|Born||February 17 1929
Bronx, New York
|Died||July 23 2002 (aged 73)
Merion, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Chaim Potok (February 17, 1929 – July 23, 2002) was an American Jewish author and rabbi. Two of the themes that dominate his work are the conflict between father and son and the consequent search for a mentor, and the struggle to bridge the gap between Orthodox Judaism and modernity. Many of his books are coming of age novels, in which the characters try to find a place for themselves that incorporates both religion and the intellectual fruits of secular culture. Potok was the first Jewish-American author whose work brought to a larger American audience the tensions between traditional Jewish religion and culture and modern, secular society.
Herman Harold Potok was born in the Bronx to Benjamin Max (d. 1958) and Mollie (Friedman) Potok (d. 1985), Jewish immigrants from Poland who were Hasidic. His father was a watchmaker and jeweler. His Hebrew name was Chaim Tzvi. Hasidism is a Haredi Jewish religious movement that originated in Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century. Founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698–1760), also known as the Ba'al Shem Tov, Hasidism emerged when European Jews had grown disillusioned as a result of the failed messianism of the past century which focused on strictly limited Talmudic studies.
After reading Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited as a teenager he decided to become a writer. After reading Waugh, he spent much of his free time over the next several years learning about writing by reading some of the great novelists, like William Faulkner, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway.
Although he was raised in the Orthodox tradition, he was attracted to the less restrictive Conservative movement, and received a Conservative Jewish education. In 1950, Potok graduated from Yeshiva University with a B.A., summa cum laude, in English Literature. After receiving a master's degree in Hebrew literature, and his later rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1954, Potok joined 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. South Korean culture had been deeply influenced by Confucianism and Buddhism through the centuries, and Christian missionary activity had proven to be highly successful in the twentieth century. 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 the Orthodox synagogues at home.
From 1964 to 1975, Potok edited Conservative Judaism and also served as editor, from 1965-1974, of the Jewish Publication Society. In 1965, Potok was awarded a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. His first novel, The Chosen, was written while he was living with his family in Jerusalem. It was the first novel treating them of Orthodox Judaism to be published by a major publishing house in the United States. Many more novels would follow, including numerous more examinations of the relationship between traditional Judaism and modern secular culture.
Potok edited the p'shat commentary of the Rabbinical Assembly's 2000 edition of the Chumash, Etz Hayim (The Rabbinical Assembly is the international organization of rabbis from Conservative Judaism; Chumash, or Humash is a Hebrew name for the Torah, or the Five Books of Moses).
Potok died of brain cancer in Merion, Pennsylvania, on July 23, 2002.
Potok helped to introduce to an American audience the inner world of Jewish culture. His most famous work was his 1967 novel The Chosen, which became a bestseller. Set in the 1940s, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City, the story takes place over a period of seven years, beginning in 1944 when the protagonists are fifteen years old. It is set against the backdrop of the historical events of the time: the end of World War II, the death of President Roosevelt, the revelation of the Holocaust in Europe, and the struggle for the creation of the state of Israel.
The novel treats the tension between traditional Jewish culture and modernism. The Chosen is a story of the friendship between two Jewish boys growing up in 1940s Brooklyn. Reuven Malter, the narrator of the story, is the son of a writer and scholar who follows modern methods of studying Judaism and is Orthodox. Danny is the genius son of a Hasidic rabbi, whose people live completely within the bounds of traditional Jewish law.
The story is told in the form of a first person narrative from Reuven's point of view, but in many ways the protagonist is Danny, whose character plays out the tension between the demands of the Orthodox tradition and the pull of modern, secular learning. Danny's phenomenal mind compels him to seek knowledge outside what is permitted by his father, and he spends his spare time reading voraciously in secret in the public library. (Danny tells Reuven about an older man he met there who has been recommending him books; both are astonished when the man turns out to be Reuven's own father.) Danny does not want to inherit his father's position as leader of their sect, as is expected of him; he desires instead to become a psychologist.
The struggle between father and son, the father representing the traditional view and Danny the more modern one, is expressed by the theme of silence. From his early youth, Danny's father only speaks to him when they study Jewish law together. He withholds the normal, fatherly affection. The novel's denouement occurs when the father's purpose for raising his son in silence is revealed; Reb Saunders had discovered early on that his son's dawning intelligence was far outstripping his sense of compassion for others. He wanted his son to understand the meaning of pain and want, so he shut him out emotionally. Finding the grown-up Danny indeed had a heart, and cared deeply about other people, Reb Saunders was willing to give his blessing to Danny's dream of studying psychology. At that point the two are able to talk and reconcile.
The book was made into a film released in 1981, which won the top award at the World Film Festival, Montreal. Potok had a cameo role as a professor. The film starred Rod Steiger, Maximilian Schell and Robby Benson. It also became a short-lived Broadway musical and was subsequently adapted as a stage play by Aaron Posner in collaboration with Potok, which premiered at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia in 1999.
Potok's next novel was a sequel to The Chosen. In The Promise Potok follows the same two characters into adulthood. The theme of the conflict between traditional and modern Judaism that runs throughout The Chosen is expanded here against the backdrop of the changes that have taken place in Reuven and Danny's world in the space of time between the two novels: following World War II, European survivors of the Holocaust have come to America, rebuilding their shattered lives and often making their fiercely traditionalist religious viewpoint felt among their people.
Potok said of this novel, "In The Promise the confrontation is between a fundamentalist religion and another gift to us from our general civilization. A gift right from the very heart of that civilization developed in the universities of western Europe in the last century. A methodology we call scientific text criticism." This form of Talmudic analysis is also called the historical method. Of course, Danny's passion for Freudian psychology also represents a "gift right from the heart of [Western] civilization." Potok pointed out that Reuven does not embrace the historical method unreservedly, nor does Danny embrace Freudian psychology unreservedly. Rather, "They performed the same act of selective affinity that all of us do when we encounter an alien culture. We pick and choose those elements of that alien culture toward which we feel a measure of affinity. Then, adopting those elements, we reject the others, precisely as Danny Saunders does with Freud and Reuven Malter does with scientific text criticism."
The protagonists of most of his novels are Orthodox American-born Jews, although he wrote about Koreans in his novel I Am The Clay and created other Gentile characters in some of his short stories.
Potok's novel My Name is Asher Lev chronicles the conflicts experienced by a young boy from a Hasidic home who has a gift for painting. The sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev, won the National Jewish Book Award for fiction. Davita's Harp and Old Men At Midnight are his only novels with a woman as the main character.
Potok was also part of the translation team for the Jewish Publication Society's translation of the Bible, known as Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (The New JPS Translation according to the Traditional Hebrew Text).
Potok cited James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ernest Hemingway, and S.Y. Agnon as his chief literary influences. He wrote several plays, as well as numerous short stories, essays and book reviews. His work was significant in raising the issue of the conflict between the traditional aspects of Jewish thought and culture and modernity to a wider, non-Jewish culture.
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