Best-Selling Author Chaim Potok Dies

A member of Special Forces training at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. CBS

Author Chaim Potok, whose Orthodox Jewish upbringing inspired "The Chosen" and other novels that became best-sellers among readers of many faiths, died Tuesday. He was 73.

Potok, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2000, died at his home in suburban Merion, Pennsylvania, said Sharon Stunacher, executive director of Potok's synagogue, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El.

Potok, who counted James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh and Ernest Hemingway among the authors who most inspired him, recalled that teachers at his Jewish parochial school were displeased with his taking time away from studying the Talmud by reading literature.

As a result, Potok's novels often illustrate the conflict between the spiritual and secular worlds. "The Chosen," published in 1967 and Potok's first and best-known novel, follows the friendship between two Jewish boys from different religious backgrounds and was made into a film and an off-Broadway play.

"I knew that I would be a writer, that I would write from within the tradition. And that meant that I had to know the tradition from inside out. And that I needed to know the tradition without being blinded by it," Potok said in an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2002.

"The Chosen" and many of Potok's other novels were popular among readers of all faiths but received mixed reviews. Some critics praised Potok's novels as subtle and profound looks at Jewish culture, yet others found his prose simplistic and his plots underdeveloped.

However, "The Chosen" earned the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, and its sequel published in 1969, "The Promise," won the Athenaem Prize. His 1972 novel, "My Name Is Asher Lev," explored the conflicts faced by an Orthodox Jew who becomes a painter.

Potok also wrote plays, children's literature, nonfiction, and short stories. In 1999, he received an O. Henry Award for the short story "Moon."

After five novels, Potok researched and wrote his first nonfiction book, "Wanderings: Chaim Potok's Story of the Jews," which traced Jewish history back to the family of Abraham 4,000 years ago.

Potok also assisted the late violinist Isaac Stern with his autobiography, "My First Seventy-nine Years."

He was born Herman Harold Potok in the Bronx, New York, the eldest son of Jewish immigrants from Poland. Raised in the Orthodox tradition, Potok embraced Conservative Judaism as a young adult and was eventually ordained a Conservative rabbi in 1954.

His literary aspirations were discouraged by his family. In a speech in 2000 at the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater, Potok recalled that when he told his mother of his desire to be a writer, she replied, "You want to write stories, darling? That's very nice. You'll be a brain surgeon. On the side you'll write stories."

Potok graduated from Yeshiva University in 1950 with a degree in English, then attended the Jewish Theological Seminary and was ordained a rabbi four years later. He served as an Army chaplain during the Korean War and in 1959 enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1965.

He also was editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society of America, where he later became special projects editor, and had taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College and Johns Hopkins University.

He is survived by his wife of 44 years, Adena Sarah Mosevitzky, daughters Rena and Naama, and son Akiva.

By Joann Loviglio
  • Lloyd Vries

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