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Chaim Potok

Confronting Modernity Through the Lens of Tradition

Edited by Daniel Walden

Publication Year: 2013

Chaim Potok was a world-class writer and scholar, a Conservative Jew who wrote from and about his tradition and his conflicts between observance and acculturation. With a plain, straightforward style, his novels were set against the moral, spiritual and intellectual currents of the twentieth century. The aim of the collection is to widen further the lens through which we read Chaim Potok, to establish him as an authentic American writer, one who has created unforgettable characters forging for themselves American identities while also retaining their Jewish nature. These essays illuminate the central struggle in Potok’s novels, the struggle resulting from a profound desire to reconcile the appeal of modernity with the pull of traditional Judaism. The volume concludes with a memoir by Adena Potok and Chaim Potok’s “My Life as a Writer,” a speech the author gave at Penn State in 1982. Aside from the editor, the contributors are Victoria Aarons, Nathan Devir, Jane Eisner, Susanne Klingenstein, Lillian Kremer, Jessica Lang, Sanford Marovitz, Kathryn McClymond, Hugh Nissenson, Adena Potok, Chaim Potok, and Jonathan Rosen.

Published by: Penn State University Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7

Table of Contents

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pp. vi-viii

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pp. ix-x

I would like to thank all those who worked with me for more than thirty-six years to make Studies in American Jewish Literature the great journal it became, and to acknowledge that that work helped prepare me for this volume on Chaim Potok. I wish to thank the contributors to this book, who stayed with me through the years. I also thank all those at the Pennsylvania State Univer-...

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pp. xi-xix

Chaim Potok was a world-class writer and scholar, a Conservative Jew who wrote from and about his tradition and the conflicts between observance and acculturation. With a plain, straightforward style, his novels were set against the moral, spiritual, and intellectual currents of the twentieth century. His characters thought about modernity and wrestled with the core-to-core cul-...

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PART 1: The Novels

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pp. 1-23

The essays in this part of the book approach Chaim Potok’s novels from a scholarly and critical perspective, situating them within the context of Jewish American literature and analyzing the historical and cultural influences on Potok’s writing. The authors consider the struggles and conflicts in the novels that arise from the confrontation of modernity and traditional Judaism, and ...

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Chapter 1: The Chosen: Defining American Judaism

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pp. 3-19

Like many Americans, I first read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen as an adolescent. High school and college programs across the country assign this novel because it describes two young men “coming of age” during a dramatic and pivotal moment in Jewish and global history. These are important elements of the story, but I’ve come to appreciate other dimensions of this novel—dimensions that speak more directly...

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Chapter 2: The Three-Pronged Dialectic: Understanding Conflict in Potok’s Early Fiction

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pp. 20-29

While the liveliest and most sharply depicted conflicts in Chaim Potok’s earliest novels, The Chosen (1967) and its sequel, The Promise (1969), depend largely on dialectical forces playing themselves out, the more significant struggle introduced in the first novel and brought to a fraught climax in the second is far less dramatically positioned and, consequently, more elusive and difficult ...

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Chapter 3: Guardians of the Torah: Ambiguity and Antagonism in The Promise

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pp. 30-46

Chaim Potok’s multilayered novel The Promise is at once the story of an adolescent boy’s descent into psychosis and the stage for an ideological battle within Judaism, a “theological loyalty test” that shakes the very foundation of belief and reaches well beyond the walls of the academy to threaten the lives of those most vulnerable.1 The Promise, published in 1969 and recipient of the ...

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Chapter 4: Daedalus Redeemed: Asher Lev’s Journey from Rebellion to Rapprochement

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pp. 47-57

Some of the preeminent novelists of earlier centuries and of our time, includ-ing Henry James, Franz Kafk a, Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud, have explored the aesthetic and ethical reaches of artists’ lives and work. Oft en it is the troubled artist—misunderstood, unap-preciated, and alienated from society—who has garnered the writers’ atten-...

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Chapter 5: Davita’s harp: The Silence of Violence and the Limits of the Imagination

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pp. 58-79

Davita’s Harp occupies an interesting place in Chaim Potok’s oeuvre. Along with his nonfiction work Theo Tobiasse: Artist in Exile (1986), it marks the precise middle of his writing career. Davita’s Harp appeared in 1985, eighteen years after Potok’s first novel, The Chosen, catapulted the author to fame and seventeen years before his death in 2002. It is his sixth work of fiction and his ...

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Chapter 6: The Book of Lights: A Book of Choices

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pp. 80-96

Two primary sources of illumination radiate at the center of The Book of Lights. One is mystical, drawn from the Zohar, or the Book of Splendor: “the Holy One,” “eyn sof,” “the Infinite,” “the Supreme Cause.”1 The other is physical: the atom bomb, the “Death light.”2 All lights apart from those two sources in Chaim Potok’s fifth novel, including the sun, are fiery emanations, sym-...

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Chapter 7: History and Responsibility: An Assessment of Potok’s “Non-Jewish” I Am the Clay

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pp. 97-116

I Am the Clay, a fictional account of the humanitarian crises unleashed by the chaos of the Korean War (1950–53), was both the first and last novel that Chaim Potok wrote. Potok started the original manuscript in 1956, when he was serving as a U.S. Army chaplain in Korea. The finished product, which differs considerably from the initial manuscript, was first published in Dutch ...

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PART 2: Looking Back: Memories of Potok

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pp. 117-139

The essays in this part of the book reflect upon Chaim Potok’s life and work from a more personal perspective. These are the remembrances of those who knew him—friends, fellow writers, and his wife, Adena Potok. The section opens with three eulogies delivered at a memorial service for Potok in December 2002; these essays were printed and distributed for that occasion and have ...

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Chapter 8: Choosing the Chosen: A Reappraisal of The Chosen

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pp. 119-127

During the summer of 1973, just before the Yom Kippur War, Chaim Potok and I attended a conference of Israeli and American writers in Jerusalem. Late one afternoon, Chaim and I went for a cup of coffee at a café on King George Street. An old man, sipping a glass of tea alone at a table by the window, reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” ...

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Chapter 9: A Zwischenmensch (“Between Person”) in the Cultures

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pp. 128-133

Born in 1929 in the Bronx, New York—his father, Benjamin Potok, a Belzer Hasid and his mother, Molly, a descendant of the Hasidic Ryzner dynasty—Chaim Tzvi grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Attending a cheder, a primary Jewish parochial school, his interest in and talent for painting came to the fore when one summer his ...

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Chapter 10: Chaim Potok and the Question of jewish Writing

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pp. 134-140

In the late 1980s, I was a graduate student in English literature at the University of California, Berkeley. My first summer there I took an intensive German course and made friends with a fellow student, a young man who was studying to be a priest. He had passed all his requirements for the priesthood except for his “final vows,” which would seal his lifelong marriage to the church....

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Chapter 11: Chaim Potok: A Literary Biography

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pp. 145-147

Shortly after the child Chaim Potok configured letters into words, he became entranced with the world of books and read everything in English and Hebrew he could find. Yiddish was his mother tongue, but it remained for him an oral language. He began to make up stories, which usually took shape at the end of the day after all school and other obligations had been ...

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Chapter 12: Chaim Potok Is No Longer with Us, but His Lessons Remain

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pp. 145-147

On February 17, Chaim Potok, the novelist, scholar, painter and playwright whom I was privileged to call a dear friend, would have turned 80 years old. In the spring of 2002, he and I sat down for a series of interviews in the book-lined library of his home near Philadelphia. My Tuesdays with Chaim, we used By then, brain cancer had noticeably affected his speech and thought pat-...

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Chapter 13: Adena Potok on I Am the Clay

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pp. 148-159

...think part of the reason is that when Chaim first came on the scene as a novelist, he broke ground in a very radical way. Before him, there had not been a Jewish American writer who wrote from the depths of the Jewish world, with no apologies. He didn’t romanticize; he didn’t castigate. He presented. He presented a world, and it caught on. He was the most surprised that The Chosen took off in...

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Chapter 14: Chaim Potok: My Life as a Writer

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pp. 160-174

Thank you very much for the kind invitation to be with you here this evening. I’m especially grateful to the very nice people who hosted me at dinner this Let me try to use the very brief time that we have together to tell you something about the background of the books that I have thus far written. Try to present to you the invisible scaffolding that holds the books together. ...

List of Contributors

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pp. 175-176


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pp. 177-205

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p. 206-206

...“Daniel Walden’s Chaim Potok: Confronting Modernity Through the Lens of Tradition is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the crucial role played by Chaim Potok’s novels in examining the clash between modernity and faith. This skillfully edited work contains both critical essays and personal renullctions by leading Potok experts. The novelist was a personal friend of Waldennulland this ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780271061047
Print-ISBN-13: 9780271059815
Print-ISBN-10: 0271059818

Page Count: 176
Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Potok, Chaim -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Judaism and literature -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Jewish fiction -- History and criticism.
  • Jews in literature.
  • Modernism (Literature).
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