle with their allegiances to their respective dynasties and to each other.
The Chosen depicts the split of Orthodox life between opposing elements--modern and yeshivish; Zionist and anti-Zionist--a factionalization which Potok witnessed firsthand during his time at Yeshiva University, and which may have led to Potok's frustration, and ultimate rejection, of Orthodoxy.
The Burden of the Artist as a Young Man
In 1972, Potok's third novel provided another look at the secluded Orthodox community. My Name is Asher Lev follows a Hasidic teenage boy with emotionally wounded parents; Asher's father travels constantly, and his mother suffers anxious spells after her brother's death. Asher is anti-social, and a talented painter. His art is the only thing that gives him solace.
Asher's father is skeptical about his son's talents, especially after finding nude studies of women and sketches of crucifixions in Asher's possession. When they consult the Ladover Rebbe, the leader of their Hasidic sect, he is positive, even encouraging of Asher. The Rebbe pairs him with Jacob Kahn, a non-observant Jew who is sympathetic to their sect. Jacob hones the boy's skills and gives Asher a sense that other possibilities exist for him--that he doesn't have to be a Hasid forever. Though he contemplates breaking from religion, ultimately, he remains faithful to both his love of art and his love of God. At the book's finale, Asher combines his artistic talent, his family anguish, and his Orthodox sensitivities by painting the masterpieces of his career: Brooklyn Crucifixion I and Brooklyn Crucifixion II, representing both his mother's struggle and his own.
Like The Chosen, Asher Lev is a work of fiction, though both feature actual historical events and characters that are amalgamations of real people. According to Potok, the painter Jacques Lipchitz was a model for Asher Lev. The character is said to also include elements of Hendel Lieberman, a Lubavitch Hasidic painter who was an acquaintance of Potok.
The book inspired a sequel, written 18 years later, called The Gift of Asher Lev. It finds a much-older Asher living in rural France--still observant, but separate from his community. In the novel, he is summoned back to New York after a family emergency and becomes embroiled in the search for the next heir to the Ladover Hasidic dynasty.
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