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CARPE LIBRUM: Celebrating PA Jewish writer Chaim Potok’s ‘In the Beginning’

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If western literature has tried to do anything in the modern world, it is to hold up the individual as a complex being who spends a lifetime wrestling with free will.

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is time to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title and maybe even an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, my aim is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

In the Beginning By Chaim PotokIn the Beginning
By Chaim Potok
Ballantine Books, 2005, pgs. 420
I know Carpe Librum usually focuses on North Carolina writers in some form or another. However, in light of events in Pittsburgh, PA, on Saturday, Oct. 26—when a gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life Synagogue and killed Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfreid, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger—I felt it more important to celebrate a writer who was a luminary of the Jewish community in Pennsylvania: Chaim Potok.

Potok is most well known for his 1972 book “My Name is Asher Lev,” about an Orthodox Jewish boy with a gift for visual art that rips him from his family and community.  There are few books that have so beautifully captured the creative process and the horrible, beautiful experience of a divine gift in human body. Potok has cited it his most personal novel, and identifies himself closely with his protagonist, Asher Lev. However, it was his debut novel, “The Chosen (1967),” that introduced me to Potok shortly after his death in 2002. It traces a friendship between two young men, one of whom is the son of a local religious leader and their coming-of-age struggles.

I cried reading the last chapter aloud to Jock at the kitchen table. The love that pours from his book is so palpable, and the language he uses to express it is so beautiful. It took me three days to form a sentence I have uttered countless times since: “The thing is, Chaim Potok is a poet masquerading as a prose writer.” His relationship with language is unquestionably beautiful beyond what is usually found in literary fiction: stunning, evocative, gorgeous, even. Like James Baldwin, he had one story … of his own life. He explored the different epochs of it from many angels ‘til we, his audience, perhaps have discovered more about him than he did.

It was his book, “In the Beginning,” which finally answered a question I had never been properly able to voice. It haunted me since childhood and I had no way of discovering the answer. No one in my family would have discussed it with me, and if I had asked, the emotional response would have been visceral. So, I knew instinctively to keep silent. What did American Jewish people know about the Holocaust in Europe? How much did they know and when? How did they react to it? As so often happens in my life, I finally stumbled on the answer in the pages of a book.

David Lurie, the protagonist of “In the Beginning,” is a young Orthodox Jewish boy, growing up in and around the Jewish community of the New York area in the 1930s and ‘40s. Potok was born in the Bronx in 1929 and brought up in an Orthodox Jewish community, receiving a Yeshiva education. Through David Lurie’s eyes, he describes the letters his father receives—his parents unable to find the means to help extended family immigrate. Worse, when the letters stop coming.

Finally, they see awful images in American newspapers, when the concentration camps are liberated. He describes the physical illness the news causes him—incredible guilt and fear they evoke and uncontrolled and undirected outburst from its emotional upheaval. How does one even process this information? The descriptions and depictions aren’t just of an atrocity committed thousands of miles away that involve strangers. Among the frail human skeletons in the pictures of the liberation might be his own aunt, uncle, cousin or grandparent. There is no road to follow for this.

Unfortunately, in the United States in my lifetime, we have become all too familiar with mass shootings. We do have a script to follow. I don’t have to search for an answer to that question in a book. But I wish I did.  There are so many instances where art and literature have served us with warnings, reminded us to learn from history, not to repeat it and yet … here we are. It’s 2018 and we face the slaughter of an anti-Semite at a synagogue where people were worshipping.
I am so disillusioned.

When news of Dylann Roof broke, I just kept wondering how we were still seeing headlines that could have come out of Birmingham,  AL, in 1963. I didn’t address it in print at the time because I didn’t want people to feel I was trying to appropriate the anguish that was so justified in response to Roof’s actions. That he was apprehended in North Carolina was doubly traumatic.

For Potok’s David, as for many Jewish people of his generation, the answer is to live well, do good, and build a better world.  But some days it feels a little too simple and too pat—just like using a broad brush to paint all people of specific groups as “like this” is too hyper-simplified.

If western literature has tried to do anything in the modern world, it is to hold up the individual as a complex being who spends a lifetime wrestling with free will. It is our time on earth and how we spend it that matters, which Potok reminds so beautifully in his work: Each day is inscribed in the book of life, it is a divine gift to be wrestled with like Jacob and the angel.

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