Although he himself might have repudiated the label, Chaim Potok (PAWT-ok) has emerged into the public consciousness as one of the leading Jewish American authors of his generation. He was born Herman Harold Potok on February 17, 1929, in New York City, the son of Polish immigrant parents. His father, Benjamin Max Potok, was a member of the Hasidic sect, and his mother, Mollie Friedman Potok, was the descendant of a Hasidic dynasty; together, they reared their children in a strictly Orthodox manner. Potok received his primary and secondary education in a yeshiva (a Jewish day school). By the time that he was eight years old, he had already begun to demonstrate a talent for painting. When this pursuit was discouraged by his family and teachers, the young Potok turned to literature and was so impressed by the riches that he found in secular novels that he determined at the age of fourteen to become a writer, a decision which subjected him to misunderstanding and ridicule within the strict Hasidic world to which he belonged. After graduation from the yeshiva, Potok enrolled in Yeshiva University. He had gradually been drifting away from the fundamentalist Hasidism of his childhood; by the time he received his B.A. in 1950, he had broken completely with Orthodoxy. At that time, Potok came into contact with Conservative Judaism and, transferring to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, he completed his rabbinical training and graduated in 1954 as a conservative rabbi with his M.A. in Hebrew literature. In 1965 he received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania.
It was during his fifteen-month stint as a military chaplain on the front in Korea from 1955 to 1956 that Potok began his first novel. The work was never published, although it provided material for his later writings. The Chosen appeared in 1967 and was well accepted by the public, although reception by the critics was mixed; in 1982, this story was made into a motion picture. When it appeared in 1969, Potok’s second novel, The Promise, was generally judged by critics to be inferior to his first work, and yet it too proved to be a tremendous public success. Readers and critics alike are in agreement that My Name Is Asher Lev, which was published in 1972, is one of Potok’s finest and most skillful works....
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