The Chosen, 1967
The Promise, 1969
My Name Is Asher Lev, 1972
In the Beginning, 1975
The Book of Lights, 1981
Davita’s Harp, 1985
The Gift of Asher Lev, 1990
I Am the Clay, 1992
Old Men at Midnight, 2001 (3 novellas)
Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews, 1978
Tobiasse: Artist in Exile, 1986
My First Seventy-nine Years, 1999 (with Isaac Stern)
Conversations with Chaim Potok, 2001 (Daniel Walden, editor)
Children’s/Young Adult Literature:
The Tree of Here, 1993
The Sky of Now, 1995
Although he himself might have repudiated the label, Chaim Potok (PAWT-ok) has emerged into the public consciousness as one of the leading Jewish American authors of his generation. He was born Herman Harold Potok on February 17, 1929, in New York City, the son of Polish immigrant parents. His father, Benjamin Max Potok, was a member of the Hasidic sect, and his mother, Mollie Friedman Potok, was the descendant of a Hasidic dynasty; together, they reared their children in a strictly Orthodox manner. Potok received his primary and secondary education in a yeshiva (a Jewish day school). By the time that he was eight years old, he had already begun to demonstrate a talent for painting. When this pursuit was discouraged by his family and teachers, the young Potok turned to literature and was so impressed by the riches that he found in secular novels that he determined at the age of fourteen to become a writer, a decision which subjected him to misunderstanding and ridicule within the strict Hasidic world to which he belonged. After graduation from the yeshiva, Potok enrolled in Yeshiva University. He had gradually been drifting away from the fundamentalist Hasidism of his childhood; by the time he received his B.A. in 1950, he had broken completely with Orthodoxy. At that time, Potok came into contact with Conservative Judaism and, transferring to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, he completed his rabbinical training and graduated in 1954 as a conservative rabbi with his M.A. in Hebrew literature. In 1965 he received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania.
It was during his fifteen-month stint as a military chaplain on the front in Korea from 1955 to 1956 that Potok began his first novel. The work was never published, although it provided material for his later writings. The Chosen appeared in 1967 and was well accepted by the public, although reception by the critics was mixed; in 1982, this story was made into a motion picture. When it appeared in 1969, Potok’s second novel, The Promise, was generally judged by critics to be inferior to his first work, and yet it too proved to be a tremendous public success. Readers and critics alike are in agreement that My Name Is Asher Lev, which was published in 1972, is one of Potok’s finest and most skillful works.
Although Potok’s literary output is superimposed upon a rich background of Jewish life and experience, Judaism as such is not the overriding theme of his work. As an author, Potok is concerned specifically with illustrating what he calls “core to core culture confrontation,” that is, the conflict that arises when a relatively closed, traditional culture such as Judaism comes into jarring contact with a culture governed by a different set of values. Such confrontations between worldviews can be seen clearly on varying levels within Potok’s work. In The Chosen Danny Saunders is torn between his rigid Hasidic background and his desire for secular knowledge. The confrontation, however, is not restricted merely to a religious/secular dichotomy; Reuven Malter also suffers as his more liberal form of Judaism collides with the almost fanatical rigidity of the Hasidic world. The Promise focuses on the battle between Reuven’s liberal scriptural exegesis and the ultra-Orthodox extremism of his teachers. My Name Is Asher Lev expands this theme as it shows Asher’s attempts to find expression for his artistic gifts within the context of a culture that has not developed the necessary visual symbols. Each member of the Lurie family in In the Beginning suffers from a collision with anti-Semitism.
Potok, however, does not confine himself to this basic level: He also explores the conflict engendered within Jewish culture itself by radically different reactions to anti-Semitism. The Book of Lights, for instance, portrays not only the Jewish world in collision with a “pagan” culture in which “Jewishness” is essentially devoid of meaning, but also the Jewish consciousness–represented by Arthur Leiden, the son of a great physicist–in conflict with its own achievement and impact on the world. A third opposition surfaces in the same novel in Gershon Loran’s preference for cabalistic mysticism rather than Talmudic rationalism. In Davita’s Harp characters who are committed to social justice are drawn to Marxism, yet such idealistic values are in conflict with the realities of Stalinism. When Davita, the young protagonist, seeks refuge in her ancestral Judaism, she finds herself denied the rewards of her academic achievement simply because she is a female. Beyond these individual cases of culture confrontation, Potok shows in Wanderings the manner in which the Jewish people as a whole have been affected by the dialectic of confrontation and reconciliation.
With some notable exceptions, critics have been slow to offer positive comment on Potok’s literary production. The simplicity of his style, the heavy, thought-charged form of the dialogue, and the single-minded intensity with which he attacks the central problem of conflict have all come under fire. In spite of this frequent unfavorable criticism, Potok’s work enjoys wide popular acclaim from both Jewish and non-Jewish readers, perhaps because his individual characters represent the universal. The questions which are asked and the conflicts which are portrayed are not solely Jewish phenomena–they apply to anyone whose culture suddenly collides with other systems which are fundamentally different, and therefore threatening to one’s own view. The challenge which meets the reader on the pages of Potok’s writings, the implicit plea for openness, flexibility, acceptance, and the courage to find one’s own synthesis in spite of all social opposition and cross-cultural blindness, rings true to any reader; it stretches far beyond the specifically Jewish setting of the novels to touch the broad pool of shared human experience.