This Day in Jewish History Author of 'The Chosen’ Dies, Aged 73

Chaim Potok, known best for the novel on which the Rod Steiger/Robby Benson movie was based, focused on tensions in 20th-century American Judaism.

David Green
David B. Green
Chaim Potok at Miami Bookfair International, 1985.
Credit: MDCarchives, licensed under Creative Commons.
David Green
David B. Green

On July 23, 2002, writer Chaim Potok, who in a number of popular novels, most notably “The Chosen,” explored the tension between being a believing, observant Jew and taking one’s place in the critical secular world — a tension he had experienced personally — died, aged 73. Potok was a pioneer in making accessible to millions of readers the insular world of Hasidic Jewry, doing so with knowledge and sympathy, even if ultimately he chose to live outside ultra-Orthodoxy.

Herman Harold Potok (who for most of his life was known by his Hebrew name, Chaim Tzvi) was born on February 17, 1929, in Bronx, New York, the eldest of the four children of Benjamin Max Potok, a merchant and jeweler, and the former Mollie Friedman. Both parents were Hasidic Jews who had emigrated from Poland earlier in the decade.

In a 1992 interview, quoted by The New York Times, he described his upbringing as “essentially a fundamentalist atmosphere, which by definition is both joyous and oppressive simultaneously.” He spent much of his time reading secular works in secret in the public library, and later said it was Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” that made him want to be a writer. That novel, about an aristocratic English family and its members’ respective relationships to their Catholicism, took Potok, while he was reading it, “inside a world the merest existence of which I had known nothing about,” he later said.

His parents were liberal enough that they did not discourage his secular reading, but Potok told an interviewer late in life that when he revealed his aspirations to be a writer, his mother said: ‘’You want to write stories? That’s very nice. You be a brain surgeon, and on the side you write stories.’’

Chaim attended yeshiva in the Bronx, and then high school and college at Yeshiva University. It was following college, where he studied English and edited the literary magazine, that he decided to stray from the path of a strictly Orthodox life. At the Jewish Theological Seminary, he received, in 1954, a master’s in Hebrew literature as well as ordination as a Conservative rabbi. In the world he came from, that was akin to intermarrying.

In 1955-57, Potok served as a chaplain in the U.S. Army in South Korea, where he saw action, and from which drew inspiration for two novels written decades later, “The Book of Lights” (1981) and “I Am the Clay” (1992). In 1958, he married Adena Mosevitzky, a psychiatric social worker he met at Camp Ramah in the Poconos in 1952.

Potok, who completed a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965, worked as a teacher and an editor at a number of institutions, including nine years as editor in chief of the Jewish Publication Society. Over a period of seven years he worked on his first novel, “The Chosen,” about the friendship between two Brooklyn boys, Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders, the first the son of a Hasidic rebbe, who wants to study psychology in the secular world, the other the modern-Orthodox son of an enlightened but remote scholar. The book sold some 3.4 million copies worldwide and was made into a movie, in 1982, starring Rod Steiger and Robby Benson, for which Potok wrote the screenplay.

Other novels included “The Promise” (1969), “My Name Is Asher Lev” (1972) and “Davita’s Harp” (1985). His nonfiction, 1978 “Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews,” was also very popular.

Literary critics slighted Potok for his pedestrian style, and also for returning to the same theme in successive books, but readers responded to his storytelling ability and to the conflicts with which his protagonists struggled. Unlike many other notable Jewish-American writers of the late 20th century, he placed himself and his characters within traditional Judaism, even as he rejected fundamentalism.

Chaim Potok died of brain cancer on this date in 2002.

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