Shalom, lovers of Jewish books (or potential lovers of Jewish books). J-BOM is the Jewish Book of the Month club, a reading of Jewish books together started by a cadre of Messianic Jewish bloggers and filling the minds of scores of people across our movement with great ideas, history, and Jewish faith.
The summer for J-BOM is about fiction. If you only read one of our summer selections, make it the July selection, Chaim Potok’s The Promise. It is the quintessential summer read.
The August selection will The Last of the Just by Andre Schwarz-Bart. It’s not a long book, but it is a more difficult story to follow, though well worth the trouble for its profound depth.
The September selection, to prepare us for High Holidays, will be Yom Kippur: Its Significance, Laws, and Prayers which is available on http://www.artscroll.com. I will recommend a few sections of the book, which isn’t long in any case, and so you won’t need to read the whole thing (though you certainly may). I had hoped to suggest a shorter work focused strictly on repentance (and Maimonides’ teachings), but it is not widely available (if you’d like to get it, look for Wahschal’s Practical Guide to Teshuvah). But the Artscroll guide to Yom Kippur has selections from Maimonides’ teachings on repentance and is a volume which will add depth to your Jewish library.
You don’t have to understand a Chaim Potok novel to enjoy it. The story is usually compelling, characters are experiencing life, coming of age right before our eyes. The universal sense that we are all still finding out what life is all about is what draws us in.
The Promise, like other Potok novels, keeps us interested with a good storyline, a summer in Peekskill, NY, where the Malter family rents a summer cottage on the bay. Young Reuven, a seminary student at a strict Orthodox school interacts with his girlfriend, Rachel Gordon, and her sad-faced fourteen year old cousin, Michael. Michael’s dad (Rachel’s uncle) is Abraham Gordon, an infamous liberal Jewish theologian and writer.
Potok’s novels are always about the possibility or impossibility of faith amid the realities of modernity. Reuven finds scrawled in Hebrew in the library’s copies of Abraham Gordon’s books a warning, “This is the book of an apostate. Those who fear God are forbidden to read it.” Gordon rejects the supernatural and the idea of revelation, but nonetheless writes theology and asks questions about creation and revelation and faith.
Meanwhile Reuven’s teachers are concentration camp survivors who are Talmudists. Their focus is on the minutiae of the law and the glaring problems of faith in the face of God’s absence does not seem to plague them.
Reuven’s dad is in between, a scholar of Talmud himself who has a foot in both worlds. His work bridges modernity and ancient faith.
And there are plenty of relational issues in the story combining with the ideology. Sad-faced teenager Michael has experienced the baldfaced hatred of the religious for his father’s ideas. Encountering a Jewish huckster from the old world at a fair, it is unclear at first why Michael reacts as he does, but becomes more clear later. Michael can only shake with rage and say, “They hate us!”
Reuven, meanwhile, observes all this as he comes to his place in the world of ideas and religion. From Reuven’s perspective we experience the baffling interplay of ideas and the internal struggle to make sense of life.
It’s all about “the Promise.” And there is more than a hint at what the promise is if you read a little quotation Potok includes in the front matter of the novel by the Rebbe of Kotzk. It is this promise that Reuven is considering whether and how to believe in.
Other J-BOM Posts to read:
Yahnatan talks about why The Promise is a great read for the summer and asks, “What is this promise the book hints at?”
The Promise was indeed a great book. Not only was it about the coming of age of Reuven, the main character, it was also about the changing world of Orthodox Judaism, at which you hinted. The story is set around 1950, a time when many Chasidic survivors of the Holocaust immigrated by the thousands to New York, transforming neighborhoods and taking over many of the teaching posts within some of the Orthodox Yeshivas. Potok provides an excellent window into the past to help us understand this clash of cultures between the old European world, mentally still living in Shtetles and having a ghetto mindset, now transplanted to America, and the established brand of American Orthodoxy, which had long since adapted to the 20th century.
Excellent choice Derek. Looking forward to the August JBOM.