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Chaim Potok and the Problem of Assimilation for the American Jew

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Chaim Potok and the Problem of

Assimilation for the American Jew

America has been a country of immigrants since Europeans first settled it over five hundred years ago. America has always faced the problem of assimilation, a challenge faced by every country with a considerable immigrant population. Because immigrants founded America, her culture is a combination of the cultures of other countries. Should these immigrants isolate themselves from the mainstream American culture, or should they sacrifice the culture of their homelands for the benefits American culture has to offer? Judaism, one of the world's oldest religions, has remained strong over its six thousand year history by remaining distinct - and isolated - from other cultures. Chaim Potok, in his books The Chosen, My Name is Asher Lev, In the Beginning, and The Book of Lights, focuses on this conflict between Orthodox Judaism and the secular world.

Many of Chaim Potok's characters want the American Jewry to remain isolated from the mainstream American culture:

The world kills us! The world flays our skin from our bodies and throws us into the flames! The world laughs at Torah! And if it does not kill us, it tempts us! It misleads us! It contaminates us! It asks us to join in its ugliness, its abominations! (The Chosen 127)

The Chosen "deals with the problems Jews have faced in trying to preserve their heritage - in particular, the problem of how to deal with the danger of assimilation" (Young)). The Jews have always been professionals occupying jobs in medicine, law, education, and other fields requiring a college degree. American Jews, however, face a dilemma: "Ideas from this secular world inevitably impinge upon an individual born in a church community or a synagogue community, especially when that individual embarks ona college experience" (Potok 2). American Jews must either take on nonprofessional jobs, assuming an identity completely different from that of European Jews, or expose themselves to secular America. Isolation is thoroughly impractical for the American Jew.

Chaim Potok's works often focus on main characters whose talents draw them to the outside world:

When individuals are brought up in the heart of such a community or culture [as Danny's and Reuven's] they learn to commit themselves to its values ... They see the world through the system of values of that unique community. At the same time, however, they experience important ideas or values that come from the world outside their community (Potok 1).

In the Beginning deals with a young Jewish boy who stumbles on a scientific way to analyze the Bible. He is able to understand difficult passages but his community disapproves of his technique (Potok 6). In The Chosen, Danny Saunder's brilliance leads him to read books forbidden by his father; these books present view points contradictory to what his community believes, and he must reconcile his newfound knowledge with his upbringing (Potok 2). My Name is Asher Lev focuses on a Jewish child with an amazing gift for art. Judaism has always discouraged art because it borders on the idolatry of Paganism and the iconography of Christianity. Asher Lev must reconcile his need to create art with his cultural ties (Potok 5). Potok's novels feature characters whose extraordinary gifts cause them to interact with the secular world as well as their Jewish communities.

Chaim Potok emphasizes the connection between Orthodox Jewry and the secular world by having his characters react to major historical events ( The Book of Lights is set against the Korean War. In that novel, Gershon Loran travels to Korea and Japan, two countries that have never been influenced by Judaism. Loran has always been taught that Judaism is the civilizing force in Western Civilization. He must reconcile his own faith in the supremity of Judaism with this beauty that was created without any Jewish impact (Potok 6-7). The Chosen deals with the aftermath of the Holocaust and the Zionist movement. In this novel the characters handle the news of the Holocaust in different ways: Reb Saunders seeks an answer from God, while David Malther becomes a Zionist, working in the world to prevent such travesties from occurring again (Young). Reb Saunders does not believe in the Zionist movement because the Messiah has not yet come, which the Torah clearly states must happen before a Jewish state can be created.

In Potok's novels the characters' interactions with the secular world help them define themselves. His novel The Chosen "teaches the fact that certain things may happen in your life, and from there on out, you're changed forever. A new outlook, a new perspective" ( Danny Saunders is both the protagonist and the antagonist of the story; the novel s about his struggle to accept his Hasidic upbringing, which conflicts with his study of Sigmund Freud ( Freud did not believe in a supernatural; with no supernatural, Freud says, religion is an "infantile delusion of the species which we all ought to outgrow" (qtd. Potok 3). Danny's community has always been centered on religion. Should he disregard everything Freud teaches, or should he accept the fact that everything he ever knew was false, that his entire world was a sham? Danny eventually embraces Freud's view of man but not his view of religion. This struggle serves as the catalyst for Danny's chrysalis from youth to adulthood (Potok 3). Reuven helps Danny reconcile his feelings about Freud with his Hasidic upbringing. During the course of the novel the boys both have to choose their career; the novel is about "finding one's place in the world rather than letting it be assigned by others (Stanbro). Danny and Reuven "must choose



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