Chaim Potok: Confronting Modernity Through the Lens of Tradition.

Author:Rubinstein, Rachel
Position::Book review

Chaim Potok: Confronting Modernity Through the Lens of Tradition. Edited By Daniel Walden. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013. xi + 184 pp.

Daniel Walden's last book, published only a few months before his passing in November 2013, should be read as a moving tribute not only to Chaim Potok, whom Walden calls a "world-class writer and scholar," but to Walden himself. Long a critical champion of Potok's fiction in an academic milieu that tends to privilege secular rebellions over traditional commitments, Walden-likewise a world-class writer and scholar-insisted on re-casting American Jewish creative culture so that the concerns explored by Potok would no longer occupy the margins of American Jewish literary criticism.

The latest turns both in scholarship as well as fiction writing should further prove Walden's prescience. Potok, derided by critics and scholars for his popular success, famously wrote about the tensions of American Jewish life from, as Walden writes in his introduction, "from the inside, inclusively" (xi). Potok, like many of his protagonists, embraced both modernity and traditional Judaism. As Walden and the other scholars collected in this volume note, Potok, a rabbi ordained by the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary and who also earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, termed his own and his characters' struggles between secular modernity and ritual praxis "core-to-core cultural confrontations" (xi). His subjects were Jews at home in their faith and traditions negotiating, and often integrating, the possibilities offered by a modern, secular world. The significant organizing ideas that frame the volume are thus not migration and diaspora, ethnicity and identity-the lexicon that came to dominate American Jewish literary scholarship as it came of age-but rather faith, textuality, and community.

As these contributors note in nuanced though consistent ways, Potok delineates the creative and productive tensions between different modes of faithful Jewish practice, rather than between Jews and a dominant non-Jewish culture, or between Jews and other "Others" in America. Ironically, Potok's unapologetically "Jewish" fiction, while contributing to his marginalization in academic discourse, has earned him enormous popularity among non-Jewish readers, suggesting, as Kathryn McClymond does, that "people across various religious communities [wrestle] with questions of how to live as modern Americans within...

To continue reading