Chaim Potok (1929-2002): New York native. Orthodox Jew. Rabbi. Bestselling author. Clearly a fascinating literary figure, by anyone’s standards.
But why does he inspire me?
It’s a long story. It starts one summer vacation, when I had a close friend in the mental hospital. I was stressed beyond capacity, so I’d just started blocking everything out. And on a whim, I’d borrowed Chaim Potok’s 1967 classic The Chosen from the library.
I knew very little about The Chosen when I first cracked it open. But during those hot, lonely afternoons, while I barricaded myself in my bedroom, the story unfolded its arms and wrapped them around me.
Two Orthodox Jewish boys, struggling through adolescence in postwar Brooklyn. Just a quiet little coming-of-age tale. The kind of book where your brain draws the scenes in smudgy gray charcoal. It was perfect for me, that summer. I didn’t realize how much I needed it, though, until I came to the final pages and burst into tears.
Over the course of the book, one of the boys, Danny, raised by his father be a tzaddik—an Orthodox rabbi—chooses a secular career as a psychiatrist instead. He wants to heal the lost, and the hurting. But he hides his dreams, afraid his father won’t understand. The father’s response?
“Of course I have known. For a long time I have known. Let my Daniel be a tzaddik for the world. And the world needs a tzaddik.”
I had been misty-eyed for several paragraphs, but the last line killed me. I was sobbing. I had to put the book down.
Mind you, I’d grown up as a girl who didn’t cry; and certainly that summer, I didn’t cry. I had no tears inside me. I had no emotions. I couldn’t afford to have any . . . until Chaim Potok reached into my heart and tugged open the gates holding it all back.
Why did those words hit me so hard? “The world needs a tzaddik”? Because they said everything I couldn’t. I don’t know about your world, but mine sure needed a shepherd—whether spiritual or secular or both—just then. I was in pain. My friend was in worse pain. And somehow, I felt, the man who wrote the book I’d just finished sobbing my eyes out over would understand.
I suppose some would say he inspired me to ‘keep fighting.’ He didn’t. I’d been a fighter since the day I was born. But this time, I was wasting energy fighting my own emotions. And it was Chaim Potok who negotiated the cease-fire.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Prescott is a former homeschool student and current graduate student, pursuing a master’s degree in American history with a focus on immigration studies. In her (sadly limited) free time, she can usually be found listening to “Hamilton” or Celine Dion or Twenty One Pilots and dreaming up new ideas for historical fiction novels. Which, she hopes, will someday make her famous. Someday. She also blogs.