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Chaim Potok | Biography

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Early Life

Chaim Potok was born Herman Harold Potok in New York on February 17, 1929, and grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household in the Bronx, New York. In the Jewish tradition, Potok's parents gave him a Hebrew name—Chaim Tzvi—as well as an English name. Potok went through iterations of his name, calling himself Herman at school, Hy at camp, and finally, Chaim, as he moved toward getting his rabbinical degree. To his parents, he was Chaim Hersh, a combination of his Hebrew and English names. Potok lived in this middle; he was a committed Jew in love with much of the secular world around him.

Potok's father, Benjamin Max Potok, emigrated from Poland, where he met with violent anti-Semitism after returning from fighting in the Polish army in World War 1. Benjamin Potok was a Belzer Hasid—a member of a small, ultrareligious, eastern European Jewish community. Potok's mother, Mollie Friedman Potok—also a Polish immigrant—was a descendant of a dynastic Hasidic rabbinical family. In short, Potok grew up in a family that did not separate the secular from the Jewish life; Jewish law and ritual bound all aspects of the Potok family life. Potok grew up as a "shtiebel davener," meaning he prayed in a small, prayer room in a small synagogue filled with other ultraobservant Jewish men. The main characters in The Chosen are also religious Jews. One of them, Danny Saunders, the son of a Hasidic rabbi, might be described as a "shtiebel davener" as well.

Potok's fictional Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter were also born in 1929 to immigrant parents. And like Danny and Reuven, Chaim Potok had to face the enormity of the loss of Europe's Jewish population during the Holocaust.

Like his characters, Potok was educated in a yeshiva, a Jewish parochial school. Mornings were devoted to the study of sacred Jewish texts, and afternoons to English subjects. Potok described his school as "fundamentalist." His days were packed with prayer and study, leaving little free time for Potok's hobbies: art and reading. His parents did not encourage his artistic endeavors, nor his reading of secular texts. However, reading was slightly less subversive than painting because Jews value religious text. Potok's parents allowed him to read novels, as discomfiting as they were. At 14 or 15, Potok discovered Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1945). He was so caught up in the lives of Waugh's upper-class English Catholic family that he wrote, "I lived more deeply inside the world of that book than I lived inside my own world for the length of time it took me to read that book." After reading Waugh, Potok began to read other modern secular novelists. He was particularly influenced by James Joyce; his understanding of Joyce's Catholic characters informed the creation of his own Orthodox Jewish characters.

University and the Rabbinate

After graduating from high school, Potok attended Yeshiva University, where he majored in English. While at Yeshiva, Potok chose to affiliate himself with the Conservative movement in American Judaism. Conservative Judaism is more centrist and more accepting of secular, worldly interests. After graduating from Yeshiva, Potok attended the Jewish Theological Seminary where he received a master's degree in Hebrew literature and smicha—or ordination—as a Conservative rabbi. Like his character Danny Saunders, Potok remained committed to living a Jewish life, albeit redefined from the orthodoxy of his childhood. The move toward a more inclusive form of Judaism was shattering for Potok; he lost friends and family who felt deserted and betrayed. However, according to Potok, ''No one can work with the novel and remain inside any fundamentalist sect.''

After graduating from the seminary, Potok volunteered for the army and became a combat chaplain in South Korea, where he served from 1955–57. While in the army, Potok traveled to Hiroshima, Japan, the site of the first detonation of an atomic bomb. He described his struggles in comprehending a moment in which good and evil could coexist so completely; the bomb effectively ended a war and yet thousands of people were killed, and a future of nuclear warfare was made possible.

When he returned from Korea, Potok decided against becoming a pulpit rabbi, and instead accepted a position as a Judaic Studies teacher at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. While in Los Angeles, he also directed a Conservative Jewish summer camp, Camp Ramah. It was at a Ramah camp in 1952 that Potok met his wife, Adena Mosevitsky. The Potoks married in 1958, then moved to Philadelphia in 1959 so that Potok could begin graduate studies in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. Potok's papers currently reside in the Penn Libraries' special collection.

Writing Life

In 1962 the Potoks had their first child, a daughter named Rena. The family moved to Jerusalem for a year, where Potok began work on his dissertation. He wrote his dissertation while also working on his first novel, The Chosen (1967). From Israel, the Potoks moved to Brooklyn, New York, the heart of the Hasidic community. Potok began teaching at his alma mater, still working on his dissertation and his novel. In Brooklyn, Potok was able to closely observe the Hasidic sects about which he wrote. He, like his character David Malter, had mixed feelings about Hasidim, but credits Hasidic Jews' fundamentalism with keeping Judaism alive in times of great tension.

In 1965 Potok defended his dissertation ("The Rationalism and Skepticism of Solomon Maimon"), had a second daughter (Naama), published his first short story, and worked for the Jewish Publication Society of America, all while still working on revisions of The Chosen. In 1966 he became editor-in-chief of the publishing company, remaining in that position until 1974. The Jewish Publication Society publishes English books about Jewish subjects; it is nondenominational and has in its mission a commitment to "accessible scholarship." Although the publications that Reuven's father and a Talmudic scholar David Malter writes for are never identified in The Chosen, he is critical of the historical inaccessibility of textual criticism.

In 1967 Potok published The Chosen. His dissertation topic informed his novel: Maimon, a great thinker but a skeptical Jew, is held up as an example of a scholar gone astray. Reuven studies the Talmud in his father's style, rationally and with a near scientific deconstruction of the text. The Chosen was a commercial success and won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award that same year, a prize awarded to works of fiction believed to have significance for the American Jew. In The Chosen, Potok first develops the cultural conflict that informs most of his protagonists; like Potok, his characters confront the tension between their own Jewish subculture and parts of the attractive "umbrella culture."

By 1968 the Potoks had three children (a son, Akiva, born in 1968), and Potok had begun the sequel to The Chosen. The Promise was published in 1969. In 1972 he published his third novel, My Name Is Asher Lev, introducing new characters and exploring the aesthetic tension between the religious and the secular. In 1973 the Potoks once again moved to Israel, settling in Jerusalem. While in Israel, Potok published his fourth novel, In the Beginning (1975). The Potoks moved back to Philadelphia in 1977 and the author returned to the Jewish Publication Society of America as a special projects editor.

Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews was published in 1978. It was Potok's attempt to clarify abstract scholarship. It was met with mixed reviews. In 1981 Potok published The Book of Lights, specifically to address how good and evil exist together, and to explore the Kabbalah, the book of Jewish mysticism.

The return to Philadelphia allowed Potok to resume teaching. He taught at various times at the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, and Johns Hopkins University.

Later Novels

Potok continued teaching and writing in the '80s and '90s. Davita's Harp was published in 1985, The Gift of Asher Lev, a National Jewish Book Award winner, was published in 1990, I am the Clay was published in 1992, and The Gates of November was published in 1996. In addition, Potok published books for children and a collection of short stories for young adults. The author died of brain cancer on July 23, 2002.

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