Chaim Potok Essay - Potok, Chaim (Vol. 112)

Potok, Chaim (Vol. 112)


Chaim Potok 1929–

American novelist, nonfiction writer, children's writer, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Potok's career through 1996. See also, Chaim Potok Criticism and volumes 7, 14, and 26.

Potok is a Judaic scholar and ordained rabbi whose fiction consistently addresses important issues concerning Jewish religion and culture in contemporary American society. His best-selling novel, The Chosen (1967), and its sequel, The Promise (1969), won critical praise and a large popular audience. While most of his novels are steeped in Jewish theology, philosophy, and politics, his perceptive treatment of adolescent initiation, community dynamics, and intergenerational conflict transcend their settings to offer striking insight into the modern individual's search for spiritual meaning. Along with My Name Is Asher Lev (1972), the sequel The Gift of Asher Lev (1990), and In the Beginning (1975), Potok explores profound moral and social issues stemming from the Holocaust and the encroachment of secular influences upon traditional Jewish customs and values. A compassionate moralist and faithful observer of human nature, Potok is viewed as a foremost commentator on the postwar Jewish-American experience.

Biographical Information

Born Herman Harold Potok, the eldest of four children, Potok was raised in the Bronx, New York, by Polish-Jewish immigrant parents. His traditional Jewish upbringing included an orthodox religious education at a yeshiva, a parochial school for boys, and a rigorous daily schedule of prayer and study. At age fourteen he read Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, an important early experience that inspired him to write. Against the wishes of his parents and teachers, Potok took up painting and, in his limited spare time, studied the fiction of Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner. Potok attended Yeshiva University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English with summa cum laude honors in 1950. He then studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he was awarded the Hebrew Literature Prize, Homiletics Prize, Bible Prize, the M.H.L. degree, and rabbinic ordination in 1954. After serving as a U.S. Army chaplain during the Korean War, Potok married Adena Sarah Mosevitzky in 1958 and taught at the University of Juda-ism in Los Angeles and the Jewish Theological Seminary Teachers' Institute. Potok resumed his studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a doctoral degree in philosophy in 1965. He also worked as managing editor of Conservative Judaism and, in 1965, began a nine-year term as editor-in-chief for the Jewish Publications Society in Philadelphia. Potok was also a visiting professor at Bryn Mawr College and the University of Pennsylvania during the 1980s. In 1967, Potok published The Chosen, his first and most popular novel, which received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award and was nominated for a National Book Award. The sequel, The Promise, won the Athenaem Award. Potok produced additional best-selling novels with My Name Is Asher Lev, The Gift of Asher Lev. In the Beginning, The Book of Lights (1981), Davita's Harp (1985), I Am the day (1992), and The Gates of November (1996). Combining his narrative skill and scholarly erudition, Potok also published Wanderings (1978), a substantial but highly readable historical account of Jewish cultural encounters with other civilizations over many centuries.

Major Works

Potok's central thematic concerns and narrative style are established in The Chosen, a novel featuring two scholarly males who grapple with questions of religious commitment, cultural heritage, and the crisis of postwar Jewish identity. Set in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn against the backdrop of the Second World War and the Holocaust, the story focuses on the rivalry between Hasidic and Orthodox Jews through the relationship of two boys from opposing sects—Danny Saunders, the brilliant son of Hasidic spiritual leader Reb Saunders, and Reuven Malter, the son of progressive Orthodox scholar David Malter. While Danny is raised in strict silence and groomed to succeed his father as head of the insular Hasidic community, Reuven is encouraged to supplement his Talmudic studies with readings in secular philosophy and the humanities. Though both parents learn mutual respect for each other, they remain at odds over their views on the formation of the Israeli state. Much of the narrative revolves around serious theological debate among the yeshiva students and their fathers. After years of painful inner conflict, Danny eventually forsakes his father's expectations by studying to become a Freudian psychologist. The Promise follows the development of the two friends as Danny completes his studies in psychology at Columbia University and Reuven prepares for rabbinical ordination at an Orthodox seminary. The conflict in this novel centers largely around Reuven's controversial application of modern textual criticism to Talmudic exegesis. Bearing resemblance to a medieval morality play, Reuven's dispute with his fundamentalist instructors invokes charges of sacrilege and reveals the enduring influence of the unorthodox critical methods learned from his father. My Name Is Asher Lev is an adolescent initiation novel that follows the psychological struggle of a young Hasidic boy who takes up painting against the wishes of his parents and conservative community. Told as a first-person retrospective narrative, the story relates Asher's artistic and spiritual maturation under the tutelage of the rebbe and a sympathetic mentor who encourages his talent and introduces him to Western secular and Christian art. However, when Asher outrages the Hasidic community with his painting "Brooklyn Crucifixion," which depicts his mother as a symbolic martyr, he is finally ostracized. Reminiscent of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Potok explores the alienation and exile necessary for the aspiring artist to achieve self-actualization. In the sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev, Asher reappears in midlife as an internationally acclaimed painter in France. Returning to Brooklyn for his uncle's funeral, Asher is reimmersed in the politics of the Hasidic community and, in atonement for his defection and in recognizing the importance of continuity, agrees to offer his own son to the rebbe as a successor to the dynastic line. In the Beginning is an autobiographical novel that relates the historical continuation of Jewish persecution in twentieth-century America. A departure from earlier novels that depict events within the Jewish community, here Potok explores strained relations between Jews and Gentiles in the Bronx during the 1930s and 1940s. The story is told through the perspective of David Lurie, the young son of European Jewish immigrants who is harassed by a violently anti-Semitic neighborhood bully. Potok underscores the seriousness of this local conflict by drawing parallels between David's escalating torment and the international atrocities of the Russian pogroms and Nazi genocide. The Book of Lights traces the spiritual quest of two rabbis, Gershon Loran and Arthur Leiden, through their seminary studies and separate paths in the secular world. Potok juxtaposes the creative power of Jewish mysticism with the role of Jewish physicists in the development of atomic weapons through Loran's mystical interest in Cabala and Leiden's extreme guilt over his father's occupation as an atomic researcher. Unlike previous novels that feature male intellectuals, Davita's Harp examines the diminutive status of women within Orthodox Jewish custom and education. The female protagonist, Ilana Davita Chandal, is a brilliant student who challenges liturgical prohibitions against Jewish women and, after she is denied an academic award because of her gender, leaves the yeshiva for a secular high school. Potok further expanded his narrative vision in I Am the Clay, a novel set in Korea during the Korean War. Evincing Potok's characteristic moral and humanitarian convictions, the story relates the travails of an elderly Korean couple who endure dislocation and chaos by adopting a badly wounded orphan with whom they traverse the countryside and dodge the ravages of war. In The Gates of November, Potok follows the family history of Russian Jews who suffer privation and oppression under totalitarian rule in the Soviet Union.

Critical Reception

Potok is highly esteemed for his vivid portrayal of Jewish family life and yeshiva education. His impressive knowledge of Jewish theology and history is also evident in the engaging intellectual debates that often serve as the locus of dramatic tension in his novels. However, some critics view Potok's preoccupation with esoteric religious scholarship as a liability. Though praised for breathing life into such academic matters in The Chosen and The Promise, Potok has been criticized for relying on stilted dialogue, flat characterizations, predictable plots, and didacticism to expound his philosophical and ethical musings in subsequent novels. His grim depiction of Hasidic life in The Chosen also drew condemnation from fundamentalist Jews. Nevertheless, The Chosen, The Promise, My Name Is Asher Lev, In the Beginning, and The Book of Lights are generally considered his most successful books. The wide appeal of Potok's fiction may be traced to the author's direct narrative style, uncompromising reverence for human life, and ability to paint poignant descriptions of Jewish tradition, communal existence, and parent-child relationships. Potok is also credited for his willingness to tackle serious social and religious issues, particularly those surrounding the dilemma of personal spirituality and Jewish consciousness in the post-Holocaust world.

Principal Works

The Chosen (novel) 1967
The Promise (novel) 1969
My Name Is Asher Lev (novel) 1972
In the Beginning (novel) 1975
The Jew Confronts Himself in American Literature (criticism) 1975
Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews (history) 1978
The Book of Lights (novel) 1981
Davita's Harp (novel) 1985
Ethical Living for a Modern World: Jewish Insights (essays) 1985
The Gift of Asher Lev (novel) 1990
I Am the Clay (novel) 1992
The Tree of Here (for children) 1993
The Sky of Now (for children) 1995
The Gates of November (novel) 1996


Granville Hicks (review date 29 April 1967)

SOURCE: "Good Fathers and Good Sons," in Saturday Review, April 29, 1967, pp. 25-6.

[In the following review, Hicks offers praise for The Chosen, which he describes as "a fine, moving, gratifying book."]

The impression one gets from most contemporary fiction is that youth today is both disturbed and disturbing. Everyone knows about J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, who, with the best of intentions, gets into one mess after another. But Holden's troubles are nothing compared to the difficulties of other young people we read about. Wright Morris's Jubal Gainer whirls away on his (stolen) motorcycle from crime to crime. John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom runs and runs....

(The entire section is 1134 words.)

Edmund Fuller (review date 15 May 1967)

SOURCE: "The Chosen, Rare, Reverent Novel," in The Wall Street Journal, May 15, 1967, p. 18.

[In the following review, Fuller offers high praise for The Chosen.]

We are happy to report on a novel of exceptional beauty and freshness. For many readers its combination of theme place and time will be astonishing; elements that seem old, remote, exotic, are shown to be contemporary, close to familiar scenes and rich in meaning for other sorts of lives.

The book is The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. At a time when hedonism, vulgarity, brutality, cynicism and corruption are commonplace themes, those of this book are reverence, responsibility,...

(The entire section is 1028 words.)

Sandra Schmidt (review date 20 July 1967)

SOURCE: "Sight Becomes Insight," in The Christian Science Monitor, July 20, 1967, p. 5.

[In the following review, Schmidt offers high praise for The Chosen.]

The Chosen is a very special book. It deals with a special era—the middle 1940's when war and the end of war was changing the shade of the world—in a special place, the quiet, vivid streets of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, where the heavily Jewish population created an enclave and an atmosphere of special religious and intellectual urgency. The book is a chronicle of intense adolescent friendship between two rather extraordinary boys, and of the unusual relationship in which each stood with his father....

(The entire section is 540 words.)

Times Literary Supplement (review date 31 August 1967)

SOURCE: "Trying to Be Jewish," in Times Literary Supplement, August 31, 1967, p. 777.

[In the following excerpt, the critic gives a favorable assessment of The Chosen.]

Three more novels [Potok's The Chosen, Martin Yoseloff's A Time to be Young, and Charles Elliott's The Minority Man] to add in one way or another to the growing literature of Jewish self-exploration and self-definition, personal and national….

By far the most distinguished of the three, and that in a totally unexpected and unfashionable way, is The Chosen. We are back in New York, this time during and just after the last war. But instead of the search for...

(The entire section is 338 words.)

Richard Freedman (review date 14 September 1969)

SOURCE: "A Warm Glow in a Cruel, Cold World," in Washington Post Book World, September 14, 1969, p. 3.

[In the following review, Freedman commends Potok's "vivid" characterizations and narrative presentation of The Promise, but finds shortcomings in his excessive exposition of Jewish theology.]

One of the few remaining pleasures we get from reading popular contemporary novels is that they are filled with well-researched information about a particular place, occupation or way of life. This helps salve the consciences of the swelling horde of readers who feel that fiction is a waste of time.

Thus, from Hawaii we learn the detailed history...

(The entire section is 695 words.)

Dorothy Rabinowitz (review date May 1970)

SOURCE: "Sequels," in Commentary, Vol. 49, May, 1970, pp. 104, 106, 108.

[In the following excerpt, Rabinowitz offers a mixed assessment of The Promise, faulting it for intrusive or overly academic psychologizing among the characters.]

… [Chaim Potok's] The Promise is no disappointment as its fore-runner, The Chosen, is no masterpiece. The Chosen stayed at the top of the best-seller list for reasons which are easy enough to imagine. The story of Danny and Reuven and the Brooklyn Hasidic world begins, in The Chosen, with a now-famous baseball game in which Reuven's eye is fairly torn out of his head by Danny, batting fiercely for the...

(The entire section is 546 words.)

Washington Post Book World (review date 3 December 1978)

SOURCE: "Diaspora," in Washington Post Book World, December 3, 1978, p. E5.

[In the following review, the critic finds shortcomings in Wanderings but marks the presence of "occasionally brilliant" passages.]

Babylonian chroniclers wrote, in two columns, the histories of Assyria and Babylonia side by side; during their captivity in Babylonia, Jewish scribes adopted the practice as they synchronized the histories of Judah and Israel. In a way, Chaim Potok now has done the same thing, matching the reigns of Abraham and Saul and David to the advancing civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and tracing the movements of the Hebrew peoples eventually...

(The entire section is 271 words.)

J. D. Reed (review date 19 October 1981)

SOURCE: "Illuminations," in Time, October 19, 1981, p. 102.

[In the following review, Reed offers a favorable assessment of The Book of Lights.]

Albert Einstein ponders the young rabbi's last name: "Loran. That is, I believe, also the name of a navigational instrument, is it not?" As usual, the physicist is correct: the acronym for long-range navigation also describes the hero of Chaim Potok's fifth and most ambitious novel. Although the author has retained a strong narrative drive, he has abandoned the matzo-barrel homilies that marked such early works as The Chosen and The Promise. Once again his themes are ethnic, but his concerns are universal....

(The entire section is 689 words.)

John H. Timmerman (essay date 16 May 1984)

SOURCE: "A Way of Seeing: Chaim Potok and Tradition," in The Christian Century, May 16, 1984, pp. 515-18.

[In the following essay, Timmerman examines the tension among individuality, personal growth, and the force of tradition in Potok's fiction.]

During the past decade Chaim Potok has emerged not only as a pre-eminent American author, but also as one whose books are avidly and widely read. Why has this Jewish author whose books are openly religious in theme and tenor achieved such uncommon public success? Why does he appeal to this age, saturated as it is with the expressive realism that oozes from books, films and television? In a sense Potok addresses those very...

(The entire section is 3141 words.)

Time (review date 25 March 1985)

SOURCE: A review of Davita's Harp, in Time, March 25, 1985, pp. 80-1.

[In the following review, the critic gives a mixed evaluation of Davita's Harp.]

The earnest radicalism of the 1930s has become familiar terrain for fiction. Chaim Potok, a chronicler of the factions within American Jewish culture (The Chosen, My Name Is Asher Lev), assiduously attempts to freshen the milieu: his title character and narrator is a thoughtful, believable preadolescent girl; her father is a celebrated radical journalist from an old-line, plutocratic Wasp family, her mother a Jewish émigré.

The narrative deftly captures Davita's particular sense of...

(The entire section is 311 words.)

Paul Cowan (review date 31 March 1985)

SOURCE: "The Faiths of Her Childhood." in The New York Times Book Review, March 31, 1985, pp. 12-13.

[In the following review, Cowan offers a favorable assessment of Davita's Harp, which he describes as "Mr. Potok's bravest book, though it is not his best."]

Chaim Potok is a writer who defies easy categorization. Though he does not have the instinct for the fast-paced plots and sleek characters that usually make novels popular and though he has not attracted the intellectual following of a Saul Bellow, still, four of his five novels and his one nonfiction book have been best sellers. By exploring the themes that fascinate him, Mr. Potok has opened a new clearing...

(The entire section is 1240 words.)

Cynthia Grenier (review date 29 April 1985)

SOURCE: "In Search of a Spiritual Pacifier," in The Wall Street Journal, April 29, 1985, p. 22.

[In the following review, Grenier praises the "genuine seriousness and moral complexity" of Davita's Harp, but finds shortcomings in Potok's "stiff dialogue and stilted characters."]

Chaim Potok owes much of his popularity as a writer to his handling of Judaic scenes in contemporary American life (The Chosen, The Promise, etc.).

This time, in Davita's Harp, Mr. Potok heads into new, highly topical territory—woman's role in the Jewish faith—set in the context of American communism in the 1930s. In what may have been a rash venture,...

(The entire section is 879 words.)

Susan Reed (review date 6 May 1985)

SOURCE: "The Melody of Davita's Harp May Be New, but Author Chaim Potok's Judaic Themes Are Familiar," in People Weekly, May 6, 1985, pp. 81-3.

[In the following review, Reed discusses Davita's Harp, Potok's early literary career, and reception of his fiction in the Jewish community.]

Chaim Potok and his wife, Adena, chanced upon the pear-shaped butternut wood instrument during the summer of 1983, while browsing in a Vermont country store. The proprietor explained that it was a door harp, commonly found in the entryways of local houses. Captivated by the sounds the four maplewood balls made as they struck the piano strings, the Potoks bought it and hung...

(The entire section is 987 words.)

Edward A. Abramson (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "The Chosen," in Chaim Potok, Twayne Publishers, 1986, pp. 7-36.

[In the following excerpt, Abramson provides an overview of the major themes, characters, and narrative presentation in The Chosen.]

Jewish and Non-Jewish Worlds

The Chosen is set largely within a Jewish world, the characters approaching and having to cope with their problems within almost self-contained Jewish communities. The novel opens with a dramatic baseball game between a fanatical Hasidic sect of Ultra-Orthodox Jews and a group of Orthodox Jews who follow the commandments but not the particular idiosyncracies of the Hasids. It is here that we...

(The entire section is 9059 words.)

S. Lillian Kremer (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Eternal Light: The Holocaust and the Revival of Judaism and Jewish Civilization in the Fiction of Chaim Potok," in Witness through Imagination: Jewish American Holocaust Literature, Wayne State University Press, 1989, pp. 300-23.

[In the following essay, Kremer explores themes and issues surrounding anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in Potok's fiction. According to Kremer, rather than "focus on the atrocities of the Holocaust period and burden of Holocaust survival, Potok generally concentrates on the possibilities of Holocaust restoration."]

Chaim Potok is a rabbi, scholar, and novelist whose philosophic and ethical views are derived from Torah and Talmud and...

(The entire section is 9467 words.)

Andy Solomon (review date 6 May 1990)

SOURCE: "Potok's Exiled Asher Lev Revisits His Hasidic Roots," in Chicago Tribune Books, May 6, 1990, p. 7.

[In the following review, Solomon finds weaknesses in The Gift of Asher Lev, but notes Potok's "knowledgeable insights to share about art."]

It is sometimes difficult, says a critic in response to artist Asher Lev's latest Paris show, to find the distinction between establishing an individual style and repeating oneself. He might be speaking to Chaim Potok about this sequel to the superb 1972 novel, My Name Is Asher Lev.

Potok has marginal success with sequels. The power of his debut novel, The Chosen (1967), stemmed largely...

(The entire section is 786 words.)

Nikki Stiller (review date 13 May 1990)

SOURCE: "Art Is an Affliction," in The New York Times Book Review, May 13, 1990, p. 29.

[In the following review, Stiller finds shortcomings in The Gift of Asher Lev, particularly the novel's "sanitized" characters who lack development.]

Jewish artists have long felt a conflict between Jewish tradition and the individual talent. Susskind von Trimberg, the medieval Jewish troubadour, thought of going back to the ghetto if his gentile patron went bankrupt. Heinrich Heine, a heretic if ever there was one, wished to die facing Jerusalem. Marc Chagall, best known of Jewish painters, borrowed much of his imagery from Christian peasants.

Chaim Potok...

(The entire section is 862 words.)

Brian Morton (review date 2 November 1990)

SOURCE: "Banished and Banished Again," in Times Literary Supplement, November 2, 1990, p. 1182.

[In the following review, Morton presents a favorable assessment of The Gift of Asher Lev which, according to the critic, "heralds a new sophistication in Potok's art."]

With the possible exception of Bernard Malamud, the postwar Jewish-American novelists have given out a version of Judaism that is secular and social, and largely passive. "Jewishness," a ready shorthand for qualities such as seriousness, humaneness, anguished historical awareness, rather than a system of beliefs, has provided a backdrop against which to play out dramas of self-discovery, rebellion and...

(The entire section is 894 words.)

Irving Abrahamson (review date 17 May 1992)

SOURCE: "Chaim Potok Traces a Korean War Orphan's Existentialist Journey," in Chicago Tribune Books, May 17, 1992, p. 6.

[In the following review, Abrahamson finds shortcomings in I Am the Clay, citing Potok's "unsuccessful foray into the realm of existentialist thought" and his simplistic appeal for Christian love.]

In The Book of Lights (1981) Chaim Potok drew upon his experience as a U.S. Army chaplain in South Korea from 1955 to 1957. In I Am the Clay, his eighth novel, he draws upon it once again, this time taking the 1950–53 Korean War for his canvas. Potok is not interested in the 38th parallel, in the North Korean invaders and their Red...

(The entire section is 791 words.)

Bryan Cheyette (review date 27 November 1992)

SOURCE: "The Sacred East," in Times Literary Supplement, November 27, 1992, p. 26.

[In the following review, Cheyette finds fault with Potok's limited knowledge of Korea and "didacticism" in I Am the Clay.]

As a young Rabbi, Chaim Potok was a United States Army Chaplain during the Korean War. He served on the front line for sixteen months and this experience later provided the material for his first, unpublished, novel. I Am the Clay is evidently a rewriting of this embryonic early work. On one level, Potok could not have moved further from the rather sentimental depictions of New York's Hasidic Jewish community which he has made his own. And yet, the traumatic...

(The entire section is 666 words.)

Felicity Barringer (review date 1 December 1996)

SOURCE: "Generation Gap," in The New York Times Book Review, December 1, 1996, p. 33.

[In the following review, Barringer praises The Gates of November as a "fascinating" tale, though finds shortcomings in Potok's overreaching history of Soviet Jewry.]

Acts of dissent in a totalitarian state can seem incongruously mundane. In some places, it is an act of courage to observe an anniversary, or to hang a sheet with a few words scrawled on it above a busy downtown street.

The last was what Vladimir and Maria Slepak did in June 1978, when they found themselves locked in their Moscow apartment by K.G.B. agents. "Let us go to our son in Israel," read...

(The entire section is 746 words.)

David M. Shribman (review date 12 December 1996)

SOURCE: "Fathers and Sons," in The Wall Street Journal, December 12, 1996, p. A10.

[In the following review, Shribman offers high praise for The Gates of November, which the critic describes as a "gripping" story.]

Let me tell you a story: Twenty years ago, as the last remnants of snow lingered on the edges of Moscow's sidewalks, I took a decrepit elevator to the eighth floor of an apartment building on Gorky Street. Loaded down with jeans, sweaters and books, I stepped into an extraordinary world; the redoubt of a refusenik family that, through grit and guile, had battled the Soviet authorities to a standstill.

This was the home of Vladimir...

(The entire section is 902 words.)

Further Reading


Dembo, L. S. "Asher Lev: The Mariolatry of a Hasid." In The Monoiogical Jew: A Literary Study, pp. 112-6. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

Examines Asher Lev's sacrilegious interest in Christian and pagan art in My Name Is Asher Lev.


Kauvar, Elaine M. "An Interview with Chaim Potok." Contemporary Literature XXVII, No. 3 (Fall 1986): 291-317.

Potok discusses his literary influences, artistic concerns, Judaism, and major themes in his novels.

(The entire section is 131 words.)