Sunday, September 30, 2012

Old Men at Midnight by Chaim Potok

   Ever since reading The Chosen by Chaim Potok (for my review go here), I have been collecting all the books I can by this wonderful author.  I have done this primarily by belonging to Paperback Swap  This is a web site where you can trade books for free.  For every book you mail to another subscriber, you get a credit that you can then use to request a book from another member.  I have gotten several books this way.  If you’re a cheapskate like me, or, if you’re trying hard to be a good steward with your money (also like me) this is a good place to feed your book habit without paying full price for a book.

     Anyway, as I was saying this is how I am getting books written by Potok.  Chaim Potok is an interesting person.  He was trained as a Rabbi, but was also an editor.  His first book, The Chosen brought him international attention.  He continued writing for the next thirty years, producing several successful novels. Old Men at Midnight was his last book published before he succumbed to brain cancer in 2002.

    Old Men at Midnight is a collection of three short stories.  Each is about a Jewish man and his unique life.  The common thread is a woman named Ilana Davita Dunn.  Each man tells his story to her.

        In the first story, The Ark Builder Davita is a young woman, only eighteen years old.  She is hired by a Polish couple to tutor in English their teenage nephew, Noah, who has just arrived in New York.  As Davita tutors Noah, she comes to find out that he is the sole survivor from his Polish village of the Holocaust.  As their friendship develops Noah opens up and begins to relate his final days in his hometown.  He shares a particular story that continues to haunt him.  It is about a man in their synagogue in Poland who made arks out of wood.   Noah and his brother helped him make the ark in their synagogue. As Noah recounts this episode in his life, Davita comes to understand the tragedy that haunts this young man’s life and left him with deep scars.

        The second, The War Doctor, finds Davita as a college student.  At Columbia University, where she is enrolled, she meets a guest lecturer who has defected from Russia.  At her encouragement he writes his story.  It is a horrific one of someone who compromised his values, his Jewish faith and dignity as a human in order to work up the echelons of Stalin’s regime.

        The last one is called The Trope Teacher, and is the strangest.  Davita is now a middle aged woman who has moved in next door to a Professor at Princeton.  Again she is instrumental in getting someone, Benjamin Walter this time, to tell his story.  His is a story inside of a story.  It harkens back to his childhood where he is given musical instruction by a friend of his father’s, Mr. Zapiski.  Mr. Zapiski is a trope teacher and teaches Benjamin how to chant in Hebrew for his Bar Mitzvah.  Benjamin’s father and Mr. Zapiski were close friends in Germany where they fought in WWI together.  A tragic story exists between the two friends, but neither Benjamin’s father or the trope teacher will divulge what it is.  The story comes about in an unexpected way.  

    Those are the base plot outlines for each story but what makes them worth reading is the eloquence of style and ability of Mr. Potok to make each person- I can’t call them characters- not only extremely interesting but sympathetic.  Chaim Potok is a master storyteller that uses rich colors that draw the reader into each scene, making you want more and regretting when the tale comes to a close.  Or rather, when he stops telling.  One gets the feeling that the stories continue on in their own reality.  Which is why I am trying to read as many of Chaim Potok’s as I can get my hands on.

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Further links for Chaim Potok:


  1. I'm embarassed to say I never read any of Potok's works. I have heard of him, of course, but never picked them up.

    Shame on me, especially after such a wonderful post.

    1. Ha, ha. See? That's what's great about reading other people's blogs. You discover gems. I love it when I learn about a book or author I've never read before. If I recall correctly, reading your blog post about "The Killer Angels" prompted me to read it. Did you also review "Cleopatra"? I just read that too. I just finished "The Art of War". It was excellent.

    2. Wow Sharon, you just gently mad(e) my day.

      I read and post about all three. If you liked "The Killer Angels" pick up "Gods and Generals" by Jeff Shaara (post coming soon) as well as the rest of the Civil War books in that series.

    3. Glad to make someone else's day:) and I look forward to reading your review on Shaara's books. Take care!


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.