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by Bamber Gascoigne

Chaim Potok (1929-2002) - original name Herman Harold Potok


Rabbi and author whose novels depict the life and culture of Orthodox Jews. Besides novels, Chaim Potok wrote scholarly and popular articles and reviews throughout his publishing career. Central theme in his work was the tensions between Judaism and the values and culture of modern society. Potok's best known works include The Chosen (1967), The Promise (1969) – both became bestsellers – and My Name Is Asher Lev (1972), which is considered his finest novel.

'"Reuven, as you grow older you will discover that the most important things that will happen to you will often come as a result of silly things, as you call them – 'ordinary things' is a better expression. That is the way the world is."' (from The Chosen, 1967)

Herman Harold Potok was born in New York City in Bronx, the eldest son of Jewish immigrants from Poland. Following traditions, Potok's parents also gave him a Hebrew name, Chaim Tvzi (Chaim means "life" or "alive"). His father, Benjamin Max Potok, was a jeweler and watchmaker. As a child, Potok received primary education in Jewish schools, where he studied required secular subjects but also the Talmud, the center of the curriculum. His father wanted him to be a rabbi. It was a problem in his family, when he started to paint – his father regarded paintig as the preoccupation of the gentile world. Picasso's Guernica left a deep impression on Potok. It was the work which the protagonist of My Name Is Asher Lev studied at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

By 1950 Potok had come to the conclusion, that he did not want to live in a Hasidic community. "It wrenched my world entirely. I lost all of my friends, I lost most of my teachers, I had to literally reconstruct my existence," he later said in an interview. (Conversations With Chaim Potok, edited by Daniel Walden, 2001, p. viii) Potok's father never got over the decision.

Potok's upbringing was the inspiraton for several of his novels, set in Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and the Bronx. "... writers who write seriously, write about what they know best. This is what I know best," Potok told in 1981. ('Potok, Chaim,' in World Authors 1975-1980, edited by Vineta Colby, 1985, p. 603)

Because drawing and painting was considered in the Orthodox community a violation of the Second Commandment and a waste of time, Potok switched to literature. He devoured works by James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Thomas Mann, and other major writers. Reading Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited (1945) gave Potok "a very vivid sense of the rhythms of the English language, its texture, its cadences, the way sentences can be constructed to obtain certin effects." ('Giving Shape to Turmoil: A Conversation with Chaim Potok' by Michael J. Cusick, in Conversations With Chaim Potok, edited by Daniel Walden, 2001, p. 124) When he settled with his family in Philadelphia in an old Victorian home in Merion, he resumed painting and drawing.

Potok received his M.A. in Hebrew literature, after education at the Talmudic Academy High School of Yeshiva University in Washington Heights, Manhattan, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. At the age of 25, he was ordained a Conservative rabbi. While at Camp Ramah in the Poconos in 1952, he met Adena Sara Mosevitzsky; they were both councellors there. After their marriage in 1958, the couple settled in Los Angeles, where Potok headed the local Camp Ramah organzation and taught at the University of Judaism. Two years later they moved to Philadelphia. Between the years 1955 and 1957, Potok served a chaplain with the US Army, more than fifteen months of his service being in Korea with a front-line medical battalion and an engineering combat battalion. This experience provided material for Potok's novels The Book of Lights (1981) and I Am the Clay (1992).

After the birth of his first child, Rosa in 1962, Potok took his family to Israel for a year. In 1964, he was appointed the managing editor of the magazine Conservative Judaism, and then editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia. Potok was also chairman of its publication committee. From 1974, he worked as a special projects editor. Potok received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1965. His philosophical dissertation entitled 'The Rationalism and Skepticism of Solomon Maimon'. With the exception of the first pages, it dealt with epistemology. In The Chosen, Potok took up again this eighteenth century thinker in a scene: "All right, my father said I see you want me to continue my story. I am going to tell you another story, also a true story, about a Jewish boy who lived in Poland. ... He had a great mind but it never left him peace. He wandered from city to city, never finding roots anywhere, never satisfied, and finally died at forty-seven on the estate of a kind-hearted Christian who had befriended him. ..."

In 1983, Potok was visiting Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1985 Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania. Potok died of brain cancer on July 23, in his home in Merion, Pennsylvania. He had been ill with cancer for some time. Adena Potok, who worked as a psychiatric social worker and teacher, was also Potok's first reader on a daily basis. When The Chosen was adapted for the stage at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia, she acted as the artistic and cultural consultant.

'"How the world drinks our blood," Reb Saunders said. "How the world makes us suffer. It is the will of God. We must accept the will of God." He was silent for a long moment. Then he raised his eyes and said softly, "Master of the Universe, how do you permit such a thing to happen?"' (from The Chosen)

Potok made his debut as a novelist with The Chosen, a story about rivalry and friendship between two teenage Jewish American boys – Reuven Malther, the narrator, a secular Jew, and Danny Saunders, from a Hasidic family. Danny's father Reb is a tzaddik (Hebrew for "righteous one"), a spiritual leader of a Hasidic community. He expects that Danny, who is the elder son, succeeds him. Although the book received mixed reviews, and it was peppered with Yiddish terms, it became a best-seller, which was a surprise for the author. Moreover, the 1981 film version of the book, directed by Jeremy Kagan and starring Rod Steiger as Reb Saunders, brought increasing critical interest in Potok's fiction.

The Chosen stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for more than six months and was nominated for a National Book Award. Two years later published The Promise follows the same characters. Danny's secular studies and faith with Freudian psychology has lured him away from the faith of his father. The book was a Literary Guild Choise in America and achieved a first printing of 100 000 copies. The Chosen also had a brief run as an off-Broadway musical in 1988; it was a failure which was closed after a week. Theodore Bikel played the role of Reb Saunders in Aaron Posner's stage adaptation from 1999. "The adaptation . . . is proof that when it comes theater, smaller is often better," said Neil Genzlinger in the New York Times.

With My Name Is Asher Lev Potok returned to the subject of Hasidic religious experience. The novel told of a young artist, whose choice of career is not approved by his family. However, he produces two great crucifixions, ultimate symbols of suffering, but depicting his own mother on the cross. "My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion." This blasphemy leads to his being sent into exile in Paris by his father's sect. Asher's father is a fundamentalist Jew, and describing the roots of his art, Asher says: "I call that ambiguity. Riddles, puzzles, double meanings, lost possibilities, the dark side to the light, the light side to darkness, different perspectives on the same things. Nothing in this whole world has only one side to it. Everything is like a kaleidoscope. That's what I'm trying to capture in my art. That's what I mean by ambiguity." His father answers: "No one is a kaleidoscope, Asher. God is not a kaleidoscope. God is not ambiguous. Our faith in Him is not ambiguous. From ambiguity I would not derive the strength to do all the things I must do. Ambiguity is darkness. Certainty is light. Darkness is the world of the Other Side." My Name Is Asher Lev was one of the 49 book seized by Soviet officials as "anti Soviet" at the Moscow International Book Fair in 1983. 

The sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev, came out in 1990. Lev is now a world-renowned author living in Paris. He is called back to Brooklyn, and once again forced to make a choice between the worldly and the sacred. Potok's eighth novel, I Am the Clay, was set in Korea. The hero is a wounded orphaned boy who struggles with an old peasant couple to survive in the war-torn land. Potok took the title of the book from a Christian hymn, which the peasant woman's mother had learned from missionaries: "Have thine own way Lord, have thine own way. Thou art the potter, I am the clay." The Gates of November (1996) is a family chronicle, but depicting the real-life family of Russian Jews. The story of Solomon and Volodya Slepak, a father and son, is simultaneously the story of Soviet Jewry and the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.

Autobiographical In the Beginning (1975), about modern criticism of the Bible and tradition, The Book of Lights, and Davita's Harp (1985) explored the conflict between religious and secular interest. "And for as long as I am able to remember, a door harp hung on our floor.... We mounted the harp on the back of the front door and when we opened or closed the door the balls struck the wires and we would hear ting tang tong tung ting tang – the gentlest and sweetest of tones." The narrator is Ilana Davita Chandal, who grows up in New York in the 1930s and 1940s, and finds the Jewish faith and her independence. Both of her parents, Anne and Michael, are committed communists; Judaism is not a central theme, but its opposite in the form of devotion to dialectical materialism. Michael is killed in the Spanish Civil War, Anne leaves the Party after the Stalin-Hitler Pact.

Potok's non-fiction works include Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews (1978), in which the author combines scholarship with dramatic narrative. Zebra and Other Stories (1998), a collection of short stories, was written for young adults. One of the characters notes, "I think losing your soul is when you can't tell a story about something that has happened to you." Potok has written what he has experienced in life, but also studied philosophical questions about suffering, the meaning of the universe, and the existence of evil. "I would prefer to say that the universe is meaningful, with pockets of apparent meaninglessness, than to say it is meaningless with pockets of apparent meaningfulness. In other words I have questions either way." (Potok in Christianity Today, September 8, 1978)

For further reading: 'My Name Is Asher Lev,' in Literature Suppressed on Political Grounds by Nicholas J. Karolides, Revised Edition (2014); Chaim Potok: Confronting Modernity Through the Lens of Tradition, edited by Daniel Walden (2013); 'Chaim Potok, The Chosen (1967),' in Race and Racism in Literature by Charles E. Wilson, Jr. (2005); Conversations With Chaim Potok, ed. by Daniel Walden (2001); Chaim Potok: A Critical Companion by Sanford V. Sternlicht (2000); Chaim Potok by Edward A. Abramson (1986); Studies in American Jewish Literature, edited by Daniel Walden (1985); 'Potok, Chaim,' in World Authors 1975-1980, edited by Vineta Colby (1985) - See also: Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose works are almost exclusively written in Yiddish. Saul Bellow, fluent in Yiddish, one of the most important Jewish-American writers after WW II.

Selected works:

  • The Chosen, 1967
    Film 1981, prod. Chosen Film Company, dir. by Jeremy Paul Kagan, starring Rod Steiger, Maximilian Schell, Robby Benson, screenplay by Edwin Gordon, music by Elmer Bernstein. Musical, 1987, in New York City, at the Second Avenue Theater, starring George Hearn and Gerald Hiken, music by Philip Springer, lyrics by Mitchell Bernard. Stage production in 2006, at the Writers Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, directed by Shade Murray, adapted by Aaron Posner.
  • Jewish Ethics, 1964-69 (14 vols.)
  • The Promise, 1969
  • My Name Is Asher Lev, 1972
    - Nimeni on Asher Lev (suom. Kai Kaila, 1977)
  • IIn the Beginning, 1975
  • TThe Jew Confronts Himself in American Literature, 1975
  • Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews, 1978
  • The Book of Lights, 1981
  • Ethical Living for a Modern World: Jewish Insights, 1985
  • Davita's Harp, 1985
    - Davitan harppu (suom. Anja Haglund, 1986)
  • Theo Tobiasse, 1986
  • The Gift of Asher Lev, 1990
  • I Am the Clay, 1992
  • The Tree of Here, 1993 (illustrated by Tony Auth)
  • The Sky of Now, 1995 (illustrated by Tony Auth)
  • The Gates of November: Chronicles of the Slepak Family, 1996
  • Zebra and Other Stories, 1998
  • Isaac Stern: My First 79 Years, 1999 (in collaboration with Isaac Stern)
  • Conversations with Chaim Potok, 2001 (edited by Daniel Walden)
  • Old Men at Midnight, 2001
  • The Chosen, 2016 (50th anniversary edition; introduction by Rena Potok)
  • The Collected Plays of Chaim Potok, 2018 (edited with an introduction by Rena Potok; contributions by David Bassuk, Carol Rocamora, and Aaron Posner)

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