His Judaism, and his dissatisfaction with it, formed the cornerstone of his stories.
More than Just a Jewish Writer
Though his books can be considered their own subgenre of Jewish fiction, Potok was reluctant to stay within his boundaries. I Am the Clay (1992) tells the story of a Korean family that adopts an orphan to replace their dead child. Davita's Harp (1985) is historical fiction about intermarriage, religious devotion, and Communism in 1930s New York, and, unlike all of Potok's other novels, features a woman as its central protagonist. Though successful and critically praised, these later books failed to have the widespread appeal and staying power of Potok's earlier novels.
Potok was also a painter, producing Chagall-like portraits of dreamlike Jewish ritual scenes and animals. This, too, never quite reached the mass audience of his Jewish fiction. Potok's painting career somewhat paralleled the journey of Asher Lev: a young man, very creative and very religious, who didn't fit with his community. "I began to paint when I was about nine or ten years old," Potok once said in an interview. "It really became a problem in my family, especially with my father, who detested it." Potok even painted a Brooklyn Crucifixion of his own, resembling the painting in his novel.
As an academic and a rabbi, Potok was also deeply involved in textual commentary and interpretation. In 1965, he was appointed Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Publication Society. Though he resigned from that position in 1974, he served in a freelance capacity as "Special Projects Editor," encouraging and editing projects--among them the pshat commentary for the popular Rabbinical Assembly Torah commentary, Etz Hayim.
Potok struggled with religious Judaism, but also remained committed to it, and left behind a legacy of Torah commentary as great in scope and content as his fiction. He was not afraid to question tradition. But he also was not afraid, as he did in his Torah commentary and his non-fiction, to embrace it.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.