Page 20 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 45

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
powerful scenes in
The Chosen
(1967), the most truly novelistic of
his novels and also in
My Name isAsher Lev
(1972), his most memo­
rable achievements.
Some of the flaws of Potok’s fiction reappear in the philosophi­
cal-cultural works of the late Arthur A. Cohen, an interpreter of
Buber and a theologian of some accomplishment. Cohen’s one
outstanding novel has been
In the Days of Simon Stem
(1973), truly
a minor masterpiece. Alas, the structure of the novel is too com­
plex and the language too recherche so that it frightens away any
but the most fascinated and stubborn of readers. Though the
novel can hold its own with the best of Potok, it cannot even
approximate the latter’s wide popular appeal.
A blind man narrates Simon Stern’s life and his determination
to found his “Society for the Rescue and Resurrection of the
Jews.” Simon Stern, we learn, was born on the East Side and rose
to be a millionaire, a whiz at real estate transactions. When he
finds out at a mass meeting that Hitler was wantonly killing
uncountable numbers of Jews, Stern acts out his “predetermined
role of Messiah.” But this Messiah can’t stop the killings, only
think of the redemption and reconstruction ahead. He sets about
rebuilding a city block and plans an enclave there for Jewish sur­
vivors. He will bring them over to America and settle them in his
compound. Stern’s action is largely symbolic, as he strives for Jew­
ish continuation through rescue and rehabilitation. Arthur
Cohen’s Simon Stern is less a messenger from God than an
ambassador to God. “Choose, dear God, if you wish to remain our
God,” is the defiant challenge flung at the divinity.
The narrative becomes a chain of biblical and kabbalistic leg­
ends, theological tracts, virtual homilies. Cohen tells his story on
several levels. Thus he integrates his own vision ofJewish history.
In his enclave he builds a replica of the Temple which is
destroyed in the end and forces Stern’s Jews to disperse once
more. Yet, any attempt to summarize adequately this brilliant,
multi-layered work is fraught with danger.
Cohen was less successful in other works, including his fictional
attempt to define the personality and achievement of a Hannah
Arendt type figure in
An Admirable Woman
(1983). Cohen never
managed to reach beyond an intellectual portrait, and even here
he did not fully succeed. Ultimately Cohen’s reputation as a nov­
elist must rest on his striking, imaginative, theological Holocaust
novel.