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  • Written by Chaim Potok
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  • Written by Chaim Potok
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Written by Chaim PotokAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Chaim Potok


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: December 30, 2008
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-307-48900-5
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
Old Men at Midnight Cover

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From the celebrated author of The Chosen and My Name Is Asher Lev, a trilogy of related novellas about a woman whose life touches three very different men—stories that encompass some of the profoundest themes of the twentieth century.

Ilana Davita Dinn is the listener to whom three men relate their lives.

As a young girl, she offers English lessons to a teenage survivor of the camps. In “The Ark Builder,” he shares with her the story of his friendship with a proud old builder of synagogue arks, and what happened when the German army invaded their Polish town.

As a graduate student, she finds herself escorting a guest lecturer from the Soviet Union, and in “The War Doctor,” her sympathy moves him to put his painful past to paper recounting his experiences as a Soviet NKVD agent who was saved by an idealistic doctor during the Russian civil war, only to encounter him again during the terrifying period of the Kremlin doctors’ plot.

And, finally, we meet her in “The Trope Teacher,” in which a distinguished professor of military history, trying to write his memoirs, is distracted by his wife’s illness and by the arrival next door of a new neighbor, the famous writer I. D. (Ilana Davita) Chandal.

Poignant and profound, Chaim Potok’s newest fiction is a major addition to his remarkable—and remarkably loved—body of work.

From the Hardcover edition.



Noah was brought to our brooklyn neighborhood by his aunt and uncle, and into my life by an announcement on the bulletin board of our synagogue: sixteen-year-old boy from europe needs english tutor.

This was early in the summer of 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War. No name, just a telephone number.

I called that night. A woman answered.

"Hello, who is it?" She sounded fretful, harried. "Who is calling, please?"

I said in Yiddish, "A good week."

There was a slight pause. "Ah, a good week," she said. Her tone softened.

I said in English, "My name is Davita Dinn. I'm calling about your request for an English tutor."

In the background I heard children crying. Turning away from the phone, she shouted something in Yiddish, which I did not understand. Into the phone she said, "You have done this before, teach English?"

"Yes. But not to a European survivor."

"How old are you?"

"Nearly eighteen."

"Where do you live?"

I told her.

"We will come to you. Is it all right tomorrow at three?"

I was alone when they arrived. Answering the front door bell, I saw a stocky, plain-looking woman in her thirties, garbed in a dark-gray dress that reached to below her knees. The dress had a frilly high neck and long sleeves. Standing a little behind and to her right was a thin boy in his teens, wearing a white long-sleeved shirt, dark trousers, and a dark skullcap.

I said, "Hello."

The woman said, "I am Sarah Polit."

"Come in."

We went into the living room. The afternoon sun fell on the pale-blue carpeting and the brick fireplace and the large painting of flowers on the wall.

The woman and the boy sat on the sofa. I took the easy chair across from them. The woman turned to the boy and spoke to him in Yiddish.

The boy had been staring at the fireplace. Now he looked at me, cleared his throat, and said something in Yiddish in a shaky voice.

I said, "I'm sorry, I don't understand Yiddish."

Sarah Polit said with surprise, "You speak no Yiddish?"

"My parents raised me in English."

"Your parents are in America a long time?"

"My mother came in early 1920. My father's family has been here since the seventeenth century."

"The seventeenth century?"


"What does your father do?"

"My father is dead."

"Ah, I am sorry."

The boy sat looking at the two of us. He had oval features: pallid skin across his cheekbones, a straight nose, a pointed chin. His hair was cut short and black, and his wide dark eyes darted from me to his aunt. I did not know how much of the conversation he understood.

Sarah Polit asked, "What did you say your name is?"

"Ilana Davita Dinn."

"Dinn is your father's name?"

"No, my stepfather's."

"What does your stepfather do?"

"He's an immigration lawyer."

She looked at my blond hair and blue eyes. "You observe the commandments?"

Her questions did not surprise me; she wanted to be sure about the kind of home to which she was entrusting the boy.

I told her that I observed the commandments.

"And you have taught English to people who have come from Europe?"


She was quiet.

I turned to the boy. "What's your name?"

The boy looked at his aunt.

"Tell her, Noah."

"I am call Noah Stremin."

"Where did you hear English?"

"American soldati after war."

Sarah Polit was looking closely at my blond hair and blue eyes. She asked, "What was your father? What did he do?"

"He was a journalist."

"What was his name?"

"Michael Chandal."

"You took your stepfather's name?"

"He gave me his name when he adopted me."

Sarah Polit sat back. I had the notion she had decided to ask no more questions. We were a religious family, and she was fortunate to have found us. Most teachers didn't want to work during the summer months; many took their families to bungalows in the country to get them away from the streets.

I asked, "Where in Europe are you from, Mrs. Polit?"

"I came in the twenties from a town called Kralov, not far from Cracow."

"I know about Cracow. About sixty thousand Jews."

"Well, Kralov had four thousand Jews, a Jewish market, small synagogues and schools, and a wooden synagogue. Both our families were from Kralov."

He was sitting next to her, looking at the carpet. His face without expression. It was not possible to tell if he understood what she was saying.

"There was a pogrom in Kralov in the late twenties, and my father sent me here to America. He, my mother, and my two brothers, they stayed. May their memories be for a blessing."

The boy raised his hands, turned them over, and looked at them. A grimace crossed his face. Putting his hands back on his knees, he sat staring at the fireplace.

Pronouncing the words with care, I asked him, "Noah, is there anything special you like to do?"

He raised his head and looked at me blankly.

"I thought we might start with words for something you enjoy doing."

Sarah Polit said, "He was three years in a slave labor camp and two years in a displaced persons camp. He just now arrived in America. He does not yet know what he likes."

"Can he come twice a week?"

"Twice a week. Yes."

"Sundays and Wednesdays."

"What do you charge?"

"Five dollars a lesson. We can start this Wednesday at three."

"What should he bring?"

"A notebook and a pencil."

"That's all?"

"For the time being."

"I thank you."

She spoke to the boy in Yiddish. He got off the sofa, and I saw him go through the entrance hallway to the front door. As he opened the door he gave me an over-the-shoulder look, and I felt his dark eyes on my face. He closed the door behind him.

Sarah Polit remained seated on the sofa, looking at the door. Then she turned to me.

"Noah is the only one who survived."

"The only one in his family? I am sorry."

"The only Jew in the town."

I felt cold to the bone.

"Four thousand Jews, and he is the only survivor. My husband and I, we say to ourselves God saved him for a reason."

I sat very still.

She rose from the sofa. "He knows, of course. He has terrible dreams." She looked around the room. "Tell me, is three o'clock the only time you have?"

"It's best for me."

She smoothed her dress. "He will be here on Wednesday, God willing. I thank you very much for your time."

She went out the door.

From the window of the living room I watched them walk along the street together in the hot shade of the early summer maple trees.

From the Hardcover edition.
Chaim Potok|Author Q&A

About Chaim Potok

Chaim Potok - Old Men at Midnight
Chaim Potok was born in the Bronx in 1929. He graduated from Yeshiva University and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, was ordained as a rabbi, and earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. He also served as editor of the Jewish Publication Society of America. Potok’s first novel, The Chosen, published in 1967, received the Edward Lewis Wallant Memorial Book Award and was nominated for the National Book Award. He died in 2002.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Chaim Potok

Daniel Walden, Professor Emeritus of American Studies, English, and Comparative Literature, has taught "Jewish Lit-erature," "Literature and the Holocaust," and "Women Writ-ing the Holocaust" for many years at Penn State University. Author of On Being Jewish (1974), Walden has also published Twentieth Century American Jewish Fiction Writer (1984) and Conversations with Chaim Potok (2001), and is the longtime editor of "Studies in American Jewish Literature." In assembling this conversation, Daniel Walden has drawn on other conversations with Chaim Potok conducted by Harold Ribalow, S. Lillian Kremer, Marcia Zoslaw Siegel, and Michael J. Cusick. These conversations are published in Conversations with Chaim Potok, edited by Daniel Walden (University Press of Mississippi, 2001).

Daniel Walden: Although you have written, in Wanderings, that the Korean war was a crucial experience for you, you've also written that "the Jew sees all his contemporary history through the ocean of blood that is the Holocaust." When did you begin to think that you could use the Holocaust as a subject in fiction?

Chaim Potok: I began to think of the Holocaust as a subject in the late 1940s, that early. It was prevalent in my family. There were a lot of people who died in the Holocaust in my family.

During the Great Depression there was a period when we were on welfare. My father had been quite wealthy in the 1920s--he had been in real estate before the crash-- and he spent the next decade rebuilding his life--by opening a jewelry and watch repair store in those days.

You had Father Coughlin from Detroit yelling anti-Semitic diatribes at you from the radio on Sunday afternoons. Did I listen to him? Absolutely! You wanted to know what the enemy was saying so you could respond. And if you didn't listen, the anti-Semitic neighbors would turn up their radios so you would hear him when you walked down the street.

And then, of course, there was the ranting and raving of Hitler, which I would get on the radio--with a lot of static--from time to time.

I wanted to milk everything for what it was worth, because you never knew if there would be another minute.

I still remember the day my father received a letter from Europe telling me that not one relative had survived. He sat down and told my mother, and she just fell to pieces. She kept saying, 'Nobody? Nobody? I can't believe nobody.' "

Once I talked about the Holocaust with my father. He told me that we had lost 103 aunts, uncles, second cousins, whole families. Then he turned away.

DW: In The Chosen, the Holocaust was in the background. In The Promise and in In the Beginning, it became more and then more prominent. Was this accidental or deliberately done? Was this due to a change in circumstances around you, in your thinking?

CP: Yes it began with The Chosen, but really, the real lollapalooza was The Promise, with Reb Kalman. It came out of the material and it came out of the character, simultaneously.

Yes, I think that the whole people feels that and probably the American Jew feels it in a special way; he is quite guilt-ridden in all probability. For whatever reason, he never did enough at a crucial point in time by way of an effort to get the thing stopped, or to protest it. Wrong or right, spoken or unspoken, that is the general feeling. And that sense of guilt is triggered from time to time, especially when Israel is involved in a war, and you get that extraordinary reaction on the part of the American Jewish public in defense of that country. A good deal of that reaction comes from a sense of the guilt we all have regarding the Holocaust. I don't see how it is possible to think the world through Jewish eyes without having the blood-screen of the Holocaust in front of your eyes as part of the filtering. I'll go even further and say that for thinking people, Jew or non-Jew, I don't think it is possible to think the world anymore in this century without thinking Holocaust.

DW: In an interview with Lillian Kremer, in 1981, you said that you were "very hesitant to write a novel about the Holocaust because I don't know how to handle the material." When did you begin to feel confident about handling the material, about writing stories or novellas?

CP: I still can't really handle the material. I feel unnerved by all the material and I don't know how a Jew can really handle it. I wasn't involved with it in terms of my own flesh, although we lost the whole European branch of the family. I don't know whether or not I can write a Holocaust novel. I don't know whether I can get the distance needed to handle it aesthetically. It seems to me to be so anaesthetic an experience that I don't quite know what thread of it to grab hold of so that I could weave it into some sort of aesthetics.

DW: In Davita's Harp, you wrote about a young girl clearly identified, as you've said, with your wife. In Old Men at Midnight is Ilana Davita Chandal a continuation or outgrowth of that Davita? Is she a new creation? A fusion?

CP: A harp is a bunch of strings, and it is nothing unless someone is playing it. It is the melody of the harp that is the mystery. Sometimes if you leave a harp out in a strong wind, the wind will make the melody.

In Jerusalem somewhere, there is a harp that is a sculpture which reacts to winds. The harp is physical, even though we can't see its music. The music--what's the music? The music is the relationship between the harp and the wind. The writing is the relationship between the writer and the piece of paper. Worship is the relationship between the worshiper and the text.

Davita's Harp was in part based on the experiences of my wife. Davita, in Old Men at Midnight, is a continuation, and I hope to continue with her. But she is going her own way now.

DW: Old Men at Midnight is on one level a series of three novellas about the tensions Jews faced in their transition from a war-torn Europe and an emerging American society. Is this a new way of viewing your longtime interest in a core-to-core cultural confrontation?

CP: Absolutely, it is fundamental to that core-to-core cultural confrontation. I will decide, or rather people will decide whether I subscribe to that core or fall by the wayside. I don't know yet. But I intend to be more specific.

I think I have inadvertently stumbled across a cultural dynamic that I didn't quite see clearly myself until sometime toward the end of the writing of The Chosen. I think what I am really writing about is culture war. The over-arching culture in which we all live is the culture we call Western secular humanism, the culture that Peter Gay of Columbia University calls modern paganism. Within this culture there is a whole spectrum of subcultures. The basic characteristic of the over-arching culture is what I call the open-ended hypothesis; that is to say, nothing is absolute in any kind of permanent way. A model is a shifting or temporary absolute on the assumption that additional data will be discovered that will impinge upon a given model. That model must be altered. So there is a constant search for new knowledge that is built into the civilization that we live in, this overarching civilization. But embedded inside this civilization we have a whole series of cultures which come into this world with givens, with models that are fixed absolutes. If they are alterable, they are alterable only under inordinate pressure. What happens is that these subcultures clash in a variety of ways with the overarching culture, as somebody from this subculture grows up and encounters ele-ments from the outside model.

DW: Perhaps I missed this but I think "The Ark Builder" and "The War Doctor" were written in the last decade, after "The Trope Teacher," which was published first in 1992, in Holland, then it was published in the TriQuarterly in 1997-98. Can you explain the way or ways in which these came about?

CP: Yes you are correct. I wrote "The Trope Teacher" first. The other two represented a prequel to the first. I worked backward. "The Trope Teacher" by the way, came out of nothing. I created it out of nothing. It had no relation to a previous work.

In "The Arc Builder" the drawings and the art and the architecture are concerned with the traditional artists, that is, the people who have significantly cut across lines. Stremin, in "The Arc Builder," had nothing and might now have something, a memory of the "old world."

DW: Why is it Rachel, the younger sister, who succeeds in drawing Noah Stremin out? Or was it the primate house's smells? In "The War Doctor" did the story come out of your previous book on the Soviet Union? When you wrote "Without stories there is nothing," the doctor sent her stories. Then she asked "Are you a religious Jew?" Explain.

CP: In fact Davita had too many things attached to the "old world," so it had to be Rachel who would draw Stremin out. The primate house's primary smells reminded him of the concentration camp. Beside them everything else was blurred. In "The War Doctor" Shertov came out of nothing, he was an invented character. As for the question, "Are you a religious Jew?" It was meant to catch you up. It is important to remember that he could not save him. He could not worry about it because so much time had elapsed and in those days, in Soviet Russia you didn't care about the consequences.

DW: In general, your writing has invoked the redemptive voice, it has stood for restoration, for regenerating Judaism and the Jewish people. Is that view consistent with your belief, with Emil Fackenheim, that the alternative to Jewish commitment is to say that Hitler succeeded, that everybody died for nothing?"

CP: Yes indeed. Fackenheim successfully had the Jew take two alternatives: either take the redemptive step, or take the non-redemptive step. That doesn't mean, of course, you have to take the religious stance, but it would be a normal and ethical stance.

Yes, that uncertainty comes from the suffering that he has experienced and leads, in turn, to his certainty. He says to himself, I cannot have gone through what I went through and have lost what I lost if it's all meaningless. Therefore, the very experience serves to reinforce his commitment to the past. The alternative is to say that Hitler succeeded, that everybody really died for nothing. That reinforces his certainty. At the same time, he has lost his whole world. He is in a strange, bewildering world here. He is listening to the music of that past world. And somehow he manages to find it.

DW: Some critics have written that they don't admire your so-called simple style. You have contended that your writing is a result of much rewriting and much revision and is deliberate.

CP: The style is simplicity for the sake of complexity. Whoever feels that it is a "simple style" has to look into it and find the right way. Of course the style has become over the years much more complex and much more simple.

Two fundamental things about the novel continue to intrigue me and I think this is our gift to ourselves as far as this form is concerned. One is the handling of character, people. No other form can handle people in significant depth over long periods of time. No other form can move back and forth, in and out, nothing can move the way the novel can in terms of the dimension of time. People and time are what I think the novel is really all about and I think they are limitless.

About the Book|Discussion Questions

About the Guide

Ilana Davin Dinn is the listener to whom three men relate their pasts. As each story is witnessed, three very different lives will irrevocably change through the concern of this one determined woman.

Discussion Guides

1. The Ark Builder

1. Is there a reason to connect Noah with the Biblical story of the ark? Given that water is not present in the story, what then is the metaphor of the flood?

2. Noah says to Rachel, "You have pictures, I have nothing." What does he mean by this and what is its significance?

3. Why wouldn't Noah draw his house when first asked? What is it about Rachel that was finally able to get him to draw?

The War Doctor

1. When Davita urges Leon Sherov to write his war stories down, he asks her, "Who needs stories of yet another Jew?" What is her answer? How would you have convinced him to tell his stories?

The Trope Teacher

1. Davita says to Benjamin, "Memory is like a ball of wooden thread, Benjamin. If the pen cannot unravel it, the voice can." What do you think she means by this statement?

2. The ram is a central metaphor in this story. Davita says, "I believe there is always a ram in the bush." Later on she comments, "Causes, connections, and rams. All over the place." What is the connection between these words and the long story that Benjamin finally learns about Mr. Zapiski?

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