Best–selling author Chaim Potok (1929–2002) was the first Jewish American novelist to give a broad audience an inside look at the trials and tribulations of Orthodox Judaism. His exploration of the tensions between the traditional and the modern, the letter and the spirit, and the mystical and the rational within Judaism earned him a place of respect among critics and readers alike.
Chaim Potok was born Herman Harold Potok on February 17, 1929, in New York City's Borough of The Bronx. He was called by his Jewish name—Chaim Tzvi—which means "life" or "alive," and later adopted Chaim as his professional name as well. The oldest of four children, Potok's father Benjamin Max Potok and his mother Mollie (Friedman) both emigrated from Poland to the United States in the early 1920s. Once settled in America, their family was caught, like so many others, in the economic difficulties of the Great Depression.
Potok and his siblings were raised in a strictly Orthodox home environment. Although not technically Hasidic, Potok started each day with prayers chanted in Hebrew, followed by eight hours at a yeshiva—an all–male Orthodox parochial school—and an evening spent doing homework. He watched the occasional bits and pieces of popular television shows if he finished his work early, but his family observed the Sabbath and the kosher dietary restrictions to the letter.
Potok showed an early gift for drawing and painting at around age eight, but his talents were discouraged by his parents and the Orthodox community at large because as he told Newsday in 1982, "the arts were considered at best a waste of time and at worst an act of sinfulness." Potok quickly decided to channel his creative energy away from the forbidden visual arts, and concentrate on the more religiously acceptable arena of the written word. Even with the change, Potok was still ostracized by family and friends for his aesthetic endeavors. In the 2004 Contemporary Authors Online, Potok recalled telling his mother that he planned to write fiction. Her reply was, "You want to be a writer? Fine. You be a brain surgeon, on the side [you'll write stories]."
When Potok was 14, he read Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited, and the experience altered him forever. He explained in a Newsday interview, "I found myself inside a world the merest existence of which I had known nothing about, I lived more deeply inside the world in that book than I lived inside my own world, for the time it took me to read it." This sensation of being transported to a parallel reality captivated Potok, and he struck out to learn how to achieve the same effect with his own words. Everything he read from that point on revealed more about how to create alternate realities with words. He read secular novels without telling his parents or siblings, spending hours in the public library losing himself in the worlds the books offered.
For five years he read and dissected the authors he admired—using the analytical skills he had learned while deciphering the Talmud—and applied what he discovered to his own budding work. He began writing his own fiction when he was 16, submitting his first piece to the Atlantic Monthly when he was 17. It was not accepted, but he received an encouraging note from the editor praising his writing. While Potok's brother Simon became a rabbi, and both his sisters—Charlotte and Bella—married rabbis, Potok rejected the beaten path to pursue a life of writing—a decision that effectively cut him off from almost everyone and everything he had known and loved.
Education and Service
After completing study at the Talmudic Academy High School, Potok attended Yeshiva University, an Orthodox college in Manhattan, and graduated from that institution in 1950 with a B.A. (summa cum laude) in Literature. As the years had passed, Potok found himself splitting from the Orthodox traditions that had shaped his upbringing, and by the time he graduated, he had severed most of his ties to his former way of life. In 1952 he spent time at Camp Ramah—a Hebrew–speaking summer camp in Ojai, California—and met the woman he would later marry. In turning from the Orthodox strictures Potok discovered and embraced Conservative Judaism, described by World Authors as a school of thought which "permitted a more broad–minded, historical approach to Judaic studies."
Interested in engaging in rabbinical scholarship to better inform his fiction, but not interested in becoming a rabbi, Potok left the Hasidic yeshiva he was attending and enrolled in the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He was ordained as a rabbi by that institution in 1954, at the age of 25, and awarded a Masters degree in Hasidic Literature. From 1954 to 1955 he served as the National Director of the Leaders Training Fellowship, and then answered the call to arms. Potok acted as a chaplain in the United States Army from 1955 to 1957, actively serving fifteen and a half months in Korea with a medical battalion on the front lines, and as an engineer in a combat battalion.
Potok had multiple close calls while enlisted, and he described the time he spent on the Eastern battlefields in Authors and Artists of Young Adults as "a transforming experience. I was not the same person coming out of the army and Korea as I was going in." While in service, he composed his first novel. It was rejected by publishers, but became the impetus for a second attempt, which in 1967 became his first published work, The Chosen.
Upon returning to the United States, Potok took a position as director of Camp Ramah from 1957 to 1959 and worked simultaneously during that time as an instructor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, California. Potok married Adena Sara Mosevitzsky, a psychiatric social worker, on June 8, 1958, and they had three children: two daughters named Rena and Naama, and one son named Akiva. From 1959 to 1963, Potok was a scholar–in–residence at the Har Zion Temple in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and served as a faculty member of the Teachers Institute for a Jewish Theological Seminar from 1963 to 1964. Potok acted as managing editor of the publication Conservative Judaism from 1964 to 1975 while attending the University of Pennsylvania, and he received a Ph.D. in Philosophy from that institution in 1965. With his scholarship so far advanced, Potok felt that it was time to begin fulfilling his early ambitions of becoming an author.
The Rabbi Writer
Potok was a well published intellectual before he made an attempt to write serious fiction, with scholarly articles accepted by publications like the New York Times and American Judaism. He had also made a name for himself as an editor, working as editor–in–chief of the Jewish Publication Society of America from 1965 to 1974. Potok's first three novels showcased his interest in de–mystifying Orthodox Judaism for the common reader. Indeed, all of Potok's novels investigated the tensions between religious faith and worldly experience. He described this focus in a Melus interview with Laura Chavkin as "core–to–core culture confrontation," which happens when "an individual is located at the heart of [their] own culture, knows that culture thoroughly, constructs the world through the value system and frames of reference of that culture, and then encounters core elements from another culture."
In 1967, at the age of 38, Potok published his first novel—The Chosen. It told the story of a friendship between two young boys—one an Orthodox Jew, and the other a Hasidic Jew. Despite luke–warm reviews that harped on stylistic and compositional failures, Potok's first novel became a classic. It remained on the New York Times best–seller list for 39 weeks, and sold more than 400,000 copies as a hard–back and over 3,000,000 copies in paper–back.
His sequel The Promise (1969), like its predecessor The Chosen, continues the storyline with expert use of metaphor and allegory. Potok followed his first two novels with a third, My Name is Asher Lev, released in 1972. The new book had an auto–biographical undercurrent, and, like previous works, dealt with what Newsweek critic Alex Rubin defined as "the conflict between secularity and faith." The protagonist is a young, male Orthodox youth with a forbidden gift for painting. In the Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature, critic Derek Royal stated that unlike many Jewish American authors whose fiction either ignores their faith or focuses on the secular aspects of Judaism, Potok "created a body of work that highlights Jewish religious issues and their importance in individual lives." Potok's work was informed by a variety of intellectual sources that ranged from Talmudic scripture, to Western philosophy, and he found himself more interested in the conflicts that arise among devotees of the varying Jewish sects, than in the discord that often wells up between Jews and gentiles.
From 1974 until his death in 2002, Potok served as special projects editor for the Jewish Publication Society, with much of his work centering on an effort to translate the Hebrew Bible into English. He also composed a series of pamphlets on Jewish Ethics for that organization, and his next fictional effort In the Beginning (1975), a depiction of anti–Semitism, was praised by some, and derided by others. Potok's next project was the 1978 non–fiction piece, Wanderings: Chaim Potok's Story of the Jews—described by a St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers reviewer as a historical account that comes alive due to Potok's "highly personal" and "richly detailed" writing. Potok told Melus interviewer Laura Chavkin that his 1981 novel The Book of Lights, was in some ways an account of how his experiences in Asia during the war "reshaped the neat, coherent model of [his] self and [his] place in the world." In 1982, The Chosen was made into a film, featuring Robby Benson and Rod Steiger and directed by Jeremy Cagan. Potok wrote the screenplay, and was reported to be satisfied with the way the novel translated into the cinematic medium.
Although most of Potok's pieces feature male characters trying to reconcile their religious convictions with their modern lives, his 1985 novel, Davita's Harp, had a courageous and progressive female protagonist trying to fit her femininity into the patriarchic structures of traditional Judaism. His 1990 novel, The Gift of Asher Lev, continued the Asher Lev story line and showcased what many critics felt was a craftsmanship that finally equaled the author's depth of intention. In 1990 Potok wrote multiple plays, including Out of the Depths and Sins of the Father. He also illustrated an impressive versatility—composing short stories, novellas, book reviews, and academic articles.
Another full–length novel, I Am the Clay (1992), was followed by three pieces of young adult literature—The Tree of Here (1993), The Sky of Now (1995), and Zebra and Other Stories (1998)—a collection of stories featuring young adults in transitory moments. In 2001 he published his last work, three linked novellas titled Old Men at Midnight and written soon after he was diagnosed with cancer.
Potok stated in a the Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature that his writing is driven by "an attempt to take what is essentially abstract thought and translate it in terms of action, flesh, and blood." When asked in an interview with Inside magazine why the core conflict of his novels is so uniformly one between Judaism and modern reality, Potok responded, "Just as Faulkner came from the South, I came from Jewish Orthodox. And writers who write seriously, write about what they know best. This is what I know best."
Writer at Rest
Potok died of brain cancer in his home in Merion, Pennsylvania, on July 23, 2002, at the age of 73. Newsweek reviewer Alex Rubin maintained that although Potok's "fictional characters remained bound within the insular world of Hasidic Judaism . . . his powerfully human prose transcended religious denomination." His work has been translated into more than a dozen foreign languages, and the Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature's Royal praised Potok's ability to "educate, without being didactic, as well as to entertain." As an author, Potok used his fiction as a vehicle to show the vital need for what Royal describes as "religious ballast against the chaos of modern life," that "even within the violent and morally tumultuous twentieth century, an essentially affirmative view of human nature can and must be achieved." Potok was quoted as saying that he hoped writing honestly about his world would cause it to open up and allow readers to become caught up in it, the way he felt transported the first time he read a novel. Potok's loyal readers would likely agree that his knowledge, passion, and honesty provided many people—young and old—with a unique and engaging view into the rigidity and the riches of Jewish culture.
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