Page 16 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 49

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8
JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
POTOK’S THEME
But tha t said, the central tension in Potok’s novels is always
the same: his protagonists must choose between the obvious a t­
tractions o f life with the homogenous hasidic world and an equal
strong pull toward the larger secular world outside Hasidim’s
tight orbit. In the case o f Danny Saunders, it is the choice be­
tween replacing his fa the r as the rebbe, their dynasty’s “ chosen”
one, o r becoming a psychologist; for Asher Lev, it is the choice
between remaining a Ladover (read: Lubavitcher) hasid o r be­
coming a modern ist painter. From
The Chosen
to
The Gift o f Asher
Lev
(1990), Potok’s rebellious hasidim cut o ff the ir earlocks and
simultaneously keep them. By tha t I mean, his protagonists
“leave” the world o f their respective fathers, and yet remain
forever tied to its orthodoxy. Not surprisingly, this b rand o f
ambivalence does not totally satisfy either modern secular Jews
o r their u ltra-O rthodox coun terparts.
By contrast, Lerm an ’s novel is about a re luc tan t hasidic son
who “re tu rn s ,” albeit in ways tha t are both comic and compli­
cated. Among Lerm an ’s considerable gifts is an ea r for comic
dialogue, for cap turing both the flavor o f a Yiddish-speaking
world and the sense o f social absurdity that is Philip Roth’s
trademark:
“So, why are you here, Yussel [one of his clients asks]?”
“To sell you some life insurance.”
“Oy. What do you know?”
“Nothing.”
“Today, this
particular
day, why are you here?”
“You’re on my list. I come every six months. Your premium’s
due.”
“The truth, Yussel.”
“You’re on my list.”
“How will I go?”
“Bernie, Bernie, I’m just selling life insurance.”
“Believe me, Yussel, if a Fetner comes to my door selling life
insurance, I’m buying” (Lerman, 1).
T h a t o the r hasidim rega rd him more as a p rophe t than an
insurance agent, tha t they call him the “angel o f d ea th ” behind
his back, and sign the ir policies with trembling fingers, is part
o f Yussel’s bu rden . G ranted , the Fetner legacy has its compen­
sations. He has become a very rich man, with