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Potok, Chaim


POTOK, CHAIM , (1929–2002) novelist and editor. Born and raised in New York City, Chaim Potok graduated from Yeshiva University in 1950 with a B.A. Summa Cum Laude in English literature. In 1954 he was ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Potok was a member of the faculty of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles; in 1964 he became managing editor of Conservative Judaism. He received his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1965, and in 1966 he became editor for the Jewish Publication Society of America. Among his works are The Chosen (1967), The Promise (1969), My Name is Asher Lev (1972), In the Beginning (1975), Wanderings (1978), The Book of Lights (1981), Davita's Harp (1985), The Gift of Asher Lev (1990), and I Am the Clay (1992).

The recurrent theme in Chaim Potok's work is the moment of radical change in traditional Jewish existence – a change personified by a son and not usually entailing an actual break with the basic Judaism of the father. Such rebellions have been depicted before in various degrees of severity. Potok's scene differs in that it takes place within an elitist society of learning, the yeshivah, in which all members, fathers and sons, have a deep-rooted respect for each other, and hierarchies of study and knowledge take precedence over familial hierarchies. This mutual respect between fathers and sons, as scholars, many of them musarniks in a sphere where, in Potok's words, "the fusion of the sacred and the secular seems almost effortless," therefore creates an impasse when a son chooses a totally different vocation: painting in Asher Lev, psychiatry in The Chosen, scientific examination of the Oral Law in The Promise. In the final reckoning the father is usually reconciled to the son's role in the world, thereby affirming the fluidity of Judaism and its basic tenet of "ele ve'ele divre Elokim ḥayyim" (both these and those are the words of the one Living God).

It has been argued that Potok's rebel sons do not venture very far; they shave off beards and sidelocks and work in a secular world, but their basic Orthodoxy does not suffer from any serious modern doubt. Yet Potok's yeshivah may well be seen as a parable for any community with a consequent way of living, the total destruction of which would be equivalent to the destruction of sanity. Chaim Potok proposes a sociological change without a change of values. In Freudian terms, Chaim Potok's sons rebel against the father without actually killing him, thereby assuring cultural continuity.

Potok works within the framework of Jewish value concepts, including the ḥakham, the ẓaddik, and the overall supremacy of study. His fictional style is uncluttered, his dialogue credible, and he loves his protagonists. Absorbed in father-son, teacher-student relationships, Potok is far less vivid in depicting women who seem in his work to have fewer spiritual doubts, and their existence is delineated mainly by their men.

add. bibliography:

E. Abramson, Chaim Potok (1986); S. Sternlicht, Chaim Potok – A Critical Companion (2000).

[Shulamith Hareven]

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