Shtissel, Chaim Potok, and Me

My husband and I are finally watching the long-awaited third season of Shtissel, an Israeli TV series about an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family living in Jerusalem. It’s a world most of us have never encountered. Although once you’re hooked, and you will be, trust me, the family’s trials and triumphs are universal. Shtissel is an artist, a painter. In his community that’s well-nigh verboten. Graven images and all that. This is a community where the men are expected to devote themselves to studying and living God’s Torah. Painting? Anathema. Nevertheless Shtissel walks the difficult middle path between two worlds.

My husband and I were talking about Shtissel’s dilemma which made me think of Chaim Potok’s novel, My Name is Asher Lev. The eponymous Asher Lev is a struggling artist. Like Shtissel, he is caught between his community’s expectations and his determination to answer his soul’s call to paint. Thinking of Potok’s novels reminding me of the days I worked as the receptionist for Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. which at the time was coming out with Potok’s book Wanderings, A History of the Jews.

Not all of Knopf’s authors noticed the receptionist as anything but a lowly cog in the finely-assembled publishing house. But Chaim Potok took notice. He was always kind, always patient. He had       a gentle smile and a gentle manner. I was over-the-moon starstruck to meet the author of the novels I had devoured in high school. Our paths crossed twice more. In 1998 the author’s short story collection, Zebra and Other Stories, had just come out. I took my son, then 14, to hear and meet Potok at our Barnes and Noble. After his book talk, he was every bit as gracious to us as he autographed his book and chatted with us for a minute or two.

A year or so later I took a chance and wrote the author, asking him to consider writing a blurb for my book This Jewish Life. I knew it was a long shot and indeed he demurred. I still have his letter a reminder of a gentle man who cared as much about Jewish life and art as he did about treating his publisher’s receptionist with dignity and kindness.

Photo of Chaim Potok by Monozigote is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
Photo of Debra Darvick courtesy of Martin Darvick.