Chaim Potok Biography


In The Chosen, Chaim Potok (pronounced Hi em Poe talk) describes the condition of American Jews living in two cultures, one secular and one religious. To a great degree, he is describing not only the lives of the characters in the novel but his own life — ac-cording to Potok, the novel is very much an autobiography of his young-adult life.

Originally named Herman Harold, Potok was born in New York City on February 17, 1929, to Polish-Jewish immigrants Benjamin Max Potok and Mollie Friedman Potok. His father had emigrated from Poland to the United States in 1921. Prior to the Great Depression, Mr. Potok sold stationery; following the Depression, he became a jeweler. Chaim Potok, along with his younger brother and two younger sisters, was raised in the Orthodox Jewish religion. (His brother eventually became a rabbi, and his sisters both married rabbis.) As with many young boys raised in the Orthodox Jewish religion, he attended Jewish parochial schools, most notably Talmudic Academy of Yeshiva College. (Orthodox Jews believe that Jewish law and practice must be strictly observed. They believe that the Old Testament, known as the Torah — Tore ah — and considered to contain the central, most important tenets of the Jewish religion, was given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai by God and is literally true. It is, they say, eternal, authentic, and binding. No change is permitted.)

Even though he was content growing up within his Jewish religion and culture, Potok sensed that there existed a world beyond his Jewish one that he wanted to experience. As he writes in his essay "Culture Confrontation in Urban America: A Writer's Beginning":

I had little quarrel with my Jewish world . . . but beyond our apartment, there was an echoing world that I longed to embrace: it streamed in upon me, its books, movies, music, appealing not only to the mind, but also to the senses.

When Potok was about fifteen years old, he read Brideshead Revisited, by English novelist Evelyn Waugh. By his own admission, Potok was impressed. He has commented about the novel, "Evelyn Waugh reached across the chasm that separated my tight New York Jewish world from that of the upper-class British Catholics in his book. I remember finishing the book and marveling at the power of this creativity." Although doing so was frowned upon in his religious training, he read more secular literature, including James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which greatly influenced him. Reading novels that challenged his Jewish beliefs, he wondered whether it was possible to be a Jew and an American simultaneously, asking, "Was it possible to live in a religious culture and a secular culture at the same time?"

Potok treasured his Jewish religion and culture but believed that change was necessary and unavoidable. Not surprisingly, he tried to blend American and Jewish ways while he attended New York's Yeshiva University, a Jewish-sponsored school offering both religious and nonreligious courses. He received a B.A., summa cum laude, in English literature from Yeshiva University in 1950.

After his graduation from Yeshiva University, Potok studied for and received ordination as a rabbi in 1954 at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, a New York institution sponsored by the Conservative branch of Judaism, a less restrictive form of Judaism in terms of religious observances and behaviors. Whereas the Orthodox Jewish movement frowns upon religious change, the Conservative movement suggests that change has always been a feature of Jewish tradition. While studying for rabbinic ordination, Potok also earned a master's degree in Hebrew literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Following service as a United States Army chaplain in Korea from 1955 to 1957, Potok married and began a notable teaching and publishing career in Jewish studies. From 1957 to 1959, he was an instructor at the University of Judaism, the Los Angeles campus of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He served as scholar-in-residence at Har Zion Temple in Philadelphia (1959-63) and was on the faculty at the Teachers Institute, Jewish Theological Seminary of America (1963-64). He then served as managing editor of Conservative Judaism (1964-65) and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society (1965-74). He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965. Incidentally, he began writing The Chosen while he was still working on his doctoral degree. He would write sections of The Chosen during the morning and then focus on his dissertation during the afternoon. Since 1974, he has served as a special projects editor at the Jewish Publication Society.

The Chosen, published in 1967, is Potok's first published novel. Following its publication, Potok continued his investigation into the dilemmas of living simultaneously in a Jewish culture and a secular culture in his novels The Promise (1969) and My Name Is Asher Lev (1972). In 1975, he published the autobiographical In the Beginning and then returned to the theme of Jewish versus secular cultural conflict in The Book of Lights (1981), Davita's Harp (1985), and The Gift of Asher Lev (1990). In 1996, Potok published the nonfiction book The Gates of November: Chronicles of the Slepak Family, in which he chronicles a father and son's struggle to understand each other. Throughout his works, Potok returns again and again to such father/son relationships as those in The Chosen and The Gates of November.

Throughout his distinguished career as a writer and scholar, Potok has received numerous awards. For example, The Chosen won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award. Potok's novel The Promise received the Anthenaeum Prize, and his novel The Gift of Asher Lev was awarded the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. He received an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters in 1997 from La Sierra University. That same year, he was awarded the National Foundation for Jewish Culture's Jewish Cultural Achievement Award for Literature.