One of the most important aspects of Potok’s novels is the conflict between traditional, Orthodox Judaism and the modern world of ideas that infringes upon it and challenges its authority.
The conflict may be within Judaism (as in “The Promise’s” battle between old and modern Jewish scholarship or “The Chosen’s” consideration of Hasidism vs. modern Orthodoxy) or from outside of Judaism (art in “My Name is Asher Lev” or politics in “Davita’s Harp”).
What makes Potok’s novels so compelling is that he frames these battles with skillful and deft plotting and beautiful heartfelt language. This aspect of his work reaches its apex with “The Promise”, his most brilliantly constructed novel. From the first chapter, he skillfully interweaves the characters’ struggles so that they relate to each other in a very meaningful way.
In addition, not since Carson McCullers, has a writer dealt so sensitively and realistically with the mind and struggles of youth and adolescence. Potok takes great pains to delve into the troubled Michael’s psyche and helps us understand his demons. His other novels also share this sensitive dealing with youth and with the often stormy relationship between parent and child.
Danny Saunders, the Hasidic Jew we first encountered in “The Chosen” is, ironically, Potok’s most “enlightened” creation. His is firmly rooted in his tradtions (in this case, Hasidism) but is also open to new ideas from the “modern world”. He becomes a Psychologist, weds a woman outside of Hasidism, and dresses like a modern Jew. He is the realization of Potok’s wish: the ability of man to be grounded in and love his faith without being rigid and intractable and intolerant of other ideas and opinions. It is the absence of this tolerance that causes much of the conflict in Potok’s novels.
Although “The Chosen” may be his most moving, “Davita’s Harp” his most lyrical (large portions of it are like reading poetry), “Asher Lev” his most powerful, “The Promise” is his most skillfully written. It is like a textbook lesson on how to write a novel. It firmly establishes him among America’s greatest writers.
For further NOTES See also the BACK cover of the book!