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Wednesday, 24 July, 2002, 00:24 GMT 01:24 UK
Novelist Chaim Potok dies
Chaim Potok
Potok was a prolific writer and scholar
American writer Chaim Potok, whose books popularised the oft-reclusive world of Jewish orthodoxy, has died at the age of 73.

He had been fighting brain cancer for the past two years.


His work was a real landmark in the Americanisation of Judaism and also in the Judaising of American culture

David Stern
University of Pennsylvania
Mr Potok was best known for his 1969 debut novel The Chosen, about the friendship between the son of a Hasidic rabbi and a secular Jewish boy in 1940s Brooklyn, New York.

The book was considered a seminal work, which opened up the closed world of Orthodox Judaism to a wide audience.

The Chosen was turned into a Hollywood film in 1981, and was followed by a sequel, The Promise, in 1969.

"His work was a real landmark in the Americanisation of Judaism and also in the Judaising of American culture," said David Stern, director of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Early talent

Chaim Potok was born Herman Harold Potok in 1929 in New York's Bronx district.

The son of immigrant Jewish parents, Mr Potok was sent to religious schools and developed a talent for writing at an early age.

His parents and teachers discouraged him from pursuing his creative outlet, fearing it was a distraction from his religious studies.

Mr Potok recalled his mother telling him as a child: "You want to write stories, darling? That's very nice. You'll be a brain surgeon. On the side you'll write stories."

Conflict of faith

Sceptical of the incompatibility of modern literature and Orthodox Judaism, Mr Potok embraced the reformist conservative Judaism, and in 1954 was ordained as a conservative rabbi.

He became a distinguished scholar and university lecturer, whose deep commitment to scholastic Judaism were reflected in his works.

"His novels were extraordinarily full of learning, almost like a curriculum in Jewish studies," said long-time friend Jeffrey Tigay.

In 1972, Mr Potok returned to the subject of Orthodox Judaism for a third time with the novel My Name is Asher Lev, the story of a young artist torn between tradition and community.

Despite his mass popularity, Mr Potok did not always find favour with the Orthodox Jewish community itself, which provided the backdrop to much of his writing.

Prolific works

Mr Potok was a prolific author who also wrote a number of children's books, plays, short stories and works of non-fiction.

In 1999, he received an O Henry Award for the short story The Moon.

Mr Potok was also an accomplished oil painter and photographer.

His last book, Old Men at Midnight, was published in October, 2001.

Mr Potok is survived by his wife, Adena, two daughters, a son and two grandchildren.

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