Did you grow up in a particular religious tradition? If so, do you still practice it? What do you think about people who practice a different tradition, or, perhaps, none? Do you feel that there is only one path to the mountaintop and that you are on it? Are the others, well…lost?
I have enjoyed every work I’ve read by Chaim Potok, and I’ve read several of them. My favorite is The Book of Lights. There are several reasons for this. Chief among them is that Potok explores many of the questions I ask above, all of which intrigue me. He doesn’t answer them. Potok provides no answers to some fundamental questions. His purpose, as I see it, is different, to make us question a common belief of many religious people, ourselves included, that there is one path up the mountaintop, and we are on it. Everyone else is out in the boonies somewhere.
Another reason the book appeals to me is its mystical orientation. The main character, Gershon Loran, has a strange vision on a rooftop in New York when he is sixteen. It haunts him for the rest of his life. It is a seminal experience for him that turns him away from the external world, which can sometimes be a terrifying place, inwards. It leads to the serious study of Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, and the Zohar.
The book grew from Potok’s experience as a chaplain in the US Army in Korea. Most of that time, he was in Korea. But he did get to Japan. And it is in Japan that the book’s character, Gershon Loran raises the book’s central troubling psychological-theological question. Gershon (the character’s name is yet another good reason to like the book) and his Army roommate, John Meron, travel together to Japan. One day, they visit an outdoor market in Tokyo. They observe a Buddhist performing a religious ritual at an indoor shrine. At this point, Gershon asks his companion a question that can, if one is listening closely, shake one’s belief if all your life you have accepted the idea that you were on the one path up the mountain and there was only one mountain. Here is Potok’s description of the scene.
Later they walked beneath the arched roof of the Asakusa outdoor market. The street was crowded with shoppers. The shops were small and neat. In the indoor shrine at the end of the street, people crowded before an altar on which stood an image. Candles burned in tall black metal candelabra. Women stood with their hands together, praying. Children prayed softly. Before the altar was a railing. An old man stood at the railing. He wore a hat and a brown coat. He had a long white beard, a flowing beard that lay upon his chest and seemed possessed of a life of its own, like a waterfall. It caught the soft lights of the candles and glints of the sunlight that came through the door of the shrine. In his hands he held a prayer book. His body swayed slowly back and forth, back and forth, as he prayed. His eyes opened and closed behind rimless spectacles that flashed and flared with the lights of the candles and the sun. Gershon looked at him. Had he seen him somewhere before? He could not remember. “Do you think our God is listening to him, John?” “I don’t know, chappy. I never thought of it.” “Neither did I until now. If He’s not listening, why not? If He is listening, then—well, what are we all about, John?Potok, Chaim. The Book of Lights (pp. 261-262). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
It is a deep wish of mine to visit Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Kyoto with my family in 2025. I so hope it comes about. If it does not, however, there is a sense in which I can say I was there once. I visited it with a great writer, Chaim Potok. And he taught me many things there.
All the best,