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.
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.
"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 told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2002.
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.
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. 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 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.
He was born Herman Harold Potok in the Bronx, 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 2000 speech 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 Penn, where he received a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1965.
In addition to his wife of 44 years, survivors include daughters Rena and Naama, and son Akiva.
NOVELS BY CHAIM POTOK
Works by Chaim Potok:
The Chosen, 1967.
The Promise, 1969.
My Name Is Asher Lev, 1972.
In the Beginning, 1975.
The Book of Lights, 1981.
Davita's Harp, 1985.
The Gift of Asher Lev, 1990.
I Am the Clay, 1992.
Old Men at Midnight (3 novellas), 2001.
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