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Obituary Chaim Potok Dead at Age of 73, Was Literary Pioneer and Scholar

July 24, 2002
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Chaim Potok was a novelist who paved the way for a younger generation of religious American Jewish writers — and a Jewish scholar who worked tirelessly to bring Jews and Judaism closer together.

Potok, who was raised in an Orthodox home but later became a Conservative rabbi, died Tuesday at his suburban Philadelphia home of brain cancer at the age of 73.

The best-known of Potok’s more than 15 works, including “The Chosen” and “My Name Is Asher Lev,” describe Orthodox Jews struggling with maintaining their faith in a secular world.

“He is a major figure in the American Jewish literary canon,” said Daniel Walden, a professor emeritus of American studies, English and comparative literature at Penn State University. “His essential mission was to explore the core- to-core cultural conflicts of our civilization, and in doing so he exposed what the Jewish experience was like, what the Jewish religion was like.”

Some of his interest in these “core conflicts” stemmed from his own experience in the Korean War, where he encountered Korean Buddhism as a U.S. Army chaplain — an experience he later fictionalized in “The Book of Lights.”

Indeed, he opened the religious Jewish world up as much to non-Jews as to Jews.

Years after “The Chosen” was published, Potok received letters and e-mails from nuns and priests, as well as Protestant clergy, thanking him for writing the book, Walden said.

Earlier Jewish writers, such as Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, were religious skeptics.

But Potok wrote from within the Jewish religious tradition, Walden said.

As a result, he served as a model for the next generation of American Jewish writers — Allegra Goodman, Nathan Englander and Myra Goldberg — who wrote about the religious experience.

Potok chafed at being labeled a Jewish writer, but when he tried to write about other subjects — in, for example, “I Am the Clay,” a book about Korean refugees — he was less successful.

“He was pigeonholed as a Jewish writer, and the few times he tried to write his way out of that, his public wouldn’t let him,” said Ellen Frankel, the editor in chief of the Jewish Publication Society.

Potok’s most famous book, “The Chosen,” focuses on Danny Saunders, who is raised in a Chasidic home in Brooklyn.

Saunders’ attraction to the more tolerant world of his friend Reuven Malter puts him at odds with his father, who wants him to remain within the Chasidic world.

The story was familiar to Potok. He spent a fervently Orthodox childhood in New York, where he was born to parents who had emigrated from Poland.

“My father, especially, wanted me to be a professor of Talmud in a yeshiva. This business of writing at first seemed frivolous to him. When it persisted, he didn’t know what to make of it,” Potok said in an interview two years ago.

Even though he never fulfilled his father’s expectations, Potok did become a Judaic scholar.

In 1965, he earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania, writing his dissertation on the German Jewish philosopher Solomon Maimon, a contemporary of Immanuel Kant.

The last year of his doctorate was spent in Jerusalem, where he also wrote “The Chosen.”

He worked on one project in the morning; the other in the afternoon, Potok once said.

From 1966 to 1974, he was the editor in chief of the JPS in Philadelphia. During his tenure, he launched JPS’ series of Bible commentaries and emphasized the publication of children’s literature.

For more than 15 years, he served chairman of the editorial committee, which oversees JPS’ acquisitions.

“The only meeting he missed” during that time “was the very last” — two weeks ago, when the cancer that he had long battled was finally overcoming him, Frankel said.

Frankel met with Potok several times a year at Hymie’s, a Philadelphia-area delicatessen — where Potok usually ordered a bagel and a coffee.

The bearded Potok was sometimes warm and effusive, and sometimes silent and brooding — but he was always very intense, Frankel said.

“Often, you would ask him a question, he would think for a moment, then he would cut right to the chase,” she said.

Potok was the literary editor of JPS’s five-volume Torah commentary.

During the 1990s, he adapted and edited that commentary into one volume that is used in Conservative synagogues throughout North America — even though the project took him away from his writing.

“He loved the Jew in the pew,” Frankel said.

Jeffrey Tigay, one of Potok’s colleagues on the JPS project, said Potok — in both his novels and his Torah commentary work — saw modern Judaism as an amalgam of Jewish tradition and the cultures it comes into contact with.

“In his novels, characters, like Potok himself,” are dealing with their own crises of faith by adopting critical methods and understanding Judaism in a more sophisticated way, said Tigay, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Potok was a founder of the Library Minyan at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, the Conservative synagogue in suburban Philadelphia where he regularly attended Shabbat morning services.

Though he found his home in Conservative Judaism, he spoke passionately about the Orthodox community, which he believed had grown too narrow-minded.

“The yeshiva is the foil I strike out with. Or the foil I strike out against,” he once said. “Fundamentalism is an absolutely wrong reading of Jewish traditions.”

In addition to “My Name Is Asher Lev” and “The Chosen,” which was made into a Hollywood movie starring Robby Benson — Potok addressed this world in several other works.

Potok won a variety of awards for his fiction, including the Athenaeum Prize for “The Promise” and the National Jewish Book Award for “The Gift of Asher Lev.”

He also won praise for his nonfiction, particularly “Wanderings,” an illustrated history of the Jewish people that sold more than 100,000 copies, and he wrote and reviewed widely for newspapers, magazines and journals.

He served as a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania in both the 1980s and 1990s, and taught briefly at Bryn Mawr College and Johns Hopkins University.

Potok was also a passionate lover of Israel — where he lived for several years — but “he was not Israel right or wrong. He felt he had the right to express an opinion,” Frankel said.

Potok also was engaged in the Soviet Jewry movement.

Lev Gorodetsky, who was involved in clandestine Jewish activities during the Soviet era, remembers hosting an underground conference of Hebrew teachers in 1984, at which Potok lectured on American Jewish literature.

Gorodetsky, who recently served as JTA’s Moscow correspondent, remembers that even the event was considered underground, word spread quickly that Potok was in town — even the KGB lingered in the shadows of the gathering.

In 1997, Potok published a book on the subject of Soviet Jews, “The Gates of November,” which focused on the Slepak family, well-known refuseniks who moved to Israel after gaining their freedom.

Potok, it seemed, always had something to write.

Potok told an interviewer in 2000 that he was tired because had gotten up that day at 4:30 a.m. When the interviewer asked him why he had started his day so early, Potok replied, “Because there were sentences in my head that had to get out.”

Potok is survived by his wife, Adena; two daughters, Rena, a Philadelphia-area college professor, and Naama, an actor in New York; a son, Akiva, who is a filmmaker in California; and two grandchildren.

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