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Obituaries

Chaim Potok, 73; Chronicler of Jewish Life

July 24, 2002|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chaim Potok, an ordained rabbi and best-selling novelist whose fiction often probed the dueling personal and spiritual demands of the Jewish faith versus the values of secular American society, died Tuesday at his home in suburban Philadelphia. He was 73 and had been diagnosed with cancer in 2000.

While steeped in the spiritual traditions of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, Potok drew liberally on the literary traditions and worldviews of many other cultures. In fact, it was his youthful encounter with two novels deeply rooted in issues of Catholicism, Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited" and James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," that inspired him to write fiction himself.

Potok succinctly stated his view of literature's mind-expanding value in a 1997 interview with the Mars Hill Review. "Literature presents you with alternative mappings of the human experience," he said. "You see that the experiences of other people and other cultures are as rich, coherent and troubled as your own experiences. They are as beset with suffering as yours. Literature is a kind of legitimate voyeurism through the keyhole of language, where you really come to know other people's lives--their anguish, their loves, their passions."

It was this ability to empathize with and project himself into other cultures and historical circumstances, along with his formidable storytelling gifts, that helped Potok attract large international audiences of many faiths. From his breakthrough and best-known novel "The Chosen" (1967) through eight more novels, short stories, plays and children's fiction, Potok synthesized his broad learning and experience into works that bore a profoundly humanist stamp.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 27, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 83 words Type of Material: Correction
Potok novel--The obituary Wednesday of writer Chaim Potok called his "The Book of Lights" a work of nonfiction. It is a novel.

And although that secular quality upset some Jewish readers and scandalized some members of the Jewish press, many other readers and critics applauded Potok's fearlessness and skill in exploring the internal fissures in modern Jewish life and belief.

For many non-Jewish readers, his work provided a vivid introduction to Jewish life in the post-World War II period, to its daily joys and familial rites that could be alternately enriching and smothering.

Those conflicts provide the central motif in "The Chosen," whose hero, Danny Saunders, discovers a rich, complex world beyond the confines of his Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in 1940s Brooklyn. Nominated for a National Book Award, the work was made into an acclaimed 1981 film starring Rod Steiger, Maximilian Schell and Robby Benson. A few years later the novel was adapted into a Broadway musical starring George Hearn and Gerald Hiken, with book by Potok, music by Philip Springer and lyrics by Mitchell Bernard. A play based on "The Chosen" will have its West Coast premiere Sept. 12-Oct. 13 at the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica, in a production of the Los Angeles Repertory Company and the West Coast Jewish Theatre.

Born Feb. 17, 1929, in the Bronx, N.Y., Herman Harold Potok was the son of businessman Benjamin Max Potok and Mollie Friedman Potok, immigrants from Poland. He was fond of saying that he grew up in a Hasidic world without "the beard and the earlocks." He later changed his first name to Chaim.

Potok said his father had wanted him to be a professor of the Talmud in a yeshiva. When he told his mother that he wanted to become a writer, she said that was fine--as long as he was a brain surgeon who wrote stories on the side.

An excellent student, Potok received his bachelor's degree summa cum laude in English literature from Yeshiva University in 1950. He was ordained a rabbi in 1954 at the Jewish Theological Seminary and in 1965 earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. He also served as an Army chaplain on the front lines during the Korean War, a life-altering experience that would later find its way into his fiction.

Personal and cultural dislocation was a recurring theme in Potok's work. It occupied a central place in his early fiction, such as his controversial 1972 novel "My Name Is Asher Lev," in which a Jewish artist infuriates his community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, when he decides to paint Crucifixion scenes, hoping to discover a visual syntax to express his mother's suffering. Finding no such imagery in his own Jewish faith, with its historic ban on iconography as a form of idolatry, he turns to Christian symbolism instead: the Crucifixion, the madonna and the Annunciation.

In a 1978 interview with Christianity Today, Potok explained that for the book's artist protagonist, the Crucifixion has "no religious significance" but is "an aesthetic vessel," a "form," a "motif" that the artist "fills with his own being."

He often compared the historical state of Jewishness with the existential condition of the writer: simultaneously at home in the world and yet always exiled from it, a citizen of his or her community, but also a perpetual wanderer of the globe.

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