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.
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.
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.
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.