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Chaim Potok

Chaim Potok was born in 1929 in the Bronx, New York. He was the oldest of four children in his family. Like Reuven Malter in The Chosen, Potok was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household and attended a yeshiva, a Jewish religious school. His parents were Polish immigrants who had strong ties to Hasidism. In an interview Potok said, "I prayed in a little shtiebel [prayer room], and my mother is a descendant of a great Hasidic dynasty and my father was a Hasid, so I come from that world."

After reading Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited when he was a teenager, Potok decided to become a writer. Riveted by the world of upper-class British Catholics that Waugh brings to life in the novel, Potok realized for the first time that fiction had the power "to create worlds out of words on paper." His parents, his Talmud teachers, and his peers disapproved of his interest in writing fiction, however, because many fundamentalist Jews regarded the arts as a waste of time and a distraction from serious study. As Potok told an interviewer, his mother said, "You want to write stories? That's very nice. You be a brain surgeon, and on the side you write stories." To learn how to write, Potok carefully studied the novels of such writers as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain. Over a period of five years, he spent most of his free time reading the novels of great writers. At the same time, Potok began to pull away from Jewish fundamentalism. Convinced that the worlds of modern literature and Orthodox Judaism were incompatible, Potok embraced Conservative Judaism, a less restrictive form of the Jewish faith, while attending college.

Potok graduated from Yeshiva University in 1950 with a B.A. degree in English literature. In 1954 he earned an M.A. degree in Hebrew literature and received his rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. An ordained Conservative rabbi, Potok served as combat chaplain with the United States Army in Korea from 1955 to 1957. After spending a year in Israel working on his doctoral dissertation, Potok earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania in 1965.

Potok's first published novel, The Chosen, and his subsequent novels reflect much of his own life, from the realistic portraits of New York's Jewish communities that he knew as a child to his deep commitments to scholarship and Judaism. Regarding the relationship between his life and his writing, Potok has commented: "The novel is, among other things, the record of a mirror held up to life-a mirror of a peculiar sort, one that contains the unique warps and the silver backing of a single lived life, the strange and risky life of the novelist. It is his private mirror."