by Chaim Potok
"I cannot explain it. It do not understand it completely myself. But what I know of it, I dislike. It was practiced in Europe by some few Hasidic families." Then his voice went hard. "There are better ways to teach a child compassion." (p 266)
This was my introduction to the world of Jewish culture. I remember sitting on my Grandmother's front porch swing during August, 1968, mesmerized by this tale of friendship in a culture very different than my own. This novel, the first from the pen of Chaim Potok, is ostensibly about the friendship between two boys, Reuven and Danny, from the time when they are fourteen on opposing yeshiva ball clubs. But it is also a coming of age story and most of all a novel of ideas.
At one point David Malter tells his son:
"Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value is there to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?" He paused again, his eyes misty now, then went on. "I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something.
He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one's life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here."
This search for meaning animates the entire story. Reb Saunders has found meaning in serving God and his followers, but the others seek meaning in reason rather than faith. David Malter has found meaning, and hopes to give the Holocaust itself some meaning, in his political work as a Zionist. Reuven, with the study of logic, and Danny, with the study of psychology, both think that they have found the things that will fill their lives with meaning. The story becomes a sort of gently didactic differentiation between two aspects of the Jewish faith, the Hasidic and the Orthodox. Primarily the Hasidic, the little known mystics with their beards, earlocks and stringently reclusive way of life. According to Reuven's father who is a Zionist, an activist, they are fanatics; according to Danny's, other Jews are apostates and Zionists "goyim." The schisms here are reflected through discussions, between fathers and sons, and through the separation imposed on the two boys for two years which still does not affect their lasting friendship or enduring hopes: Danny goes on to become a psychiatrist refusing his inherited position of "tzaddik"; Reuven a rabbi.
For me the important aspect was their search, a search that I subsequently found in novels as disparate as The Moviegoer, The Plague, and The Magic Mountain; a search that made this novel memorable for me. That and my Grandmother's front porch swing.
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