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Chaim Potok

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Chaim Potok
Potok in 1986
Potok in 1986
BornHerman Harold Potok
(1929-02-17)February 17, 1929
Bronx, New York, U.S.
DiedJuly 23, 2002(2002-07-23) (aged 73)
Merion, Pennsylvania, U.S.
OccupationNovelist, Rabbi, Painter
EducationYeshiva University (BA)
GenreLiterary fiction
SpouseAdena Potok
ChildrenRena Potok
Naama Potok
Akiva Potok

Chaim Potok (February 17, 1929 – July 23, 2002) was an American author, novelist, playwright, editor and rabbi. Of the more than a dozen novels he authored, his first book The Chosen (1967) was listed on The New York Times’ bestseller list for 39 weeks and sold more than 3,400,000 copies,[1][2] and was adapted into a well-received 1981 feature film by the same title.


Herman Harold Potok was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Benjamin Max (died 1958) and Mollie (née Friedman) Potok (died 1985), Jewish immigrants from Poland.[3] He was the oldest of four children, all of whom either became or married rabbis. His Hebrew name was Chaim Tzvi (חיים צבי). He received an Orthodox Jewish education. After reading Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited as a teenager, he decided to become a writer (he often said that Brideshead Revisited is what inspired his work and literature). He started writing fiction at the age of 16. At age 17 he made his first submission to the magazine The Atlantic Monthly. Although it was not published, he received a note from the editor complimenting his work. He attended high school at Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy, Yeshiva University's boys high school.

In 1949, at the age of twenty, his stories were published in the literary magazine of Yeshiva University, which he also helped edit. In 1950, Potok graduated summa cum laude with a BA in English Literature.

Potok's house in suburban Philadelphia

After four years of study at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America he was ordained as a Conservative rabbi. He was appointed director of LTF, Leaders Training Fellowship, a youth organization affiliated with Conservative Judaism.

After receiving a master's degree in English literature, Potok enlisted with the U.S. Army as a chaplain. He served in South Korea from 1955 to 1957. He described his time in South Korea as a transformative experience.[4][page needed] Brought up to believe that the Jewish people were central to history and God's plans, he experienced a region where there were almost no Jews and no anti-Semitism, yet whose religious believers prayed with the same fervor that he saw in Orthodox synagogues at home.

Upon his return to the U.S., he joined the faculty of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Potok met Adena Sara Mosevitzsky, a psychiatric social worker, at Camp Ramah in Ojai, California, where he served as camp director from 1957 to 1959. They were married on June 8, 1958. In 1959, he began his graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania and was appointed scholar-in-residence at Har Zion Synagogue in Philadelphia. In 1963, the Potoks were instructors at Camp Ramah in Nyack. Also in 1963, he began a year in Israel, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Solomon Maimon and began to write a novel.

In 1964, the Potoks moved to Brooklyn, where Chaim became the managing editor of the magazine Conservative Judaism and joined the faculty of the Teachers’ Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The following year, he was appointed editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia and later, chairman of the publication committee.[5] During this time, Potok received a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1970, the Potoks relocated to Jerusalem and then returned to Philadelphia in 1977.

After the publication of Old Men at Midnight, Potok was diagnosed with brain cancer. He died at his home in Merion, Pennsylvania on July 23, 2002, aged 73.

Literary career[edit]

In 1967, Potok published The Chosen, which won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award and was nominated for the National Book Award. Potok wrote a sequel to The Chosen in 1969, entitled The Promise, which details the issues of the value and identity between Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. This book won the Athenaeum Literary Award the same year of its publication.[6] Not long afterward the Jewish Publication Society appointed him as its special projects editor. In 1972, he published My Name is Asher Lev, the story of a boy struggling with his relationship with his parents, religion and his desire to be an artist. In 1975, he published In the Beginning.[7] From 1974 until his death, Potok served as a special projects editor for the Jewish Publication Society. During this time, Potok began translating the Hebrew Bible into English. In 1978, he published his non-fiction work, Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s Story of the Jews, a historical account of the Jews. Between 1978 and 1989, Potok contributed articles to Moment Magazine.[8] Potok described his 1981 novel The Book of Lights as an account of his experiences in Asia during the war. He said “it reshaped the neat, coherent model of myself and my place in the world.”[9]

His novel The Chosen was made into a film released in 1981, which won the most prestigious award at the World Film Festival, Montreal. Potok had a cameo role as a professor. The film featured Rod Steiger, Barry Miller, Maximilian Schell and Robby Benson. It also became an Off-Broadway musical and was adapted as a stage play by Aaron Posner in collaboration with Potok, which premiered at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia in 1999.[10]

Potok's 1985 novel Davita's Harp is his only book featuring a female protagonist. In 1990, he published a sequel to My Name is Asher Lev titled The Gift of Asher Lev. It won the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction.[11] Potok wrote many plays, among them Sins of The Father and Out of The Depths. In 1992, Potok completed another novel, I am the Clay, about the courageous struggle of a war-ravaged family. His 1993 young adult literature The Tree of Here was followed by The Sky of Now (1995) and Zebra and Other Stories (1998).

Literary influences[edit]

Potok's parents discouraged his writing and reading of non-Jewish subjects. Nevertheless, he spent many hours in the public library reading secular novels. Potok cited James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ernest Hemingway, and S. Y. Agnon as his chief literary influences. Many of his novels are set in the urban environments in New York in which he himself grew up.[12] While not Hasidic, Potok was raised in an Orthodox home. In the book My Name is Asher Lev, Asher Lev wants to be a painter, which causes much conflict with his father who wants him to do something else, much as Potok did during his childhood. Asher decides to become a painter, which upsets his family. Potok went into writing and painted in his free time. Potok said he related to Asher Lev more than any of his other characters.[13]


Potok has had a considerable influence on Jewish American authors.[14][15][16][17] His work was significant for discussing the conflict between the traditional aspects of Jewish thought and culture and modernity to a wider, non-Jewish culture.[18] He taught a highly regarded graduate seminar on Postmodernism at the University of Pennsylvania from 1993 through 2001.[19]

He bequeathed his papers to the University of Pennsylvania.[20] The university houses a collection of Potok correspondence, writings, lectures, sermons, article clippings, memorabilia and fan mail. One of his admirers was Elie Wiesel, who wrote to Potok saying he had read all his books "with fervor and friendship".[21]

Published works[edit]

  • Jewish Ethics (1964–69, 14 volumes)
  • The Chosen (1967)
  • The Promise (1969)
  • My Name Is Asher Lev (1972)
  • In the Beginning (1975)
  • The Jew Confronts Himself in American Literature (1975)
  • Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews (1978)
  • The Book of Lights (1981)
  • Davita's Harp (1985)
  • Theo Tobiasse (1986)
  • The Gift of Asher Lev (1990)
  • I Am the Clay (1992)
  • The Tree of Here (1993)
  • The Trope Teacher (1994)
  • The Sky of Now (1994)
  • The Gates of November (1996)
  • Zebra and Other Stories (1998)
  • Isaac Stern: My First 79 Years (with Isaac Stern; 1999)
  • Old Men at Midnight (2001)
  • Walden, Daniel, ed. (2001), Conversations with Chaim Potok

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sternlicht, Sanford V (2000), Chaim Potok: a critical companion, Greenwood Publishing, p. 8, ISBN 9780313311819
  2. ^ Fox, Margalit (July 24, 2002). "Chaim Potok, 73, Dies; Novelist Illumined the World of Hasidic Judaism". The New York Times. p. 17.
  3. ^ Fox, Margalit (July 24, 2002). "Chaim Potok, 73, Dies; Novelist Illumined the World of Hasidic Judaism". The New York Times.
  4. ^ Potok, Chaim (1983), "Introduction", Wandering — The History of the Jews, Ballantine Books
  5. ^ Sanford V. Sternlicht Chaim Potok: A Critical Companion 2000 page 8 "...to work with the Jewish Publication Society of America, while making his final revisions of The Chosen, published in 1967. Potok had been made editor in chief of the publication society in 1966, and he remained in that capacity until 1974."
  6. ^ Literary Award, Philadelphia Athenaeum, archived from the original on May 22, 2011, retrieved March 14, 2011
  7. ^ "NEWS: Mid-November", Philadelphia Athenaeum, 1 (11), archived from the original on May 22, 2011, retrieved January 19, 2011
  8. ^ Potok, Chaim. Moment Magazine. Digital Archives: Opinion Archives.
  9. ^ Chavkin, Laura (Summer 1999). "A "MELUS" Interview: Chaim Potok". MELUS. 24 (2): 147–157. doi:10.2307/467704. JSTOR 467704.
  10. ^ "2008/09 Press Releases: Arden Theatre Company presents the World Premiere of My Name Is Asher Lev". Arden Theatre Company. December 22, 2008. Archived from the original on April 18, 2016. Retrieved January 23, 2017.
  11. ^ "Past Winners". Jewish Book Council. Archived from the original on March 8, 2020. Retrieved January 20, 2020.
  12. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions". Chaim Potok. La sierra. Archived from the original on July 19, 2011. Retrieved October 4, 2010.
  13. ^ Potok, Chaim (Winter–Spring 1997). "Mars Hill Review Interview With Chaim Potok". Mars Hill Review (Interview). Interviewed by Cusick, Michael J. Archived from the original on March 5, 2010. Retrieved October 4, 2010 – via La sierra.
  14. ^ "Chaim Potok" (biography). Jewish virtual library. July 23, 2002. Retrieved October 4, 2010.
  15. ^ "Biography of Chaim Potok | List of Works, Study Guides & Essays". Grade Saver. Retrieved October 4, 2010.
  16. ^ "Potok", Novel guide, Class zone[dead link]
  17. ^ Great American Writers;Twentieth Century
  18. ^ "Obituary Chaim Potok Dead at Age of 73, Was Literary Pioneer and Scholar". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. July 24, 2002. Retrieved January 24, 2017.
  19. ^ van Leeuwen, DS Neil. "Pushing the 'frontiers of thought'". Archived from the original on April 15, 2003. Retrieved October 15, 2012.
  20. ^ Bloom, Julie (January 18, 2010), "Papers of Chaim Potok To Go to Penn", Arts, Briefly, The New York Times, p. C2
  21. ^ Penn Libraries Receive Chaim Potok Papers, U Penn, archived from the original on August 6, 2012

External links[edit]