Tuesday, April 15, 2008
I love how Chaim Potok is able to create a story about so many different things. There are dozens of topics within his books to discuss, enjoy and ponder, but he manages to twist and turn his story, so at its end, you get the Rubik's cube sides all neatly back to the same color.
Like My Name Is Asher Lev, which I loved, Potok writes about a Jewish boy torn between his own genius and his orthodox father's expectations. Danny Saunders, a genius boy with a photographic memory, is destined to take his father's place as the community tzaddik, or spiritual leader of Hasidic Jews. To teach his son compassion, he parents him with silence, like his father did before him, and the only time father and son talk is when they discuss the Talmud, a Jewish book consisting of different rabbi's discussions of Jewish laws and ethics.
But, the father-son relationship is only one side of the thematically complicated but narratively simple story. There is much food for thought about friendship ("You think it is easy to be a friend? If you are truly his friend, you will learn otherwise") which Danny's father, Reb Saunders, tells the narrator of the story, Reuven Malter, and certainly proves to be true. There is a fantastic development about the Zionist movement, and the opposition within the Jewish community against Israel to be created after the second World War. There is an interesting, albeit outdated, flirtation with psychology and Freudism. And much, much more...especially if someone could simply live inside my head and answer back whenever I had a "and what do you think about this?" moment.
I find that one of Potok's greatest achievements is his ability to narrowly write a story that happens in a close, sheltered environment about a specific religious belief, and have it easily apply to many different beliefs and situations. I found myself thinking to myself most of today about how this story, about a community of ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews, has a lot in common with my current community. This place, where I live, has the broadest spectrum of believers/non-believers, practicing/non-practicing, ultra conservative/ultra liberal members of my own religion. The characters in the story are living and functioning in an almost self-contained environment. Their schools are Jewish. Their sports teams are Jewish. Their stores, hospitals, friends and neighborhoods are Jewish. The conflict is not "us vs. them" but "old us vs. new or changing us" and "holier us vs. secular us". They don't see the world around them.
Ding, ding, ding!!!
I'm not going to go much into it, although I'd like to, because I simply have too many different thoughts (and it'd be much better left for a conversation with someone who has read the book as well), but I have been thinking most of the day about how appropriate Potok's story, which takes place in the 40s, applies to the LDS faith today. Especially here in Utah, where there is a cocoon, of sorts, that envelops people that were born here, grew up here and have since reproduced here. Not that "here" is a bad place to be, but like this small Hasidic community in New York, they simply do not see outside. Rather than grasping on to our common denominator, our love and belief in Christ and his gospel, we separate and divide ourselves over things that make us human. Like whether we went to BYU, or not. Or whether or not we like Mitt Romney.
These things don't matter. Like poor Reb Saunders had to discover by isolating his son from his best friend, and what David Saunders knew, but didn't have the courage to proclaim, good exists in all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life. It exists down the street, where perhaps the homes aren't matching brown stucco craftsman style. It exists at the other school. It exists in literature and areas of study and even at the church with the different shaped spire. There is goodness everywhere.
This belief of mine is fundamentally different from Reb Saunders, who explained that each person is born with a tiny spark of goodness which is enveloped in a shell of ugly and evil. It is the responsibility of the parent, the church, the community to protect that spark, encourage it, feed it so that it can grow and expand to eventually fill the shell and push out the evil.
While there is certainly plenty of evil surrounding us all, I think it only gets more bold and has more room to grow when we huddle around our goodness. It, goodness, is bigger than we allow it to be. We need to link goodness to goodness and charge down the street, all ablaze together.
Kind of a tangent, but I love books that make me go off down one. I can't say this book is a favorite, because it didn't make me feel the way a book needs to, but I'm certainly glad I've read it and happily encourage anyone who hasn't to do so.