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Chaim Potok was a novelist, rabbi, and critical scholar of Judaic texts. His work, notably the novel The Chosen, strives to show characters in relation to God and to dramatize the importance of religion in a secular age and society.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Chaim Potok was born Herman Harold Potok on February 17, 1929, in New York City, to Polish Jewish immigrants Mollie Friedman and Benjamin Max Potok. His Hebrew name, Chaim (which means “alive” or “life”) was the one he used personally and professionally. He spent his formative years in a traditional Jewish home (Mollie was descended from a prominent Hasidic dynasty) and he attended Jewish schools. He was instructed in secular subjects, as mandated by the state, but also well educated in Jewish religious texts. Potok was shielded from the secular world and later called his upbringing ”essentially a fundamentalist” one, both ”repressive and joyous.” A natural aptitude for art—he harbored ambitions to become a painter—was dismissed by his parents as foolishness, a distraction from his Talmudic studies.
He had a transformative experience in early adolescence, when he furtively read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), and then Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) by James Joyce. These works greatly influenced his decision to become a writer. Potok recognized in Waugh’s writing the capacity of literature to transport readers into cultural environments foreign from their own. He determined that fiction would be his vehicle to present Jewish civilization in American literature. With that end in mind, he undertook a rigorous religious and secular education at Yeshiva University, where he earned a BA summa cum laude in 1950. His determination to write held, even with the knowledge that, at some point, his relationships with family and community would suffer.
His studies at Jewish Theological Seminary of America, a Conservative school (actually more liberal than his Orthodox upbringing), where he received rabbinic ordination in 1954, were very upsetting to his family. Potok was forced to create a new life and community from scratch, but he was able to devote himself to writing. He took up a Judaic professional role in conjunction with that of the creative artist. He served as a U.S. Army chaplain in Korea with a front-line medical battalion and a combat engineer battalion from 1955 to 1957. He married Adena Sarah Mosevitzky upon his return to the United States. He also taught at the university level, and served as editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society, the beginning of a distinguished career in Jewish literary letters. Potok also earned a PhD in philosophy at the University of Pennyslvania in 1965.
Novel as Tool
In 1967, Potok’s first novel, The Chosen, was published. The Chosen examines modern Orthodox Jewish identity in America, and religious conflict in the Crown Heights and Williamsburg sections of Brooklyn, an area that was heavily populated by Jews. The antagonists are Hasidim, known for their mystical interpretation of Judaic sources and intense devotion to their spiritual leaders, and Orthodox Jews, who emphasize a rational, intellectual approach to Judaic law and theology. The supportive relationship that later develops between two boys, one Hasidic and the other Orthodox, begins in strife, dramatized in a quintessentially American baseball rivalry. The novel chronicles the boys’ experiences and reactions as sons of fathers who strive to sustain religious life and tradition in a predominantly secular age and society.
In addition to using religious and scholarly interests to authenticate the lives of the characters in The Chosen, Potok parallels his youths’ inner quests for Jewish identity with historic events: the Nazi mission to destroy Jewry and the search for physical and spiritual salvation in a Jewish national homeland. Although the Holocaust remains a muted topic in this first novel, it is presented as a hovering pestilence in the larger context of America at war. Potok links the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel, a theme to which he will return in later works. The final third of the novel is narrated in the context of the struggle to create and maintain the state of Israel, and the experiences of the characters are intimately bound with that of Israel. The Chosen was notably the first book published in the United States that closely examined Hasidic Jewry in America. It was a best-seller, adapted as both a film and a musical, and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
I Am Asher Lev
Potok would write a sequel to The Chosen, then embark on his third novel, I Am Asher Lev, about the coming-of-age of an artist living in a Hasidic society inherently hostile to his vocation. Asher Lev rejects his designated role of Hasidic emissary for his career as an artist. Potok again uses the first-person narrative of his previous novels and achieves immediacy and vividness through the artist’s retrospective portrait of his childhood. The pretext for the narrative is Lev’s response to Hasidic detractors, with whom he has become notorious due to a painting of his that particularly upset his community. The mature Lev offers a reexamination of his attitudes and the external forces that shaped his vision and judgment. Although Lev remains an observant Jew, the community judges him guilty of betraying his religious heritage and encroaching upon a tradition sacred to Christianity.
Beyond disappointment in their son’s failure to work in behalf of Jewish causes, the Levs despair of his dedication to art, considering it blasphemous at worst and mere indulgence of personal vanity at best. This is a thematic element almost identical to Potok’s own past, except that Asher persistently defies his father’s demand that he sacrifice art to religion, and a deep rift develops between them. Asher Lev shares with James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus the knowledge that his vocation as an artist demands a period of exile. Potok, like Joyce, treats the artist’s isolation and alienation from family, school, and religious community, culminating in exile, as a progressive step that will lead to reconciliation of the artist’s spiritual and aesthetic natures.
Life as Scholar, Novelist
Chaim Potok, in his post as editor of the Jewish Publication Society of America, spent a great deal of his life in scholarly pursuits, in addition to returning to his love of painting. He published six novels and two works of non-fiction. In 2002 he succumbed to brain cancer and died in Merion, Pennsylvania, at the age of seventy-three.
Works in Literary Context
Commitment to Judaism and the influence of Evelyn Waugh, James Joyce, and Flannery O’Connor are evident in Potok’s efforts to show characters in relation to God and to dramatize the importance of religion in a secular age and society. The genesis and substance of almost every Potok novel is Jewish religious, historic, and cultural experience in a non-Judaic world. Potok’s philosophical and ethical views—his affirmative vision, veneration of life, positive assessment of human nature, and pervasive striving for meaning in the midst of chaos and for good in the face of evil—derive from Judaism. He joins other Jewish American novelists in advocating the Jewish view of a sanctified world and enduring and noble humanity, revealing a vital philosophy to counter twentieth-century alienation and despair. His characters are conversant with Jewish theology, liturgy, and rabbinic commentaries, and it is through these intellectual resources and their life experiences that they strive to comprehend the human condition. Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) is an heir to Potok’s unique melding of Jewish themes and secular ones, in addition to his focus on father-son relationships.
The Coming-of-Age Novel
Potok’s novels, while not technically marketed for young adults, are books that can appeal to sensitive young people. The Chosen is his most poignant effort at a coming-of-age novel, but in a rare occurance of a Potok book featuring a female protagonist, Davita’s Harp is also a stirring look into the life of a girl in the Hasidic world. Jonathan Safran Foer’s much-lauded Everything is Illuminated (2002), with its themes of a young man seeking his Jewish identity, and indeed his identity in the larger world, have much in common with Potok’s characters.
Works in Critical Context
Critical response to Potok’s writing has ranged from denunciation to acclaim, with the bulk of the response falling in the latter category. Potok’s detractors frequently center their criticism on the novelist’s style, charging him with composing banal speech and employing a pompous tone. Others have complained about the predictability and lack of complexity in his characters. In the November 1967 Midstream, Curt Leviant judges the dialogue between the young men of The Chosen ”more like a mature man’s bookish presumption of what their talk should sound like than authentic speech itself” and objects to Potok’s rendition of Hasidim as void of humor and zest for life. Most often, Potok is extolled for examining serious social, philosophical, and theological problems and praised for his concern with ideas and issues. In the New York Times Book Review, the critic reviewing The Chosen wrote that ”Long afterwards, it remains in the mind, and delights. It is like those myths that, as C. S. Lewis reminds us, do not essentially exist in words at all.”
As is the case with many first novels, The Chosen received mixed criticism from reviewers. New York Times contributing critic Eliot Fremont-Smith describes the book as ”a long, earnest, somewhat affecting and sporadically fascinating tale of religious conflict and generational confrontation in which the characters never come fully alive because they are kept subservient to theme: They don’t have ideas so much as they represent ideas.” While New Republic contributor Philip Toynbee observes that Potok’s prose has ”too many exhausted phrases and dead words,” he maintains that The Chosen ”is a fascinating book in its own right. Few Jewish writers have emerged from so deep in the heart of orthodoxy: fewer still have been able to write about their emergence with such an unforced sympathy for both sides and every participant.” Hugh Nissenson noted in the New York Times Book Review that ”the structural pattern of the novel, the beautifully wrought contrapuntal relationship of the boys, and their fathers, is complete. We rejoice, and we weep a little, as at those haunting Hasidic melodies which transfigure their words.” For Granville Hicks, in Saturday Review, the novel ”suggests that almost any situation, no matter how unfamiliar to the population in general, may have meaning for the multitude if the author goes deep enough. Who cares about the Hasidim? Not many people, I suppose. But we all know about fanaticism and can recognize that it may have power for good as well as evil. And many of us are either fathers or sons or both. . . . It is hard to make good boys credible and interesting; it must have been even harder for Chaim Potok to bring to life a pair of good fathers, good in such different ways. But he succeeded, and the result is a fine, moving, gratifying book.”
- Abramson, Edward A. Chaim Potok. Boston: Twayne, 1994.
- Sternlicht, Sanford V. Chaim Potok: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.
- Daniel, ed. The World of Chaim Potok. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1985.
- Fox, Margalit. ”Chaim Potok, 73, Dies; Novelist Illumined the World of Hasidic Judaism’s Corner.” New York Times (July 24, 2002).
- Chaim Potok. Retrieved December 7, 2008, from http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/ biography/Potok.html.
- Chaim Potok: Biography. Retrieved December 8, 2008,from http://potok.lasierra.edu/Potok.biographical.html.
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