Chaim Potok: Biography & Books

Instructor: Jenn Baudreau

Jenn has taught high school English literature and writing; her masters degree is in Teaching & Learning from Colorado State University.

Chaim Potok was a rabbi, teacher, and award-winning author. His unique novels explore themes of religion, community, and identity. Read on to learn more about Potok's interesting life and the many novels he wrote.

Early Life and Influences

What do we do when the values we were raised with don't seem to fit in the larger world around us? Do we shun the outside world so that we can hold onto our values? Do we forsake our values so we can fit in the outside world? Or do we find ways to integrate the two, even though they seem to contradict one another? These are questions that Chaim Potok explores in his many novels.

Chaim Potok (pronounced: Hi'em Poe'talk) was a Jewish rabbi, teacher, and award-winning author. Before doing those things, though, he was a kid trying to understand the world around him. He was born in New York on February 17, 1929, with the birth name of Herman Harold Potok. Potok was raised as a Hasid. Meaning pious one in Hebrew, a Hasid is a member of a branch of Orthodox Judaism who wears specific religious clothes, studies the Torah deeply, and follows a religious leader called a Rebbe. The Hasidim almost always live in tight-knit communities.

As a kid, Potok loved his religion and community, but he wondered, too, about the many outside communities and values that his religious practice shunned. When he was fifteen years old, Potok read the novel Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Reading that novel changed his life, because it showed him the power novels hold in taking readers to new worlds and showing them new ways of understanding things. Shortly after reading that book, Potok began reading more secular novels and writing creative fiction himself, even though both of those activities were frowned upon by his parents and religion. He began to feel a strong tension between his religious values and the secular world around him. Was the outside world evil? Was his religion wrong? Or were there ways to reconcile the two? This tension became an important theme throughout his life and in his later writings.

Education and Career

When it came time to continue his education, Potok made the radical choice to study English literature. That was a brave thing to do, since it went against the values of his family and religion. In 1950, he graduated with honors from Yeshiva University with a Bachelor of Arts degree. However, his religion continued to be very important to him too. He attended the Jewish Theological Seminary of America to become ordained as a rabbi. He served as a Chaplain (1st-lieutenant) in the U.S. Army from 1955-1957. He then began teaching and continued his own education, getting a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania in 1965.

While most people think that earning a Ph.D. is enough work on it's own, Potok began writing The Chosen while he was still in school studying for his Ph.D. The Chosen was published in 1967. In The Chosen, Potok begins exploring themes of culture, religion, and identity; specifically, the theme of what it means to grow up in a strict orthodox Jewish religious community, while being surrounded by secular communities and influences. The novel takes place in New York City during World War II. In the book, teenager Danny Saunders is a brilliant, ultra-orthodox Hasid who has the obligation to become a rabbi like his father when he grows up. However, his true passion is psychology. By secretly reading forbidden books in the library, and through his unlikely friendship with a more modern Orthodox Jew named Reuven Malter, Danny explores how he can be true to both himself and his faith.

Chaim Potok signing one of his books
Chaim Potok

Potok's later writing continued to explore themes of religion, community, and identity. In a lecture that Potok gave on March 20, 1986 at Southern College of Seventh-day Adventists, he said:

I'm writing about people caught up in some of the central events of our century. How does one hold onto one's own world, a world one deeply loves, while navigating the wider world beyond our own? In one way or another, whether through ourselves, our children, our friends, or our relatives, it's a problem all of us confront sooner or later. That's the problem, the human adventure, that constitutes the heart of the stories I write.

Chaim Potok died of cancer on July 23, 2002, at the age of 73, leaving behind his wife Adena Potok.

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