In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestled with an angel and emerged as Israel, “He who struggles.” In the 20th-21st century, Western Jews spend a great amount of energy wrestling with the world of tradition and the demands of the modern world. Few writers have portrayed this inner conflict of the American Jewish community as engagingly as Chaim Potok (1929-2002), a man who lived this struggle himself.

Herman Harold Potok was born in The Bronx, NY. His family was not-quite Chassidic and Chaim Tzvi, as he was called, spent his childhood learning in Yeshiva. As a boy, Potok was interested in art, particularly painting. Hearing only discouraging words from his family, however, he turned his creativity to words.

Potok graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English Literature from Yeshiva University (1950). He received rabbinic ordination and a Masters in Chassidic Literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (1954) and a PhD in Philosophy from University of Pennsylvania (1965). Although he never held a rabbinic post, he served as a U.S. Combat Chaplain in Korea.

ChaimPotok_TheChosen.jpg (232×345)The Chosen, Potok’s first and best-known novel, was published in 1967. It spent 39 weeks on the bestseller list. The Chosen, which was made into a major motion picture in 1981, is the story of a friendship that develops between two Jewish youth, one Chassidic and one Modern Orthodox. Each boy is drawn to the other’s world. The majority of his other novels continued to draw on similar Jewish themes. His other well-known works are: The Promise, My Name is Asher Lev, The Gift of Asher Lev and Davita’s Harp.

In addition to his writing, Potok served as the editor of the Jewish Publication Society of America for eight years before taking on a different role there as the special-projects editor. Potok taught at numerous colleges and universities.

Chaim Potok died on July 23, 2002–14 Av 5762.

This Treat was originally posted on July 23, 2012.