Obituary: Chaim Potok ; American Jewish Novelist of World Class

Article excerpt

CHAIM POTOK was the first American Jewish novelist who opened up the field from the inside. As a Conservative rabbi, and a Philosophy PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, he was uniquely able to present the Jewish experience, from the inside as it rubbed against the overarching American civilisation. In book after book he pursued what he called the core-to-core cultural confrontation he saw in the world he knew.

Potok rose to prominence when his first novel, The Chosen (1967), became a best-seller, with many weeks on the New York Times best- seller list. In The Chosen and in The Promise (1969), The Book of Lights (1981) and Davita's Harp (1985) he explored the tensions and conflicts within small Orthodox Jewish communities.

He argued that though his novels mostly dealt with the Jewish sections of New York City the major themes and conflicts of his work were universal. His novels resonate with a large and diverse audience in much the same ways that William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, centred in Oxford, Mississippi, was able to capture the imagination of readers all over the world. His refusal to ignore modern thought, Jeffrey Tigay wrote recently, coupled with his love of Judaism and the Jewish people, led to his own crisis of faith which he resolved by embracing both modernity and observant Judaism.

Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1929, raised in a Hasidic Jewish community, Chaim Potok grew up in a world of rigorous Talmudic scholarship and adherence to Jewish values and beliefs and rituals; he was also exposed to the ideas of Western art, literature, and philosophy at an early age. After his bar mitzvah, having already shown his talent for painting, he read Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. "It absolutely changed my life," he wrote. He was also affected by James Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and Ernest Hemingway's writing.

Unfortunately as he veered from Orthodoxy he met hostility to this new direction; in turn the attitude helped move him from Orthodoxy to becoming a Conservative Jew. The result is that he had to construct a new existence. Whether writing novels, or history, as in his Wanderings: Chaim Potok's history of the Jews (1978), or recounting his experiences as a chaplain in the Korean War, in The Book of Lights (1981; as he put it, "I went into that world one individual and came out another individual altogether"), he kept writing about the tensions between faith and culture, between the individual's beliefs and the cultural systems and beliefs and ideas that permeate the artist's existence. …