Chaim Potok Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Chaim Tzvi Potok was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1929, the son of Benjamin Max Potok (a businessman and Belzer Hasid) and Mollie (Friedman) Potok, a descendant of a Hasidic family. Though Potok was raised in Jewish Orthodoxy and was sent to Orthodox parochial schools, by the age of ten he became interested in drawing and painting, something both his father and his teachers frowned upon.

For the Orthodox Jew, art is at best considered a waste of time and at worst a violation of the commandment forbidding graven images. Potok was told that it was better to study the Hebrew Bible and the commentaries on it (the Talmud) than to engage in such “foolishness.” Writing, however, had a more ambiguous place among the Orthodox. In 1945, Potok’s reading of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) convinced him to become a writer.

Potok’s father was a Polish émigré whose stories of the suffering of the Jews in the Eastern European pogroms taught the young Potok that Orthodoxy must be preserved in the face of a world bent on destroying both it and the Jews. He was convinced that one day the suffering of his people would play a part in the world’s redemption. Much later, Potok would stand at the Hiroshima memorial in Japan, contemplating the atomic destruction unleashed upon the world and his own place in such a world. As he told an interviewer in 1981, all of his novels would flow from that moment in Japan.

Potok’s Orthodox childhood brought him into contact with the ultra-Orthodox, the Hasids (“pious ones”). Within the wide range of Judaism, from Liberal and Reform to Conservative, Orthodox, and Hasidic, the Hasids are the most rigorously fundamentalistic. Originating in Poland in the eighteenth century as a reaction against an over-intellectualized faith controlled by the rabbis, Hasidism at first emphasized the mystical elements of Judaism, though it, too, emphasized the study and interpretation of the Talmud.

Central to the Hasidic movement was the tzaddik (“righteous one”), a powerful leader who, it was believed, embodied the essence of the Jewish community and whose word was law. Various Hasidic sects followed different...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The novels of Potok represent both a personal quest and an artistic achievement. The quest is that of finding a viable faith that affirms ancient beliefs yet is open to the best thinking of modern times. The artistic achievement is in the working and reworking of personal experience into the stuff of human transformation, an invitation to readers to learn from their own pasts and draw on the strength of their communities even as they move beyond or away from the traditions that nurtured them.

Potok’s quiet tales of small Jewish sects in New York are poignant in their simplicity and powerful in their evocation of the mending that art can accomplish in one burdened by suffering, anger, and betrayal.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Born of Orthodox Jewish parents in the Bronx in 1929, Chaim Potok was reared in a fundamentalist culture. Potok’s father, Benjamin Potok, was a Polish émigré and no stranger to the pogroms of Eastern Europe. The young Potok was taught that the profound suffering of the Jews would one day transform the world. Yet, as Potok suggests in Wanderings, his service as a Jewish chaplain with the U.S. Army in Korea (1956-1957) confronted him with a world of good and evil that had never heard of Judaism. His attempt to come to terms with this larger world led Potok to a critical investigation of his own Jewish heritage and the limitations of the fundamentalist perspective. Though he was ordained a Conservative rabbi in 1954, attracted by doctrines more liberal than those of strict Jewish Orthodoxy, Potok continued his struggle to reconcile fundamental Judaism with the findings of science (as historiography and textual criticism shed new light on ancient traditions). The Chosen inaugurated his public search for a voice with which to speak to his heritage as well as to the larger world.

In the early 1960’s, Potok taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and edited Conservative Judaism. In 1965, he became editor in chief at the Jewish Publication Society of Philadelphia, and in 1975, he took the position of special projects editor. He was married to Adena Mosevitzky in 1958, and they took up residence in Merion, Pennsylvania. The Potoks had three children: Rena, Naama, and Akiva. Potok served as a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, and Johns Hopkins University.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Chaim Potok was born and reared in New York City. His writings reveal a wealth of learning, due in part to his impressive academic credentials; he was a rabbi and held a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. His novels, various plays, nonfiction works, and children’s books are concerned with Jewish (often Hasidic) characters who are challenged by the conflicting identities of their cultures as Americans, Jews, Hasids, family members, and post-World War II citizens of the world.

The Chosen and its sequel, The Promise, confront issues of value and identity. The novels examine the tensions between Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. An injury in a baseball game initiates a friendship between Reuven Malter, pitcher on the Orthodox team whose father is a fervent Zionist, and Danny Saunders, batter on the Hasid team who is heir to the rebbe position of his father. The Chosen has an ironic conclusion; Reuven Malter decides to become an Orthodox rabbi, but Danny Saunders decides, after much family pain, to become a secular psychologist, a “tzaddik for the world,” as his father finally understands.

Potok’s most critically acclaimed novel, My Name Is Asher Lev, details the struggle for personal identity of a young Hasidic boy who struggles between his love for family and religion and his obligation as an artist to study and create. The sequel to this novel, The Gift of Asher Lev, did not appear until nearly two decades later. It tells of an adult Asher Lev, married and with children, who must confront again his unresolved status in the Brooklyn Hasidic community when the death of a family member requires his return.

In the early and mid-1990’s, Potok moved beyond the genre of the novel to write plays, which were locally produced in Philadelphia, and two works of children’s literature (The Tree of Here and The Sky of Now), which enjoyed critical acclaim.