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The Risk of Being a Realist

This month's issue presents the second stop on our literary journey through the key points of "The Religious Sense," with Chaim Potok, a Jew who, like his characters, in speaking of Truth with a capital "T", brings back into play faith and knowledge.
Luca Doninelli

For a writer, the first act of realism is to understand how difficult it is to be realistic–and perhaps, in a certain sense, how impossible. Realism isn't a style. It's not an aesthetic, or a tone. It isn't an attitude that one can strike. It isn't a precondition, a form of poetics. There is no realist literature that can be contrasted, for example, with a literature of fantasy, because a fairy tale can contain much more realism than a novel built on maniacal recording, iron control of real data.

At times, a small episode, an image, a symbolic intuition is what gives a book the heft of true realism. We see this in the mind of the prodigious Danny Saunders, the protagonist of Chaim Potok's most famous novel, The Chosen, whose exceptional photographic memory is the metaphor for the entire history of the Jewish people and of its tragedy. Such a cruelly exact memory cannot lie.

Realism is a movement of the soul, of freedom. It is the shattering of a measure with which we try to deny the world and things, making their existence depend on our permission, our convenience. Without exception, we all do this. Maybe we affirm that "the method is imposed by the object" without however keeping in mind the sacrifice these words demand. Only in sacrifice do we understand the meaning; otherwise, it's only a tidy little formula we've memorized, an abstraction like any other.

We've chosen to present Chaim Potok to introduce the chapter on realism because few other writers of the past half-century have been able to accept difficult consequences–both in life and in the way they build their works–as this great Jewish author has. One of the great writers of the 20th century, Chaim Potok was born in New York in 1929, and died in his home in Pennsylvania in 2002. The themes he wrote about are essential for understanding some of the fundamental pages of our recent history. Potok not only earned a degree in Hebrew literature and modern literature, but was a scholar of the Talmud and a rabbi, and as such served as chaplain in the Korean War from 1955 to 1957, an experience that gave life to one of his most original novels, I Am the Clay.

I had the honor of meeting Chaim Potok three times. The first was in Milan in 1996, at a gathering organized by the Cultural Center. The second, two years later, was at the Meeting of Rimini, where he sang "Povera Voce" with us; and the third was in 2002 in Turin, a few months before his death, when he was already very ill.

On this last occasion, he told me of the attraction Christianity had always held for him, an observant Jew. Everything began with a seemingly unimportant experience he had as a child. Next to his father's shop on Broadway was that of an Italian cobbler who always sang opera arias at the top of his lungs and was always happy. This cobbler was very religious: he kept his rosary hung on a hook and had various little bottles of Lourdes water. The child was so fascinated that, years later, already very sick, Potok said these words to me: "You know, I believe I have never left that shop. I am still there."
There it is, the repercussion of reality. Potok paid dearly for his attitude. For many years, he was one of the most highly thought of candidates for the Nobel Prize, but never received it, even though American Jewish youth saw in him not only a great writer but a kind of teacher, a spiritual authority.

GOD AND HISTORY. All the great Jewish writers of the 20th century have plumbed the theme of the relationship between God and history. For some (from Isaac B. Singer to Woody Allen, passing by way of Philip Roth), history is simply the negation of God, the sanction of His inexistence. Others (Saul Bellow, for example) acknowledge that history has not completely crushed God (and with Him, man) and they close their work with an almost amazed openness.

Potok takes on a more complex stance, more realistic, inasmuch as it is more fiercely respectful of all the factors in play, in part inspired by his personal vicissitudes. In fact, he was a rabbi and Scripture scholar, but also a "secular" writer perfectly joined to his era (he discovered his literary vocation as a young man, reading Joyce) who, following the interests of his wife, a psychologist, studied Freud in depth.

CROSSED DESTINIES. In The Chosen, one of the great best-sellers of the post-war period (3.5 million copies sold in a few months in America), we encounter the crossed destinies of two young men. Reuben, the narrator, the son of a journalist and Talmud scholar, belongs to a community that is already relatively secularized and considered by the father of Danny, an ultra-Orthodox Hassidic rabbi who only addresses his son to speak of the Bible, as already damned. The novel is set at the end of the Second World War. Reuben and Danny's relationship begins during a game when a fight breaks out between members of the two communities and Danny, furious, throws a ball at Reuben, breaking his glasses. A shard goes into Reuben's eye and the young man is transported to the hospital. This event is the unexpected starting point for a deep friendship that will be put to the test by many personal and historic events, among them the ghastly news of the Nazi concentration camps.

The old rabbi even prohibits Danny from seeing Reuben when, reading an article by his father, he discovers that he, too, favors the foundation of the nation of Israel. For a Hassid, no human initiative can subvert the divine order. Only when Yahweh so wills it, at the end of time, will His kingdom be established on earth.

But the Shoah changed many things. In other books, Potok returns to this point, as in his autobiographic novel In the Beginning, or in his other great masterpiece, My Name is Asher Lev. Already during the war, the Polish Jews (from whom Potok descended) were sold by the Polish and the Russian armies to the Germans. The humiliation of being reduced to beasts for slaughter provoked the rebellion of many Jewish soldiers, who decided once and for all that history must be faced with the method of history: force, and thus politics and weapons.

This form of realism (and here, too, one could say: well, the method was imposed by the object) differs little from the one witnessed by the young New Yorker, Asher Lev, whose father is charged by the rabbi–this is the beginning of the 1950s–to buy Jews from Stalin's Russia to bring them to America. It is the realism of business, of politics during the Cold War. Money and power are becoming all too important protagonists on the world stage: it's necessary to face the consequences of this fact. But for many, facing the consequences only means adapting, following the trend. Is this realism?

Returning to Danny, the plans of his father, a highly devout custodian of Jewish tradition, are shattered with the news of the birth of the state of Israel on the one hand, and Danny's decision, on the other, to study Freud and become a psychologist.

A tradition that had been lived unchanged for two thousand years, that of the Jewish community of the diaspora, gathered around the rabbi and the Beth Din, the tribunal in which the community settled all its controversies, reached the end of its journey with its (tragic) entrance into modernity. The 20th century made impossible what twenty often terrible centuries were unable to eliminate. The downfall was not determined only by the pogroms, or even Auschwitz, that is, immense but isolated tragedies caused by criminal madness or ignorance. There was a surrender of many sons of Abraham to the presumed laws of history, a rejection of the privilege, the primogeniture, the alliance Yahweh established forever with His people, to become like everyone else: almost a voluntary dive into nothingness.

Danny, the chosen–chosen by his father to become a rabbi, chosen by the world because of his prodigious gifts–does not reject the ancient faith, but chooses to conserve it by directly facing the torment of dissention: he, who cannot play at forgetting (this is the meaning of his memory), decides to carry his game in the direction of Freud, perhaps trying, in the confusion that dominates, to save the Father who remains within each of us. This is Potok's realism: not riding the tiger, but accepting the drama with a painful, unconditional "yes."

In the even more dramatic story of My Name is Asher Lev, the theme of fatherhood meets that of a human condition in which God seems to offer His children two contradictory directions. Asher Lev is the young son of a Hassidic family who discovers very young that he has an exceptional talent for figurative art. He seems destined to become a great artist. Hasidism, however, condemns art, viewing it as an unjust attempt of man to mimic God's creation. The father, between one journey to Europe and another, brands his son's presumed vocation as nonsense.

But Asher Lev's mother is a different person. Loyal to her role as wife, she is nonetheless a sensitive, melancholic woman, profoundly different from her husband. There seems to be no love between the two spouses, only faithfulness to a silent pact. Asher Lev slowly comes to the realization of the torment his mother bears closed within, a torment that prolongs unendingly in her, after the war, the horrors of the Shoah. The man she married is the brother of the man she loved, who was killed by the Germans. An act of loyalty for his dead brother induced Asher Lev's father to take that woman as his wife. But this was not enough to bring her to a new life.

Then, one day, Asher Lev drew his mother crucified–a youthful work that presaged what would become one of the fundamental themes of the artist's adult work. This gesture scandalized the Hassidic community: for the people of Abraham, didn't all the troubles begin precisely with the crucifixion of that Nazarene?

But Asher Lev, who later would travel to Europe, forming a bond with a non-observant Jewish maestro, cannot pretend that this is a caprice. The crucifix (which he uses simply as a figure, without explicit reference to Christianity) is the figure, the adequate form for recounting the unending tragedy of his mother, who keeps alive within herself like a flame the memory of a man she loved and who is no longer.

Precisely because the Shoah was not just a collective tragedy, but the tragedy of many "I"s, and of their infinite memories, the crucifixion–a body, the body of God! (attached to the wood with nails)–is the only concrete image suitable for recounting a torment that is anything but generic. Thus history killed God, and the only unconfessable (but also the only reasonable) hope is that He is truly risen.

TRUST IN REALITY. This novel, in which Potok's reflection on history reaches its deepest point, brought glory and grief to the writer, whom many members of the New York Jewish community never forgave for having chosen a Christian symbol as the suitable image of the Jewish tragedy. In fact, in the novel The Gift of Asher Lev, which continues the story, while very beautiful, the dissention of this artist of Hassidic lineage is reabsorbed in a reconciliation that seems more a pact of non-belligerence than anything else. In this book, the rabbi understands that art is a need for his son, and respects it, but the old scandal no longer exists. Now Asher Lev is just an artist, one of many successful artists.

The work of Chaim Potok has a deep faith that is one with his trust in the power of reality, even when it seems to go against faith. The courageous acceptance of this dramatic condition is, among the many merits of this very great writer, perhaps the greatest.

For this reason, and not just because he inserts Christianity into the heart of the Jewish drama, Chaim Potok can only be a great friend. He was in life, and continues to be so today, through his work.