Frequently Asked Questions

 

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Was The Chosen the original name of the book?

Apparently not. In the fall 1966 issue of American Judaism is a story entitled The Cats of 37 Alfasi Street by Chaim Potok. The editorial statement about the author is as follows: "editor for the Jewish Publication Society of America. His novel A Space for Silence, will be published in the spring of 1967 by Simon and Schuster."

Was Potok in the movie "The Chosen?"

Yes, he had a cameo role as a professor in a scene at the time of the announcement that a former student had been killed in Israel.
Why was Rav Gershenson's name not in the school catalogue?
Potok answered Jason Harville as follows: "The fact that Rav Gershenson's name was not in the school catalogue meant that he had never published. Why would a scholar like Rav Gershenson never have written anything? Reuven assumes it's because Rav Gershenson is afraid to write and publish. Rav Gershenson said (in the previous scene) that he favors the scientific method of study, but the school opposes it. Rav Gershenson will not write without using it (that would be hypocritical and bad scholarship) and cannot publish using it. But Reuven's father uses the method routinely in his scholarly writings. Hence Reuven's father could never teach in that school."

Were The Chosen and The Promise originally written as a single work and then divided?

In a chapter for Studies in American Jewish Literature, number 4 (1985), edited by Daniel Walden, Potok writes, "For the record: The Promise was not the second half of The Chosen. All of it was written after The Chosen was published. In a closet in my home there are about eleven hundred pages of discarded typescript that went into writing the first fifty-some-odd pages of The Promise. For many reasons, almost all of the technical, that was an especially difficult book to write. The parts of The Chosen that my editor and I cut from the original manuscript have not been and never will be published." (p. 100-101)

Much writing has an autobiographical aspect. With which character in his books does Potok most closely identify himself?

Asher Lev -- In response to a question from Jerry Gladson
Marios Koufaris writes, "I had the pleasure to take a seminar with Chaim Potok at the University of Pennsylvania on Post modernism. One of the books we read was My name is Asher Lev. Being an artist on the side myself I was transfixed by the power this man's talent had over him. Reading this book one can't help but believe in destiny. Potok can tell an interesting story while delving deep into the human soul. A central point to the novel is a painting called A Brooklyn Crucifixion. On the last class, Chaim Potok had everyone at his house for brunch and when I walked in, what did I see hanging on the wall but the "Brooklyn Crucifixion" painted by Potok himself! Seeing how personal this book was to him made it even more special to me."
Potok adds, "I painted [it] at the same time I was writing the final chapters of My Name Is Asher Lev, back in the early 70's."

A copy of the painting is included in the section of this website entitled "Chaim Potok the Artist." (It was still on the wall when I visited Mrs. Potok in July of 2003)

In Elaine Kauvar's interview Potok says, "My Characters tend to be loners, and they tend to be alienated intellectually. To be entirely candid about it, they are extensions of my own being, because I grew up very much involved in the world of the mind, and in the worlds of art and literature. Each of these characters, with the exception of Davita, is really, I suppose, a different aspect of myself and a reflection of my fundamental interests."

Norwegian student Tonje Viken asks, "Were the novels about Asher Lev in any way inspired by the life of the painter Marc Chagall?"

Here's a partial answer.

In Walden (1985), Potok writes, "Again, for the record: Chaim Gross, whom I dearly love, was not the model for Jakob Kahn in My Name is Asher Lev, The model--in part--was Jacques Lipchitz." (P. 101). . .
"Kremer has touched deeply on a matter of significance with regard to the connections between My Name is Asher Lev and Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man. Those mythic tonalities--myth here in the sense of stories taken up and passed from author to author in different versions--were not consciously wrought by me. But Kremer's words ring so true that I cannot help but believe either that Portrait, which was almost as much a part of my growing up as were the Bible and Talmud, is resident in the deepest springs of my being". . .(p. 101)
Does Potok plan to write another book featuring Asher Lev?
In a response to an e-mail question from student Cole Caruso, Potok writes, "I hope to write a third Asher Lev book."

In Davita's Harp, Davita was denied academic honors in favor of a male. Is this true to life?

It happened to Adena Potok! -- In response to a question at Southern College and mentioned in an interview with Barry Vogel for Radio Curious, February 1997.

Does the Potok home have a door harp?

Yes, in fact, two. -- Mentioned in an interview with Barry Vogel for Radio Curious, February 1997.

How does one interpret the symbols in Davita's Harp?

Note the following quotation found in Elaine Kauver's interview with Potok in Contemporary Literature XXVII (1986). "Davita's Harp is about the utilization of the human imagination as a way of coming to terms with unbearable reality. Every time Davita confronts something unbearable, she restructures it through the power of imagination. Finally at the end of the novel when she suffers this terrible indignity, she restructures the graduation ceremony by having her uncle, her father, and her aunt there along with everything that she has imagined. All the metaphors of her imagination are present in the last scene--the birds, the horses, the sea, the cabin. So you have this seesawing back-and-forth between reality that's unbearable and the imagination that tries to rethink reality."

Is I Am the Clay a rewriting of Potok's first unpublished novel?

It is not.

Michael Cusick writes, "In my interview he told me that he had to write Wanderings before he wrote Book of Lights in order for him to know his roots as a Jew. Knowing his roots as a Jew then allowed him to know his roots as an American and how that fact conflicted with the reality of Korea. In his words, Book of Lights is a look at Asian culture from without, and I Am the Clay was written from within Asian culture, as a follow up to both The Book of Lights and Wanderings."

Does Potok have any plans to write novels continuing the stories of individuals previously introduced?

In a personal communication to Andy S, Potok writes, "Yes, I hope to continue the story of Ilana Davita and to finish the story of Asher Lev."

What were the early literary influences on Potok?

Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man.

Note the following which is taken from Potok's foreword to the 1996 edition of Milton Steinberg's As a Driven Leaf. "It did not take me long to realize that there was a story in the novel, a gripping story. But as I read it that first time, I found myself becoming slowly convinced that the novel was far more than a mere story, that its central drama--a conflict between religious and pagan ideas, between faith and reason, between postulates of creed and science. . .was emblematic not only of all Jewish history but probably of Milton Steinberg himself. . .[N]othing I ever heard or read before was able to bring the world of rabbis so vividly to life for me as Milton Steinberg's novel. Perhaps more important--at that point in my life, I too was caught up in a conflict of ideas, much of it inchoate, and As a Driven Leaf began to give it form."

 

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© 2004 by William M. Allen
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