Chaim Potok Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Is the Judaism that Chaim Potok presents essentially inclusive or exclusive?

What roles do ancestry and tradition play in Potok’s writing? How does Potok use ancestry and tradition to advance his stories thematically?

What would you identify as the main conflict with which Potok’s principal characters are usually forced to deal? Are these conflicts generational, or do they have some other origins? Provide examples.

What role does the concept of guilt play in his stories?

What specific historical events overshadow much of Potok’s writing?

Discuss the roles of women in the writings by Potok that you have read.

Chaim Potok Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The book Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews (1978) is a personal reconstruction of four thousand years of Jewish history. Chaim Potok (POH-tawk) also wrote essays and book reviews for Jewish and secular periodicals and newspapers. In January, 1988, his stage adaptation of The Chosen opened as a short-lived Broadway musical, with music by Philip Springer and lyrics by Mitchell Bernard. Potok wrote two picture books for young children, The Tree of Here (1993) and The Sky of Now (1995), both illustrated by Tony Auth. Potok also published essays and stories in various magazines and a collection of short stories about troubled young people, Zebra, and Other Stories (1998). In addition, he wrote a few full-length works of nonfiction, including The Gates of November: Chronicles of the Slepak Family (1996), the epic story of the families of Solomon Slepak, a Bolshevik and one of the founders of the Soviet Union. Slepak managed to survive all of Joseph Stalin’s purges without being imprisoned. The book also focuses on his son, Volodya Slepak, a refusenik and one of the Russian Jews who applied for and was for years refused permission by the Soviet government to immigrate to Israel.

Chaim Potok Achievements

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Critical acceptance and public acclaim have greeted Chaim Potok’s novelistic explorations of the conflict between Orthodox Judaism and secular American culture. Potok received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award and a National Book Award nomination for The Chosen, his first novel. He received the Athenaeum Award for its sequel, The Promise. He also received the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction for The Gift of Asher Lev and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture Achievement Award for Literature. His sympathetic (critics would say sentimental) portrayal of Jewish fundamentalism and those who choose to leave it highlights the poignancy of an individual’s break with tradition. Indeed, Potok’s novels test the ability of traditional communities to contribute to the modern world without themselves being assimilated. His evocation of Jewish life in New York in the latter two-thirds of the twentieth century has universal appeal and disturbing implications.

Chaim Potok Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Abramson, Edward A. Chaim Potok. Boston: Twayne, 1986. The first book-length study of Potok, this volume is the fullest available introduction to his life and works. After a biographical sketch, Abramson discusses each of Potok’s novels through Davita’s Harp and also devotes a chapter to Wanderings. Supplemented by a chronology, notes, a good selected bibliography (including a list of secondary sources with brief annotations), and an index.

Shaked, Gershon. “Shadows of Identity: A Comparative Study of German Jewish and American Jewish Literature.” In What Is Jewish Literature?, edited by Hana Wirth-Nesher. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994. Briefly places The Chosen in the context of literature in which Jewish authors and their characters have a dual identity: Jewish as well as that of the country in which they live.

Sternlicht, Sanford. Chaim Potok: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. Part of the Critical Companions to Popular Contemporary Writers series. A straightforward guide to the novelist’s works through I Am the Clay. Also includes two biographical chapters and a bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Studies in American Jewish Literature 4 (1985). This special issue devoted to Potok includes several valuable critical essays, an interview with Potok conducted in 1981 by S. Lillian Kremer, and an autobiographical essay by Potok, “The First Eighteen Years.” An indispensable source.