Famed writer Chaim Potok dies of brain cancer at 73

Author will be remembered for expressing inner conflict between art and religion

Appreciation

July 24, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

All of his life, Chaim Potok's novels explored the devastating effects of enforced silence.

That was why he didn't stop - couldn't stop - writing until yesterday, when he died from brain cancer at age 73.

It's not really surprising to learn that even in his last months, Potok was dictating a novel to his wife, Adena. When I met Potok in March 2000, he explained that he had arisen at 4:30 a.m. to get in a few precious hours of writing before beginning a jam-packed day in Milwaukee. "There were sentences in my head that had to get out," he said.

Perhaps that's because for many of his early years, the last thing that his parents wanted was to hear what their oldest son thought.

He was born Herman Harold Potok in the Bronx on Feb. 17, 1929, and later began using his given Hebrew name, Chaim. His parents were Polish-Jewish immigrants who raised their four children in the Orthodox tradition, in which contact with the corrupting outside world was discouraged.

As a teen-ager, Potok found himself drawn to a more liberal branch of Judaism, the Conservative branch. That caused immense conflict in his family - conflict that he poured into his earliest two novels, The Chosen in 1967 and The Promise in 1969. (The Chosen was nominated for a National Book Award, and later was made into a film starring Robby Benson, Maximilian Schell and Rod Steiger.)

His burgeoning artistic ambitions caused more conflict still.

"A lot of people were angry at me when I was growing up," Potok said. "I was expected to go in one direction, but I went in another. My father, especially, wanted me to be a professor of Talmud in a yeshiva."

As Potok explained it, the arts are viewed as a distraction from an Orthodox Jew's true purpose, which is to study the Torah and Talmud. "The business of writing seemed frivolous to my father," he said. "When it persisted, he didn't know what to make of it."

Potok poured the anguish he felt at being torn between his family and his art into perhaps his best work, the 1972 novel My Name is Asher Lev.

Potok graduated from Yeshiva University in 1950 with a degree in English, attended the Jewish Theological Seminary, and was ordained a Conservative rabbi in 1954.

Following service as an Army chaplain in Korea, Potok earned a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1965 from the University of Pennsylvania. He later taught at Penn and Bryn Mawr College, and here in Baltimore, at Johns Hopkins University from 1995 to 1998.

While Potok loved teaching, there never was any question as to his true vocation. Over 34 years, he wrote 14 books, including three children's novels. Among Potok's four non-fiction works, Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews, traced Jewish history to the patriarch Abraham 4,000 years ago. He also helped the late violinist Isaac Stern write his autobiography, My First Seventy-nine Years.

But for every novel that Potok published, he wrote between three and five manuscripts that he discarded. "If you don't, you're dead in the water artistically," he said.

That was a fate he managed to avoid. Potok's prose is saturated and dense, with sudden juxtapositions in style and tone. Intensely naturalistic scenes that take place on a baseball diamond or in a synagogue give way to an equally vivid memory of a youthful nightmare or Yiddish folk tale. In the space of a sentence or two, an image of homeless men looking for food abruptly shifts to the crashing surf.

He described the writing process like this: "You're like a navigator without instruments. You sort of know the shoreline, and then it fades away. It's like building a boat while you're standing in it."

But while Potok was beloved by readers, his work inexplicably met with mixed critical reception, and the top literary awards eluded him. According to S. Lillian Kremer in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, critics claimed that Potok's characters lacked complexity, that his style was bombastic, and that he mined the same literary terrain over and over.

But for Potok's fans, although his work is framed in the context of a particular society at a particular time, his theme - the clash of values and the pain that causes - is universal.

"He created an American stream that really didn't exist before," the novelist Cynthia Ozick told the Associated Press. "He wrote directly from the interior of the Jewish theological experience, rather than from the social experience. And they were best sellers.

"The main point is that here's somebody who wrote Jewish theological fiction that everybody read."

In addition to Adena Potok, his wife of 44 years, Potok's survivors include his daughters Rena and Naama, and his son Akiva.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Bibliography

Novels:

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 (3 novellas), 2001

Children's books:

The Tree of Here, 1993

The Sky of Now, 1995

Zebra and Other Stories, 1998

Other writings:

Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews, 1978

Ethical Living for a Modern World, Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1985

Theo Tobiasse: Artist in Exile, 1986

The Gates of November: Chronicles of the Slepak Family, 1996

My First Seventy-Nine Years (co-writer of autobiography of Isaac Stern), 1999

Source: Contemporary Authors

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