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Chaim Potok: Author, Rabbi, Questioner

Black-and-white photo of Chaim Potok writing in a book, 1985

Photo: MDCarchives

"Chaim Potok: Author, Rabbi, Questioner"

Lou Nelson '18

Chaim Potok is viewed by many as a popular author who interpreted Orthodox and Conservative Jewish life to the masses. He viewed himself as a theorist of culture and selfhood, expressing his understanding of the world through fiction. At various points in his life, he took on the roles of rabbi, army chaplain, husband and father, youth camp director, professor, expressionist painter, historian, and author. Yet he is also a religious figure and serious thinker who refused to leave his curiosity, questions, and pain unexamined, allowing others to do the same. Both his life and his works hold far more complexity than first meets the eye, and any reader who pays close attention to either will find much to learn about themself and their world.


Herman Harold Potok (whose Jewish name was Chaim Tzvi) was born in the Bronx on February 17, 1929, to Polish immigrant parents who raised him and his three siblings in an Orthodox Jewish community. His father, Benjamin Max Potok, was a World War I veteran who had met Potok’s mother Mollie in New York after fleeing pogroms in his home country after the war. Both Benjamin and Mollie encouraged their children to develop deep ties to their faith, and by the time the Potok children grew up, they had all either become or married rabbis.

The major historical background of Potok’s early life and adolescence was the global catastrophe of the Holocaust and World War II. As a child of Polish Jewish immigrants, Potok would have grown up into an awareness of the horrific and unfolding violence of the Holocaust from within a community deeply connected to its roots in the Old World. Though Potok rarely talked about this experience directly, the Holocaust, the war, and the subsequent creation of the State of Israel are all present in most of his written works—as undercurrents if not as main themes.

As a child, Potok attended an Orthodox yeshiva, studying Torah and Talmud in the morning and “secular subjects” required by the state in the afternoon. He continued to participate in Jewish education for the rest of his life, attending high school, college, and graduate school at Jewish institutions.

However, one part of Potok’s life in particular made him stand out in the sea of Orthodox life and education surrounding him: his love of fiction. The author often told his own history by tracing his vocation as a writer through readings of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in high school and college. These novels gave him a window to the possibilities of fiction as a way to express his own experiences navigating a predominantly Christian and secular society as a child of Orthodox Judaism. Fictional stories also became a constant presence in Potok’s life—he describes staying up late to listen to The Lone Ranger on the radio as a child, and as an adult he watched Star Trek regularly.[1]

Like his protagonist Asher Lev, Potok was sometimes chastised by his parents and teachers for his desire to read and write fiction. In the Orthodox community where he grew up, spending too much time studying fiction was often viewed as a misguided if not sinful pursuit. Nevertheless, he continued to pursue his interest in reading and writing fiction, studying English literature in college and then earning a Master’s in Hebrew literature as a seminary student.

In pursuing graduate education, Potok moved from the Orthodox world where he had grown up to the less fundamentalist Conservative branch of Judaism, attending the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. There, he received both a master’s degree in Hebrew literature and ordination as a rabbi. After receiving ordination, Potok could have avoided the draft by serving as a rabbi in the United States. Instead, he volunteered as a chaplain in the US Army, serving in South Korea from 1955 to 1957 as the Korean War wound down.

Potok’s move from Orthodox to Conservative Judaism and work as an army chaplain only furthered a preoccupation with tradition and change that began in childhood and motivated the rest of Potok’s life and writing. Even though his parents and teachers had often seen his fascination with literature as misguided, Potok remained invested in a tradition that did not understand his vocation as a fiction writer throughout high school and college. Then, instead of leaving his community as he might have, he remained faithful to his Jewish tradition, but through a different expression—one that some of his Orthodox friends and family understood as a denial of his faith. In Korea, he experienced yet another culture that had nothing to do with the community he was raised in, further expanding his understanding of worlds outside of his own. The question of whether he could be fully committed to his Jewish tradition and fully committed to other traditions—Western literature in particular—lies behind most, if not all, of Potok’s later work.

When he returned from Korea, Potok moved to Los Angeles and taught at a Conservative youth summer camp associated with his seminary. There, he met his future wife Adena Sarah Motsevitsky, a psychiatric social worker. At the same time, he held a position as a Jewish Studies instructor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Potok and Motsevitsky married in 1958 in California. During these years, Potok became interested in philosophy; he and his wife moved to Pennsylvania in 1959 so that he could enter a philosophy PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Unlike his fiction and religious teaching, which were mostly concerned with the impact of secular culture on Judaism or on concerns within the religious community, Potok’s philosophical work traced the impact Solomon Maimon, a fairly obscure Polish Jewish philosopher, had on secular philosophy. While writing his dissertation Potok spent a year in Israel, and he returned there often, even buying an apartment there later in life.

In 1966 Potok earned his doctorate with a dissertation entitled “The Rationalism and Skepticism of Solomon Maimon.” With characteristic attention to detail, the dissertation traces Maimon’s engagement with Kantian rationalism and with skepticism, paying attention to the way Maimon influenced later developments in Western philosophy.

While living in Pennsylvania and afterwards, when he moved to Brooklyn, New York, Potok became friends and conversation partners with many influential figures in contemporary Jewish life, most notably the author and Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel. He served as the editor of the Conservative Judaism magazine and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society in Pennsylvania, becoming a fixture in the intersection of publication, academia, and Jewish Conservative life. His family was also growing at this time; he and Sarah had their first child, Adena, in 1962 and welcomed a second daughter in 1964.

Through all of these changes, Potok remained focused on learning all that he could about both his own Jewish tradition and what he called the Western or secular world. Later in life, he told a critic that “Whenever I chose to do something it was, and still is, to utilize it in fiction”.[2] From the outside, his life seems to have drifted away from fiction in his military service in Korea, professorship in California, and graduate education in Pennsylvania. However, all of these experiences allowed him to understand what it meant for him to engage with sacred and secular worlds simultaneously, giving him ample material to write from later in life.

Though Potok’s bibliography includes eight novels, a full book on Jewish history, a collection of novellas, and several children books, all of these were published in the second half of his life. After unsuccessfully trying in the mid-60’s to publish a short story written during his time in Korea, Potok struck success with his first novel The Chosen, which became a New York Times bestseller shortly after its publication in 1967. In the next eight years he published three more novels, all centered around young Jewish men in various states of conflict with their religious communities and the secular world.

The Chosen and The Promise, Potok’s first two novels, deal with the relationship between a Hasidic successor to a rabbinic dynasty and the son of a critical Talmudic scholar. In these novels, Potok refuses to draw concrete lines between Orthodoxy and Conservatism, liberal and fundamentalist thought. Instead, he details how encounters with Freudian psychology and infighting within Jewish communities shape his protagonists’ perspectives on their own lives and their relationships with one another, their communities, and the broader world.

My Name is Asher Lev, published in 1972, takes a similar tack, using Western modernist art as a foil to the Hasidic Jewish background of its main character. Instead of encounters with modern psychology or hermeneutics, the core element of non-Jewish culture in this third novel is an artistic tradition that Potok himself participated in as an amateur expressionist painter. In this first Asher Lev novel, Potok explored the way that the tradition of modern art took hold of his protagonist—and how it both conflicted with and supported his commitment to the tradition of Orthodox Judaism. After writing Asher Lev, Potok began another variation on his unwavering theme with In the Beginning, which follows another Orthodox protagonist as he encounters an element of secular thought in modern biblical criticism.

In all of these works, Potok examines one theme from a number of angles, obsessed with the ways Jewish and secular culture clash and the way that conflict influences the lives of those moving between the two worlds. All of his fiction, as well as his later teaching, concerns this exploration of the self navigating conflicting cultures or traditions. Building on Ian Watt’s then-prevalent theory of the novel as a form primarily influenced by individualism, Potok put all of his energy into understanding and exploring the way clashes between core elements of religious communities and secular culture shape individual lives and experiences of selfhood.

For the next twenty years, Potok moved back and forth between Israel and Pennsylvania and participated in both Conservative Jewish and secular academic circles. After finishing In the Beginning he took a break from fiction, publishing a work of history three years later called Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s Story of the Jews. The eighties brought another flush of fiction writing, with The Book of Lights, Davita’s Harp, The Gift of Asher Lev, and I Am the Clay published in intervals of a few years from 1981 to 1992.

From 1993 to 2001, instead of returning to novel-writing, Potok served as a professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s philosophy department. A former student recalls Potok as an engaging professor who asked students to learn through discussion, preferring facilitation to lecturing but also laying out dizzying and memorable overviews of Western thought and culture. In the classroom, Potok rarely referred to his fiction. Instead, the same student remembers thinking that Potok as a professor “was sketching in abstract in class what he painted in fine detail in novels”.[3]

During the nineties Potok also wrote several children’s stories and a short story, “The Trope Teacher,” which later turned into a short collection published in 2001. In the same year, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. On July 23, 2002, Chaim Potok died at his home in Merion, Pennsylvania at 73 years of age.

As both a popular and highly theoretical author, a professor and a rabbi, fiction writer and an observant Jew, Potok’s life held many seeming contradictions. Yet his strong commitment to his writing, his community, and his faith pulled all of these contradictions together in the figure of a man whom a student described as simultaneously stern, driven, and caring.[4] It is this commitment that draws readers back to Potok’s writing again and again. Even though all of his works portray variations on a theme of conflict within oneself and between the particular worlds of Judaism and secular culture, each one holds an understanding of what it means to strive for integrity within oneself and one’s community that stems from a long personal history and holds universal insights.

 

As both a popular and highly theoretical author, a professor and a rabbi, fiction writer and an observant Jew, Potok’s life held many seeming contradictions. Yet his strong commitment to his writing, his community, and his faith pulled all of these contradictions together in the figure of a man whom a student described as simultaneously stern, driven, and caring (Van Leeuwen). It is this commitment that draws readers back to Potok’s writing again and again. Even though all of his works portray variations on a theme of conflict within oneself and between the particular worlds of Judaism and secular culture, each one holds an understanding of what it means to strive for integrity within oneself and one’s community that stems from a long personal history and holds universal insights.

Footnotes:

[1] Potok, Chaim. “Art and Religion: The Writer Against the World.” Writing and Literature Conference, 4 May 1991, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL. Lecture.

[2] Kremer, S. Lillian, and Chaim Potok. “An Interview with Chaim Potok, July 21, 1981.” Studies in American Jewish Literature, no. 4, 1985, pp. 84. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41205620. Accessed 27 May 2021.

[3] Van Leeuwen, Neil. “Chaim Potok’s Gift to Penn: Pushing the ‘frontiers of thought.’” University of Pennsylvania Gazette, University of Pennsylvania, 15 April 2003, http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0103/potok.html. Accessed 25 May 2021.

[4] Ibid.

Further Reading:

Sternlight, Sanford. Chaim Potok: A Critical Companion. Greenwood Press, 2000.

Van Leeuwen, Neil. “Chaim Potok’s Gift to Penn: Pushing the ‘frontiers of thought.’” University of Pennsylvania Gazette, University of Pennsylvania, 15 April 2003, http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0103/potok.html

Kremer, S. Lillian, and Chaim Potok. “An Interview with Chaim Potok, July 21, 1981.” Studies in American Jewish Literature, no. 4, 1985, pp. 84–99. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41205620

Potok, Chaim. “Art and Religion: The Writer Against the World.” Writing and Literature Conference, 4 May 1991, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL. Lecture. 

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