Wednesday, July 24, 2002
Philadelphia Chaim Potok, the rabbi-turned-author whose Orthodox upbringing inspired "The Chosen" and other best-selling novels that explored the clash between religious and secular life, died Tuesday of brain cancer. He was 73.
Potok, who had recently been dictating a novel to his wife, was diagnosed in April 2000. He died of the disease at his suburban Merion home, his wife, Adena, said.
Like Herman Wouk, Potok was highly regarded within the Jewish community, but less so within the general literary community, especially compared to more secular Jewish-American authors such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.
However, his storytelling was popular among readers of many faiths.
"He created an American stream that really didn't exist before. He wrote directly from the interior of the Jewish theological experience, rather than from the social experience. And they were best sellers," the novelist Cynthia Ozick told The Associated Press. "The main point here is that here's somebody who wrote Jewish theological fiction that everybody read."
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.
Potok's novels often illustrate the conflict between 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.
It was made into a movie in 1982 starring Robby Benson as the young man from Brooklyn who breaks out of the Hassidic world through his interest in psychology. It also was made into an off-Broadway play.
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 Athenaeum Prize.
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 History of the Jews," which traced Jewish history to the patriarch Abraham 4,000 years ago.
Potok also assisted the late violinist Isaac Stern with his autobiography, "My First Seventy-nine Years."