In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestled with an angel and emerged as Israel, “He who struggles.” In the 20th-21st century, Western Jews spend a great amount of energy wrestling with the world of tradition and the demands of the modern world. Few writers have portrayed this inner conflict of the American Jewish community as engagingly as Chaim Potok (1929-2002), a man who lived this struggle himself.
Herman Harold Potok was born in The Bronx, NY. His family was not-quite Chassidic and Chaim Tzvi, as he was called, spent his childhood learning in Yeshiva. As a boy, Potok was interested in art, particularly painting. Hearing only discouraging words from his family, however, he turned his creativity to words.
Potok graduated suma cum laude with a B.A. in English Literature from Yeshiva University (1950), received rabbinic ordination and a Masters in Chassidic Literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (1954) and a PhD in Philosophy from University of Pennsylvania (1965). Although he never held a rabbinic post, he served as a U.S. Combat Chaplain in Korea.
In addition to his writing, Potok served as the editor of the Jewish Publication Society of America for eight years before taking on a different role there as the special-projects editor. Potok taught at numerous colleges and universities.
Chaim Potok died on July 23, 2002--14 Av 5762.