" Come, let us have some tea and continue to talk about happy things."
From: “The Chosen”(1967)
Chaim Potok is one of the greatest Jewish writers of the 20th century. His writing style is not just clever, it is brilliant: his books are the ones you can’t put down until you finished reading them. The central theme in his novels is the tension between (Orthodox) Judaism and modern culture. Even though Potok gained most fame with his book “The Chosen”, he was also a gifted poet and artist and gained great recognition with the editorials he wrote.
Herman Harold (“Chaim Tvzi”) Potok was born on February 17 1929 in New York’s the Bronx. He was the child of Benjamin Max Potok and Mollie Friedman. In 1921 his father had emigrated from Poland to the U.S. Before the depression he sold stationary, after the depression he became a jeweller. Potok was the oldest of four children. He had one brother (who later became a rabbi) and two sisters (who both got married to rabbis.) Their family was one with strong ties to Hasidism, like many Jewish families in the Bronx of the 1920s/30s. Potok received primary education in a Jewish school, after that he went to the Talmudic Academy High School of Yeshiva University in Manhattan.
At age 16 Potok started writing fiction. He was inspired by authors like James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Thomas Mann and Evelyn Waugh, whose novel "Brideshead Revisited" (1945) had impressed him greatly. When he was 17 he wrote his first article for the Atlantic Monthly, but the piece was rejected. His parents did not approve of Potok’s writing hobby: they’d rather see him become a surgeon. In college Potok moved away from Orthodox Judaism and embraced Conservative Judaism instead. In 1950 he graduated from Yeshiva University(B.A., summa cum laude, in English literature) and went to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Four years later he was ordained a Conservative rabbi.
From 1955 till 1957 Potok served the U.S. army as a chaplain. Most of his time in the army he spent in Korea, serving in both a medical and an engineering combat battalion. His army experience was of influence on Potok's novel “The book of the lights” (1981).
After his time in the army Potok started teaching at the University of Judaism. On June 8, 1958 he married Adena Sarah Mosevitzsky, a psychiatric social worker he had met six years earlier. They’d get three children: Rena, Naama and Akiva. After Rosa was born in 1962 Potok and his wife moved to Israel in order to work on his doctoral dissertation, they stayed in Israel for one year. Back in the U.S. Potok enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile he became editor of the magazine “Conversative Judaism” and chief editor of the “Jewish Publication Society.” In 1965 Potok got his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, with dissertation on "The Rationalism and Skepticism of Solomon Maimon".
Potok made his debut in 1967 with his novel “The Chosen.” It was a story about a Hasidic rabbi and a more secularly-minded Jewish boy in Brooklyn, and was a direct reflection of Potok’s own life. “The Chosen” stands as the first book from a major publisher to portray Orthodox Judaism in the U.S. It was an immediate success: the novel became a bestseller, was nominated for the National Book Award and won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award. Two years later Potok published the sequel “The Promise,” that won the Athenaeum Prize. In “The Promise” the boys from “The Chosen” are now men, but one of the two has changed his faith. In 1972 Potok published “My name is Asher Lev,” again a direct reflection of Potok’s life as it tells the story about a young boy who becomes an artist, much to the dislike of his family. This novel got a sequel as well, namely “The gift of Asher Lev”, that wasn’t published until eighteen years after the publication of “My name is Asher Lev” – it was rewarded with the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. In “The gift of Asher Lev” the main character is now a famous painter who returns to Brooklyn and is faced with the choice between the sacred and the worldly.
After Potok became special projects editor for the Jewish Publication Society in 1974, he wrote “In the Beginning”(1975), The Book of Lights (1981), and Davita¹s Harp (1985.) He then took a seven years’ break to return with “I am the Clay”(1992) “The Tree of Here” (1993), “The Sky of Now”(1995) and “The Gates of November” (1996). For his achievements Potok received the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in 1997.
Late 2000 Potok was diagnosed with cancer. On July 23, 2002, he died in his home in Merion, PA.
In addition to the bibliography of the writeup above, here is a list of other published works by Potok:
The Tree of Here, 1993 (illustrated by Tony Auth)
The Sky of Now, 1995 (illustrated by Tony Auth)
Zebra and Other Stories, 1998
Ethical Living for a Modern World: Jewish Insights
The Gates of November, 1996
My First Seventy-nine Years: Memiors of Isaac Stern, 1999
The Chosen, premiered in New York, January 1988
Out of the Depths, a drama in two acts, premiered in Philadelphia, March 1990
Sins of the Father: The Carnival and The Gallery,
two one-act plays, premiered in Philadelphia, May 1990
The Play of Lights, premiered in Philadelphia, May 1992.
Short Stories and Novels
The Seven of the Address, 1990 (short stories)
The Trope Teacher, France, 1992
The Canal, Netherlands, 1993
The Golem's Hand, Italy, 1995
Short Stories, Reviews, Articles
Esquire, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times
Magazine, Commentary, Moment, Saturday Review, Seventeen,
The American Voice, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other periodicals.