Herman Harold Potok was born in the Bronx, New York, to Benjamin Max (died 1958) and Mollie (née Friedman) Potok (died 1985), Jewish immigrants from Poland. He was the oldest of four children, all of whom either became or married rabbis. His Hebrew name was Chaim Tzvi (חיים צבי). He received an Orthodox Jewish education. After reading Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited as a teenager, he decided to become a writer (he often said that the novel Brideshead Revisited is what inspired his work and literature). He started writing fiction at the age of 16. At age 17 he made his first submission to the magazine The Atlantic Monthly. Although it wasn't published, he received a note from the editor complimenting his work.
In 1949, at the age of twenty, his stories were published in the literary magazine of Yeshiva University, which he also helped edit. In 1950, Potok graduated summa cum laude with a BA in English Literature.
After four years of study at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America he was ordained as a Conservative rabbi. He was appointed director of LTF, Leaders Training Fellowship, a youth organization affiliated with Conservative Judaism.
Potok met Adena Sara Mosevitzsky, a psychiatric social worker, at Camp Ramah in Ojai, California, where he served as camp director (1957–59). They were married on June 8, 1958, and had three children.
After receiving a master's degree in English literature, Potok enlisted with the U.S. Army as a chaplain. He served in South Korea from 1955 to 1957. He described his time in South Korea as a transformative experience. Brought up to believe that the Jewish people were central to history and God's plans, he experienced a region where there were almost no Jews and no anti-Semitism, yet whose religious believers prayed with the same fervor that he saw in Orthodox synagogues at home.
Upon his return, he joined the faculty of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and became the director of a Conservative Jewish summer camp affiliated with the Conservative movement, Camp Ramah. A year later he began his graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania and was appointed scholar-in-residence at Temple Har Zion in Philadelphia. In1973 the Potoks were at Camp Ramah in Nyack, New York - as instructors and taking on other activities. Also in 1963, he began a year in Israel, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Solomon Maimon and began to write a novel.
In 1964 Potok moved to Brooklyn. He became the managing editor of the magazine Conservative Judaism and joined the faculty of the Teachers’ Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The following year, he was appointed editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia and later, chairman of the publication committee. Potok received a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1970, Potok relocated to Jerusalem with his family. He returned to Philadelphia in 1977. After the publication of Old Men at Midnight, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. He died at his home in Merion, Pennsylvania on July 23, 2002, aged 73.
In 1967 Potok published his most critically praised novel, The Chosen, which won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award and was nominated for the National Book Award. Potok wrote a sequel to The Chosen in 1969 entitled The Promise, which details the issues of the value and identity between Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. This book won the Athenaeum Literary Award the same year of its publication. Not long afterward the Jewish Publication Society appointed him as its special projects editor. In 1972, he published My Name is Asher Lev, the story of a boy struggling with his relationship with his parents, religion and his love of art. In 1975, he published In the Beginning. From 1974 until his death, Potok served as a special projects editor for the Jewish Publication Society. During this time, Potok began translating the Hebrew Bible into English. In 1978 he published his non-fiction work, Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s Story of the Jews, a historical account of the Jews. Potok described his 1981 novel The Book of Lights as an account of his experiences in Asia during the war. He said “it reshaped the neat, coherent model of myself and my place in the world.”
His novel The Chosen was made into a film released in 1981, which won the most prestigious award at the World Film Festival, Montreal. Potok had a cameo role as a professor. The film featured Rod Steiger, Maximilian Schell and Robby Benson. It also became a short-lived Off-Broadway musical and was adapted subsequently as a stage play by Aaron Posner in collaboration with Potok, which premiered at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia in 1999.
Potok's 1985 novel Davita's Harp is his only book featuring a female protagonist. In 1990, he published The Gift of Asher Lev, the sequel to My Name is Asher Lev. Potok wrote many plays, among them Sins of The Father and Out of The Depths. In 1992 Potok completed another novel, I am the Clay, about the courageous struggle of a war-ravaged family. His 1993 young adult literature The Tree of Here was followed by two others, The Sky of Now (1995) and Zebra and Other Stories (1998).
Chaim Potok's parents discouraged his writing and reading of non-Jewish subjects. He spent many hours in the public library reading secular novels. Potok cited James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ernest Hemingway, and SY Agnon as his chief literary influences. Many of his novels are set in the urban environments in New York in which he himself grew up. While not Hasidic, Potok was raised in an extremely Orthodox home. In the book, Asher Lev wants to be a painter which causes much conflict with his father who wants him to do something else, much as Chaim Potok did during his childhood. Asher decides to continue as a painter and it disturbs his family, but Potok eventually decided to be an author and painted in his free time. Potok has said he relates to Asher Lev more than any of his other characters.
Chaim Potok was also an artist. He recreated the painting "The Brooklyn Crucifixion", which the character Asher Lev painted in the book My Name is Asher Lev.
Chaim Potok has had a considerable influence on Jewish American authors. His work was significant for discussing the conflict between the traditional aspects of Jewish thought and culture and modernity to a wider, non-Jewish culture. He taught a highly regarded graduate seminar on Postmodernism at the University of Pennsylvania from 1993 through 2001.
He bequeathed his papers to the University of Pennsylvania. The university houses a collection of Potok correspondence, writings, lectures, sermons, article clippings, memorabilia and fan mail. One of his admirers was Elie Wiesel, who wrote to Potok saying he had read all his books "with fervor and friendship".Jewish Ethics (1964–69, 14 volumes)
The Chosen (1967)
The Promise (1969)
My Name Is Asher Lev (1972)
In the Beginning (1975)
The Jew Confronts Himself in American Literature (1975)
Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews (1978)
The Book of Lights (1981)
Davita's Harp (1985)
Theo Tobiasse (1986)
The Gift of Asher Lev (1990)
I Am the Clay (1992)
The Tree of Here (1993)
The trope teacher (1994)
The Sky of Now (1994)
The Gates of November (1996)
Zebra and Other Stories (1998)
Isaac Stern: My First 79 Years (with Isaac Stern; 1999)
Old Men at Midnight (2001)
Walden, Daniel, ed. (2001), Conversations with Chaim Potok