This month’s arts history lesson is a particularly timely one. In mid-January, the University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library made headlines after receiving the papers of Rabbi Chaim Potok. “It’s an honor for us to curate the papers of Chaim Potok,” Carton Rogers, Vice Provost and Director of the Penn Libraries, said at the time. “His publications have had a widespread impact on generations of students and researchers, and we are looking forward to opening his unpublished works to that same audience.”
And so begins our March history lesson on Chaim Potok, the writer, philosopher, painter, scholar and beloved Penn alumnus and professor whose papers (including correspondence, writings, lectures, sermons, clippings, promotional material, memorabilia, and fan mail) are now housed in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, available for viewing in its reading room during normal business hours.
Herman Harold Potok (Hebrew name “Chaim”) was born in the Bronx on February 17, 1929, to proud parents–and Hasidic eastern European immigrants–Benjamin Max and Mollie. Chaim was a gifted drawer and painter, and began writing fiction at age 16. (He submitted a story to The Atlantic Monthly the following year, and though it wasn’t published, he received a note from an editor asking if he was writing a novel.)
Despite his promise in the arts, Potok’s parent’s didn’t consider writing or painting ways to make a decent living. In fact, he later recalled his mother telling him: “You want to write stories? That’s very nice. You be a brain surgeon, and on the side you write stories.” As he told the New York Times in 1988: ”I grew up, as I’m fond of saying, in a Hasidic world without the beard and the earlocks. It was a very Orthodox world. My father was a Hasidic Jew. He shaved off the beard when he came to the United States in the early 20’s. My mother is a descendant of one of the great Hasidic dynasties. She is a direct descendant of one of the sons of the founder of the dynasty. So, it was a very Orthodox, traditional home, and I went to yeshivas all my childhood.”
Potok eventually managed to reconcile his heritage and his passion, studying English literature at Yeshiva University–and graduating summa cum laude in 1950–then earning a masters degree in Hebrew literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary. The Seminary also ordained him as a rabbi.
After two years as an Army chaplain in Korea–an experience that later provided inspiration for two novels–Potok obtained a Ph.D. in philosophy from Penn in 1965, studying 18th-century Jewish philosopher Solomon Maimon. His first novel, The Chosen, followed two years later, receiving the Edward Lewis Wallant Memorial Book Award and becoming a National Book Award finalist. It illuminated the Hasidic world in which Chaim himself had grown up, as seen through two Jewish boys whose families’ approaches to religion are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Potok went on to write novels, short stories, plays, essays, reviews, editorials and non-fiction works, many of which centered on the conflict of whether to abandon close-knit Jewish communities for the larger, secular world.
But it wasn’t only his writing that left a mark on people; from 1993-2001, Chaim taught a seminar at Penn on Postmodernism. His former student D.S. Neil Van Leeuwen C’00 paid tribute to Chaim the Teacher in the Jan./Feb. 2003 issue of the Gazette:
He listened seriously to his students and prodded them into further thought with laconic answers to their questions. Clad in a tweed sports coat with a shirt buttoned to the top and not tie, he was intimidating at first and often made cryptic statements that only began to make sense by the end of the semester, such as ‘never trust the written word.
But Chaim’s unique approach to teaching eventually became clear, Leeuwen wrote, as “the seminar evolved from its initial lecture format into an interaction between the students, Potok, and the texts”–and by the end of the course, “many students felt changed by what they learned.”
Potok died in 2002, bequeathing his papers to the University of Pennsylvania Libraries. Among the collection, which arrived at the University in January of this year, are glimpses into Potok’s writing process, from handwritten ideas and drafts to annotated typescripts to galleys. Other documents offer insight into his service as an Army chaplain, his role as a rabbi and his work at the Jewish Publication Society, where he served as editor in chief from 1969-1974.
Please send me your images or videos from Penn’s arts-related past. (The not-so-distant past is welcome, too.) Just be sure to include the year, along with a brief description: firstname.lastname@example.org.