The Book of Lights by Chaim Potok: A book that made me forget myself

Cover imageThis post came out of a conversation with H about a book I’d been reading: I am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits who grew up as a member of Satmar, a small Hasidic sect originating in Romania. H was talking about the flowering of Jewish fiction, particularly in America in the mid- to late 20th century, and wondering what had happened to it which led us, by way of Saul Bellow et al., to Chaim Potok’s The Book of Lights about a young rabbi, a student of Kabbalah, whose faith is challenged by his experiences as a military chaplain in both Korea and Japan, and his friendship with the son of one of the atomic bomb makers. I remembered finishing it on holiday and being so transported that I entirely forgot my surroundings – we were sitting in some gorgeous Spanish gardens waiting Cover imagefor the Alhambra to open. So profound was the novel’s effect on me that I felt completely disoriented, like coming to after a particularly vivid dream.

In my old bookselling days, very few customers asked for Potok’s books but I made sure we kept them in stock. If I was asked for The Book of Lights or sold a copy I’d always chat with the customer about it – many were buying a second or third copy having passed their own on. Sad to say, this extraordinarily powerful book seems to be out of print in the UK, perhaps too much of its time to stay the course although no one says that about George Eliot. Any books now sunk into obscurity that have made a lasting impression on you?

13 thoughts on “The Book of Lights by Chaim Potok: A book that made me forget myself”

    1. Susan Osborne

      Thanks, Helen. I was very disappointed to find that it was no longer available in the UK, although not entirely surprised I suppose. Snap it up should you ever see it in a charity shop.

  1. I’m so glad someone is talking about Potok. I think i feel a Potok renaissance coming on. The Book of Lights was not one of my favorites of his, but he is such a great writer. I recently reviewed a book called The Mystics of Mile End, which kind of reminded me of Potok.

    1. I’m sure he must be more widely read in the US and the UK. I’ll add The Mystics of Mile End to my list, Tanya. Thanks for the tip.

  2. Did you hear the discussion on Radio 4 this morning about why there were so many more American Jewish writers than British? If not, it’s repeated this evening at 9.30 or you can get a podcast version. It was very interesting.

    1. I missed that – Start the Week, I assume. Thanks so much for the tip, Alex. I shall investigate on iPlayer.

  3. Your comment about being so absorbed that you were disoriented when finishing it reminded me of when I was on a walking holiday in the Pyrenees – sitting on top of a mountain I was reading Beryl Bainbridge’s ‘Every man for himself’ and it felt so funny when I shut the book that I was high and dry and not at the bottom of the icy sea.

    Potok is great , I’m surprised he’s out of print.

    1. Susan Osborne

      It’s a strange feeling, isn’t it? I can still remember that disorientation, well over two decades later. The only similar experience I can remember was watching Antony Sher in Singer at the Barbican and feeling so dazed at the interval that I started to get my thing together to leave, then H and I spent twenty minutes in the bar barely speaking.

    1. Susan Osborne

      Always a good place for out of print books! He’s well worth your time and, oddly, I think several of his other novels are still in print in the UK.

  4. Pingback: FridayReads: Too much marketing? | A life in books

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.