Johns Hopkins Gazette: November 14, 1994

Potok Has Chosen to Create Worlds from Words
By Mike Field

     Born in the Bronx to Polish immigrants just months
before the start of the Great Depression, Chaim Potok grew up
in an Orthodox Jewish home where his businessman father, "a
great admirer of the capitalist system," discouraged his
son's early aptitude for painting in favor of a more
practical occupation. Potok received rabbinic ordination in
1954 and a doctorate in Western philosophy in 1965, but,
other than a two-year stint as a chaplain on the front lines
in Korea, he chose not to make religion his avocation. 
     Instead, he turned his talents to writing. In 1967 he
published The Chosen, a novel that examined value systems in
conflict and won Potok a worldwide audience. Seven other
major novels have followed, including The Promise and My Name
Is Asher Lev. 
     This fall, Potok joined the Writing Seminars program as
a visiting professor, where he teaches an undergraduate
course in fiction writing.

Q:        I've read that in 1945 at the age of 15 or 16 you
read Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and decided to
become a writer. Is this story true?

Potok:    It was after I read Brideshead Revisited and soon
afterwards read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Those two did it to me.

Q:        Brideshead Revisited was not the novel I would have
initially thought would have propelled you to commence

Potok:    I think it was the writing. I think it was also the
realization that you could really create the world out of
language. I was a very orthodox Jewish boy. I figured if
these writers could get me to be interested in two different
Catholic worlds that there was something about this form of
communication that I wanted to be part of. That it captivated
me the way it did, that it worked its magic on me, made me
realize how powerful this medium is. And I wanted to become
part of it.

Q:        Can you teach writing?

Potok:    Somebody who does not have basic talent cannot be
taught writing. Somebody who has talent can have his or her
writing improved through the learning of technique.

Q:        When you say technique, are you talking basic

Potok:    Structuring.

Q:        Was teaching in the back of your mind always, or
was it something you came to?

Potok:    It was never in the back of my mind. I never wanted
just to teach. I got a rabbinic ordination so that I could
know my own tradition better because I knew I wanted to write
about it. And I went and got a doctorate in secular
philosophy because I wanted to know Western civilization
better, because I knew I wanted to write about that. I taught
school all along, until it was possible for me to then
concentrate solely on the writing. I do this now, this
teaching, to keep myself in touch with younger people and
with the newer thinking that's going on, which you can find
in academic circles, much easier, probably, than you can
anywhere else.

Q:        You actually wrote your first published novel, The
Chosen, in Jerusalem. 

Potok:    That's right. I was working on my doctorate,
finishing it in Jerusalem because two of the people I needed
to work with were at the Hebrew University. And that same
year that I was working on my doctorate I wrote The Chosen.

Q:        Back and forth? You'd set one down and you'd pick
the other up?

Potok:    I wrote The Chosen in the morning and my doctorate
in the afternoon.

Q:        Did you prefer writing one to the other?

Potok:    Actually no, I thought they were two very
interesting and very different experiences.

Q:        You said the reason you went to rabbinical school
was to find out about yourself. Was the thought in your mind
that you were going to be writing about this?

Potok:    Well I knew that I was going to write. What else
did I know to write about? I knew I was going to write about
something Jewish and something American. I mean that's what I
was. I wanted to know my subject better. I learned a lot
about the gritty side of life in the Army, I wanted to learn
about the creative, the core of Western culture, and I did
that by doing a doctorate in philosophy.

Q:        Are there certain issues that you are trying to
figure out when you write, or is the writing more just an
innate process and these issues come to the surface?

Potok:    The Chosen was an intuitive process. I was dealing
with something that troubled me a great deal, and that is,
what happens when two idea systems collide inside human
beings? Both seem at times to be inherently valid. And both
are at times contradictory. It was only after I finished and
published The Chosen and got reaction to it--letters from
everywhere and all kinds of people--that I began to realize
that I was not the only one going through these experiences.
What I'm trying to explore is how people react when things
that are very dear to them are challenged by alternate ways
of structuring the human experience.

Q:        You paint as well as write.

Potok:    Actually, I began to paint when I was about 9 or 10
years old. It really became a problem in my family,
especially with my father, who detested it.

Q:        Why?

Potok:    Well, he thought it was a gentile enterprise. He
couldn't connect to it. He was very religious.

Q:        Did you have to paint on the sly?

Potok:   Oh no, there was no sly to paint on in our apartment
in New York, and it became increasingly problematic as I was
growing up. And then I think what I did was I shifted the
hunger to create from painting to writing, which is much more
accepted in the Jewish tradition.

Q:   Do the results differ from what you expected at the

Potok:    You dream of the accidents. You pray for them. You
hope for the accidents. In other words, the unanticipated
moves: Because what that means is that the piece that you're
creating is alive, it's like a child full of surprises. If
it's not suddenly making its own demands and is only lying
there inert, your best bet is to walk away from it and start
something else.

Q:   The last two books you've written are children's books.

Potok:     I think it is very important to deal with the
fears of children. In so many ways that's where our problems
begin. One of the primary terrors in our society is the
terror that results from the very nature of our society. We
are a mobile society. The dream of America is to move up the
economic ladder. Every move vertically involves a move
horizontally, because if you get a better job and you move up
that vertical ladder economically, you're going to trade your
house for another house--horizontally. You're going to move
from one kind of house to another kind to match the economic
move. Your child is moving too. Nearly every move to a child
is a terrifying time. It's by the way also very stressful for
adults. The Tree of Here is about that fear. The next book
for children, The Sky of Now, is about the terror of falling.

Q:        Literally, like falling down steps?

Potok:    From heights. It's a sort of metaphor for what
happens when Americans become failed Americans. What do you
then do about flying?  Children's literature has always
fascinated me from the time that I myself was a child. I see
it as a great opportunity to communicate with young people.

     Chaim Potok will read from his works on Thursday, Nov.
17, at 8 p.m. in Homewood's Mudd Hall Auditorium.

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