Mormon Interest: Not Just C.S.Lewis, but Chaim Potok

Normally, when Mormons are mentioned in the weekly Jewish newspaper, The Forward, it has to do with the Baptism for the Dead of Holocaust victims. But the current issue finds a Mormon interest in author Chaim Potok, citing none other than the “expert on Mormon arts and culture” William Morris.

I agree with Forward author Menachem Wecker–William is indeed an expert.

He is also very insightful when it comes to our interest in Chaim Potok, pointing out the interest to Wecker. Classes at BYU and elsewhere have made Potok interesting to Mormons. Wecker notes that:

Research uncovered a staggering amount of information on Potok and Mormonism. Google searches for “Chaim Potok” and “LDS” or “Chaim Potok” and “Mormon” yield a joint 4,000 hits, including an article in the journal Irreantum.

He also mentions a Mormon book group discussing Potok and the author’s 1982 visit to BYU.

If you haven’t read it already, the article in the Forward, which appears in print on the 12th, is worth a read.

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12 thoughts on “Mormon Interest: Not Just C.S.Lewis, but Chaim Potok”

  1. .

    Great article. You should all follow the link. And so far the comments are respectful and interesting as well.

  2. It’s interesting that Menachem still tied the story in to baptisms for the dead. But I’m not surprised or offended. It’s understandable — both things relate to issues of appropriation and interpretation (even though Mormons might not think so). I agree that the comments have been good so far.

    And I do wish that there’d been a bit more of a focus on Busby’s excellent Irreantum article. In fact, I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, but I am aware of enough of the differences in perception to wish for a more nuanced view.

    Indeed, I think that an in-depth look at why Mormon artist types are attracted to the work of and misread Chaim Potok could be interesting. It seems like people (I’m referring mainly to some of my comments at BCC) haven’t believed me when I have pointed out that Potok had a different relationship with his “home community” and reception in it than most Mormon artists do.

    I think that there’s a perception that Potok was able to have his cake and eat it too, to be both respectful and critical of his home tradition and to have success both widely and among his “own people.” It’s wishful thinking for what many Mormon artists would like to attain.

  3. What a fabulous article! I’m always a little astonished to see people from other religious cultures take an honest–and respectful–interest in Mormon culture. I like it. 🙂

  4. Thanks for the comments here and on the Forward website. I’m sorry if there is some disagreement about the mention of the baptisms in the piece. I still maintain it has to be part of the discussion. In my opinion, too much of Jewish views of Mormonism has been shaped by the headlines about baptism. I think it would be wonderful if art could help everyone better understand each other, and perhaps the article will present a small step in that direction.

  5. I’ve never been attracted to reading Potok, but have been aware of the interest in Mormon circles for years. After reading Wecker’s article, I think I’ll have to pick him up and finally see what the fuss is all about. When it comes to “Jewish” writers I’ve always been in awe of of Saul Bellow and especially Philip Roth.

  6. Menachem:

    I completely agree. Although I don’t want to go down the route of political correctness, I do think that making the comparison does raise issues of appropriation and hopefully Mormons can understand in both instances not only why some Jews are uncomfortable with such appropriation but also that Mormons may not understand or be reading the Jewish response to both Potok and the practice of baptisms for the dead correctly (and to a lesser extent vice versa. The only problem I have with the article is that it’s too short. But then that’s what comments are for. 🙂

  7. I haven’t really taken to Bellow. I enjoy Roth, though.

    And I do have to admit that Potok’s work speaks to me as a Mormon artist. I just don’t necessarily find inspiration and comfort in it.

  8. Too short, eh? I’ll make you a deal. If you can convince the New Yorker to publish 10,000 words on it, I’d happily submit a longer version. Grin.

  9. Not a problem. Let me just figure out where I put those incriminating photos of David Remnick.

  10. Finally got around to reading “My Name is Asher Lev” last year and found it to be an intensely thrilling experience. I identified with Asher on so many levels. Not because our religions are the same, but because we both have religions that we love. Both of us have similar devotions to our beliefs–orthodox and un- at the same time. Both of us are captives of artistic inclinations that we feel support and inform our religious devotions rather than replace. Both of us find “useable” truth outside the canon.

    I was in the rather large crowd that attended Potok’s ’82 address at BYU. I knew virtually nothing of the man other than that he was a writer. I wanted to be a writer, so I went. It was free. I remember almost nothing of what he said. Only this (and I can not guarentee that this is actually what he said, only that it’s what I remember): Nothing–no subject–is so sacred, that a respectful approach to it should be off limits in our literature. That idea sang to me and is what has allowed me to write plays like “Stones” and “Brothers.”

    I have felt indebted to Potok since that day for his inspiration to my work. Now, having read “The Chosen” and “My name is Asher Lev” (and part way into “The Gift of Asher Lev), I feel indebted to him for his inspiration to my soul.

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