The University community suffered a great loss of intellect and scholarship this Tuesday with the death of Honors Program professor Chaim Potok.
The best-selling author passed away at his home in the Philadelphia suburbs after battling brain cancer for several years. He was 73.
Potok, whose literary works are known for portraying the dichotomy between traditional Jewish culture and the secular world, is widely remembered for his intelligence and scope of knowledge.
"Chaim possessed an absolutely unique combination of gifts that I don't think is ever likely to be repeated," Hebrew and Semitic languages and literature professor Jeff Tigay said at Potok's funeral service, which was held yesterday at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood. "He was, of course, best known as a novelist, but he was also a rabbi, a scholar, a philosopher, an educator, a painter and an editor."
The author of several books -- including The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev -- Potok received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Penn in 1965.
Previously, Potok had graduated from Yeshiva University with an English degree before attending the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was ordained as a rabbi.
"I saw in Chaim a true intellectual, a person who read constantly and voraciously about every imaginable subject," Tigay added. "From our conversations, I learned about literature, painting, and music. I also learned from him what discipline was."
But Potok is most remembered in the University community for the lasting contributions that he made through teaching in the General Honors Program in the 1990s.
According to former psychology professor and General Honors Program Director Paul Rozin, the first class that Potok taught at Penn provided an in-depth perspective on The Gates of November: Chronicles of the Slepak Family, the biography that he was writing at the time.
Throughout the semester, the students traced the life of Solomon Slepak, the book's protagonist, by doing first-hand research under Potok's guidance.
"The students in the class learned how to 'assemble a life,'" Rozin said. "We had students in the class who were fluent in Chinese, Russian and Hebrew, so they could explore the source material."
Ultimately, Potok was able to arrange for Slepak, who was living in Israel, to come to the United States and meet with the class.
"It was a splendid academic experience for all," Rozin said. "Subsequently, because he enjoyed the course so much, Potok taught a course in the General Honors Program every year."
Between 1993 and 2000, Potok instructed a class entitled "Post Modernist Search for Self," which was held once semester every year.
According to Bea Jauregui (CAS '00), who took the course in 1999, Potok challenged students to explore the history of Western thought through the analysis of literature, philosophy, art and architecture.
"It was really exciting because he forced us to integrate these ideas -- not only to compare them, but to relate them to each other," Jauregui said. "He was really masterful in leading the class and getting us to think through some of these issues."
Yet Potok didn't just contribute to the learning community at Penn--he participated in it as well.
English professor Vicki Mahaffey remembered how Potok audited a graduate seminar on James Joyce that she was teaching one semester.
"He was a gravely serious thinker and a warm individual," Mahaffey said. "He was intellectually flexible and very productive."
Although he was just sitting in on classes, Mahaffey said that Potok got very involved in the extensive work that the course required.
"It's not everybody that takes on the project of reading all of Joyce in your sixties after you've got a very, very high profile career, and I admired that," Mahaffey said.
On another level, Potok was seen as a humble man who, in spite of his fame, took the time to respond to fan mail.
Mahaffey remembered a time when her daughter, after reading The Chosen, wrote Potok a letter telling him what she liked and didn't like about the book.
Potok "took the time not only to respond to her critique by writing a letter back, and he did it so nicely, not condescendingly -- I will always be thankful for that," Mahaffey said. "It made a huge difference to her to have a response from a writer, especially one that was so kind and thoughtful."
Although it will take awhile to recover from the loss of Potok, the impression that he has made will resonate for quite a long time.
"He was one of the most famous Jews of his generation, one who will be remembered for a long time," Tigay said. "Those who knew and loved him personally and those who know him only through his work will surely be grateful that he was part of their lives."Comments powered by Disqus
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