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As a doctor of philosophy, a rabbi, and a biblical commentator, Chaim Potok (1929-2002) had a lot to say. He would often wake at four or five in the morning, driven to wakefulness–because, he would say, of the sentences in his head. But foremost among his talents, Potok was a writer. Often his most profound thoughts and arguments would come not from his own mouth, but from the mouths of his fictional characters.
Over his lifetime, Potok authored eight novels, a number of short stories and novellas, and three children’s books. His most famous works included The Chosen, The Promise, My Name Is Asher Lev, Davita’s Harp, and I Am the Clay. He was also the author of a nonfiction book, Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews, and many works of Torah commentary.
Potok was born into an Orthodox family in New York, the eldest of four children. His parents were both immigrants from Poland whose life in Brooklyn was not so different from the Old World shtetl they had left behind.
After high school, Potok attended Yeshiva University. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English literature, going against the wishes of his family, who expected Chaim to become a teacher in a yeshiva.
Potok soon became disenchanted with the Orthodox world, finding Yeshiva University intellectually stifling. He went on to earn both his master’s degree and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative institution, and subsequently served as the editor of Conservative Judaism magazine.
In 1965, at the age of 36, he moved temporarily to Jerusalem with his family to write a dissertation for his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. There, he dabbled in fiction, writing his thesis in the afternoons and a novel– about New York City–in the mornings. After he concluded his doctoral work, the Potoks returned to America, and Chaim began to seek a publisher for his just-completed book: The Chosen.
Chosen for Greatness
Published in 1967, it became a bestselling phenomenon, birthing a sequel (Potok’s next novel, The Promise), a major motion picture, and a deluge of critical praise.
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