Chaim Potok’s novels explore the obstacles his male, Jewish protagonists face while establishing their own identities. Their attempts to form secularized identities, founded on the intellectual and artistic abilities they possess, are sabotaged by the conservative religious environments in which they were raised. The absence of independent identities results in feelings of doubt, isolation, and fear, all of which contribute to their lack of development as individuals. In Potok’s most acclaimed novel, The Chosen, Hasidic adolescent Danny is discouraged from pursuing his passion for a career in psychology by his strict, religious community – in particular, his father, who expects his son to take after himself and become a rabbi. Danny struggles between fulfilling the religious obligations he resents and developing his intellectual gift – a choice that could either benefit or betray the Hasidic community. Ultimately, Danny concludes that his familial obligations do not take precedence over his desire, and need, for an authentic identity based on his own interests.
Unlike the protagonists of Potok’s novels, many European Jews in the nineteenth century sought a national identity founded on their religion. The revival of the Hebrew language in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reflected the desires of many Jews for nationhood. After centuries of anti-Semitism in their Christian-dominated countries, European Jews embraced the values of the Enlightenment, modernizing and secularizing Jewish culture. The idea of reviving the Hebrew language first developed during the Haskalah, or the Jewish Enlightenment of eighteenth-century Europe. Zionists also hoped that Hebrew would successfully unite the Jewish people in Israel, for it was the only common element that connected them to their desired homeland and to each other after the Diaspora. Modern Hebrew, the product of these aspirations, contributed to the unification of Jews after centuries of desolation and displacement. The success of this revival owed much to lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the author of the first Modern Hebrew dictionary. After achieving statehood, the Israeli government established several language policies to preserve Hebrew culture and to remind Hebrew-speaking Jews of their people’s history, efforts, and accomplishments.
Major Works Consulted:
Harshav, Benjamin. Language in Time of Revolution. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.
Photo Credit: Jackson, T. Kenneth, Karen Markoe, and Arnie Markoe. The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 2004.
Potok, Chaim. The Chosen. New York: Random, 1967.
--. My Name is Asher Lev. New York: Anchor, 1972.
Stavans, Ilan. Resurrecting Hebrew. New York: Random, 2008.