Chaim Potok and the Problem of Assimilation for the American Jew

America has always been a country of immigrants, since it was first settled by Europeans over five hundred years ago. Like any country with a considerable immigrant population, American has always faced the problem of assimilation. Because America was founded and settled by immigrants, 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 in particular has had to deal with the assimilation question. One of the world’s oldest religions, it has remained strong over its six thousand year history by remaining distinct – and isolated – from other cultures. Chaim Potok focuses on how Orthodox and Hasidic Jews have handled this problem in his books The Chosen, My name is Asher Lev, In the Beginning, and The Book of Lights.

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 on a 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 did in The Chosen] 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, books that present views contrary to those held by his community; his struggle to reconcile what he reads in these books with his Hasidic upbringing serves as a catalyst to help him mature, but it also erects a barrier between him and his community (Potok 2). While The Chosen deals with a Jewish child who must struggle against his upbringing, My Name is Asher Lev looks at a Jewish child whose gift is totally incompatible with his community. The book tells the story of Asher Lev, a young Hasidic Jew with an amazing gift for art. Judaism, according to the book, has always discouraged art because of its similarity to paganism’s idolatry and Christianity’s iconography. Asher Lev must reconcile his religion with his insatiable need to create art (Potok 5). All of these 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