Chaim Potok Potok, Chaim (Vol. 112)

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 37,649 words.)