Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Chaim Potok & The Rebbe

The Avner Institute is pleased to present a fascinating conversation between noted writer Chaim Potok and Rabbi Dalfin, in which the writer discuses his first visits to the Rebbe, and why he never experienced a private audience (Yechidus). Special thanks to Rabbi Dalfin.

We have also included a unique photo of the Rebbe, special thanks to Rabbi Levertov.

Good Shabbos


D: How did you first meet with the Rebbe. Was it in private or, at a Farbrengen?

P: As I told you, I never met the Rebbe in private. I met the Rebbe twice at Farbrengens and once at a Mincha service. It must have been in the 70’s. All 3 times, if I remember correctly, I was accompanied by Rabbi Shemtov. The second Farbrengen I sat up in front with a large group of others, and spoke to the Rebbe in front of all the people there. I was at the time the editor of the Jewish Publication Society. His words to me were, “Remember to put the Jewish back in the Jewish Publication Society.” We always published books that had to with Jewish scholarship, Jewish history, Jewish thought. Therefore, I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant. That was the 2nd time I met him. We stayed, my wife and I, very late that night, and we also heard the Rebbe speaking Chassidus. It was about 2-3 o’clock in the morning.

Then I met the Rebbe at a Mincha service, when a group of Yeshiva boys were about to leave on a worldwide mission. He noticed me and nodded. After the Mincha service the students gathered around him. He gave them a Brocha and he went away.

D: You didn’t talk to him on that occasion.

P: No.

D: Did you understand what he meant about, “Remember to put the Jewish back in the Jewish Publication Society.” Did you ask him?

P: There was no opportunity to ask him, because there were others waiting to speak to him. It was very puzzling to me.

D: The first time you came, Rabbi Shemtov introduced you to the Rebbe?

P: If I remember correctly, he knew that I was coming. I had just written either The Promise or My Name is Asher Lev. He knew that I was a novelist, but said nothing to me about the novels. The conversation lasted longer than with all the others who came before me, and some staff people seemed to be annoyed that I was taking so much of the Rebbe’s time. One or two of them came over to me and asked, “What did the Rebbe say?”, so I told them what I’m telling you now.

D: What motivated you to go see the Rebbe?

P: First, I grew up in a world of Chassidus and Chassidism. My mother was a direct descendant of one of the sons of the Rizhiner. Her father was a Chortkover and my father was a Belzer. My uncle was a Belzer. The whole family comes from that world. Second, I became especially interested in Lubavitch because my wife grew up at 576 Eastern Parkway. She had seen Lubavitch expand in that neighborhood, had seen that neighborhood transformed from a middle class neighborhood to a Chassidic neighborhood. I was very curious about that. And, my in-laws still lived at 576 Eastern Parkway, so when I visited them, I would see Lubavitch everywhere.

After I wrote The Chosen and The Promise - I had always been interested in art - I began to think about the possibility of writing a story about an artist who had grown up in a very religious world. It was at that point that Rabbi Shemtov walked into my office one day. My interest in that subject and Rabbi Shemtov came together, and the focus became Lubavitch, although I wasn’t particularly interested in writing specifically about Lubavitch. What a writer does is research and become very familiar with a specific world and subject. Then the imagination takes over. So the streets where my wife grew up, became the focus of my interest, and since Lubavitch was still on those streets, it all came together into the Asher Lev story. When Rabbi Shemtov invited me to come to a Farbrengen, I said sure, let me see what’s going on, and we went.

D : That brings me to your statement to Ted Koppel on Night Line. He asked you, “Why didn’t you take advantage of the opportunity to have a private visit with the Rebbe?”, or something to that effect, and your response was that your objectivity would have been absorbed or swallowed up, I forget the exact word. Did you say you were scared?

P: I don’t know if I was scared, but if I did use that word all I meant was that I was concerned about how such a meeting would affect what I myself want to write about regarding this group. If the Rebbe were alive today, I still wouldn’t want to go see him, and I’ll explain to you why, with the following story.

A very close friend of mine is one of the great political cartoonists in the United States. Some months after President Clinton was elected, he invited a small group of cartoonists to meet with him in the White House. Clinton is a very charismatic person. He is, when you see him in person, quite awesome. He’s tall, almost monumental,

and gives the impression of being a very real, a very authentic human being, when you meet him face to face. Now, it is the business of a political cartoonist to be cool, cynical, and objective. And this political cartoonist told me that it took him months to restore his objectivity after that meeting, because he was overwhelmed by the personality of Bill Clinton. He really came out of that meeting with a profound regard for that man. I know of this dynamic. I’ve experienced it before with teachers that I’ve had.

I didn’t want to meet personally with the Rebbe because it was very clear to me that this was a most unusual human being. I didn’t want to spend 20 minutes or half an hour in a room with him, and then have to rethink, undo, restructure, my imagination after that experience. That’s all I meant by that.

A writer does the necessary encountering for his or her work, and when he feels that his imagination has enough encounter with the reality that he wants to write about, he walks away from the reality and lets the imagination work. You don’t let the reality overwhelm the imagination. That’s precisely why I didn’t want to see the Rebbe, although Rabbi Shemtov, on many occasions, urged me to do so, and it would have been very easy to do so.