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."