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.
Other literary forms
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.
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.
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