On October 29, Seattle Pacific University welcomed to campus renowned author and scholar Chaim Potok. A professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, Potok has written numerous novels: books which often examine coming-of-age dilemmas in settings where culture, art and faith collide.
Born in Brooklyn in 1929 to Polish immigrants, Potok was raised an Orthodox Jew with the expectation that he would become a Talmudic scholar. However, at age 16, following a powerful encounter with literature, he decided on a writing career. He wanted to create stories that "provide a map not only of the physical elements of life, but of the spiritual ones as well."
Potok's best-known novels include The Chosen, nominated for a National Book Award and recipient of the Edward Lewis Wallant Award; The Promise, awarded the Athenaeum Prize; My Name is Asher Lev; and The Gift of Asher Lev, which won the National Jewish Award. Other books include In the Beginning, The Book of Lights and Davita's Harp. Potok has also written children's literature, as well as works of non-fiction such as Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews.
Potok's work has long been part of Seattle Pacific University's core curriculum for incoming freshmen. For instance, The Chosen is required reading in Professor of Christian Ministries Les Steele's class, "Dynamics of Christian Formation." "First of all, the book tells a good story," Steele explains. "Students relate to the characters. They're the same age dealing with the same issues of identity and faith."
Barbara Korner uses My Name is Asher Lev, which tells of a young artist at odds with his Jewish community, in her "Arts in American Culture" course. "The book works on many levels," says the associate professor of theatre. "Students learn about the artistic process and gain a new understanding of art and culture as tools to examine our faith."
Last year, sophomore Shannon Fletcher studied The Chosen. "The thing I remember most is how the Jews in the book were so devoted to their faith. It meant everything to them."
Steele says using a Jewish author's books in a Christian curriculum underscores a deep relationship between the two religions. "Our roots are imbedded in and indebted to Jewish traditions," he emphasizes.
Amy Lerner, earning her doctorate at SPU in psychology, has a unique understanding of the two traditions. Her father grew up in a family of Russian Orthodox Jews. Her mother, on the other hand, was and is a Protestant.
For Lerner, a Christian, Potok's work resonates with her "dual" heritage. "His themes are universal, bigger than any one belief system." And Potok, like her father, teaches the value of Jewish traditions upon which her faith is built.
She recalls Genesis 12:1-2, when God spoke to Abraham: "I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing."
Says Lerner, "Potok is a blessing to all of us."
A Conversion with Chaim Potok
Response: Many of your writings deal with characters who are "coming of age." Why has that been such an important theme for you?
Potok: I think that those are the ages where individuals from any given culture are profoundly affected by ideas that might come to them from other cultures. Those are the vulnerable ages.
Response: How well do you think American higher education today is assisting students in this formative time of their lives?
Potok: I teach at an Ivy League school, and I doubt that's representative of what is going on generally in the United States. My impression is that in many areas universities are wanting. And it's very difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is that's going wrong, why and where. I think a lot of people are quite concerned, and rightly so, and are attempting to re-evaluate the educational process.
Response: In the courses you teach, what are some of the questions that students are asking today?
Potok: Universal questions like: Who am I? What do I owe my community? What am I learning about my past? What am I preparing to give to the future? What sort of commitments am I going to make? Students are involved in the search for meaning. They're very concerned about what place they're going to find in this culture in the next century - what the real world is going to be like for them.
Response: At Seattle Pacific, we use your novels The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev in our freshman core classes. What attitudes do you hope that we would bring to an exploration of your works?
Potok: An openness to discuss all sorts of ideas. The conviction that no idea should be foreign to us. A willingness to debate without fear of consequences. At the same time, an acknowledgment that, as a civilization, in the end there have to be limitations; there have to be borders; there has to be some measure of what most of us will agree is the deviant in our culture. There has to be some way of living a day-to-day life in spite of the fact that the discussion remains fluid.
I think that's the fundamental purpose of the university: to teach the student how to create a balance between an ongoing, fluid discussion about the nature of a culture, and the reality that when the student wakes up Monday morning he or she has to commit himself or herself to something. It's one thing to discuss; it's another thing to live.
Response: That's reminiscent of the character Danny Saunders in your book The Chosen. Here is someone steeped in both religious readings and psychoanalytic theory. His efforts to reconcile the two push him to a deeper understanding of himself and the world, don't they?
Potok: Yes, I think that really can happen - and that would be the ideal for me. And you know, you don't have to be overly brilliant to achieve that sort of understanding. The character Asher Lev isn't especially smart academically. He's gifted as an artist. But, he certainly doesn't have significant academic prowess. Not all kids are geniuses at the level of Danny Saunders. All of us can achieve this at our own level, if properly directed.
It's important to confront ideas from outside our cultures and somehow come to grips with them and not be overwhelmed by them. The best way for that to happen is to be firmly grounded in whatever culture you come from so that you confront the world from a base of knowledge and commitment, rather than from a base of ignorance.
Response: In My Name is Asher Lev, you write that "one man is no better than another because he's a doctor while the other is a shoemaker. One is no better than the other because he's a lawyer while the other's a painter. A life is measured by how it is lived for the sake of heaven." What does it mean to live a life for the sake of heaven?
Potok: That's a very strong strain of thought in Judaism, and my guess is in Christianity as well. There's this great Hasidic story of a shepherd who came to the synagogue on the Day of Atonement and couldn't read the prayers. And the Hasidic master told him to do whatever it was that he could do the best. And the shepherd whistled. And the Hasidic master said to his followers, who were sort of aghast at this, that that whistle meant more to God than all their prayers together, because that whistle really came from the very soul of that shepherd. It's the depth of a life lived. That's what touches the transcendent. And everybody's capable of that.
Response: The characters in your books often suffer real trauma in the course of their lives. And that seems to bring on a reckoning, a sense of calling to use their individual gifts in the culture. What role do you think suffering has for us as people?
Potok: If we live, we're going to suffer sooner or later - especially in this century. It's inconceivable to me that anybody could have lived through any significant part of this century and not encountered major trauma of one kind or another. It makes little difference where you're from or what your background is. And sooner or later we have to come to terms with that suffering. It affects our lives and our commitments in profound ways.
Response: For the characters in your books, one way of expressing themselves is through art. Do you see this as something that's becoming lost in a technological culture?
Potok: I don't think it's going to become lost because I think the hunger for art is fundamental to human expression. It's one of the essential means of human communication. It's one of the fundamental ways that we give meaning to our existence. It can be put on the back burner for a while by benighted individuals and by technology, although people sophisticated about technology know that technology, too, has its aesthetics. It's not anything we can set aside.
Response: In Davita's Harp, the character Jacob Daws said that "a writer is a strange instrument of our species, a harp of sorts, finely tuned to the dark contradictions of life." Would you agree with that description of your vocation?
Potok: Oh, yes, oh yes. I do, indeed, believe that. It's through the writer that the world and its winds are heard. But, remember that the harp is an instrument and the winds that go through it, that hit it, are not the same as the music or winds that come from it. Transformations take place as a result of the contact with the harp.
The harp is capable of angelic music and also capable of some very heavy strumming. And I think it's the fundamental responsibility of a writer to deal with both the angelic and the darkness. No one else is going to do it. The politician sure isn't going to do it.
Response: I think of Asher Lev's choice to paint the crucifixion as a metaphor for the pain experienced by his parents. As a Jewish writer, what kind of response did you receive within your own culture about this choice?
Potok: It was not received well at all. The echoes of it continue to this day. I paid a high price for that book. But that's the job of a writer. You pay the price, but you have to be honest. If you're not, no one's going to pay any attention to you. And I made that decision when I was 16, 17 years old: that I would do it to the best of my ability. And I've been paying the price ever since. I mean I've paid other prices since the Asher Lev book, but that was a particularly steep price.
Response: The religious establishment is a figure of authority in many of your writings. How have you been affected as a writer who writes about questions of faith within a religious subculture where art may not be valued?
Potok: For me, in my culture, it was an uphill struggle. The only worse kind of struggle that one can envisage is if one enters into the doing of art - painting, sculpture and so on. There is still significant respect for the word in Judaism, so that if you're sitting and writing, and creating words on paper, people will tend to look less askance at you than if you're standing before a canvas trying to make pictures. And that's of course a problem that Asher Lev had.
Response: There is a line in My Name is Asher Lev: "The master of the universe gives us glimpses, only glimpses. It is for us to open our eyes wide." Do you think that as human beings we tend to squint at the realities around us rather than keep our eyes wide open?
Potok: Actually, squinting gives you a sharper image than just keeping your eyes wide. But we tend to blink and cut pieces of the world out, or we tend to turn away from them. Of things we don't understand, or that frighten us, or bore us, we do get only glimpses. We go about creating constructs or "maps" of reality and mostly what we're making maps of are these glimpses.
We are map-making animals, meaning-making creatures. That may very well be the human partnership with the universe and with God - to make maps out of glimpses. Certainly we cannot see the universe the way God sees it.
Response: Where do you see the intersection of those "maps" today between the Christian and the Jewish cultures in America?
Potok: Well, connections can be made along very broad lines. In many ways, we speak the same language of meaning, of response to mystery. The dimension of the spirit is what we try to acknowledge, to tap into, and make sense out of. Science is interested, and rightly so, in particles, in the world of physics, and the world of nature, and the world of matter. Our commitment is to another realm, the realm that cannot be measured and quantified.
Because both Judaism and Christianity come from the same mountain and the same city ultimately, we can pretty much speak the same language once we get past the ideological sparring about origins and beginnings. And that's becoming increasingly invaluable in the world in which we live, which is more and more technological, and more and more materialistic, and more and more hedonistic.
Response:What do you think is the most important question we should be asking for the future in a community like Seattle Pacific?
Potok: Well, the fundamental theme that we have to address for the next century is how to create thinking, moral beings in the face of what will most definitely be a supreme technological age.
I think people are asking this question in the deepest recesses of their being. I think that what they want, whether they can articulate it or not, is somehow to come to viable creative, moral and thinking terms with an unremitting expansion of technology. I think everyone is profoundly concerned about what sorts of commitments we make in a society where values have been rendered virtually entirely relativistic and instrumentalist by the findings of science and by the technologies that we've created.
Response: Is that what you meant in The Gift of Asher Lev where you said, "And without God, what is man? Everyone needs the help of someone to create the work of creation that is never truly created."
Potok: Exactly right.
Asher Lev and Discovering Your Gift
Excerpt from the Opening Convocation address delivered by SPU President Philip Eaton to students, faculty and staff on October 1, 1997.
If you do not already know him, let me introduce you to Asher Lev, the main character in two of Chaim Potok's novels, My Name is Asher Lev and The Gift of Asher Lev. Asher Lev is a deeply religious Jew. Asher Lev is a famous contemporary artist. Now that's not an easy combination to manage in one's life.
I think Asher Lev understands what it means to be a student in a Christian university. He certainly knows about discovering individual giftedness. He knows especially about discovering one's gift in the context and even the confinement of a believing community. He knows that others often do not understand your gift. He knows that the discovery of your gift can sometimes be painful, but that you cannot neglect or deny the gift that God gives you.
And he knows something absolutely critical for a Christian university like Seattle Pacific: Just as we are fully engaged in our faith, we must be fully engaged in the world and yet not of the world.
If you are a believing person, you will always have to reconcile and integrate your gift with your faith. In some ways, Asher's journey is the journey of all faithful people.