I’m a fledging writer. Well, maybe I’m a couple of baby steps beyond that, but every single day of my life I read something that just about knocks my socks off. See? I can hardly write without using a cliché. What I’m trying to say is that there are hundreds of thousands of writers who can tell stories or write nonfiction far better than I. And poetry? Sheesh. Let’s don’t even go there. I admire people who can write poems, but at this moment, it seems like an impossibility to me.
That said, I well understand that reading is a companion to writing. Whether one is reading the ingredients in Cheerios, a comic book, one of the classics, literary journals, or the New York Times, he or she is learning—not just about the world and its people, places, and things, but also about word usage, sentence structure, and description. But here’s a confession: until I joined a critique group, I never once considered studying how things were put together.
Now I look more seriously at the story behind the story, the theme that the author might not come right how and tell you but is there…always there. I look at how she or he begins a story or chapter or book and how the writer ends it. Does the end of the chapter leave the reader longing to turn the page to see what happens? Does the beginning give a sense of time and place? Is the protagonist introduced?
Oops. I’ve veered off course. My primary purpose of this post is to once again share my admiration for an author I “met” a few months ago, Chaim Potok. A Jewish writer, he introduced me to the world of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews who lived during the 1930s and 40s, and my interest was captured right away. I watched the Shtisel series and didn’t even notice they were speaking Yiddish!
I stumbled upon The Chosen a few months ago and became interested in Jewish history, beliefs, and lifestyle. “Read The Promise next,” a friend said. “You’ll meet Danny and Reuven as adults.” But I ignored her and read In the Beginning, primarily because I found it at a Friends of the Library Sale. My Name is Asher Lev and I Am the Clay soon joined my queue of Potok’s books, all of which are extremely well-written and filled with fascinating information presented in novel form.
I finally read The Promise a few weeks ago. In it, Potok brings the reader into the lives of Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders as adults whom I first met as boys in The Chosen. The guidance of their fathers, one a teacher and the other a rabbi, influenced their life paths without actually determining them. The young men made their own choices. Weaving its way in, around, over, above, and through everything is the Jewish religion and the strong influence it has on every character in the novel—even those who are seeking change and attempting to move forward.
Integral to the story are the connections between other individuals in their lives, including the Gordon families. Will Reuven receive smicha from Rav Kalman, a man who attacked Reuven’s father’s work? Will his father continue teaching in his current yeshiva? Will Michael recover from his catatonic state? What does the future hold for Danny and Rachel? Danny and Reuven and all other characters in the novel are part of a network of people who support, teach, and influence one another. So am I, I thought. Everyone is, even though all interconnections are not created equally. Relationships, just as they are in “real life,” are interdependent, and some are healthier and more helpful than others.
I enjoy reading fiction and nonfiction, historical fiction and narrative nonfiction—all sorts of literature. Everything I’ve really appreciated, however, is something that’s made me think, something I’ve learned from, or something that has shone on a light on a social, cultural, or even personal situation. Sure, I enjoy reading for entertainment and amusement, but the primary criteria of whether I recommend a book is how well the author tells a story (or several) that illuminates life issues. The Promise does that—and more.